Overplanning and the Death of Discovery Learning

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Is there such a thing as ‘over-planning’ a lesson?  Can we get so caught up with Learning Objectives and the CEFR as teachers that it has a knock-on effect in regards to discovery learning?

Andrea Goldman shares her thoughts with us in this week’s guest post.  Please contribute to the discussion in the comments box below.


My students walk into my classroom and this is on the whiteboard:

whiteboard 3


 

Before I even tell them what we are doing, they are talking:

“They all contain ‘o-u-g-h’.” 

“Oh! They are different ways to pronounce ‘o-u-g-h’”

“How do you pronounce ‘thorough’?”

 “I don’t know!  What does it mean?” 

“Andrea: how do you pronounce that word?”

And finally after much talking and looking up of dictionaries, translators and Google, and quizzing me, they have worked out that there are at least nine ways of pronouncing ‘o-u-g-h’. And through a combination of listening to each other, online dictionaries, pronunciation apps, referring to the phonemic chart on the wall and even me, they know how to pronounce the words on the board and have come with more examples.

 

Another example:  I project this *letter on the whiteboard:

Whiteboard 2


*This letter is modified from a letter of complaint from Unit 5 p.81 New English File Upper Intermediate Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koenig OUP
Again there’s chatter:

“It’s a letter of complaint.”

“But it seems very informal, look: contractions!”

“It should start ‘Dear Sir or Madam.”

“Lots of seems very informal.”

I want the students to work out that it’s a formal letter but that the register is too informal. Then I will get them to work in pairs to rewrite the letter using more formal constructions and vocabulary.

These are some examples of classes which use discovery learning techniques to engage students in their own learning.  Discovery learning methods require information gaps, surprise, and mystery. Part of this teaching method is encouraging students to notice, and to work out for themselves what they are learning. In the first example students have to come to the realization themselves that there different ways to pronounce ‘o-u-g-h’ in English.  In the second they recognize inappropriate register in a formal letter.

However imagine this:  on the class noticeboard is a syllabus and learning objectives for the week:

  1. By the end of the week you should be able to correctly pronounce words containing the combination ‘o-u-g-h’ (ɔ:, ɒf, ʌf, əʊ, U:, aʊ, ə, ɒk, ʌp)

Or

  1. Students will read a formal letter of complaint and modify it to make the register more formal.

“It defeats the purpose of discovery learning if you tell learners what you want them to discover.” 

There is a fundamental conflict between laying out the syllabus and learning objectives in glorious techn
i-colour, and engaging students in their own learning through discovery learning techniques.

I think most teachers agree that we need a plan and we need in some way to invite our learners into our plan so that they know where we are going together, and what our goals for their learning are.  The language learning industry is very much in favour of setting out very clear learning objectives within a very clear syllabus within a very clear curriculum. The learning objectives have become eminently practical and functional.  The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) ‘can do’ statements, which are used as the model of language learning Europe-wide, are very good examples of this.  These are used as both statement of fact:

‘I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I mysterybox_109028588 (1)know.’ (CEFR A2)

And modified into teacher goals:  ‘At the end of this week you should be able to use simple phrases and sentences to describe where you live and people you know.’

However I fear that if we give our learners learning objectives and syllabuses that are too precise and concrete, we remove a lot of the surprise, mystery and engagement of discovery learning.  In addition the teaching and learning can become self-referential. Both student and teacher imagine that something has been learnt because that is what the syllabus and the learning objectives say. Tick.

But has it? Has it really? 

It is vital that we strike a balance between telling our learners what they will learn on the one hand, and on the other keeping the anticipation and surprise that makes each lesson interesting and engaging and not merely a set of objectives to be ticked off a pre-ordained list of learning outcomes.

By Andrea Goldman


 

What are your thoughts on Andrea’s post? Is it possible to strike a balance between discover and making your students aware of the learning objectives?  Does referring to learning objectives take the surprise and mystery from a task and in turn reduce learner engagement in a task?

One Response

  1. Nadine Early

    An interesting post which raises a valid point and asks an important question.
    It is certainly the case that the ELT industry has wholeheartedly adopted the CEFR and now best practice is described as referencing this document at every turn. There is justification in feeling that there is a creeping prescription for teaching and learning in the classroom – explicit learning objectives, or intended learning outcomes, are a core part of our day-to-day teaching if we are using course books from the main ELT publishers, if we are teaching any of the main EL examinations, or if we are teaching in a school that has been accredited by a local and/or international quality organisation.
    But I don’t agree with the statement that ‘there is a fundamental conflict between laying out the syllabus and the learning objectives … , and engaging the students in their own learning through discovery learning techniques’. I don’t think that guided discovery techniques and explicit intended learning outcomes have to be mutually exclusive.
    The use of guided discovery techniques came from the adoption of an inductive approach to language learning and teaching. An inductive approach is now commonplace in most classrooms and course books. In the inductive approach, learning is the process of working out the rules of language from exposure to it. Learners study successive examples of language in a text (grammar items, pronunciation forms, lexical collocation) and work out the rules of form and usage for themselves. It is understood that this ‘noticing’ of language in use and working out the rules helps with long-term memory of these rules and enables that ‘input’ to become ‘intake’ (and eventually ‘output’). This is, after all, how we learn our first language.

    I don’t think that the explicit statement of an intended learning outcome for a lesson, or for a task within that lesson, necessarily gets in the way of inductive learning.
    To take Andrea’s examples: The first is indeed a nice example of a lesson where the students happily set about solving the language puzzle themselves. Unfortunately (for the learner) there are no hard-and-fast rules to work out here. Once students have worked out that there are at least nine ways of pronouncing ‘o-u-g-h’ they then have to learn them. Another guided learning activity that could be used here is to write and record (or read out) a short story that contains all of these words. Students have the list of words in front of them – they have to listen to the story and try to write them down in one of a number of ‘sound columns’ (/oʊ/ /uː/ /aʊ/ etc.), when they think they hear them. It is important that the meaning of the words has been established in advance, for the activity to work. While the students are not exactly working out rules here, this focussing on form is a good consciousness-raising activity and in line with an inductive approach.
    Either way, I don’t see how knowing in advance that ‘by the end of the week you should be able to correctly pronounce words containing ‘o-u-g-h’ would take away from either of these activities.

    With regard to the letter activity, a CEFR-referenced intended learning outcome (rather than activity description) might read something like ‘By the end of this lesson/week/course programme, you should be able to express your views effectively when writing a formal letter’ (B2). Students could engage in a ‘discovery’ activity of working out for themselves which ‘language choices’ of the writer are inappropriate for a formal letter. They might then be tasked with reading one or two formal letters of complaint and, once comprehension has been checked, they could then (perhaps with some guidance from the teacher) focus on the form of the language we do use to express ourselves formally when writing a letter of complaint. They might look at grammatical choices (no contractions, use of passive etc) or lexical choices and the use of collocation.
    Knowing the intended learning outcome in advance should not take away from this activity. I do not think that it ‘defeats the purpose of discovery learning if you tell learners what you want them to discover’. I believe telling them the objective of the learning task – where you want them to get to – should not hold them back on their journey of discovery as to how to get there.
    I agree with Andrea’s comment that ‘it is vital that we strike a balance between telling our learners what they will learn on the one hand, and on the other keeping the anticipation and surprise that makes each lesson interesting and engaging’ (although I would modify ‘telling our learners what they will learn’ – we cannot do this – to ‘showing them what they might be able to achieve’). But most students want to know why they are learning what they are learning; what the objective is, and to know what they might achieve if they put in the work. Many students (but not all!) also enjoy the language problem-solving entailed in an inductive, guided discovery approach to task completion. Being told WHY, but figuring out for yourself HOW allows for an inductive approach within a structured course syllabus and should by no means signify the death of discovery learning.

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