Discovery: Facts vs. Concepts

Facts are observable tid-bits of information confirmed to be true whereas a concept is a general idea, more abstract, and requires thought and understanding. According to the educational psychologist Jerome Bruner, there are many routine techniques that require a student to collect and present a “long list of information” or facts. However, in his essay “Some Elements of Discovery,” Bruner states that this laundry list is “no good” because a “child will use it in a single situation and possibly not even effectively…” and then the information will likely be abandoned or forgotten. This is not effective teaching. As future educators, we must guide students in connecting information to larger concepts, making learning relevant and increasing the likelihood of transfer and retention.

Collecting and even memorizing fact-based information does not require comprehension or reflection, necessary elements of the discovery process. As students discover “neighboring elements,” and connect ideas, “the concept that emerges is like a rope in which no single fiber runs all the way through.” Students are able to make personal and compatible connections, enhancing their knowledge base and expanding their perspective and understanding. Guiding students in the proper application of simple facts and information provides them the opportunity not only to test the limits of their concepts, but also to develop “skills related to the use of information and problem-solving.”

In light of this focus on discovery, I wanted to share this poem by Dr. John Edwards. I am quite confident these will be questions and thoughts I will sincerely consider throughout the entirety of my future teaching career.
After returning home from a lecture, Edward’s wife asked him: And what did you steal from your students today?” He was quite thrown off and after thoughtful reflection, he and his wife wrote the following:

If I am always the one to think of where to go next.
If where we go is always the decision of the curriculum or my curiosity and not theirs,
If motivation is mine,
If I always decide on the topic to be studied, the title of the story, the problem to be worked on,
If I am always the one who has reviewed their work and decided what they need,
How will they ever know how to begin?

If I am the one who is always monitoring progress.
If I set the pace of all working discussions,
If I always look ahead, foresee problems and endeavour to eliminate them,
If I swoop in and save them from cognitive conflict,
If I never allow them to feel and use the energy from confusion and frustration,
If things are always broken into short working periods,
If myself and others are allowed to break into their concentration,
If bells and I are always in control of the pace and flow of work,
How will they learn to continue their own work?

If all the marking and editing is done by me,
If the selection of which work is to be published or evaluated is made by me,
If what is valued and valuable is always decided by external sources or by me,
If there is no forum to discuss what delights them in their task, what is working,
what is not working, what they plan to do about it,
If they have not learned a language of self-assessment,
If ways of communicating their work are always controlled by me,
If our assessments are mainly summative rather then formative,
If they do not plan their way forward to further action,
How will they find ownership, direction and delight in what they do?

If I speak of individuals but present learning as if they are all the same,
If I am never seen to reflect and reflection time is never provided,
If we never speak together about reflection and thinking and never develop a vocabulary for such discussion,
If we do not take opportunities to think about our thinking,
If I constantly set them exercises that do not intellectually challenge them,
If I set up learning environments that interfere with them learning from their own actions,
If I give them recipes to follow,
If I only expect the one right conclusion,
If I signify that there are always right and wrong answers,
If I never let them persevere with something
really difficult which they cannot master,
If I make all work serious work and discourage playfulness,
If there is no time to explore,
If I lock them into adult time constraints too early,
How will they get to know themselves as a thinker?

If they never get to help anyone else,
If we force them to always work and play with children of the same age,
If I do not teach them the skills of working co-operatively,
If collaboration can be seen as cheating,
If all classroom activities are based on competitiveness,
If everything is seen to be for marks,
How will they learn to work with others?

For if they…
have never experienced being challenged in a safe environment,
have had all of their creative thoughts explained away,
are unaware what catches their interest and how then to have confidence in that interest,
have never followed something they are passionate about to a satisfying conclusion,
have not clarified the way they sabotage their own learning,
are afraid to seek help and do not know who or how to ask,
have not experienced overcoming their own inertia,
are paralysed by the need to know everything before writing or acting,
have never got bogged down,
have never failed,
have always played it safe,
How will they ever know who they are?

Lee S. Shulman and Evan R. Keislar, editors. Learning By Discovery: A Critical Appraisal (1966).   children/