Let’s see learning as purposeful discovery

Aren’t we getting tired of schooling, moving students along the assembly line of instruction, and assessing them against factory standards as if they were widgets? Could we shift from schooling students to students learning? From something we do to students to something they do for themselves? From imposing standards and instruction on students to enabling students to explore and discover their world and themselves with agency and enthusiasm?

We worry so much about adapting and differentiating instruction of students, implementing standards and policies for students, managing student behavior, and analyzing assessment data to give us clues about how to further adapt, implement and manage students into achievement.

We are so busy doing things to students to get them to “achieve.” But what about learning?

And achieve what? Better scores on standardized tests? Better grades? Mastery of standards?

Standardized assessments can show how well students achieve relative to others at guessing the “best” answers to questions about a select sampling of information and at answering comprehension questions about reading passages in a high-pressure, strictly-timed environment. But what does this tell us about their learning?

Grades can tell us how much work students turn in, how well students can remember on tests about a subject, and/or how well they can do certain discrete tasks that are asked of them. And usually grades include a host of other things, including behavior, participation, lateness of work, extra work done, etc. But what does this really tell us about what a student has learned that is coherent or of consequence?

Assessing mastery of standards may tell us more about the standards than

about the students. Standards focus on a specified set of knowledge and certain discrete skills, which tend to lead to assessment criteria being checklists of factoids and tasks. Such assessment reveals whether a student knows and can do (at least temporarily) what is on the list. But is this assessing learning that is of any real consequence, and might it not ignore much of what a student does learn that is of consequence?

All of these “achievements” are directed toward what “stuff” students should learn rather than why they might want to learn it or what they could do with it.

Authentic Purposes:

Don’t we want students to learn deeply about things that they find significant and to develop skills that enable them to communicate that significance?

Don’t we want them to read (and listen) widely for information and to analyze and integrate information (from all kinds of sources) into complex and significant understandings of a subject?

Don’t we want them also to read deeply certain kinds of texts — complex arguments and literature — to reach insight and to explore how these texts move them, intellectually and emotionally?

Don’t we want students to use writing and speaking to help them explore and analyze, and to eloquently communicate significant understandings of a subject or text?

If so that means doing more than focusing on what can be tested, or graded, or described in simplistic learning targets.

If so, then we have to go about things differently. We have to teach differently and assess differently, grade differently and look at standards differently than has been our wont.

Teaching for Authentic Discovery:

If we want students to reach deep understandings of the subject matter of a discipline, then we have to allow students to explore its content — beyond reading a textbook and doing a set of activities or worksheets on it. Every unit on content, or on a complex argument or a piece of literature, should be a kind of research project, in which students are not just instructed on a topic but are enabled to discover answers to their own significant questions about the topic — to find out how cells develop and reproduce and why it matters or how a particular text or work of art moves them to think and feel and see the world differently. This is not just inquiry, but putting purposeful inquiry at the center of instruction.

In such explorations, reading and listening become purposeful. Students have reason to engage with informational sources of all kinds to discover answers to significant questions, not just dutifully slogging through the textbook or taking notes on lectures to be able to pass a test. They have reason to read complex texts closely and analytically so they can discover and appreciate how and why these texts move them to insight and emotional response, rather than going through the motions to show they can infer or explain how details support main ideas or themes.

Writing and speaking become more purposeful as well. Students have a reason to record and share with others information and ideas about connections and patterns and meanings, and to articulate their understandings in developed arguments — to write and speak to learn and to express learning.

Discovery Learning:

But wait, you might say. Aren’t you just proposing discovery or inquiry or project-based learning? Well, yes, I am; but I want to go farther than what proponents of these describe.

Discovery learning was born of the belief that children remember concepts that they discover on their own better than those that are given to them. While this may be true (and my experience bears it out), it’s the wrong goal; it’s back to the assumption that we want students to remember information for its own sake rather than to come to a deeper understanding of the significance of that information in context.

Those who promote discovery, project or personalized learning often present programs or lesson plans to be used to guide students through a series of predetermined tasks to be assessed in standard ways. They proudly boast of being aligned to Common Core and content standards. They often assess achievement as mastery of isolated information and discrete skills rather than evaluating the deeper understanding that exploring such information and using such skills can lead to.

While these programs offer individual, personalized paths for students to follow, and project-based demonstrations for final assessment, they don’t go far enough to really integrate discovery, analysis, and communication of insight as all part of purposeful learning of a significant kind. They honor student agency, but often in trivial ways.

I’m suggesting something more profound, I think: that all real learning is personalized discovery learning and that such learning should result in performance projects (of varying heft and formality) to synthesize and communicate that learning. And that this approach to learning profoundly changes the way we assess, grade, and look at standards and standardized testing.


Such an approach leads to developing deep content knowledge and powerful literacy skills, as well as the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize meaning. This learning can only aid students in dealing with standardized tests, though it will not make up for the limitations of the tests themselves.

Teachers can’t keep a running grade throughout a unit, as there is nothing that can be seen as summative. But they can certainly keep track (and help students keep track) of where a student is in finding information and ideas, analyzing them, and synthesizing an argument from them. This information can help students and parents know what a student should do next, and what support she might need to move forward.

The final assessment of the learning of a particular unit of study, then, is of the quality of the final argument — of the ampleness and aptness of evidence, of the clarity and coherence of the argument, and of the significance and depth of understanding demonstrated. All this can’t be assessed with traditional selected response tests, or with points, or checklists. It doesn’t privilege memory of information or comprehension of texts, but the deep understanding of the student and the ability to communicate it.

So what about standards? Clearly we still have things we want students to know and do. But they are not so detailed or prescriptive as the learning targets from standards documents. We want students to learn deeply about particular topic and texts: to discover apt information and key ideas; to analyze relationships and possible meanings; and to create an argument that integrates what has been learned and communicates significant understanding. We want students to read and listen widely for information and deeply for insight and argument. We want students to write and speak to learn and to communicate significant understanding of what they have learned.

PLC Work

Is this what we do in schools? I think we try. I think we want to. But I know that standard assumptions about instruction, grading, and standards get in the way. This is a place for PLCs to go to work, to examine such assumptions and change how we frame education. It’s the PLCs who can make the change to seeing learning as a process of purposeful discovery , enabling their students to learn deeply and well.

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