G is for Guided Discovery

5 06 2011

A colleague in the Czech Republic emailed me this week, asking about guided discovery – a term he felt was being used rather too freely by his graduate students:

“I’ve had a bit of a hunt round looking for some empirical work on guided discovery. Know you of anything? For I have found a big fat nothing”.

I emailed back:

“Can I clarify – is it the ‘guided’ or the ‘discovery’ that concerns you? That is, do you accept that discovery learning (aka induction) is valid, but your question is about the (degree of) guidance? Or are you questioning the whole notion of discovery learning , whether guided or not?”

My friend responded:

“In answer to your question, I guess it’s the whole notion of discovery learning – where’s the evidence?”

First of all: What is discovery learning – and guided discovery, in particular?

Discovery learning, according to Richards & Schmidt (2002) is where “learners develop processes associated with discovery and inquiry by observing, inferring, formulating hypotheses, predicting and communicating” (p. 162).  Unlike pure, deep-end induction, however, guided discovery implies a degree of external intervention, typically engineered by the teacher, in the form of graduated exposure to data and carefully placed questions. This function could also be assumed by a task-sheet, or sequence of computer commands, each contingent on an assessment of the current state of the learner’s evolving understanding.

The actual degree of guidance can vary a lot. It might simply take the form of such attention-grabbing devices as a conspicuously frequent number of occurences of the targeted item in a text (also known as input flood), or the use of design features, such as enlarged font, to highlight the item in question (input enhancement). These will usually be accompanied by some instruction to search for, extract, and label a grammatical pattern. Corpus concordances, where instances of a word in its context are organised so that the target word (the node) is aligned, are an example of both input flood and input enhancement.

Guidance is typically mediated by questions, each question challenging learners to advance their understanding one further step. Clearly, the notion of asking questions as a means of co-constructing learning  maps neatly onto a sociocultural model of learning, where the teacher is working within the learners’ zone of proximal development in order to scaffold their emergent learning.

In conjunction with the question sequence, or as an alternative to it, new data may be progressively made available to the learners, challenging them to review and restructure their current state of knowledge.  Indeed, Pit Corder went so far as to argue that “teaching is a matter of providing the learner with the right data at the right time” (1988, p. 33).

In recent years, the concept of (guided) discovery learning has tended to merge with the notion of consciousness-raising (CR) – the common ground being that activities are structured in such a way as to invite learners to develop their own hypotheses about the targeted feature of the language. As an example of a CR approach, learners might be given limited information about a grammatical form (e.g. that the past is formed by the addition of the -ed suffix), and are then invited to apply the rule in a communicative context – whereupon they come up against the rule’s limitations. This in turn requires them to restructure their existing knowledge. This technique, known as ‘up-the-garden-path’ teaching, views the testing of hypotheses, and the inevitable error making that results, as an integral part of the learning process.

Does guided discovery work? To answer this question, we need first to know whether inductive (or data-driven) learning has an advantage over deductive (or rule-driven) learning. Reviewing the research Ellis (2008), concludes that “a tentative general conclusion might be that deductive FFI [form-focused instruction] is more effective than inductive FFI (when both involve practice activities) but it is possible that this may in part depend on the learner’s preferred learning style” (p. 882).  Later in the same work, though, he is more equivocal:  “Both inductive and deductive explicit instruction appear to work with no clear evidence in favour of either” (p. 903).

On discovery learning itself, Ellis is less cautious.  In Ellis (2002) he states that “a discovery-based approach to teaching explicit knowledge has much to recommend it” (p. 164). One reason is that, arguably, a rule that has been ‘discovered’ is more memorable than one that has simply been presented. Moreover, practice in identifying patterns in naturally-occurring data, and hypothesising rules from these patterns, is undoubtedly useful preparation for self-directed and autonomous learning.

And finally, as Ellis points out, the exercise of working collaboratively with other students in hypothesising rules is useful communicative practice in its own right: “Talking about grammar might be more meaningful than talking about the kinds of general topics often found in communicative language courses” (p. 165). At the same time, as he points out in the first edition of his 2008 tome, “Not all learners will be interested in or capable of inducing explicit representations of grammatical rules” (Ellis 1994, p. 645).

Indeed, Ellis’s own research in this area has produced contradictory results. In one study this may have been due  to the failure of the teacher in question to execute discovery learning properly, which leads Ellis to warn that “this may reflect an inherent limitation of such tasks – namely, that they require considerable expertise and care on the part of the instructor to ensure they work” (p. 165).

On the same note, Scrivener (2005) advises teachers that “guided discovery is demanding on both you and the learner, and although it may look artless to a casual observer, it isn’t enough to throw a task at the learners, let them do it and then move on. Guided discovery requires imagination and flexibility” (p. 268).

As either a learner or a teacher, has guided discovery worked for you?

References:

Corder, S.P. (1988) Pedagogic Grammars. In Rutherford, W., & Sharwood Smith, M. (eds.) Grammar and Second Language Teaching: A Book of Readings. Boston, MA.: Heinle & Heinle.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (2002) Methodological options in grammar teaching materials. In Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrenece Erlbaum.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.) Harlow: Longman.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan.

Illustrations from F.T.D. (1923) Método de Inglés: Segundo Libro. Mexico, D.F.: Mexico.

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49 responses

5 06 2011
Adam

Thanks, Scott. This excellent (DDL) paper by Alex Boulton should make for essential reading for those interested…

http://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/32/67/06/PDF/2008_boulton_TaLC_reaching.pdf

Apologies for brevity of response: I’m in post conference exhaustion mode.

5 06 2011
natalia

Yes, I agree that the “guided discovery”. Requires skillfulness on the part of the teacher, however, once applied appropriately, it becomes an efficient teaching tool and makes the whole learning process more natural, learner-centered and memorable. It has worked for me both as the learner, as well as the teacher

5 06 2011
Adam

Extension of previous comment.

Basically, Bouton suggests that using corpora for guided discovery can provide myriad opportunities, but notes that you shouldn’t overload students with having to learn the software or expect them to leap to making discoveries with no previous exposure to concordance data. I’ll say no more, as reading the article will make it clearer for all those who care to learn more.

5 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Adam – I’ve just read the article (for those not in the know DDL stands for data-driven learning). We need more studies like this.

I also like the fact that Boulton is committed to keepings things ‘as simple as possible’, e.g. by using free tools and simple techniques. Nevertheless, he admits that putting together the corpus-based worksheets comprised several hours of work. (It would have been nice to have seen an example, incidentally).

5 06 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks Scott,

As a general rule, I encourage learners to first go with what interests them and with what they natrurally enjoy(ed) doing/are curious about. Whether choosing a topic to focus on, selecting materials or choosing lines from a text – anything.
Whatever they’re doing, my assumption is that if it’s fun and engaging, it is automatically meaningful and – my simple intuition tells me – they will surely learn more.

There may be activities which are inductive or deductive. It is seeing what kinds of activities learners personally think is worthwhile focusing on which guides me in my guided discovery. :)

In all if this, I’m using my intuition and they their’s.

Sorry, if it’s a big question, but is there any specific research you know of that may indicate my attitude here is ultimately helpful? Common sense tells me it is, but I would love to know more…
:)

5 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

In the ELT Journal Alan Fortune wrote up some research he did on learners’ preferences with regard to inductive vs deductive self-study grammar tasks. This is the abstract to his article:

This is a report of a piece of action research which sought students’ views on different types of self-study grammar practice exercises. Firstly, a set of defining characteristics of grammar exercises were identified and a battery containing a range of such exercises compiled. The exercises exhibited different clusters of characteristics, and were of both a deductive and inductive nature. Learners attempted the battery and then evaluated the different exercises. Their views were elicited by questionnaire and group interview. The experience of doing the exercises caused a significant number of learners to change their opinions about inductive and deductive practice. The investigation also tried to discover which exercise characteristics the learners found motivating and demotivating, thus providing potentially useful information for teachers and materials writers. Possibly fruitful areas for further investigation were identified.

Fortune, A. 1992 Self study grammar practice: learners’ views and preferences ELT Journal, 46/2.

I don’t have the article to hand, but if I remember correctlty, most students in the study intially preferred deductive presentations – of the Murphy (English Grammar in Use) type, but after experiencing a more discovery-oriented approach, a signifcant number ‘came round’.

5 06 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks a lot, Scott.

Yes, I’ve mentioned a few times in various posts my feeling that learners often start off expecting more of a deductive approach to learning, but then (like you intimated from the study) come round to a more inductive process after a teacher has guided them in that direction.

In fact, I have been experimenting along these lines with your very own Natural Grammar the past 6 months. It’s quite fascinating to see the various ways learners react when presented with the book and we explore the possibility of using it.

I tell them, right off the bat, it isn’t compulsory we use this book at all, but that it can be very useful so we should have a discussion to see who would like to use it and who wouldn’t.
I make a few suggestions for how some of my previous learners have chosen to use it and then ask them to think about how they too could use it. Do they think it would help them in their learning, I ask them? A bit of brainstorming ensues perhaps…

In the end, some of them literally want to go through it section by section and round it all off with the exercises (at home perhaps), whilst others say they would just like to choose a few set phrases to focus on. The rest of the leaners being somewhere in between.

It’s important to note that I haven’t been introducing the book until we’ve done several Unplugged lessons. Some of the feedback I’ve had has indeed indicated some learners attitudes about deductive learning may have changed due to how we’d started to course and the way I’d steered the activities.

5 06 2011
Hada

Hi Scott,

As always, thank you for an interesting, informative and thought-provoking post.

I had a lesson this morning and walked away feeling happy that I used a certain degree of discovery approach (can I say that??) as my students seemed to not only have enjoyed the activity, but built up the confidence to be fully involved and readily asking/answering all the ‘right’ questions by the end of the session.

The class was a lower Pre-intermediate group whose homework was to write a holiday postcard. During the previous lesson we’d built up the lexis, looked at various models and observed the basic conventions of the genre (i.e. type of greeting, use of contractions, etc) as well as brainstormed (or ‘thought-showered’!) the type of information which may interest the reader. With this, the students were sent home to try their own which they brought back today.

I collected the cards, set another task (a reading task) and used some of the time I had during the longer stages to type up various samples of each of the ‘homework cards’

When we completed the reading task and moved on to our writing part of the lesson, I showed the first flipchart which had all the greetings to start with (‘Hi susan:’, ‘hi Julia,,’, ‘Hi mum.’, ‘Hi Sarah,’ etc) and the students took turns correcting them. By the end of this, I felt as though most of the possible errors a student could make had been exposed and even the quieter students were confident to correct the final examples.

We then moved on to the content samples – I showed them the extracts I’d typed earlier on the IWB. Seeing their own writing made the exercise more meaningful to the students who could re-see and hear about their own work without feeling exposed (the samples were obviously un-named). I proceeded to go over the first sample, eliciting corrections – what happened there, was that not only we were able to reinforce the previous lesson’s input, but other language emerged (repeatedly) and by the end (some ten samples later!) the students were actively correcting in groups and readily participating in the feedback.

I’m not sure if this is strictly a guided discovery approach, but I felt that there definitely was a ‘discovery’ element that the learners seemed to particularly appreciate and which had a great impact on them.

6 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Hada, for that generous description of what sounds like a very successful lesson.

You mention that you had the students look at ‘various models’ of holiday postcards, and this prompts me to point out that genre analysis – i.e. the description of the generic features of a specific text-type based on a detailed analysis of authentic samples – is standard practice in many classrooms, especially when teaching ESP, and is a good example of guided discovery. I.e. guided discovery applies as much to textual features as it does to lower-level language features such as vocabulary and grammar.

5 06 2011
J.J. Sunset

Scott,

Lately I’ve been brushing up my readings on the Lexical Approach, and also I have had the chance to read your book on Conversation and Pedagogy.

The overriding (and refreshing) concept of the existence of a “grammaticalized lexis” rather than a “lexicalized grammar” being crucial to explain fluency, accuracy and complexity in L2 conversational competence, is it a substantiation of data-driven learning of rule-driven learning?

Thanks

6 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

No, not a substantiation, necessarily, although a key tenet of the Lexical Approach, as outlined by Michael Lewis (1993), was data-driven inferencing – what he termed the OHE instructional model (observe – hypothesise – experiment). In similar fashion, Mike McCarthy and Ron Carter (1995) offered, as an alternative to PPP, their III model: illusration – interaction – induction), which is clearly discovery based.

6 06 2011
J.J. Sunset

Above I meant data-driven “OR” (not “of”) rule-driven.

Let me “re-structure” the question:

Lewis speaks of word partnerships as lexicalized chunks- whether semi-fixed or those of a more fixed type. He says

“it is easier to build prefabricated bits, with comparatively little grammatical processing, than from single words with much more processing”. Lewis, M. (1997): Implementing the Lexical Approach. Heinle.

Would those prefabricated, unanalyzed chunks count as rule-driven learning?

Perhaps I should get a hold of Lewis’s original theory piece from 1993?

6 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the clarification.

As for your question “Would those prefabricated, unanalyzed chunks count as rule-driven learning?” the answer is no – by definition (they are unanalaysed). Instead, they would count as ‘exemplar learning’, i.e. the learning of items, either individual words, multi-word phrases, or prototypical examples of ‘constructions’ – which might subsequently be analysed into their components. Cognitive accounts argue that both rule-learning and item-learning are implicated in language learning – with some competition between the two systems.
Skehan (1998) is the foremost advocate of this view: “Two systems co-exist, the rule-based analytic, on the oen hand, and the formulaic exemplar-based, on the other. In the former case, compact storage and pwerful generative rueles operate together to ‘compute’ well-formed sentences. In the latter, the central role is occupied by a very large, redundantly structured memory system, and (presumably) less powerful rules which operate on chunks much of the time, rather than on individual items” (p. 54).

Emergentist accounts, on the other hand, argue that most, if not all, language learning is exemplar-based: “The knowledge underlying fluent language is not grammar in the sense of abstract rules or structure but a huge collection of memories of previous experienced utterances” (N. Ellis, 2002, p. 166).

If this were indeed the case, the teaching of grammar – whether inductively or deductively – would seem to be largely a waste of time. However, N. Ellis concedes that the application of explicit rules can contribute to the construction of novel utterances which might, in their turn, become exemplars.

6 06 2011
Chris Bowie

Very thought provoking!

Having taught in a variety of countries and contexts, I can say that the success of discovery learning (guided or not) depends mostly on the local culture and attitudes and our reaction to them. By ‘local’ I mean the culture and attitudes of the group, for example a group of employees in a company or a group of laid-off manual workers struggling to learn English to get new jobs.

That’s not to say that it’s not possible with some groups, just that you have to find out where your learners ‘are’ and start from there. You also have to predict all sorts of possible barriers. Once when trying to use a discovery approach in an attempt to promote more learner autonomy, I found that once the most senior member of the group of employees had voiced her hypothesis, that became the rule and the discussion was over, no other member of the group was about to think (or admit to thinking) anything that differed from the boss’s theory. This forced a certain amount of control over proceedings on my part and a lot of patient work to nurture a more thoughtful learning environment.

6 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris. Yes, the local educational – and classroom – culture is the lens through which all methodological practices must be evaluated – or the filter through which they must be passed.

I guess one way of ‘subverting’ the existing hierarchies in the classroom (where rank prevails, as in the case you describe) might be to let students write their hypotheses down, and then these are collected by the teacher, who takes one or two at random and reads them out, anonymously, whereupon everyone votes by a show of hands. Well, it’s just a thought!

6 06 2011
Chris Bowie

Hi Scott,

I like the idea of voting by a show of hands. I have done things similar to what you describe using post-it stickers which were stuck to a wall and we grouped them together to see what most people thought. I’ve never done the polling thing you described – something to think about next time.

I have found your book “Uncovering Grammar” great for some practical ideas on guiding learners to the form and helping them ‘uncover it’ for themselves. One great example is using descriptions of situations which the learners have to categorise to help them understand the difference between “He told me he would meet the client today” vs. “He told me he will meet the client today”. It’s useless trying to tell students that we use grammar to bridge the distance between the here and now, immediate vs. remote situations and relationships but guiding them through examples and questions gets you to that “ah-ha!” moment. Using extracts from business emails and asking the learners to work out the relationship between the sender and receiver by looking at the complexity of language used is another example of this – also great for inter-cultural awareness where somebody from another culture has the audacity to ask their boss to reply with an answer by a certain date while still using a deferential tone (“Would it be possible for you to…”) .

Coming back to a question I had earlier on “intrenched errors” caused by a false assumption or previous teaching. It occurs to me that guided discovery is a good way of dealing with these, as the learners really need to engage with the structures to discover the pattern rather than simply being told “No, that’s wrong, say this…”

6 06 2011
Kevin Giddens

Where’s the evidence?

Great question! My experience as a learner and teacher at the SIT Graduate Institute, where the course curriculum is rooted in experiential learning, has led be to believe in the superiority of constructivist-based forms of instruction.

As a teacher trainer here in Korea, my most often criticism is that I’m too inductive. My course participants want more direct guidance. I often hear a belief among fellow trainers that Koreans have grown so accustomed to being told the answers directly that inductive methods aren’t helpful. I generally write the comments off as unfair cultural generalizations and tell them that Koreans are as capable as anyone of acquiring knowledge inductively. However, I don’t often ask myself why I think this is the best way for them to learn about teaching. Where’s the evidence to support my belief?

A brief google scholar search for “discovery learning” led me to this article, http://pdfserve.informaworld.com/157411__784754045.pdf, which claims that research doesn’t support my belief. The article cites research that supports more direct, strong instructional guidance over constructivist based minimal guidance.

I’ve observed many teachers struggle to discover the best way to teach. They beg for the answers. However, I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers to their questions.

Should we use Korean in our classes or not? What’s the best way to give instructions? What do we do if our students aren’t motivated? How do we plan a lesson?

If I answer their questions directly then they’ll leave class thinking that they know what to do. They may be content and feel that they’ve learned. However, when teaching their students the technique I offered may or may not work. At this stage teachers need to figure out what to do next. I think that this process of figuring out what to do when the best practice isn’t working is best taught experientially. I find it hard to believe that me telling a teacher how to reflect and make decisions is more effective than getting teachers to actually teach, encounter problems, make decisions and then reflect on their own process.

Scott, thanks for inspiring some critical reflection on my teaching beliefs. I’d appreciate any recommendations of articles that provide evidence on the effectiveness of discovery learning.

6 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kevin, for your comment. Very briefly, I wonder if the issue of how knowledge is arrived at – e.g. whether inductively or deductively – is of less importance than what you actually do with that knowledge. If it remains inert, then it’s of little use. In other words, (and I think I argued this in a comment on P is for PPP) language development is optimised through language use. As Brumfit (2001) puts it: “We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing” (p. 12).

Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. OUP.

PS: I couldn’t open that pdf link.

7 06 2011
Kevin Giddens

Yes I guess this goes back as far as Xun Zi, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” However, there seems to be a richness to coming to understand new knowledge experientially. Through experience our whole person becomes involved in the learning process. The connection between the knowledge and the learner is made immediately. Then through a process of reflecting and negotiating with other learners we are able to come to understand the discrete pieces of knowledge involved in creating our experience. I think that if knowledge is initially conveyed through telling or explaining then we are often left struggling to make these connections later in the lesson.

Sorry about the link – not sure why it’s not working. Here’s the citation:

Kirschner, Paul A.; Sweller, John; Clark, Richard E. (2006) .Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-85.

7 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

The connection between the knowledge and the learner is made immediately.

Yes, this is where the notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ seems very powerful – that, by engaging the learners in mediated activity, rather than randomly firing an explanation at them, you are more likely to encounter the point where their current state of knowledge is optimally conducive to some kind of pedagogical intervention.

6 06 2011
Chris Bowie

Hi Kevin,

My situation is similar to yours in that I have trained teachers and teach in China. On this issue I think there are a couple of things at play.

One is that many people seem eager to conform to the stereotypes they have made for themselves and others have made for them. Even if a student does not feel completely comfortable with a deep-end Confucian learning style, they’ll often force themselves to adopt it, thinking this is how they must do it. We need to offer them choices and space to try things out.

The other is a focus on the results and not the process of learning. In teaching this, means telling the students all the answers and asking them to memorise them so you don’t have to take the round-about way of using a learning process.

Actually, I think we do need to teach people how to think for themselves and how to reflect and form their own strategies. I also teach management skills as well as English skills, and I spend a lot of time helping the new managers learn how to make decisions for themselves rather than waiting to be told what to do or copying what somebody else did.

More power to you!

Chris

7 06 2011
Kevin Giddens

Chris,

It’s great to connect with people doing similar work! I agree with you that, “we need to teach people how to think for themselves and how to reflect and form their own strategies.” By reflecting on our experiences teaching and learning we are able to discover processes that help inform how we learn and teach.

Your empowerment is much appreciated!

6 06 2011
Mr Darkbloom

My course participants want more direct guidance. I often hear a belief among fellow trainers that Koreans have grown so accustomed to being told the answers directly that inductive methods aren’t helpful.

Kevin,

Some intriguing questions you raise.

Please tell me:

(1) What kind of guidence are your learners specifically requesting? And what percentage of your learners seem to require it?

(2) Have your colleagues offered any research to back up their claims it’s better to teach the learners in a deductive way?

Thanks!

7 06 2011
Kevin Giddens

Thanks for the awesome probing questions!

1) What kind of guidance are your learners specifically requesting?

Again, trying to avoid generalizing my students because there is an awful lot of diversity among my learners. However, the most often voiced concern in their words is that they “can’t understand the exact meaning of ….” An apropos example is a lesson I have on inductive versus deductive learning. I teach an inductive lesson and then a deductive lesson. Then we process their experience of each lesson style. By the end of the lesson we have descriptions on the board of their ideas of the difference between inductive and deductive learning. My understanding of what many of my students want at this point is for me to sum up the lesson with the actual definition of each. However, I don’t. I feel to give my own definition at this stage would undermine their discovery of the knowledge for themselves.

And what percentage of your learners seem to require it?

I revisited my most recent feedback and found that only about 15% of students voiced this concern when given the opportunity for anonymous feedback. However, when I asked the whole class recently whether they preferred inductive or deductive learning, they gleefully cheered “deductive!” When I asked why, several students proclaimed, “It’s easier, we’re used to it and it’s Korean style.” Of course this may speak more to the desire for conformity mentioned by Chris than actual feedback.

In the end I think that, at the very least, forced guided discovery allows participants more choice (as Chris mentioned). It’s a new tool in their toolbox of ways of conveying meaning of new knowledge. Then they can decide for themselves if it’s an effective method for their classroom or not.

(2) Have your colleagues offered any research to back up their claims it’s better to teach the learners in a deductive way?

Not that I’m aware of ☺

7 06 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Kevin,

Thanks for the response.

The research Scott just mentioned definitely sounds like something you could follow up on and attack your colleagues with :) No, but seriously, apart from looking into this kind of data, so much of our teaching seems to rely upon the common sense and intuition that comes with practice and in that way, of course, your colleagues are just giving their opinion the way most of us do.

In fact, today I had a discussion with a colleague about L1 use in the classroom wher a similar kind of exchange took place. That is, one in which neither of us had any cold hard data to back us up – we were just relying on practical classroom experience and what seems to have worked in the past. Our conversation maded me want to seek out more information to back my intuitions up… pretty much like what you’re doing! It’s a nice feeling to have good evidence on your side!

Anyway, I think it’s quite obvious that a good balance of third person scholarly research along with our own (perhaps modest) action research attempts is what should be aimed for.

It’s very interesting that you’re doing lessons focused on the learning process itself. I do so myself, but perhaps focusing on different things. Tell me: what kinds of activities do you do when focusing on deductive vs inductive? Can you give a few examples?

Also, I’m wondering if maybe you could be holding off a little too much with those students who need an ‘answer’, as it were, at the end of the lesson. I mean, is it literally the case that you’re trying not to influence them by your opinion? I like influencing my learners if they find my opinion useful! ;)
Perhaps you could tell them more of what you think without just handing everything to them on a plate.

Personally, I will gladly offer my opinion (usually labelled as such, with caveats) even as a kind of reward, if you will. I actually think I sometimes under-estimate how hard my students work – especially for lower levels, just using the language – and so I am keen to recognize even small victories and don’t mind relaxing things after a certain period. Maybe after all, some of your students just want to know if your opinion matches theirs out of general curisoity (in pursuit of personal validation perhaps).

And here is the cold hard academic research to back up everything I’ve just said… hehehe
:)

6 06 2011
tefljobslondon

Simply being told answers or cramming information does not create long lasting understanding. When you work something out for yourself and have a ‘eureka’ moment the learning aspect is much more powerful. If teachers are able to create excercises that facilitate this kind of learning I think it can greatly benefit students.

Jon.

7 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Jon – that’s the theory, and it seems to be supported by research into memory. Firstly, that learning is a function of ‘depth of processing’ – the ‘deeper’ the mental effort that goes into learning something, the better it will be remembered. And secondly, that (as Alan Baddeley, 1997, puts it) it seems that “the more organized the material, the easier it is to learn, that subjects spontaneously tend to impose organization on random material, and … that explicit instructions to organize enhance learning” (p. 143).

Ellis makes a similar case for consciousness-raising (CR) tasks, which are supported by ‘the general principle that what learners can find out for themsleves is better remembered than what they are simply told” (2010, p. 50).

Nevertheless, there are a number of risks associated with discovery learning, one being that the learners may NOT find out anything for themselves, and may become frustrated in the process. Another is that they might reach the WRONG hypothesis – this is well attested in studies of inductive reasoning. Another is that the time involved in discovering a rule may be at the expense of opportunities to practise (and test) it.

7 06 2011
Scott C

Two points:
1. It just occurred to me that ‘guided discovery’ in its purest form would fit nicely with a ‘dogme’ lesson. Wouldn’t it?

2. I’ve come to the belief that if learners require information directly from a teacher (good ol’ spoon feeding), they’ll never learn or be able to figure much out once class is over. So regardless how effective a discovery approach is or isn’t during class, doesn’t it make sense in terms of learner training for when class is over?

7 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Scott: Yes. And yes.

I think that the guided discovery approach, in which learning is ‘scaffolded’ by the teacher’s questions, maps very neatly on to the dogme view that language learning is both usage-based and emergent, but that there needs to be a periodic focus on form.

And, yes, one of the strongest arguments for discovery learning is that it is a form of learner training. Good learners are ‘language detectives’. As Joan Rubin wrote, as long ago as 1981: “The good language learner is constantly looking for patterns in the language. He [sic] attends to the form in a particular way, constantly analyzing, categorizing and synthesizing. He is constantly trying to find schemes for classifying information” (Rubin, J. 1981. What the ‘good language learner’ can teach us. TESOL Quarterly, 9).

7 06 2011
Scott C

In addition, doesn’t guided discovery have built-in concept checking and by asking questions, aren’t we engaging learnings who might be drifting off otherwise? It’s just looking better and better :-)

7 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

This is where the guidance is so important – unguided discovery doesn’t necessarily have these checks and balances!

7 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Reading further on the topic, I’ve come across the term ‘prolepsis’ – a rhetorical term defined as “the anticipation of possible objections in order to answer them in advance”. It seems to be used in our field to connote the kind of scaffolding that is able to anticipate the learner’s inductive thought processes, and pre-empt false hypothesising.

Diane Larsen-Freeman has this to say: “Another name for a scaffolding-teaching process is instructional conversation… or prolepsis. I like the concept of proleptic teaching because I now have a name for what I had done as a teacher for many years. I used to think that my teaching approach was inductive. I used a discovery process — some might call it a constructivist approach — to encourage students to come to their own understanding of a particular linguistic point. However, I now believe that prolepsis is is a more apt description than either of these for what I do. Prolepsis requires teacher and students to achieve a degree of intersubjectivity, which makes it possible for the teacher to guide the student and for the student to be guided through the process of completing a task. In other words, both teacher and student try to come to an understanding of how each of them views the task and its solution, with the goal of helping the student reshape and extend his or her use of language.” (Teaching Language: from grammar to grammaring, 2003, p.95).

Done any proleptic teaching lately? (Nice question to let drop in the staffroom tomorrow!)

10 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Just a footnote on the subject of prolepsis: in his book The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning (2004) Leo van Lier defines prolepsis as occurring when “we assume (pretend) that learners already have the abilities we and they wish to develop. Together with this assumption we create invitational structures and spaces for learners to step into and grow into” (p.162). Elsewhere he writes “prolepsis can be seen as a game of make-believe in which the educator pretends that the learner knows more than she actually does, and can do more than she has shown to be capable of hitherto” (pp.152 — 153).

8 06 2011
Scott C

Not sure if this fits the bill but:
In a Pre Int class, students read a text telling a story, which contains examples of the TL (past perfect in this case). After a basic gist Q (very CELTA of me!), students looked at a number of T/F questions I had written. Rather than basing these Q’s on vocab’ as so often happens, I tried to make each one relate to the verb forms. For example, the text read: ‘When the bank realised its mistake, Bill had already spent £85,000′. So the T/F Q was: ‘Bill spent £85,000 after the bank noticed the mistake’ – false of course. Students discussed Q’s together then during feedback, I asked why it was ‘true’ or ‘false’ in each case. As we went through each Q, the students got the hang of it more and more.

I guess this is a pretty standard approach to guided discovery, especially as seen in books like Cutting Edge But what I feel most useful about an activity like this, is it highlights to students the importance grammar has on meaning. As many students in Australia come from form-focused backgrounds (eg. Japan, Korea), meaning sometimes seems to fall along the wayside in students’ eyes.

So I assumed what they may not know and structured the T/F Q’s around that. They may not notice that the past perfect can (but doesn’t always) affect meaning. Proleptic?

8 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Scott, for that detailed description of how text-based questions can ‘guide’ learners to an understanding of a targeted grammar point. Your approach, based on learners’ comprehension of sentences, is very much consistent with the way that VanPatten’s ‘Input processing’ theory is applied – sometimes known as ‘processing instruction’, and mediated by what Rod Ellis calls ‘structured input activities’:

Structured-input activities are comprehension-based grammar activities that go beyond simply presenting learners with enriched input containing the target structure (the stimulus) by means of some instruction that forces them to process it (the response). … Structured-input activities are in integral part of an approach to grammar teaching known as Processing Instruction. VanPatten (1996) defines this as ‘a type of grammar instruction whose purpose is to affect the ways in which learners attend to input data. It is input-based rather than output-based.’ (p. 2) (Ellis, R. 2010 Second language acquisition research and language-teaching materials, in English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice, ed. by Harwood, N. CUP)

Typical structured-input activities are those which require learners to make decisions about sentences, e.g. by matching them to pictures, or, as in your case, saying if they are true or false, according to the evidence provided. I include a number of examples in Uncovering Grammar.

8 06 2011
Scott C

I like the idea of first ‘using’ grammar in a receptive sense like the lesson I mentioned above. Especially for structures which can be conceptually difficult to grasp. There seems at times, from course books and teachers, to be a tendency to get students ‘using the target language by the end of the lesson’ (sounds like a common lesson aim). In a one hour lesson, or there abouts, do learners always really understand what they’re producing?

10 06 2011
Luiz Otávio Barros

Hi, Scott!
There are a few things about grammar discovery that bother me a little.
The first one has to do with the use of the terms inductive and deductive. Inductive, for some reason, takes me back to the audio lingual days, where overt language analysis was seldom encouraged. So, in that sense, “inductive” would be diametrically opposed to explicit grammar instruction, wouldn’t it? I also remember my DOTE days in the 90s and how hard one of the tutors tried to explain the difference between inductive learning vs. teaching / deductive learning vs. teaching. Needless to say, I still can’t remember which is which…

The second one has to do with what the overriding aim of a language presentation activity ought to be. A few years ago I read an ELT Journal article about the top-X features of a good presentation and that stuf – far from groundbreaking as it was – was overflowing with common sense (Michael Swam, perhaps? Can’t remember). You know, things like “keep it short”, “make it memorable”, “engage more than one sense” and so on and so forth. So I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the sort of house and garden rules I’ve just mentioned should override concerns about whether the teacher should tell students the rule or help them figure it out. In fact, I have seen grammar-discovery tasks that were so thorough and meticulously designed that they ended up generating far more hair-splitting, over analysis and use of metalanguage than any teacher-fronted presentation would ever have. True, the students were encouraged to infer the rule, but at what cost?

The way a teacher implements grammar-discovery activities in class also matters, I think. In lesson observation through the years, I have seen perfectly designed CR tasks and guided-discovery questions go to waste because of the way the teacher, for example, read the questions out loud (the intonation gave the answers away). So, to all intents and purposes, a CR task became a teacher-fronted presentation, but took far longer – for the wrong reasons.

I’m also a little skeptical of the extent to which guided discovery can cater to less analytical, field-dependent students. The current orthodoxy, whereby students first understand a text flooded with the new input, then zero in on the input itself and then discover its formal properties, seems to be as geared towards language ANALYSIS as its less learner-directed predecessors. We seem to be giving students less and less time to “play” with the new input (with a focus on meaning, be it receptively or productively) before engaging them in formal analysis and, honestly, I don’t think grammar discovery has made any difference in that department.

Thank you for writing about grammar discovery, Scott. Your alphabet just seems endless.

10 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your thoughts, Luiz – articulate and insightful, as ever! You are right, I think, in drawing attention to some of the dangers and challenges of a discovery approach – not least, the degree of skill required, on the part of the teacher, to ‘shepherd’ the learners with just the right balance of freedom and control. Jim Scrivener alludes to this ‘artistry’ in the quote I included in my original post.

It’s not necessarily the case, though, that an inductive approach is ‘opposed to explicit instruction’. As Ellis (2008) points out, “Explicit instruction can take the form of an inductive treatment, where learners are required to induce rules from examples given to them, or an explicit treatment, where learners are given a rule which they then practise using” (p. 882). In other words both an inductive and deductive approach can lead to explicit knowledge, although with the former there is also the option that the knowledge is not articulated, simply applied. This (implicit) option underpins the audiolingual approach.

10 06 2011
Luiz Otávio

Oh, ok, I think the words implicit and explicit make all the difference, then. Thank YOU!!!

12 06 2011
Isabela Villas Boas

Hi, Scott

Though I’m an avid reader of your blog, it’s the first time I reply to one of your posts, not due to lack of ideas (I hope!), but really lack of time. Anyway, I couldn’t resist this one, for it’s a topic I’ve dedicated a lot of reading to: inductive vs. deductive instruction, focus on form vs. focus on forms, input enhacement/flood, or whatever you might call it, etc, etc. Like Luiz Otávio, I think implicit and explicit make all the difference in this discussion. I’m in favor of what I would call a version of discovery learning in which students are presented with input and work on it for the sake of meaning, interpretation, communication, and only then are led to focus explicitly on its form, by which time part of it will have been processed implicitly. In focusing on form, students are led to notice patterns and draw conclusions, which must be later confirmed by the teacher (or the grammar chart in the book!). However, the teacher shouldn’t allow this to become a grammar gymnastics session. This way, both the intuitive and the analytical learners are catered to one way or the other.

In the private language institute that I coordinate, this is the recommended approach to grammar instruction and the materials we use adhere to these principles or are adapted for this purpose. However, many times I observe especially novice teachers doing one of these two things: as a “warm-up”, before-you-open-your-books activity, they either pre-teach the form the students were supposed to encounter in the meaningful input (usually by way of a very colorful but sentence-based PPT used in a teacher-fronted manner), thus spoiling the whole discourse-based inductive process so carefully planned by the author, or they do a so-called warmer in which the students are already required to use the form that the unit focuses on, in which case many doubts and questions come up and the teacher ends up giving a formal, deductive grammar explanation even before students have been exposed to the input.

I’m a true believer of the focus-on-form within a meaningful context paradigm, with meaning necessarily coming before form, with well scaffolded inductive, but explicit, grammar instruction. One of the textbook series I think does this the best is Michael McCarthy’s Touchstone, and it just kills me to see teachers tell the students what the author so carefully planned to lead students to figure out for themselves ( and he does this explicitly, by way of an icon “figure it out”!)..

Isabela Villas Boas

13 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Isabela, thanks so much for posting. Your point that sometimes teachers (wittingly or unwittingly) subvert a guided discovery approach is very well made: I think this may come from a kind of distrust – not so much of the learners’ capacity to work things out (although that might be a factor) – but of inductive reasoning generally. And this in turn may come from having been brought up in an educational tradition in which teachers always ‘taught’ and the learners dutifully ‘learned’. If you’ve never experienced discovery learning first hand, it may be an act of faith to adopt it in your classes. This is why I think that it is important, on teacher training courses, to incorporate guided discovery language analysis tasks into the programme. And, having done them, to talk about the experience and its implications.

14 06 2011
darridge

This is rather a late posting too, but this discussion has been interesting for a few reasons. The main one, for me, being that we are still talking about a teacher led process – much akin to what Michael Swan talked about in an ETP article last year – that students have to be led towards ‘high frequency’ language first. I mean inductive or deductive is still primarily talking about a teacher-led input-output process as i see it here. It’s still leading the learner down the path of “this is what you should notice”.

For me, the problem is that this is usually the last thing the learner notices…or if they do, care about and/or acquire.

I can see the value of inductive teaching in that you show the learner that they if they look they can (and should try to) see patterns in the language – learner training. I just think that deciding on what those patterns and ‘guiding’ learners towards them may prove to be equally as ineffective as telling them about them straight up.

However – as an alternative, asking learners to find their own patterns/structures in text that has been looked at may be rather more effective. Perhaps something along the lines of the “find 3 phrases you want to explore more” type activities you see in Teaching Unplugged, where the inductive learning is placed back in the hands of the learner.

14 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

A late posting, Darridge, but definitely one worth waiting for! I think you hit the nail on the head, or – to use another tired old refrain – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!

Coincidentally, I was reading about noticing and attention just yesterday, in a fascinating paper by Dwight Atkinson called ‘What sociocognition can mean for SLA’, in a new collection edited by Rob Batstone: Sociocognitive perspectives on language use and language learning (Oxford University Press, 2010). Atkinson makes the point that “we devote attentional resources to something not because it exists, but because it is potentially important for our survival and prosperity — i.e. attention is adaptive…. What really matters to a person — what is adaptive — is what gets attended. In this sense, attention is outward-looking — an ecological relationship” (pp.34 — 35).

He also makes the point that attention is jointly constructed and distributed: “In social relationships, including teaching and learning, attention is socially tuned and socially constructed — it is more than the product of individual minds” (p. 36). Students doing a task together align themselves to one another, and to the socially-constructed, continually evolving, notion of what the task should involve, rather than simply to the teacher’s objectives. Given all this, I think you are absolutely right in suggesting that “asking learners to find their own patterns/structures in text that has been looked at may be rather more effective”.

14 06 2011
mrdarkbloom

Nice one, Darridge.

This is my bag also. Getting the learners, rather than me, to choose what they want to analyze.

It just seems common sense!
:)

14 06 2011
Luiz Otávio Barros

Darridge,
While I do agree that the stuff that the learner chooses to notice is more likely to be memorable in the long run, isn’t it also true that learners will rarely notice things they can understand (but perhaps not explain, systematize or produce), which, incidentally is often what they ought to be focusing on (Micahel Swan’s point, if I understood correctly)?

I read about an eye-tracking experiment once in which the learners’ eye movements were tracked as they read a web-based text full of nonsense words. Guess which words made their eyes stop, go back and re-read the sentence?

So if we assume that most of the useful (ok, “useful to whom” you might ask and I take your point) patterns and lexical chunks are too inconspicuous to jump off the page and get noticed without some sort of teacher intervention, what is plan B, I wonder.

15 06 2011
darridge

“learners will rarely notice things they can understand” would seem to me to be the point. If they can understand them , then what is the point in focussing on them? The message has been communicated. Why would you then need to proceed to teaching them? At this point I’m reminded of Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning – there is only a point in learning something if it is simple, portable and I still can’t remember the last one. In other words, if it is going to help their self monitor.

The other thing for me is that in noticing the nonsense words, the learners are really engaging in a dialogue about the meaning of the text – “yep, yep ,yep – what the hell is this?”. Yes, there is a problem with focussing on the one word you don’t know as opposed to the ten you do, but that’s where a discussion on reading skills comes in.

I dunno, the whole pointing out the obvious thing bothers me. Why not ask them where their problems are, and focus on looking at the things that are of interest? The patterns and lexis, if they really are frequency based, will take care of themselves with enough input. If we’re trying to skimp on the input due to time constraints etc, I don’t know.

15 06 2011
Luiz Otávio Barros

“Learners will rarely notice things they can understand” would seem to me to be the point. If they can understand them , then what is the point in focussing on them?”

Well, then I suppose the whole discussion boils down to whether or not learners need to consciously attend to form. And if we say “no, form will take care of itself”, we are, to some extent, downplaying the role of competing attentional resources (to meaning and form) in interlanguage restructuring.

If we assume that being able to understand a given feature of the new input will gradually lead to interlanguage restructuring and future deployment in communication, then, yes, there’s no need for the teacher to help students notice what they wouldn’t, left to their own devices. The problem I see with this assumption is that there just might not be “enough input” (as you said) to serve as raw material for the sort of more laissez-faire, learner-driven and socially-mediated noticing you seem to be advocating, especially in an EFL context.

15 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

While I agree with Darridge that learners should be able to choose what it is that they will pay attention to, I also agree with Luiz that, left to their own devices, they may simply overlook features of language which – at the receptive level – they can process easily, but are not part of their productive competence.

This is the argument frequently made with regard to immersion or content-based instruction – that certain non-salient language features – such as adverb placement – are simply not noticed – often because they are redundant. As Nick Ellis (2006) reminds us “Not only are many grammatical meaning-form relationships low in salience, but they can also be redundant in the understanding of the meaning of an utterance. It is often unnecessary to interpret inflections marking grammatical meanings such as tense because they are usually accompanied by adverbs that indicate temporal reference”. Thus, in the sentence ‘hier nous sommes allés au cinéma’ “both the auxiliary and past participle are redundant past markers. Furthermore, since the adverb ‘hier’ has now marked the discourse as past, the past markers on subsequent verbs are also redundant” (Ellis, quoting Terrell 1991).

The third person -s in English is a good example of a redundant morpheme (because in English finite verbs almost always have subjects, so the third person status of the verb is already determined) which is also low in salience, and hence a prime candidate for being ignored. Unsurprisingly, it is late acquired. Dick Schmidt (2001) argues, therefore, that “since many features of L2 input are likely to be infrequent, non-salient, and communicatively redundant, intentionally focused attention may be a practical (though not theoretical) necessity for successful language learning”.

More anecdotally, and connecting to my other thread on the subjunctive, is this story by the writer Christopher Isherwood describing his own experience learning German:

…[His friend] Humphrey said suddenly, “You speak German so well – tell me, why don’t you ever use the subjunctive mood?” Christopher had to admit that he didn’t know how to. In the days when he had studied German, he had left the subjunctive to be dealt with later, since it wasn’t absolutely essential and he was in a hurry. By this time he could hop through the language without its aid, like an agile man with only one leg. But now Christopher set himself to master the subjunctive. Very soon, he had done so. Proud of this accomplishment, he began showing off whenever he talked: “had it not been for him, I should never have asked myself what I would do if they were to — etc., etc.” Humphrey was much amused.

Humphrey’s role would seem to be one that teachers might adopt — drawing learners’ attention to features of their output that are still non-target like, or that threaten their communicative effectiveness – but granting the learner a degree of autonomy in terms of whether and how they deal with the issue. This seems to me to capture very neatly the notion of ‘guided discovery’.

19 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

(The following comment was sent by Jim Bellanca)

Hello Scott. I found “G is for Guided Discovery” to be thought provoking. However, I think the discussion leaves out one important element (the question of the teacher’s role) and commits the classic “either-or” error.

To “either-or” first. In the classroom, I find that the most helpful instruction is “both-and”. Although learning style may have some bearing, I find that the purpose of the learning task is a more important decider. If I need speed and only memory, then deduction takes preference. A tight direct instruction model suffices. However, if I want my students to learn to think or to use sound cognitive practices, I lean to induction so they can learn from doing. This is all the more important if I am helping them increase their effectiveness as critical and creative thinkers of rigorous content.

Now to the second element: my role as teacher in this process. Here I relay on Feuerstein’s theory of mediated learning. (You can go back to Ellis to read about the effects). When I am focusing on helping students sharpen their thinking skills, I mediate (use precise questions and feedback to guide the cognitive functions and operations). As they develop critical thinking (analysis, comparison, etc.) I continue to help them apply these skills within the content they are investigating. They can rely on multiple sources for the information (online, books, me, etc) but I seldomly operate in the telling mode other than when giving corrective feedback.
In addition to the research that Ellis describes re Feuerstein’s work, I can call on the high effects research form the Marzano Research Lab or meta-analyses on the related terms inquiry, investigations, discovery, and Project or problem based learning (all of which are variations on the inductive-deductive theme.)

When I am finished, I am looking for two results, the answers to two questions: (1) has the student developed a deeper or wider understanding of the material or content (2) has the student developed his or her cognitive skills. It is often easier to measure the first with countables, but that doesn’t take away from the value of looking to see improvements in the thinking processes, especially if any of those show me an improvement in thinking.

All of this leads back to the start. Guded discovery is much more than either-or and it requires that teachers have a wider range of skills. After all, the method is less important than the results. This puts the onus on me as teacher-facilitator-mediator to perform these roles more skillfully so that the best teaching model fits what it is that the student has to learn and advances his or her skills in that learning.

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