Delivery or Discovery Learning?

Delivery or Discovery Learning?

Delivery or Discovery Learning


Willy Renandya, 23 July 2022

I attended David Wible’s keynote presentation at the 39th ICETL conference hosted by Fu Jen Catholic University, Taiwan on 16 July 2022.

The key point of his talk was very simple, yet powerful. That is, teachers tend to give too much emphasis on delivery (what and how we teach) rather than discovery (why and how students learn).

By delivery he meant how we teachers do our job in the classroom, i.e., delivering our lesson in ways that align with best practices as reported in the professional literature in the hope that students will process and digest our lesson in the most efficient manner.

In the delivery mode, we provide a clear lesson structure, which often comes in three phases: before, during and after lesson activities. In each phase, the teacher tries to get the students to participate fully in the activities. It is important to note that all of the activities are teacher-directed; students simply follow what has been planned for them.

Of course, there is nothing wrong here. We do need to teach our students. But the problem is that we tend to over-teach our students. In a typical 60 minute lesson, it is not uncommon for teachers to use 80% of classroom time (or more) for explicit teaching of the target materials, thus giving students minimal opportunities to engage in self-determined or self-driven learning.

We know too well that teaching is what teachers do while learning is what students do (with some help from us and their peers). we can teach and deliver our lesson effectively, but it may not result in deep or meaningful learning unless students are fully involved and invested in the learning process.

In other words, for learning to happen optimally, students will need to be the pilot of the plane (so to speak) and should not be in the passenger seats all the time. They need to make optimal use of their cognitive, affective and social capitals to build meaningful and relevant connections during the learning process.

Research shows that when students feel curious and a little perplexed (not confused), their internal learning mechanism will be fully awaken, enabling them to engage in discovery learning.

But what is discovery learning?

Discovery learning is the kind of learning that happens because we want to, not because we have to. It is driven by our natural desire to learn and discover things in order to satisfy our curiosity.

In the context of language learning, discovery learning can happen when students are given a problem to solve (e.g., how to reduce food wastage). In the process of solving a problem, they are more likely to seek more information on the Internet by reading relevant texts or viewing relevant video materials.

As problem-solving activities often involve students working together with their peers, they get to use the target language to exchange ideas, explore possible solutions and use the target language for genuine communication.

All this while, students’ attention is largely on meaning (i.e., on solving a problem and on discovering new and relevant information) and not so much of language forms. But interestingly and unintentionally, students get to discover the lexico-grammatical features that are present in the reading and viewing that they did.

The self-discovery of the grammatical features of the target language takes quite a bit of time, but it is time well-spent. As these language features are encountered in pragmatically rich and meaningful contexts, they tend to be more memorable and more likely to be stored in the students’ long-term memory.

When students need  to use the target language for communication, they can retrieve these language structures quickly and spontaneously, allowing them to express themselves smoothly.

What does it all mean for language teachers?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Remember that our job is not to COVER (hide) the syllabus; our job is to help our students DISCOVER the syllabus.
  2. To help students discover the ‘language syllabus’, we need to adopt a more student-centred pedagogy where learning is driven by students’ interest and motivation.
  3. Students do need help from the teacher so some explicit and systematic teaching in the classroom is needed. Teacher talk is fine but it should not occupy 100% classroom time.
  4. Students need to learn basic grammatical structures of the target language. They also need to know basic, most frequently used vocabulary to start their discovery learning journey. These can be done via explicit teaching in the classroom.
  5. There should be a balance between delivery and discovery. Too much delivery type of teaching (where lessons are pre-packaged for students to consume) will only stifle learning. Too much discovery learning may also lead to confusion or loss of interest in learning.
  6. The ideal balance between delivery and discovery is presently unknown. It could be 50% each or some other possible ratios, e.g., 40% delivery – 60% discovery; 25% delivery – 75% discovery.
  7. It is conceivable that at the early stage of learning, students need a bit of delivery type of learning (say 20%) with 80% discovery learning where students get to experience lots of interesting and meaningful language via teacher read-alouds (e.g., shared book or big book pedagogy). The infographic below can be a good starting point to explore the question of how much/little delivery or discovery learning in our teaching.
  8. Change is hard but it is the only way that we can see real improvements in the teaching and learning of English. Teachers need to change the beliefs and practices if they truly want to see their students using their learning resources optimally in the classroom. The syllabus too needs to change. The old way of sequencing language features where each feature is taught systematically and explicitly will have to be replaced with a less structured syllabus where teaching/learning points are driven by students’ interests and needs.

Closing remarks

For many years, progressive language educationists have been encouraging teachers to adopt problem-based, project-based or discovery learning methods. Unfortunately, their call has not been sufficiently heeded by policy makers, curriculum developers and language teaching practitioners.

Like they say, change is hard and messy. But unless we embrace change and explore new ways of engaging our students in their language learning process, we won’t be able to help our students achieve their language learning goal, i.e., to become confident and fluent language users.

More reading

Student-Centred Learning: Are we practicing what we preach??

Re-awakening the Learning Giant Within

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