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Discovering the Discovery Method

Too often Christian teachers behave as though authoritative truth has to be communicated in an authoritarian manner. In one sense, the attitude we have toward the Bible will largely determine how we teach it. But our ultimate purpose is to get students to be independent investigators of God’s Word forming firsthand standards and convictions which are taught them by the Holy Spirit. In order to accomplish this purpose, it would seem that our teaching should reflect the fact that infallible truth is nevertheless being handled by fallible teachers.

If we can recognize this about ourselves, then perhaps we can experiment with the discovery method. Discovery teaching (sometimes called the “inquiry method”) is simply the process of allowing the student to take the leading role in his own learning experiences. The teacher becomes a facilitator and guide, making it possible for the learner to reach mutually-agreed-upon goals. The teacher serves as a resource person to stimulate, motivate, clarify, and explain.

The atmosphere in which such teaching takes place must be informal and nonthreatening. In order for discovery teaching to be effective, the environment (including the teacher’s attitude) must contribute to rather than detract from the attaining of objectives. Rather than forcing his idea of content, the teacher attempts to keep his hands off the learning process whenever and wherever the student can carry it on for himself.

Such a free-rein approach to education is threatening to some teachers. The instructor who considers himself an indispensable purveyor of information about God may find it very difficult to play down his role in order to maximize student involvement. Some concepts of education largely involve lectures and drills, and center almost exclusively on the teacher’s performance during class. Paul Pallmeyer questions such an attitude about Christian teaching when he asks, “Is such teaching likely to produce the kind of thinking a Christian needs to do for his own faith in the complex life of today—and tomorrow? Or a prior question: Is it information we are trying to communicate or is it the Christian faith? The two are not necessarily the same. In fact, the way we arrive at the information may have as much to do with the kind of faith that results (or doesn’t result) as the information itself” (New Ways to Learn, Dale E. Griffin, ed.; Concordia, St. Louis, Mo.).

Discovery teaching brings four basic components of the educational setting into interaction: the student, the teacher, the environment, and the content. The student is an active participant who solves problems which he understands through the process of structuring his own learning experiences. The teacher plays the role of resource person, as described above. The environment includes both freedom and structure with freedom having the upper hand. The content may very well be propositional truth in a general context, waiting in the proper place for the student to track it down, confront it, and capture it for his own.

An effective discovery leader must be a mature teacher who knows not only the subject matter of the current lesson, but has a depth understanding of Christian truth. Specific objectives may not guarantee that learning time will be well spent, but they certainly facilitate that desirable goal. The student has to be a willing participant, ready to explore numerous avenues of information, aggressively ready to appropriate new findings in the light of previous information and a total biblical world view. What he gets will be his own and will therefore fit his needs and interests. He will not wander around in theological Saul’s armor, as so many contemporary Christian teenagers do, when he marches forth to fight the Goliaths of a pagan society.

Values of Discovery Teaching

Discovery teaching allows for individualistic accomplishments. It is highly adaptive and versatile, limited. only by the imagination of the participants at both the teacher and student level. The bugaboos of boredom and apathy should be reduced to a minimum since total student participation and self-direction is necessary. This inquiry method allows for free expression of individual creativity. It is a concept of learning about which we talk much and do little.

The relationship of students to teachers and of students to students should develop rapidly and warmly in the inquiry approach. Group activity is significant, and the sharing of findings is the end result of individual initiative. Actually a number of diverse methods can be used within the framework of discovery learning, since any single student may approach his subject matter from different perspectives. Surely, numerous different approaches will be adopted within the total group.

Problems in Discovery Teaching

Many students feel insecure in an unstructured environment of learning. It is much more comfortable to be able to listen to a lecture and take notes in orderly fashion than to be confronted with the haunting question, “What do you want to learn about this subject, and how do you propose to learn it?”

Any time there is freedom in education, there is also responsibility. If that responsibility is not taken seriously by the participants, the whole process could get out of control. This freedom can also threaten the organization because a given class might decide that they could accomplish their purposes better by meeting at a different hour, in a different place, or on a different day than that class is usually scheduled.

The inquiry method is also time-consuming. At times a student will pursue a subject for a while, only to wander down some fruitless bypaths. Nevertheless, the very frustration of the search is a learning experience. One of the things that all of us have to understand in the process of education is where not to look for certain kinds of information.

Perhaps the most crucial problem of discovery teaching is the tendency to slip away from propositional revelation. From a Christian point of view, the inquiry method is not matching interviews, library reference research, brainstorming, discussion, and Bible study as equal approaches to truth. It is rather viewing the Scripture as a very fine mesh at the tube end of a funnel. All of the sources are poured into the wide mouth at the top, but only what filters through the screen of divine revelation can in the final analysis be considered truth.

Principles for Effective Teaching by Discovery

In the helpful little paperback mentioned previously, Pallmeyer suggests that Christian teachers ought to do two things for their students: encourage the questioning mind, and equip students with skills for finding the answers. He goes on to say, “We can do both by using Inquiry Method—presenting pupils with problems and putting them to work finding the solutions by whatever means available. We may suggest resources, but we need to refrain from doing the research for the learner. To train our students to think, we must also challenge the answers they suggest and not be satisfied with the easy answer they are ‘supposed to get.’ We must require our pupils to give evidence and make a convincing case for what they think and say.”

In a very real sense the inquiry method is a matter of confrontation. The teacher confronts the student with issues which have meaning and relevance for him, with freedom to pursue those issues, or the problems which stand in the way of solving the issues, and with the resources through which and from which answers can be found.

Those resources have to be available and usable by the student. It does no good, for example, to send a high school student to a Greek concordance for a word study on sanctification. The student also needs to be taught how to use the resources as he tracks his solutions through books, articles, films, recordings, maps, experiences, projects, and most important, other people.

Perhaps the most productive results of discovery teaching will take place in groups of adolescents and adults, although classes of advanced Juniors might very well pursue a scaled-down version of the inquiry method. A certain amount of maturity is necessary since an individual must be aware of his own feelings and opinions to be adequately involved in problem-solving techniques. If we expect the Word of God to produce growth in the lives of students, they must be involved directly with its text, and this is precisely what happens in effective discovery teaching.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible