What Does “The Art of Teaching Is the Art of Assisting Discovery” Mean?

This philosophy of Mark Van Doren, professor of Columbia University, unites all the best findings in the area of teaching. In one simple sentence he expressed what a learning process should feel like for every student.

So, what does it mean exactly? Remember how you learned to ride a bicycle? Your father taught you everything about walking it properly, keeping balance and avoid falling. You were eager to try, and finally you mounted it and rushed forward. Wasn’t it one of the greatest moments in your life? Probably, your triumph went on for only a few minutes (until a sudden obstacle rose in front of you) and probably your father was running beside holding your aft – still, it was your achievement. Assisted one, but still yours.

This is an ideal model of how learning should be facilitated. A teacher assists in the process, but he never takes away the discovery component. A student should gain some knowledge through his own efforts. Information obtained in this way is much more valuable and better retained.

In practice, it can take different forms. If you look at any foreign language textbook, you’ll see that grammar rules are not just explained at the very beginning of the lesson. Instead, students have to deduce them from dialogs or texts and then check if they were right.

If you were lucky enough to have teachers who adopted this philosophy, you must remember lessons that started from a quiz or a tricky question you had to answer. Naturally, you couldn’t do it right, but after a few tries you were so eager to learn the truth that you probably still remember it.

Whatever you use as a crutch to help your students make their own discoveries, it must provide them with means to do so. The balance between neglecting your students and letting them find out things on their own is crucial here. In the first case scenario you are not doing your job right. In the second, you are a great teacher who rose above mediocrity.

Another metaphor might work here. Instead of giving fish (i.e. knowledge) to your students, you teach them how to fish (i.e. obtain knowledge) and thus warm them up. It is your direct obligation to provide them not only with information, but also with means to receive and process it.

All in all, teaching is all about discovery. While your students discover the world around, you discover new methods of teaching them. Without this crucial component and efforts on the both sides, the endeavor won’t be successful, no matter how hard you try.