From “Teaching As Telling” To Reaching For Student-Driven Discovery

Understand the NGSS inquiry approach and move from “teaching as telling” to student-driven exploration and discovery. Why? Because learning starts with the learner, and when students are engaged in exploration-based approaches to science instruction, they are more engaged, develop a stronger conceptual understanding of the content, master science skills, and retain their learning longer.

From “Teaching As Telling” To An NGSS Inquiry Approach

From Teaching as Telling to An NGSS Inquiry ApproachOne of my favorite topics to discuss with educators is exploration and discovery. 

Remember “you can’t talk a child into an education” but that’s what we’ve been doing for soooooo long.  Our entire education system has been built on the approach of “teaching as telling”  — through lecture and notes, texts, videos.  These are all different forms of the same process.

The problem is, we know that learning just doesn’t happen that way. 

Ever hear this joke? A boy says, “I taught my dog to whistle.” His friend replies, “I don’t hear him whistling.” The boy replies, “I said I taught him to, I didn’t say he learned it.”

That’s what we basically do when we are “teaching as telling” — we show the videos, give the lecture and notes, guide them through the cookbook recipe lab, and we hope some of it sticks. We find out on test day, right?

  • We aren’t really guiding the learning process.  
  • We aren’t really reflecting the learning process
  • We are trying to “talk a child into an education.”

But here’s something to consider >> Did you teach your child to babble? To crawl? To walk? 


Did you teach them to count? Did you teach them their first letters?


But maybe not.

I remember being so worried during my daughter’s PreK year that she hadn’t yet mastered some basic reading skills — as summer (the summer before her first year of kindergarten) neared, I was more and more stressed. But every effort I made to force it was met with resistance… and I finally gave up and gave her some space. The thing was, all of a sudden… she seemed to know it all. She started writing letters, naming them, making sounds.

And let me tell you, it wasn’t anything I did (and thanks to COVID, PreK was happening at home. 🤷🏼‍♀️ So no one else was teaching her either!) However, without a doubt, we were exposing her to these things — to books, to stories, to letters, to sounds. We pointed things out, we answered her questions, we encouraged her to ask more.

And she started putting it together herself.

Now, of course, she is expanding on that knowledge in kindergarten right now. And I so value the work her teacher is doing with her (and I’m happy to pass that one off!). But the truth is, a lot of what we learn, we figure out ourselves. (At least, we can start to figure it out — and then seek out someone to help us go further!) 

In a similar instance, our family was waiting (a really long time) for our food in a restaurant back in 2019 when my son – about 18 months at the time – started counting totally out of the blue! He got to ten totally on his own,  and I can tell you for a fact: we had not explicitly taught him that. Granted, it took a bit more time to get the one-to-one correspondence down, but even then, that was very much a skill he picked up on his own…

…because the environment was set up to foster that learning.

(I do want to recognize, this does not happen for every student and so many studies show that environment is key to the development of these early literacy and math skills. But as educators, with the students in our classrooms, it’s our job to create the environment that makes learning possible… so I would argue, we can still learn from these experiences).

The point is… for so long we have accepted the idea that “students won’t learn if we don’t teach them,” but the truth is — they are the ones doing the learning anyway — we are just creating the environment. And in the “right” environment, they will thrive!


The Drive To Learn Comes From Within

Each person is born with an innate curiosity that drives them to “figure things out.” (Sometimes things get in the way of this curiosity, and that’s a hard reality for many of our students.) But by and large, we are all born with a drive to essentially “grow our brains” in order to “survive better” and really thrive — and this happens through experience, exploration, and discovery.  (Pretty sure there weren’t schoolrooms back when our brains were evolving all their own complicated learning systems!) 

Interestingly, as parents and educators, we are often comfortable with letting this process unfold early in life — we aren’t typically giving our two year olds vocabulary tests. (At least, I hope not!) And yet we are so convinced it is impossible for this type of natural learning to happen as our students reach adolescence and beyond. And it is this attitude that is holding our students back! 

By assuming we are the bearers of knowledge, distributing understanding and skills to the students in our care, — and by running our classrooms in this way — we are essentially withholding the opportunities our students need to develop the skills that will carry them through life: intrinsic drive, the ability to learn, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, and problem-solving. If we accept that adolescence is the time to prepare for adulthood, our traditional classrooms are shortchanging our students.

So what do we do?


Reorienting Our Instruction Toward NGSS Inquiry And Exploration

We must reframe our approach to education — from “teaching as telling” to tapping into our students’ curiosity, setting the stage for their experiences and explorations, and guiding them through sense-making to lead ultimately to discovery. We must set aside our “sage on the stage” roles and instead become guides and facilitators.

Because when it comes down to it, we all learn from experience (and more specifically, reflecting and making meaning from that experience) — so we literally cannot “talk” an education into a child.

That said, what does that mean for our actual, you know, teaching?

It means embracing an explore before explain approach.

Let’s take a quick example. 
Traditional Teaching:

You’re teaching roles in ecosystems — producer, consumer, decomposer. You tell your students organisms in ecosystems have different roles, they get their energy in different ways. You give them the vocabulary term and its definition. You provide an example for each. You ask students to identify additional examples. Teaching as telling.  

You’re teaching about the planets in our solar system.  You want to make it “hands-on” and “student-centered” so you bring in different balls. You ask them, which ball would be Earth? Which ball would be Jupiter? You tell them which ball is which (or maybe they read it or watch a video). They record the diameters of the planets or the distance between each. Teaching as telling.  

You’re teaching pH and acidity. Your students complete a lab. They follow the step-by-step instructions, a “recipe” really, to test the acidity of various substances with pH strips. They plot these on a chart. Then, you tell them the characteristics of acids and bases. Teaching as telling. 

Exploration First: 

In our new vision of science – in our phenomenon-based, discovery-focused vision, we need to ditch the “teaching as telling” approach and adopt an “explore before explain” approach.  

In this model of instruction, students spend time exploring a phenomenon, making observations and testing their ideas, and then drawing conclusions from their experiences… BEFORE any sort of teacher-led instruction happens.  

Students don’t know the vocabulary and haven’t been taught the concepts.  Students might not even make the right connections at first (although there are ways the teacher can help with this!).  The point is that students are “figuring it out” on their own.

Why? Why should we do this? 

  • It’s obviously going to take more time.  
  • Students might not get it right.
  • They might struggle, and they might not like it.  
  • It might be a tough transition. 

All of those things are true.

But it is worth it.  


Because this is how you teach for conceptual understanding — understanding that lasts.  


Learning Is The Product Of The Activity Of Learners

“Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” John Holt

Studies have shown that oftentimes students learn enough to pass our tests but their fundamental understanding of the way the world works doesn’t change. (See Richard Konicek-Moran and Page Keeley’s Teaching For Conceptual Understanding In Science!

They come to us with their own ideas – right or wrong – and it is HARD to change those ideas.  Simply telling students, “this is how it works” doesn’t cut it… and it’s why “teaching as telling” is not an effective way to reach our students.  

Plus, it’s not building those Science and Engineering Practices – those science skills – that are just as important as the content!

And finally, this process – this struggle to “figure it out” – is literally growing our students’ brains. It’s making them better thinkers, better learners, and better preparing them for whatever demands they will face in their futures.

Embracing explore before explain and this type of constructivist approach to education — using exploration and discovery to engage our students, make learning stick, and upgrade their brains — is ultimately going to help the young people in your care become the absolute best versions of themselves, supporting them as they work to reach their full potential.

To continue “teaching as telling” is only taking away from that. 


Putting Student Discovery Into Practice Through NGSS Inquiry

When we adopt an explore before explain approach, we are recognizing that we as the educator cannot “change our students’ minds.” This is something the young people we work with must do on their own.

As Maria Montessori said, “It is necessary that the child teach himself, and then the success is great.”

We cannot force ideas on or into our students. (While I quoted Maria Montessori a moment ago, there’s entire modern day studies on this concept, and I encourage you to read them! Many deal with our political and religious views — things that can be very difficult to change from “outside” a person — but the concept applies to understandings about how the world works just the same.)

So, you’re probably wondering, what do you do then? How can you educate someone if you can’t actually change their minds?

It’s all about the experience.

As educators, our job shifts from telling our students stuff to facilitating the learning experience.

We can craft experiences that challenge our students’ current understandings and push them to construct new, better understandings of the experience — and the science content.  We can engage them in analyzing data to determine what happened or challenge them to build and test models to determine what structure or arrangement best explains what was observed. That’s exploration.

Our students are literally using Science and Engineering Practices to discover the ideas we want them to learn — the ideas that will help them explain the phenomenon our unit of study is rooted in. 

Then, after our students’ have begun making meaning from the experience and developing their own understanding, we can step in and help them build from that meaning. We can guide them to clarity, provide vocabulary, and address any confusions that might remain. This is your explanation.

Back To That Example:
Exploration First:

So instead of listening to you (or reading a text, watching a video, and so on) that describes the different ways organisms in general get their energy (with a few examples thrown in), students might be looking for patterns themselves in the way specific organisms obtain energy in a specific ecosystem they are studying. After grouping these “approaches” (making their own food versus eating something else, for example) by the patterns they identified, you as the educator can reinforce the groupings your young people created and provide the vocabulary — producer, consumer, decomposer. 

Similarly, instead of simply observing scaled objects of the solar system, your students could collect data on the size of solar system objects and/or their distance from the sun.  We all know numbers are abstract, though, so they could manipulate that data to create their own scale and identify objects they could use in their model — such as fruit or typical sports balls (for the size of solar system objects) or distances in their community (for distance from the sun). 

Students are practicing Science and Engineering Practices like Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computation Thinking, and Developing and Using Models to discover information about the solar system. More than that, they could then connect their understanding of size and scale to the actual properties of the planets — rocky, icy, gaseous, and so on.  Instead of being told a myriad of facts and ideas about the solar system, students are using Science and Engineering Practices to discover them.  They have had time to build proficiency in the practices and are more likely to retain the content, as well, having built the understanding themselves. 


Turning Students Into Scientists Through NGSS Inquiry And The Practices

When you can move away from “teaching as telling” and instead focus on crafting experiences for the students in your care to explore and discover the content for themselves – the content that helps them understand your big phenomenon under investigation – you are setting them up to become better thinkers and learners. You are building a stronger understanding of science content and of what it means to be a scientist

You might not be covering every “fact and figure” that you did in the past, but your students are certainly learning more

And I can say from personal experience – as well as from so many stories that have been shared with me by teachers in iExplore Academy – as an educator, you will find this process so much more enjoyable

Perhaps you have already embraced exploration and discovery in your classroom. If so, that is so wonderful, and you absolutely have a jumpstart on this great transition. I wish I had had teachers like you to model my pedagogy and instruction on in my early teaching days.  Understanding the explore before explain approach was something that took quite some time to come to me, and I was several years into exploring the NGSS before I truly had my “aha moment.”  

If you find you still lean heavily on “teaching as telling,” again – I encourage you to withhold judgment. Most of us experienced a science education that embodied this instructional approach — most of us were taught to teach this way in our teacher education programs. So cut yourself some slack. You won’t be able to do it all at once, so don’t beat yourself up or stress yourself out trying to. 

It’s all about those baby steps.


Want To Learn More?

Making-Meaning: Science Thinking, Talk, and Remote Learning

How To Teach Vocabulary In An NGSS Classroom: Interactions In Ecosystems

Questioning To Support Discovery Through Exploration