Chatting with @benjaminjriley about “discovery” talk.

Benjamin and I were having one of these enormous and confusing twitter conversations about this (probably not-quite-accurate) Galileo quote, and what educators mean when we talk of discovery more broadly.

First, Benjamin’s take, as I understand it.

Ben thinks that this quote is badly wrong. It is possible to teach people things! And there is plenty of knowledge that you simply cannot just discover all on your own. Even worse: discovering knowledge within yourself? Show me precisely where it is, within yourself, that your knowledge of my middle name is. The answer is that it’s not within yourself, obviously.

This quote is incredibly wrong, Ben says. And this makes it problematic for professional educators to share it, because it completely undermines the importance of the profession. If teachers don’t teach, then who needs teachers? Kids don’t need school if they can’t be taught. If it’s all about discovery — even worse, discovery about yourself — then you can’t really be taught. Teachers and schools, then, are useless.

Here was my question to Ben, though: if this is so incredibly and badly wrong, and if it so terribly misunderstands the work of teaching…then why does it appeal to professional educators? Shouldn’t professional educators be the first to understand how badly this rhetoric misrepresents the work?

I didn’t get a chance to hear Ben’s full answer on Twitter — he said it had to with the culture of teaching — but either way, his take is that professional educators have fallen into a characterization of their own work that is badly, badly wrong.


Now, my take.

I get suspicious of arguments like Ben’s. Are teachers badly misunderstanding their own work? I guess it’s possible, but why would we do something so self-destructive? And how come this idea, which is so obviously and clearly wrong, appeals to so many teachers?

I’m not saying that this is a knock-down argument against Ben’s take. But it makes me start to think — is there another way to interpret something like the quote Tracy shared?

I think that there is, and it has to do with the various meanings that “teach” and “discover” have.

What does it mean to teach? It could mean a few things:

  1. “I taught it to him” <–> “I explained it to him”
  2. “I taught it to him” <–> “I directly caused him to understand it”
  3. “I taught it to him” <–> “I set the conditions of his understanding”
  4. “I taught it to him, but he didn’t understand it” <–> “I attempted to cause learning, but failed”

(See here for more on the various meanings of “teaching.”)

What does it mean to discover?

  1. “I discovered it” <–> “I was the first to know it”
  2. “I discovered it for myself” <–> “I was the cause of my learning of it”
  3. “I discovered it for myself” <–> “I discovered the meaning for myself”


The quote that Tracy shared is

“We cannot teach people anything. We can only help them discover it within themselves.”

My most generous read of it is

“We cannot directly cause anyone to understand something. We can only help them discover the meaning for themselves.”

Which is absolutely true.

In fact, maybe it’s so obviously true that the statement becomes banal. Why would teachers make a big deal out of this statement? I think it’s because so many people outside education think that teaching involves directly causing kids to know stuff. Why don’t you just teach it? is something every educator has heard.

People who haven’t taught don’t typically understand the things that can get in the way of directly causing kids to know — their prior knowledge, their personalities, their attention, their peers, their priorities.


If my read is correct, it also is a pedagogy-neutral observation. Kids need to discover meanings. When I was in college, I often made sense of a teacher’s lecture — that was me discovering ideas for myself, while sitting in a lecture.

Ben and my conversation is one that has been had over and over about constructivism. For example, here is a passage from a really fantastic piece called “A Reformulation of Telling”:

Screenshot 2016-12-04 at 4.05.33 PM.png

When teachers say that “you can’t teach” it’s just saying this — that all meaning has to come from the student, at the end of the day. Though the entire point of teaching is to help kids make this meaning — that’s the work!

I see no reason why this understanding of teaching is incompatible with public esteem. It’s serious work, and the public could understand that this is serious work.


It seems to me that Ben is not convinced by my rereading. If I understand him correctly, he thinks that when teachers share these quotes online or talk this way, they really mean that you can’t cause kids to learn stuff and that kids need to discover knowledge on their own.

I disagree. I think that this reading is both possible and likely, given that it doesn’t involve teachers badly mischaracterizing the nature of our own work. I’ve literally never met a teacher or seen teaching that was centered on “not teaching” as Ben reads it, and in fact that’s impossible to do while meeting external learning standards. Why would teachers engage in talk that directly contradicts what they’re doing in classrooms? It doesn’t make sense to me.

It would be great to do a bunch of interviews with teachers to try to gauge their meaning, if they assent to “discovery” talk. Has anyone looked into this? It might be a helpful thing for someone to study.


Here is where I’ll agree with Ben, though: there is a cost to teacher talk that emphasizes discovery and “not teaching.” It’s a line that is just waiting to be misheard, and whether that’s fair or not is irrelevant.

This sort of talk is easy to misunderstand, because of the various meanings of “teach” and “discover.” (I might as well have written a long post explaining to those who engage in discovery talk how that quote could be misunderstood in the other direction!)

Teachers know how important it is to know the landscape of potential misconceptions when they’re teaching math. If you care about helping people understand what the work of teaching is really about, we also need to take people’s misconceptions about our work into consideration.

Talking about teaching and learning is hard. It’s really really hard. It’s partly hard because the work is so invisible, and because the physical manifestations of that work (explaining, sitting, writing) are poor stand-ins for it. There is no agreed-on language, and many of the fiercest debates in education are best seen as desperate calls for clarity, each person silently begging the other to learn how they mean. That is what I think is happening here.


4 thoughts on “Chatting with @benjaminjriley about “discovery” talk.

  1. There’s a wonderful irony in your defending this (fake) quote of Galileo’s at least partially on the grounds that some (many? most?) teachers find it appealing. A widely held belief *may* be evidence of its utility — or truth, if you will — but it takes some chutzpah to use a (fake) quote from Galileo in support of that proposition!

    “And yet they learn.”

    One point of clarification: when I said cultural, I meant American (or perhaps English-speaking) culture, not the culture of teaching. I’m not sure teachers from other countries feel the need to do this. Amanda Ripley has a quote in her book from a teacher in Finland — yes, Finland! — saying he doesn’t want to have too much empathy for his students, “because I have to teach.” This teacher worried that empathy would interfere with rigor.

    Ultimately, your reinterpretation of the (fake) Galileo quote is far more palatable than the original. And I agree that there’s no necessary pedagogical implication from any of this. I just think the teaching profession needs to be held in higher esteem, for all the reasons you articulate, and therefore invoking (fake) quotes that are quite likely to be misinterpreted — and that happen to contradict what we know about learning — is perhaps not an effective p.r. strategy.


    1. Thanks for commenting on the post! I appreciate you diving deep into the weeds with me on this.

      I think we’re actually pretty close to understanding where the other is coming from, and I think I’m able to see where our big disagreement might lie. I want to try to clear up the things that we agree on, and see if I can correctly zoom in on where we see things differently.

      First, we agree that the quote is pretty fake. We also agree that it’s not a great quote to share, since (at best) it’s likely to be misinterpreted by many. So neither of us are “defending the quote” in that sense.

      We also agree that just because something is widely believed is not evidence for it’s truth! I didn’t mean to imply this. I meant the popularity of this sort of talk among teachers to indicate something a bit different.

      The core of our disagreement, I think, is in how to interpret the quote. You’re saying that talk of the impossibility of teaching means that teachers don’t have work to do; I’m saying that the teachers sharing this couldn’t possibly mean this. You’re saying that talk of learning as discovery means that teachers don’t have a role to play; I’m saying that this doesn’t make sense, given that teachers are sharing it!

      Again, I’m happy to concede that the quote is easily misinterpreted, and not a good thing to share for that reason. But could these teachers really be calling for the unimportance of teaching?

      (That’s why I cited the popularity of this sort of talk within teaching — not because popular beliefs are more likely to be true or whatever.)

      You and I have talked in the past about the importance of listening, and really trying to understand people on their own terms. This seems like a case of that to me. An interpretation of something that makes the people saying it ridiculous loses plausibility, to me. There is a different interpretation that, to me, makes better sense and fits the way these words are used in other contexts. (Unlike what you say at the end of your comment, I believe my interpretation of the quote is entirely consistent with learning science.)

      But these seem to be the core disagreements to me:
      * Would teachers promote our own irrelevance and unimportance?
      * When Tracy/Zack shared this quote, did they mean that teachers have no role to play in learning? Or did they mean that students need to make their own meaning out of ideas?

      The other issues — the fakeness of the quote, the appropriateness of sharing it, the importance of knowledge, the importance of teaching and learning for knowledge — are ones where we see eye to eye, I believe.


  2. I have thought a lot about how learning happens, and the teaching approaches involved based on our beliefs about how learning happens. If knowledge or skills are what we consider learning, then probably we will see that telling is the best. Your comment about a middle name for example, is a fact… why would we want to discover it? On the other hand, if understanding and reasoning are our goals, then telling becomes quite problematic.
    Really complex things like parenting, teaching, or even thinking mathematically, are not as easily taught! Let’s take teaching as an example first. I remember being in teacher’s college learning all kinds of things. I listened carefully. I understood what was being shared with me. However, I am not sure I was ready to make the connections between things yet because I hadn’t had the experiences with which to connect things to. To say that I needed to “discover” things on my own is possibly true, but I think what would be more accurate, would be to have experiences where I struggled, then to have time to reflect via some new learning. For example, I remember my associate teacher giving me advice before I taught my first lesson. However, it didn’t really sink in until after the lesson, when we talked about parts that could have gone better. Once I had the experience, I could easily attach that piece of advice to the experience I just had.
    In math class, I believe the same thing to be true. When our goal is for students to develop their understanding or reasoning, we need to start with experiences where they try things first, then provide opportunities to discuss, share, and learn from each other. This is teaching THROUGH problem solving. When we do this, our students become active participants in their learning, because they are actively connecting their own thinking to that of others. Students who might not have been ready to really understand what the teacher would have said at the beginning of a lesson, are more likely to understand now because they have put in the cognitive work to make sense of the situation!

    For those that throw around the term “discovery” though, I worry that many see this as a process where each and every student is randomly doing different things and trying random ideas out with random strategies. Nobody would see this as an effective way to learn! Yes, we can discover how to be a good parent, or how to teach, or how to think mathematically, but to do any of these things well, it takes time to struggle doing things we aren’t sure about, opportunities to reflect, experiences where we see alternative ideas or strategies, have real dialogue with others who are learning too, opportunites to receive and act on feedback, and time to practice new ideas.


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