Exploratory Approaches to Instruction

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

There are many proponents of allowing students to find their own path to learning. In this lesson, we'll discuss exploratory instruction in the classroom, offering what may be a fresh approach for your teaching.

What is Exploratory Instruction?

As a teacher, it's easy to fall into a rhythm of presentation, practice, correction, assignment, grading, and assessment in the classroom. We break up the topic into bite-sized chunks, plan some sort of media event to support the learning, and plunge ahead, trying to get the information across in a meaningful and memorable fashion. But, is there a better way? Especially for students who aren't responding to directed instruction?

In exploratory instruction you teach by planting questions, like seeds, that encourage students to investigate their own approaches to learning the material. The students create their own paths, instead of following yours. Instead of announcing that 2 + 2 = 4, you might ask the students how they would approach finding a total. In fact, you can introduce a lot of humor by having the students come up with their own names for the numbers, along with their own approaches to adding them together! The more you can get your students to establish their ownership and identities within the concepts, the more you can bring them to the point where they engage, actually wanting to remember and understand.

Why Exploratory Instruction?

In directed instruction, students often fall into a 'stenographer' mode, where they methodically copy down notes while their thoughts wander a million miles away. You can tell when they're in that mode, because if you ask them a question during the discussion they'll get that startled, embarrassed look on their faces and desperately try to come up with some intelligent answer to your query. An advantage to exploratory instruction is that it requires active, independent thought on the part of the students. Since they are charged with coming up with a new or different way to approach a posed problem, they must engage their minds and carry the ball during the learning process.

Another phenomenon that frequently occurs in the classroom is a 'parting of the waters' between the students who are trying to learn the information you're presenting and the students who are just trying to get to the end of the class period. Exploratory instruction encourages students to find effective strategies for teamwork and discovery, which helps draw in the students who may not be particularly engaged in the conventional lecture.

When you're using a mixed instructional approach, combining directed instruction with exploratory methods, you can use the exploratory approach to introduce the students to a subject, allowing them to 'cast around' for possibilities before you present the direction you want them to go. This helps the students become engaged in the subject before you actually begin to give them the more advanced instruction and learning keys that they will need. For example, if you're planning to discuss the events leading up to World War I, you might pose some introductory inquiries for student research, having them explore key events that happened in the two decades following the turn of the century. As the students explore European politics in the early 1900s they will be preparing themselves for the information you will give them in regard to WWI.

Exploratory Approaches

So how does it play out? Well, it depends on the subject, but the exploratory approach generally begins by posing a question or describing a situation that requires a resolution. For example, if you're teaching an algebra course and are trying to introduce the subject of graphing polynomial expressions, you might assign teams to explore ways to inscribe the correct graph onto a piece of paper. How do they find the right points? Are there easier ways to get the right shape? What techniques might aid the process? An interesting element that can be used at this point is competition. Reward the team that develops the best (quickest and most accurate) graphing process. When students are seeking multiple avenues toward solutions, this is called a divergent inquiry approach.

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