The LEAP Challenge Blog

The Era of Discovery-Based Learning?

Wired magazine, the monthly publication of emerging technology and futurist culture, has acquired a reputation as a venue where ideas become “big ideas.” Historically, to be featured in Wired is to gain widespread attention and populist appeal. If that pattern holds true, perhaps we are coming to the era of discovery-based learning in higher education.

An essay published on Wired’s website last fall recently came to my attention. In this piece, Harvard professor David Edwards describes the mismatch between the education offered by American high schools and colleges and the capacities their students will actually need in order to live and work in the world today.  Once upon a time, he says, students could complete a sequence of courses through school, college, and graduate school until they had acquired all the necessary knowledge to become an engineer, philosopher, or lawyer. But this approach no longer works because economic, cultural, and ecological changes are occurring faster than colleges can update their curricula. Edwards’s essay bears the provocative title “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.”

Or maybe not so provocative, depending on what circles you travel in. In 2007, AAC&U addressed exactly this problem in College Learning for the New Global Century. The following passage presages the litany of emerging threats Edwards would describe seven years later: “The world around us is being dramatically reshaped by scientific and technological innovations, global inter-dependence, cross-cultural encounters, and changes in the balance of economic and political power. . . . These waves of dislocating change will only intensify. The context in which today’s students will make choices and compose lives is one of disruption rather than certainty, and of interdependence rather than insularity.”

These forces of disruption (a concept that’s been much lauded in Wired: see below) will change the economy new college graduates will enter. “Because employers view innovation as their most important comparative advantage, they seek to hire graduates who can think beyond the routine, and who have the ability not just to adapt to change, but to help create it,” the AAC&U report states. Edwards could be responding to those lines when he concludes, “Americans need to learn how to discover.”

Edwards goes on to note that “learning by an original and personal process of discovery is a trend on many US university campuses, like Stanford University, MIT, and Arizona State University”— and of course his home institution, Harvard University. I don’t doubt it—I’ve read a great deal and even written about some of the innovative work happening at these institutions. But I hasten to add that the list of colleges and universities engaging their students in learning through discovery is much, much longer and includes a broader range of institutions than one might assume based on the elite research universities Edwards names.

Consider the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where students in the Integrated Concentration in Science program engage with a series of interdisciplinary case studies—drawn from actual, unsolved scientific problems—leading up to completion of an original project of applied research. Or Salt Lake Community College, where all students complete at least one “signature assignment” that requires them to apply their disciplinary knowledge to a real-world situation and reflect on the outcomes of the project in an electronic portfolio. Or The College of Wooster, an institution whose entire curriculum is built around preparing students to complete an original research project during their senior year. 

I could offer more examples—AAC&U’s member institutions have spent many years developing, refining, and engaging their students in pedagogies of discovery. In fact, AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge calls on all colleges and universities to engage students in signature work that will prepare them to integrate and apply their learning to a significant project addressing a real-world issue of importance to the student—and to society. A more detailed overview of the initiative and a survey of more colleges and universities already practicing this kind of education are featured in a special issue of AAC&U’s journal Liberal Education.

Perhaps the biggest idea in higher education punditry of late has been “disruption” (see here, and here, and here, and ad infinitum), and it is hard to argue that our world and our institutions are being “disrupted,” though naming the concept does little to help us find our way forward. But that particular big idea may be running its course, at least in the pages of Wired.  Perhaps Edwards’s article is a sign that discovery-based education might be the next “big idea” the magazine will promote, at least on the education front. For all the pundits and futurist journalists looking to join this trend, contact AAC&U—we’ve been working on this issue for a while now, and we’ve got a lot to talk about.