Exploration vs. Discovery
By Mark Heintz
Aug 30, 2019

Day 15

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

                                        -Thomas Edison

Educators love this quote. And, we love it for the wrong reasons.

While Edison was a great salesmen, he was better at controlling his story. Reading the quote, I’m reminded of how many times he attempted, failed, and struggled to commercialize the light bulb. But, I know he was successful, the whole world knows. He was a great inventor! My problem with the quote is its focus on the product, instead of the process. The reason the quote is even used is because Edison was successful. So, there’s the problem I have with using this quote: the value is placed on the result, not the process.

Imagine if he didn’t find a way to get the light bulb to work. Would this quote be used in schools? Not likely. Our focus in schools is the product, not the process; discovery, not exploration. Learning, if you can call it that, is boiled down to a right answer. Students work until they’ve “mastered” the right answers and must arrive at that destination for their grit to be valued. When they struggle, the quote above is used to motivate them to keep working until they arrive at the correct destination, or to “discover” the right answer.


Discovery and exploration almost have the same meaning. But, when used to motivate or punish students, the distinction matters. Exploration is the action of traveling in or through unfamiliar areas in order to learn. Discovery is the action of finding something unexpected in the course of a search. Again, the major problem in most classes is that schools have already “found” the unexpected for them. This results in students failing to come to the same predetermined conclusions in the curriculum.

Focusing on exploration should cause us to reflect upon what we want school to be. In the past, the discovery mindset allowed for students to get into colleges or obtain a job that they could perform for the rest of their lives. But, the world has changed. Kids can’t just walk away with the exact same knowledge as everyone else. They need to be thinkers. They need to be people who are able to adapt to the ever-changing world. But,

discovery indoctrinates their thinking. Indoctrination causes anxiety, compliance driven behaviors, and lack of creativity and innovation in students.

Those character traits go against what students will need in order to be successful.

Furthermore, to get kids to be thinkers, the teacher’s role needs to shift into a coaching role. Then the teacher can work with students to work through their own understandings of the world. For that, I need students to explore and to focus on the process. It requires us to give up some of our content. Some students, or most, will never know some of the cannon of our discipline that previous generations of students were exposed to. My belief is that most of that exposure came at the cost of true learning. Students memorized the material for the assessment and then quickly forgot it. I want to move away from memorization and indoctrination and focus on learning.

Call to Action: Start with them

Start by asking every kid what they are curious about. In the past, I did that at the beginning of the year. I would ask students to put their interests on a note card. I would flip through them. Sometimes I would comment on it. Looking back on that practice, it would have been better if I hadn’t asked them. It told them that their interests were only important as a means to getting to know them. I really only cared about their interests on the first day, but subconsciously hoped they didn’t bring it up again.

Seriously, ask every kid what they are curious about. Value what they are interested in. Don’t create a project that allows for some freedom or some small choice. Once I started asking students, I found quickly that they all can’t do that same thing, because each one of them has vastly different interests. The next step is letting go control of the discovery and being okay with exploration. And for that, stay tuned.


As always with these longer posts, thank you to Kim Miklusak for her editing and feedback along the way. This blog would not have happened without her friendship.

Photo by Oziel Gómez from Pexels





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