Designed for discovery (Part II : Features of discovery)

Continued from “Designed for discovery : Part I”   or click here to listen to the full audio version


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Now, let’s return to consider the common features of what “discovery” means. Discovery is a transformativeexperience where we have crossed a threshold into an understanding that fundamentally changes us and influences our future actions. After a moment of discovery, we cannot view the world in same way we have in the past. This is where discovery closely parallels the idea of threshold concepts in information literacy where these threshold concepts aredefined as transformative, integrative, irreversible, bounded and troublesome (Visit the Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy website for many freely available resources). An example in my personal experience is my discovery of the world of audiobooks that fundamentally changed my perspective and provided access to books that I would not have read or been able to read previously. Moby Dick read by Anthony Heald, was one of my first audiobooks. When ever I had picked up a copy of Moby Dick, I felt it to be too cumbersome, too much of an epic investment to attempt, however, to have it read to me by a professional voice actor opened up whole new experience of literature and story that was previously obscure to me. This discovery was transformative and fundamentally added to my literary experience.


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Because discovery is an emergent phenomenon – the result of a complex system – discovery is deeply personal. We know that the more personal the learning is, the more sustainable it becomes because it is learning that actually influences our future actions. We take that learning into the future because it has become a part of our thinking. A notable example can be seen when we are promoting reading for pleasure. Reinforcing student agency in reading requires that we honour student choices and keeping the door open for students to enjoy reading as a deeply personal experience. Providing multiple open-ended and diverse opportunities for students to experience reading as a pleasurable activity, we are able to honour their choice and agency as the key factors that lead to life long readers. Our approach to building our readers is therefore not about mapping stages, steps and predefined goals but focusses instead on creating a rich and diverse ecosystems for students to have every opportunity to grow and expand their reading lives. This is a very personal journey. Stephen Krashen provides ample evidence for student agency and reading for pleasure.


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Because discovery is an emergent phenomenon – the result of a complex system – it is not possible to attribute an exact cause for a particular discovery. Even if one event or teaching point appears to have led to that moment of discovery, it is actually the combination of many variables that meant it was the right time – the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. The question then arrises is, how do we teach for discovery if we can’t make it happen? In a complex system, we are working with probabilities, not with certainties. We know how to restore, nurture and protect fragile ecosystems such as cleared rainforests by taking a holistic systems approach that builds diversity. In the same way, while we cannot know exactly the cause of a discovery for a student, we can act to curate the rich and diverse experiences that increase the opportunities for students to engage with new ideas and wrestle with new understandings. Feeding this ecosystem of ideas and experiences in a safe context becomes the focus.

I find that both freeing and hopeful.

An example that occurs on a quite frequent basis are the times when a particular book series is what unlocks a world of reading for a student, taking them from an infrequent reader to an avid reader. This may appear to be the result of simply finding that perfect text at the right reading level but from a complex systems perspective we can see many other often unseen variables are at play such as book talks, friendships, community, nonjudgemental adults, previous experiences or some other personal connection the student may have. The lesson for us is to work with these probabilities to create many varied opportunities for this discovery to occur, knowing that we cannot make it happen.


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Because discovery is an emergent phenomenon – the result of a complex system – discovery cannot be scripted to follow a predetermined path for every student in a linear lock-step process. The many interdependent variables at play make determining a fixed path ineffectual and limiting. Creating the conditions for discovery means that our planning is open to emergent possibilities. This requires us to plan for the unexpected. Our task is to be mentors to that process, to nurture and protect a diverse ecosystem of ideas, genre, experiences, challenges, rest and pleasure in reading.

A great example of creating an open ended experience where we can nurture student thinking is by using a workshop model for teaching. In the example of teaching a new database to a class, rather than teaching students step-by-step through all the features, we can provide enough instruction to open the door (passwords, links, a view of some enticing features) then allow the students to explore the full capabilities of the database for themselves. In the workshop model, there is an initial teacher led mini-lesson that lasts for a maximum of 5-10 mins – no more. The students then have the opportunity to go straight in to explore the database for themselves. The teachers then spend the rest of the time conferencing with students, observing their challenges and success, noticing their discoveries, encouraging collaboration, nudging understanding to address misconceptions and considering opportunities for the next mini-lesson. This provides a rich context for learning because the students are given time and support to explore and make meaning for themselves.


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Because discovery is an emergent phenomenon – the result of a complex system – the content of what we want students to learn is not the endpoint of our teaching but the launchpad. Our content is a trigger to lead the students to activate a process of meaning making, to engage the complex system that makes up the whole individual. If we have created the fertile conditions for discovery, then the outcomes will be deep & diverse across a group of students.

To return to the example of introducing students to a new database, my teaching is focussed on teaching enough toopen the door, challenge student thinking, or frame discussion in a way that provides the students the opportunity to explore the possibilities and limitation of that database for themselves and to extend their thinking, without defining what I want them to think. Building the inquiry around concepts rather than solely specific skills helps to keep these lessons open and expecting the unexpected. I know I am on the right track with this during a lesson when students discover a feature of the database that I did not know about.


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Because discovery is an emergent phenomenon – the result of a complex system – we need to honour a student’s right to struggle because it gives them the opportunity to achieve that moment of victory for themselves. To create the space for cognitive dissonance and friction that challenges our world view and leads to a shift in thinking, identity, beliefs and values.

The “learning pit” (described by James Nottingham) exemplifies this beautifully. We move from what we think we know into a space of cognitive conflict (or cognitive friction) where we may be confused and uncertain. Here, in the pit, we can see that new learning emerges from a place of challenge, where we begin to find new connections, discover new insights, and begin to construct new meaning. This also has a very natural connection to a growth mindset where intelligence is not seen as fixed ability. On the contrary, growth comes through understanding that the uncertainty, doubt and the conflict of engaging with new ideas is the very indication of an open minded attitude from which new learning grows. What comes out of this struggle is the “eureka” moment, the “ah-ha”, the “discovery”, tension & release – from this point on, you are a changed person.

A simple and practical example of this occurs when we see a students struggling with a problem such as trying to log into a database. Instead of taking the device from the student’s hands to fix a login challenge, we can allow the students to struggle through the process so they have that moment of “I did it!” – we don’t want to rob them of that moment. It is a balance but help can be provided through questions like “what have you tried already to solve this problem?”. We need to observe moments like these to ensure that such a struggle doesnot become a persistent block to access however, on achieving a solution to their own problem, students are morelikely to return to that database and return successfully after I have left the class and no longer directly available for support.


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Because discovery is an emergent phenomenon – the result of a complex system – moments of discovery take time to percolate, time to allow solutions to come rather than rushing to conclusions. In schools, with our curriculum mapped in detail – where similar aged students move lockstep through grade levels, where outcomes are clearly defined, where the need to get through content is often a driving factor and where schedules run students through their days on an unrelenting conveyer belt – there is often the feeling that there is little time for ideas to percolate and new discoveries to emerge.

None of these things are necessarily bad in themselves, but we need to be aware of whether our schedules, curricula, outcomes, content and class structures consider the time required for students to engage deeply.

A common example for librarians is in the area of citation skills. Citation taught as an isolated lesson is rarely effective or sustained unless it is situated within a more holistic process of learning high level communications skills. Citation then becomes a component for building ways for students to connect ideas and share inspiration.

Another example is understanding that encouraging children to become lifelong readers is a longterm process that involves multiple opportunities for access, choice and agency. Especially when talking with parents, we can emphasise that we are playing the long game – it takes time and even it comes later than we would hope, it is worth the wait when we get there because we now have a reader that is a reader for life.


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In considering all these features of discovery in a complex system, we can see that designing for discovery is not a recipe but a more like building a rich ecosystem of ideas, experiences and interactions. Therefore, in designing for discovery, we can focus less on answers and more on critical questions.

In our daily decisions in administration, resource development, environment design and planning, how are we setting the stage for discovery as a priority?

Do the structures we put in place allow for the surprises of emergence?

How do we notice and document the moments of discovery as our method of reporting and accountability? Our library Twitter feed has been an important way to report and be accountable for the kind of ecosystem we are fostering. see my Twitter feed @MLCnist https://twitter.com/mlcnist )

Do the structures we put in place create a fixed and predictable path for our students or do our structures create an open ended space for student agency where students can act, and act with effect?

Do our resources inject multiple opportunities for students to encounter the previously unknown. If so, do we have the focus to notice these moments enabling us to fan those embers of a new discovery, to mentor the student to take that spark of interest toward a sustained inquiry?


Here are some other quick examples of where we can design for discovery:

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Acoustics: quiet versus noisy libraries. The aim in our library is to find the balance between quiet spaces for reflection & the buzz of an active networking space where students meet, share, interact and learn through play. As an ecosystem, achieving the balance is not something I can orchestrate precisely but by being active throughout the library space I can help to foster a respectful, vibrant and safe space for students.

Flexible scheduling : Finding ways to keep the schedules open as possible enables more opportunities to be responsive and relevant to learning moments. To some extent, schedules are necessary but schedules can be restricting or they can be structured in ways that provide many opportunities for collaboration, connection, and the time to wrestle with ideas.

Resources: diversity is a driving tenet where we aim to build a boutique collection where students can experience a diverse world of inspiration and ideas.

Digital resources: canned verses authentic, open resources. The more closed and disconnected a resource is, the less likely we are to include it in our canon of library resources. These limited databases do sometimes have their place but we always need to give students the opportunity to search outside the box.

Student choice: student led book selection as a priority above all other decisions around student access to books.



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Cognitive neuroscientists John Kounios, Mark Jung-Beeman (this article is a useful place to start however their research is extensive and worth digging deeper) and others have observed the brain activity that occurs during moments of “insight” which closely resembles the idea of “discovery”. They contrast this with analytical problem solving that follows a logical algorithm to find a solution. With insight, people experience a sudden unexpected solution that overcomes an impasse. Insight is described colloquially as a unique “Aha!” or eureka moment. They observed distinctly different brain activity between the logical and insight problem solving processes. The significance of this research for us as we consider the idea of discovery and complex systems is that, while the analytical problem solving that is typical of more didactic lesson structures where steps to solve a problem are laid out for the learning remains a valid approach to problem solving, a more emergent process where the brain makes many lose association that eventually result in a sudden solution, is equally valid. The researchers also highlight the significant impact of mood and mindset prior to approaching problem solving challenges and demonstrate that insight draws from more broad associations throughout the brain. Such diverse associations are required for complex problem solving and creativity.

Understanding insight and the idea of ‘discovery’ is therefore highly significant in building creativity, innovation and complex problem solving skills.


Here are some useful places to begin reading and researching complex systems.Discovery HKK Philip Williams 2.022.jpeg


CLICK HERE TO RETURN to PART I or click here to listen to the full audio version

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