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Structured Discovery in the Classroom

by Edward Bell, PhD

Eddie BellEditor’s Note: The following piece is reprinted from the February 2008 issue of the Braille Monitor, <www.nfb.org/nfb/Braille_Monitor.asp>. The introduction is made by Dan Frye, Manager of Affiliate Action--Advocacy and Training at the National Center for the Blind, and coordinator of the Dare to Be Remarkable conference on residential rehabilitation training centers.

From Dan Frye: Dr. Edward Bell, director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, delivered an illuminating lecture on the definition, purposes, and practical application of the structured discovery teaching method and general philosophical mindset at the Dare to Be Remarkable conference during the second plenary session on December 6, 2007. Using his personal life experience, theoretical underpinnings, and quantifiable research to illustrate the concept of structured discovery, Dr. Bell makes clear this often misunderstood approach and shows how it can be put to practical use in the context of rehabilitation training of blind consumers. His comments, while not exhaustive on the topic, will be a good primer on structured discovery for us all to consider. This is what he said:

“Structured discovery” is the term that has been coined to define a specific methodology used in the rehabilitation of blind people. This methodology, born out of the collective knowledge, experiences, and beliefs of successful blind men and women who have achieved independence, serves as the driving force behind effective rehabilitation training today. But what is structured discovery, and how can it be implemented in classrooms and training programs throughout the country? The answer is simple yet allusive and intangible.

Before one can implement structured discovery in a training situation, one must first have a fundamental understanding of this concept at both the intellectual and intuitive levels. Structured discovery is not a set of principles or rules that can be written down and taught in a couple of modules. It is instead a fundamental shift in the worldview, philosophy, and scope of practice within which a person operates. It is part and parcel of who a person is as a teacher. Anyone who tells you that he or she teaches both conventional and structured discovery methods has a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea—it is not possible to pick and choose which methodology to use if you are a true structured discovery instructor. In attempting to clarify the issue, I will use personal experiences, theoretical foundations, and research to explain structured discovery.

Personal History

I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was raised as a hopeful, independent sighted child. Although I grew up in poverty with no opportunity for a college education, I was at least raised with the expectation that I would work, have a family, and contribute to society in some way. When I was suddenly blinded at age seventeen as a result of a gunshot wound, my entire world changed. Although I had never met another blind person in my life, I knew in my gut that my life would be severely limited, that my opportunities for employment were nil, and that my expectations for a normal life were gone. This was evident to me despite the fact that I had had no exposure to blindness prior to my own accident.

Knowing nothing about blindness, we contacted the state VR agency to learn about our options. I learned that I had access to informed choice and had the right to choose my own employment goal and service providers. In the age of informed choice this would have been the expected course of action. This information alone, however, would have been, not informed choice, but uninformed chance, and the results would have been disastrous.

You know the choice in the old adage, give a man a fish…or teach him to fish…. At that point in my life I did not want to fish, I did not believe that blind people could fish, and I was not motivated to learn to fish. Had I lived in many other states, failure to fish would have been my choice, and my case would have been closed. I lived in New Mexico, however, where my rehabilitation counselor knew better. She recognized that my diminished hope and lack of aspiration was not my true goal, but rather a result of the diminished expectation of society that I had internalized. My counselor expected that I would go to the orientation center, expected that I would complete my GED, and expected that I would then go to college. She did not hold another gun to my head, but rather insisted on my success through her unending love, encouragement, and support. She was not content to provide me with options and allow me to make a choice knowing that I would sell myself short. This is an example of the way structured discovery works.

At the orientation center positive blind role models (both staff and students) surrounded me. They immediately put a cane in my hand and got me out onto the streets. They taught me techniques, helped me to overcome my fears, and demonstrated to me through my own success that I was going to make it. Each time I attempted to gain sympathy from my instructors by telling them my dramatic story of being blinded in a drive-by shooting, their response was, “I am sorry to hear that, but what are you going to do now?” I quickly concluded that no one was feeling sorry for me and that I should get over it. Once the pity party was over, my only choice was to look forward and never to look back. This is the way structured discovery works.

So I immediately jumped into college and then into my present career, right? Wrong. I was still the uneducated kid from the ghetto who did not have a strong academic background, had no role models from home, and had no interest in pursuing higher education. My instructors at the center and fellow students, who today are my dear friends, would not allow me to sell myself short. They encouraged me, helped me to study for remedial classes, and expected that I would be successful. They helped me to problem-solve challenges in college, picked me up when I fell down, and reminded me that we were all in this together. This is the way structured discovery works.

Theoretical Foundations

For some of you my story is entirely illustrative, while for others structured discovery remains illusive. I will try to explain. While it is often characterized by a cane and sleepshades, structured discovery is more accurately a holistic approach to the way we work with all blind people. It is simultaneously a set of specific skills and an overarching approach to the way we view the condition of blindness. Too often professionals in the field view the longer white cane and sleepshades and come to the conclusion that they have defined structured discovery. In true behavioral psychology it is easier to describe that which is directly observable. Structured discovery, however, borrows much more heavily from the cognitive-psychology side of the fence, where considerably more emphasis is placed on the changes that happen within an individual, but, which are not directly observable by the naked eye. Far more than a philosophical approach, over forty years of empirical research in social cognitive learning supports the foundations of structured discovery.

True, a structured discovery program depends heavily on a long white cane, and sleepshades are used throughout the instruction. These, however, are merely the means to the end, but not the end in itself. Structured discovery at its core has much more to do with the cognitive, emotive, and behavioral changes that occur within the individual. Dr. Jernigan built this methodology by focusing on mastery of blindness skills, building self-confidence, learning to cope with public attitudes about blindness, and changing the way individuals think of themselves as blind people. His foresight and knowledge are the foundation of the methodology that has come to be known as structured discovery.

Albert Bandura, a leading cognitive psychologist, has helped us to articulate the concept of self-efficacy and the way these processes are achieved through structured discovery training. Bandura did not study blindness, and Dr. Jernigan did not study Bandura, but the philosophy and research are inseparable. It is important to note here that self-efficacy is not unique to blindness but is fundamentally the way human beings learn. More than forty years of empirical research has been done to explain how individuals succeed in accomplishing their goals. These are the tenants found in structured discovery training.

Bandura stated that self-efficacy is the cornerstone of human agency and is defined as an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to carry out actions effectively to achieve desired goals. According to Bandura there are four primary ways to increase self-efficacy, and it is these tenets that underlie structured discovery training.

1. The most powerful way to increase efficacy is by succeeding at tasks one considered difficult or impossible—success breeds success. It is not achieved through counseling or talking about it, but by having the direct experience for oneself in a meaningful way. Structured discovery functions to provide extensive experiences to people in real-world situations. Through Socratic questioning they learn to problem-solve in every situation, from how to judge the safety of a street crossing to living independently. Each small success builds efficacy to accomplish greater and greater goals.

2. The second most potent means to increase efficacy is through role modeling or witnessing someone who is similar to you doing the very task you fear. This is not trivial but a cornerstone of structured discovery learning. It is simply not sufficient for an instructor to talk about how important nonvisual skills are. If he cannot put his money where his mouth is, the student will lose all confidence in him. This is why structured discovery centers hire blind instructors and insure that sighted instructors can do their jobs nonvisually. By the same token, if blind students see their fellow students constantly going sighted guide, deferring to students with more vision, and depending on sighted instructors to protect them during challenging tasks, they will come to believe that blindness means dependency, not independence. The actions of instructors and other students have a far greater impact on the outcomes for the student body than any amount of rhetoric about independence.

3. The third way to increase efficacy is through persuasion, which is the encouragement, support, and praise we give students when they succeed at their goals. Critical to structured discovery is that instructors find ways to praise students for their success, but only for meaningful success. When praise is given for accomplishments that are mundane or trivial, it serves more to lessen and not strengthen efficacy. Structured discovery centers work constantly to recognize the day-to-day accomplishments of each student, while continuing to push them to move onto the next challenge. Announcing bell ringers [victories worthy of celebration], sampling each other’s creations in home ec, and debriefing after lessons are all ways that the instructor provides encouragement and motivation for the student to try harder.

4. Finally, emotions effect efficacy in two ways--by increasing positive feelings or pride in success, and by reducing fear and anxiety about performance. In other words, a small amount of stress challenges the student to work harder; however, confidence may be diminished if stress exceeds one's current ability. In structured discovery, no matter what the student’s capacity, it is critical to push that student continually to meet higher and higher challenges. People tend to live up to the expectations that others hold for them, whether the expectation is high or low. What is wrong with shooting for the moon? If you miss, you will still be among the stars. Once you stop providing meaningful challenges to students, you can stop the training--you can send them home because you are no longer using the structured discovery method.

Structured discovery centers build self-efficacy in many ways. It is counterproductive to try to come up with a list of activities or modules to teach using the structured discovery method. In the first place, the list will quickly become outdated, and, in the second place, attempting to do so contradicts the very nature of structured discovery. Teaching occurs in many environments, and the learner must be challenged on all levels. Structured discovery is about providing students with meaningful experiences that build their skill sets while simultaneously boosting their confidence in their ability to do more things. This is done through experiential learning, viewing positive role models, and continually raising the bar for one another. This is the methodology that Dr. Jernigan laid out fifty years ago, and it is based on the same principles that have been empirically validated for more than forty years in many realms of human learning.

Research Data

The proof is in the pudding. What has happened with all of these people who have learned using the structured discovery method? In attempting to understand the true nature of structured discovery and to provide the evidence that supports its efficacy, we at the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University have begun to study students who have received structured discovery training. The following studies highlight the important factors of structured discovery. Some of the participants graduated from structured discovery centers, learned through their experiences in the NFB, or participated in programs that used structured discovery elements.

Functional Independence: In 2004 Dr. Ram Aditya conducted a study involving 228 blind adults who had graduated from residential training programs across the country. The study used a measure created by Dr. Aditya to quantify the functional independence of blind adults in their daily lives. The scales included measures of daily living, mobility, information access, and home management skills. The results demonstrated that individuals taught using the structured discovery model of training had statistically higher scores on the functional independence scale. Not only did recipients have significantly higher reported belief in their ability to function independently, but they had even more highly significant scores on their reported behaviors of living independently. This means that, not only did individuals state that they were more confident in their abilities to live independently, but they were in fact more engaged in society and living independently. The data support the premise that the structured discovery teaching method is more efficacious in cultivating ability and behavior of independent functioning.

Focus Group: Just over a year ago Professor Mary Ann Goodwyn and I conducted two focus group studies of blind adults whom we determined to have met objective criteria of success, and we asked them to illuminate the factors that they believed had led to their success. This qualitative study of fourteen NFB members revealed that success, beyond economic factors, was defined by having control over one’s life, achieving important goals, doing the things one wanted to do, giving back to others, and having a quality life led with integrity and good will towards others. After more than twelve hours of focused discussion, participants reported that the factors they associated with their success were having strong family expectations for success; finally coming to accept blindness and identifying themselves as blind; gaining skills for independence, especially in mobility and Braille; having access to positive blind role models; learning problem-solving skills for work and life; involvement in an organization which provides personal identity, social support, an opportunity to give back, and a feeling of normalcy and commonality; and the collective efficacy that comes from knowing that one is part of a social network of like-minded individuals who work collectively to achieve their common goals.

Mentoring: We have already said that role modeling is a critical component of structured discovery. Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, former executive director of the Jernigan Institute and a beloved NFB leader who recently died of cancer, knew this and endeavored to create a national model for mentoring blind or visually impaired youth. Through this one-to-one role modeling and the infusing of problem-solving techniques, structured discovery has been implemented. Data have now been collected for youth who have participated for two years in the NFB mentoring program along with new applicants who have not yet benefited from a mentoring relationship. Data have been collected on 153 individuals, fifty-four of whom have completed the mentoring program and ninety-nine of whom are just beginning. The results demonstrated that youth who have participated in a mentoring relationship with a member of the NFB for at least one year had statistically significant higher attitudes about blindness. These youth also demonstrated a measure of hope for their future. Those in the mentoring program had significantly higher scores than those who had not participated. As was revealed in the focus group study, affiliation with the NFB was associated with greater acceptance of blindness, which in turn was associated with higher levels of hope and healthier attitudes about blindness.

Youth Slam: In July 2007 the NFB conducted the first ever Youth Slam, which brought nearly two hundred youth to Baltimore to be surrounded by positive blind role models, to encourage their interest in science-technology-engineering-and-math-related (STEM) careers and to provide them with a network of blind mentors to assist in their success. I have been involved in the data analysis of participating youth. Pretest data were collected on 131 youth, and posttest data were obtained from 122 of those youth. While the results are still being compiled, the data so far demonstrate that youth who participated in the Slam had statistically higher attitudes about blindness after their participation. Additionally, youth reported significantly higher rates of confidence in their ability to achieve passing grades in STEM-related courses. Here again we find an association between the exposure to positive blind role models, the use of nonvisual techniques, and problem-solving skills with personal attitudes about blindness, and confidence in succeeding through challenging events.

For those interested in these statistical analyses, all significant findings reported here were found with probability values less than .05 and .01. Neither the qualitative nor the quantitative research studies capture the full scope of structured discovery, yet each supports the fundamental elements that make up a structured discovery program. The anecdotal evidence that supports structured discovery training is noteworthy. I have had an opportunity to work with several programs interested in adopting the structured discovery methodology. When I ask why they are interested, the first thing said is, “We have seen graduates of NFB centers walking around, and they are so confident and poised.” At least once a month I receive phone calls from centers around the country hoping to hire our graduates. While their O&M needs are great, these programs recognize the value of structured discovery, and the directors insist on this type of training. Although such information is not quantifiable, when it is taken as a whole, it is compelling.

Summary

In summary, the job of a structured discovery instructor is to consider the entire individual, including his or her desires, aspirations, hopes, and dreams. It is not sufficient for such an instructor merely to provide a set of skills and feel that her work is done. She should feel that it is her professional responsibility to change the attitudes about blindness of individual students and society as much as it is to do anything else. It is not just philosophy. It is her ethical responsibility to the profession. It is her role as a structured discovery instructor, and it is entirely within the scope of best practice in her profession.

For, though we all want to teach a man to fish so that he will eat for a lifetime, we must first inspire him to pick up the pole, we must stand by him when he falters, and we must show him how to cast the line that is his future. This is what structured discovery is all about.

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