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  • Scott Murphey

Discovery Learning

I recently read this research article on Discovery Learning vs. Direct Instruction.

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There are many misconceptions about discoery learning in the teaching world. The idea of discovery learning is very attractive but at the same time, like many things, is a bit counterintuitive on the surface. But when you take a deeper look under the hood of an idea, you can see where it goes astray.

So discovery learning, which is also referred to as problem-based learning, experiential learning, and 21st-century learning is the idea that learning, takes place in problem-solving situations where the learner draws on his own experience and prior knowledge and is a method of instruction through which students interact with their environment by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies, or performing experiments.

On the surface, all of these things sound good, great actually. It sounds so, effort-based, and satisfying. A student wrestling with a problem, trying things out, failing, trying again, asking questions, and then finally succeeding and coming away with a deep knowledge of the issue and also a road map of how they solved it. There is no sarcasm involved here, this truly is and would be an amazing thing if and when students solve problems this way.

The question is, does it work better than direct instruction?

Direct Instruction would be, teaching the concept explicitly to the student. This could involve examples of the idea, history of the idea, methods used to solve it, etc... This has gotten a really bad rap in education because it can be boring. Discovery learning is fun and exciting on the other hand.

I think the real issue comes down to good teaching or not good teaching. I can go into the difference between "Pure" discovery learning, throwing a kid into a problem with out any help or support and letting them figure it out, which would fall on one end of the spectrum, and a dry boring lecture which would fall on the other end of the spectrum. But there is no need. Most teachers understand that neither one of these is good teaching. Rather the real issue here is how we talk about teaching and learning as professionals.

Teaching and learning needs to be a constant dialogue. It can ebb and flow depending on what is being taught and what the situation is around what is being taught. Those who are strongly for discovery learning can sometimes ignore, or be ignorant of the fact learning requires guidance. Without it, students can get frustrated and shut down, they don't always have the necessary background knowledge, they can make wrong assumptions, and sometimes it can just be too hard. Those who focus too strictly on lecture neglect the fact that learning takes practice by the individual. They need examples and then they need to repeat those examples. Then they need to try to take what they have learned and put it into a way they understand it so that then they can retrieve it, reproduce it, and transfer it to other situations.

This is what most good teachers do and understand. The problem, in my opinion, comes from the fact that one group doesn't like the other group or vice versa. We become tribal about these ideas or fearful that if we push one way or the other for it, especially if the administration is for one or the other, we will be punished. In the end without an open dialogue and discussion, and an understanding of what truly makes good teaching, we end up failing the students who count on us to guide and support them in their learning.

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