Discovery Learning

Discovery Learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction. Discovery learning is a constructivist based approach to education. It is supported by the work of learning theorists and psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert.

Jerome Bruner is thought to have originated discovery learning in the 1960s, but his ideas are very similar those of earlier writers (e.g. John Dewey). Bruner argues that “Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem solving" (Bruner, 1961, p.26). This philosophy later became the discovery learning movement of the 1960s. The mantra of this philosophical movement suggests that we 'learn by doing'. Discovery learning takes place in problem solving situations where the learner draws on his own experience and prior knowledge. Discovery learning 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.

Critiques of Discovery Learning

Several groups of educators have found evidence that discovery learning is a less effective instructional strategy for novices than direct instruction (e.g. Tuovinen and Sweller, 1999). While discovery learning is very popular, it is often used inappropriately to teach novices (Kirschner et al, 2006). Learners should be given some direct instruction first... and then later be allowed to apply what they have learned.

While people can learn by doing, today a debate in the instructional community questions the effectiveness of this model of instruction (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).It is posited that students are more likely to remember concepts they discover on their own than those they are taught, however there is little empirical evidence to support this claim, quite the contrary in fact. Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) suggest that fifty years of empirical data does not support those using unguided instructional methods. They call for those using these techniques to explain their actions in terms of empirical data.

Many believe debates about instructional strategies (like direct instruction and discovery learning) are driven by ideology. More often than not it is driven by research and empirical studies, that can be found in the literature. While it is easy to adopt a set of beliefs, this should be done thoughtfully. Consider the evidence, read the literature, and make sound decisions based upon evidence-based research.

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