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Discovery Learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction and is considered a constructivist based approach to education. It is supported by the work of learning theorists and psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert. Although this form of instruction has great popularity, there is considerable debate in the literature concerning its efficacy (Mayer, 2004).
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 should 'learn by doing'.
Discovery 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.
Criticism of Pure Discovery Learning
Several groups of educators have found evidence that pure discovery learning is a less effective as an instructional strategy for novices, than more direct forms of instruction (e.g. Tuovinen & Sweller, 1999). While discovery learning is very popular, it is often used inappropriately, to teach novices (Kirschner et al, 2006).
People can "learn by doing." A debate in the instructional community now questions the effectiveness of this model of instruction (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Bruner (1961) suggested that students are more likely to remember concepts if they discover them on their own. This is as opposed to those they are taught directly. However, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) report there is little empirical evidence to support discovery learning. Kirschner et al suggest that fifty years of empirical data does not support those using these unguided methods of instruction.
Debates about instructional strategies (like direct instruction and discovery learning) are driven by research and empirical studies that can be found in the literature. Mayer (2004) proposes that interest in discovery learning has waxed and waned since the 1960s. In each case the empirical literature has shown that the use of pure discovery methods is not suggested, yet time and time again researchers have renamed their instructional methods only to be discredited again, to rename name their movement again. Mayer asked the question "Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?" While discovery for one's self may be an engaging form of learning, it may also be frustrating. Mayer's critique is not the only one; other well known authors have begun to question the efficacy of this form of instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006; Tuovinen and Sweller , 1999).
The main idea behind these critiques is that learners need guidance (Kirschner et al, 2006), later as they gain confidence and become competent then they may learn though discovery.
Discovery Based Learning in Special Needs Education
With the push for special needs students to take part in the general education curriculum, prominent researchers in the field doubt if general education classes rooted in discovery based learning can provide an adequate learning environment for special needs students. Kauffman has related his concerns over the use of discovery based learning as opposed to direct instruction. Kauffman comments,
Nothing is gained by keeping students guessing about what it is they are supposed to learn. In all or nearly all of the education programs in which the majority of students can be demonstrated to be highly successful in learning the facts and skills they need, these facts and skills are taught directly rather than indirectly. That is the teacher is in control of instruction, not the student, and information is given to students (2002).
This view is exceptionally strong when focusing on students with math disabilities and math instruction. Fuchs et al (2008) comment,
Typically developing students profit from the general education mathematics program, which relies, at least in part, on a constructivist, inductive instructional style. Students who accrue serious mathematics deficits, however, fail to profit from those programs in a way that produces understanding of the structure, meaning, and operational requirements of mathematics… Effective intervention for students with a math disability requires an explicit, didactic form of instruction…Fuchs et al go on to note that explicit or direct instruction should be followed up with instruction that anticipates misunderstanding and counters it with precise explanations.
It must be noted, however, that few studies focus on the long-term results for direct instruction. Long-term studies may find that direct instruction is not superior to other instructional methods. For instance, a study found that in a group of fourth graders that were instructed for 10 weeks and measured for 17 weeks direct instruction did not lead to any stronger results in the long term than did practice alone (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). Other researchers note that there is promising work being done in the field to incorporate constructivism and cooperative grouping so that curriculum and pedagogy can meet the needs of diverse learners in an inclusion setting (Brantlinger, 1997). However, it is questionable how successful these developed strategies are for student outcomes both initially and in the long term.
- The Discovery Learning Project at the College of Natural Sciences of the University of Texas at Austin
- Brantlinger, E. (1997). Using ideology: Cases of non-recognition of the politics of research and practice in special education. Review of Educational Research 67 (4): 425-459.
- Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review 31 (1): 21–32.
- Dean, D., Jr., & Kuhn, D. (2006). Direct instruction vs. discovery: The long view. Science Education 91 (3): 384-397.
- Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Powell, S. R., Seethaler, P. M., Cirino, P. T., & Fletcher, J. M. (2008). Intensive intervention for students with mathematics disabilities: Seven principles of effective practice. Learning Disability Quarterly 31 (2): 79-92.
- Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75–86.
- Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist 59 (1): 14–19.
- McCarthy, C.B. (2005). Effects of thematic-based, hands-on science teaching versus a textbook approach for students with disabilities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42 (3): 245-263.
- Kauffman, J. M. (2002). Education Deform, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
- Instruction vs. Exploration in Science Learning by Rachel Adelson Monitor on Psychology APA Online, Vol 35, No 6, Jun 2004
- Tuovinen, J. E., & Sweller, J. (1999). A comparison of cognitive load associated with discovery learning and worked examples. Journal of Educational Psychology 91 (2): 334–341.
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