Discovery learning was first put into writing by Jerome Bruner in the 1970's. In part II of his book titled "The Quest for Clarity", Bruner discusses his views on "the Act of Discovery". Bruner states his belief that to successfully educate, the educator must first assess what is already known. In this essay Bruner summarizes the basic principles of discovery learning, their benefits, its process, and a set of experiments that Bruner used which according to him, proved his theory. This essay will use research that supports Bruner's theory in an attempt to prove that discovery learning is more effective than direct instruction and explain how educators should teach in result of the research.
What is discovery learning?
Discovery learning is an approach to learning that can be facilitated by specific teaching methods and guided learning strategies. For this essay the term discovery learning will refer to learning that takes place within in the individual, the teaching and instructional strategies designed by the teacher, and the environment created when these strategies are used. Direct or traditional instruction are strategies used in teacher led classrooms, including lectures, drill and practice, and expository learning. Bicknell, Holmes, and Hoffman (2000) describe the three main attributes of discovery learning as 1) exploring and problem solving to create, integrate, and generalize knowledge, 2) student driven, interest based activities in which student determines the sequence and frequency, and 3) activities to encourage integration of new knowledge into the learner's existing knowledge base.
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The first attribute to discovery learning is a very important one. By exploring problems, and coming up with their own solutions, student's are taking an active role in creating integrating, and generalizing knowledge. Student's are not passively taking in information, as they would during a lecture, but are coming up with broad applications for skills by taking risks, solving problems, and examining unique, but useful experiences (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). This attribute of discovery learning dramatically changes the role of students and teachers, which some traditional teachers find hard to accept.
The second attribute of discovery learning is that it encourages students to learn at their own pace (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). This attribute allow students learning to progress freely as the student is ready to learn new material. Students must obtain a high level of motivation and take ownership in their learning for this attribute to be met.
The third major attribute of discovery learning is that it is based on the principle of using existing knowledge as a basis to build new knowledge (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). Students must be encouraged and provided with knowledge they already know to extend this knowledge and build new ideas. A good example of this is when students discover how to multiply a three digit number by a three digit number, by using their knowledge of multiplying a two digit number by a two digit number. The student would build on what they know about multiplication to come up with a new way of multiplying three digits by three digits.
How discovery learning differs from traditional learning:
The three attributes listed above combine to make discovery learning much different than traditional learning for five main reasons. First, learning is active rather than passive (Mosca and Howard, 1997). Second, learning is process oriented, rather than content oriented. Third, failure is important. Fourth, feedback is necessary (Bonwell, 1998). Last, understanding is deeper (Papert, 2000).
Firstly, in discovery learning students are active in constructing their own knowledge. Learning is not defined as sitting back and taking in what is being said, but is defined as one seeking and creating their own new knowledge. Students are participating in hands-on, real life learning activities and solving real problems. The students have a purpose for finding answers and learning more (Mosca & Howard, 1997).
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Secondly, the focus of learning is on the process and how the content is learned, rather than on the final product. Discovery learning focuses on how to analyze and interpret information in order to understand what is being learned. In traditional teaching and learning a lot of times the focus is on recalling information by rote memorization. This type of process oriented learning can be applied to many different topics instead of producing one correct answer for a specific question in a specific topic. Students will achieve a much deeper level of understanding in discovery learning. The emphasis is placed on mastery and application of overarching skills (Bonwell, 1998).
Thirdly, failure in discovery learning is seen as a positive circumstance (Bonwell, 1998). Failure in discovery learning is related to a unique lesson learned from Thomas Edison. Edison is said to have tried as many as 1,200 designs for light bulbs before he found one that actually worked. When asked if he felt discouraged from all this failure, Edison responded by saying he never felt discouraged because he learned so many designs that didn't work. Discovery learning does not stress finding the correct answers each time. Cognitive psychologists have shown that failure is central to learning. In fact, if the student does not fail while learning, the student probably has not learned something new (Schank & Cleary, 1994).
Fourthly, an essential part of discovery learning is an opportunity for feedback in the learning process (Bonwell, 1998). Student learning is enhanced, deepened, and made more permanent by discussion of the topic with other learners (Schank and Cleary, 1994). In discovery learning, students are encouraged to discuss ideas with other students to deepen understanding. This is the opposite of the expectations in most traditional classrooms where students are expected to work in silence and find answers on their own.
Lastly, after incorporating each one of the differences of discovery learning understanding becomes deeper. Learners internalize concepts when they go through a natural progression to understand them (Papert, 2000). Discovery learning is a natural part of human beings that begins from the time they are born. Humans are born with curiosities and needs which is the driving force behind why they learn. Infants learn to talk by discovery. The infant listens to others around them talk, mimics the sounds they hear, and begin to put together the pieces of language that they have discovered on their own (Percy, 1954). Discovery learning is a natural process in which students should be involved in on a day to day basis during school. Discovery learning allows for a deeper understanding by encouraging natural investigation through active, process-oriented methods of teaching (Percy, 1954).
Advantages of discovery learning: what the research says:
Of the research that exists looking at the advantages of discovery learning over traditional learning, three main areas of focus have emerged: 1) motivation (Hardy, 1967), 2) retention (Alleman & Brophy, 1992; Nelson & Fayer, 1972; Peters, 1970), and 3) achievement (Hardy 1967; Mabie & Baker 1966).
A great advantage of the discovery learning method over traditional method is its ability to highly motivate students to learn. Discovery learning does this because it gives learners the opportunity to seek information that satisfies their natural curiosity. Discovery learning gives students an opportunity to explore their desires and therefore create a more engaging learning environment for themselves. To put it in simpler terms, discovery learning makes learning fun (Schank & Cleary, 1994). In a study done by D.W. Hardy (1967), the students learning the principles of archaeology and anthropology through the discovery method of an archaeological dig were better organizers of information, more active in the task of learning, and more highly motivated that those who were taught in a traditional, lecture method. This example makes it easy to see that students would have much more fun actually digging out artifacts from thousands of years ago and making conclusions, than they would if they were to just read the same information from a textbook.
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When looking at information retention, discovery learning seems to at least match the level found when using traditional teaching methods, but could possibly increase information retention as well. Alleman and Brophy (1992) conducted a research study with college students by asking them to recall a memorable social studies activity that they did in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Many more students could easily recall activities that involved experimental learning, higher order applications, which are characteristics of discovery learning. Students also could recall more of the information that was retained from discovery learning type activities than they did from the traditional activities. Another study looked at the level of information retention in kindergarteners, but over a shorter timeframe. Peters (1970) compared kindergarten students learning mathematics using discovery learning methods and their learning using traditional methods. The results of this study found that students taught using a discovery learning method had equal, if not more, retention levels to those taught using a traditional method. Nelson & Frayer (1970) also looked at the retention of concepts when they compared discovery learning methods to traditional methods. After studying 228 seventh graders who were learning geometry concepts, they found the same results as Peters (1970).
When students are learning skills rather than facts, discovery learning has been shown to increase student achievement. Hardy's (1967) archaeological study showed that students who were taught using the discovery learning method showed a positive difference in scores on both pre and post tests which measured anthropological understandings, over students taught using the traditional teaching method. Mabie & Baker (1996) also conducted a study which yielded similar results. In this study, three groups of fifth grade students were taught concepts about nutrition using three different methods. One group used garden projects, one group used short, in class projects, and the other group was taught by traditional teaching methods. The group being taught using traditional methods only saw an 11% increase in pretest knowledge, compared to a 70%-80% increase in the other two groups that were being taught using discovery methods.
Although discovery learning has many benefits over traditional learning, many teachers and school districts still teaching using the traditional lecture methods. Many educators believe that discovery learning cannot be used to cover the course content, discovery learning takes too much effort and time, and discovery learning will not work well with their large classes.
According to the research, how should we then teach?
After analyzing the research on discovery learning, five main teaching ideas emerge: 1) case based learning, 2) incidental learning, 3) learning by exploring/conversing, 4) learning by reflection, and 5) simulation-based learning (Schank & Cleary, 1994). Teachers can use these ideas to incorporate discovery learning into their classroom environment on a daily basis.
Case-based learning is the first teaching idea that comes forth in discovery learning. Case based learning has been around for a very long time as Harvard business school was one of the first schools to use this method (Merseth, 1991). Case based learning is just how it sounds, examining real life scenarios and cases and then applying them in new situations. Case based learning can be easily used when studying business, law, and medicine because there are numerous documented cases that deal with aspects of each of these. To use case based learning in the classroom a teacher must have cases readily available and easy for student access.
Incidental learning in the second teaching idea that comes forth in discovery learning. Incidental learning takes place when students gain knowledge "in passing" (Schank & Cleary, 1994). Many times incidental learning can take place in the form of game in which students are engaged in. This type of learning is best used when studying uninteresting topics or pure memorization because it gives students a motivation to learn these topics. Two good examples of incidental learning are having a classroom game show and creating a crossword puzzle on a topic of choice.
The third teaching idea that emerges with discovery learning is learning by exploring. This type of learning is based on an organized collection of answers to questions that students can ask (Schank & Cleary, 1994). This learning by exploring idea is very similar to the Socratic method of questioning. Curiosity is utilized with this method of teaching as students are given a problem to solve but they can only solve it by asking many questions. A good example of learning by exploring is a game called "What's in the bag?" (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). To play this game, an object that is related to the topic being studied is placed in a bag. Students must then ask as many questions as it takes to try to figure out what this object is. This game helps students use prior knowledge and experiences to categorize information and discover what is in the bag.
The fourth teaching idea that comes from discovery learning is learning by reflection. In this type of teaching the students learn to apply higher level cognitive skills because they must reflect on what they know to learn new information (Schank and Cleary, 1994). This type of learning by reflecting also helps students learn to ask better questions, and in turn do more sophisticated analyses (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). An example of a teacher using the learning by reflecting strategy will many times answer a students question with questions of their own to guide the student. This is also a model of how the student can ask better questions to themselves so that answers to unknowns can be found. The teacher does not directly answer the students question but rather guides the student with questions so they can find their own answer. This type of teaching requires lots of patience by both the teacher and the student as mistakes will be made. Students will learn to use these mistakes to help them better reflect on the topic and ask more sophisticated questions.
The last teaching idea that comes from the research on discovery learning is simulation based learning. This type of learning is basically just role playing. The teacher will give the students a made up environment and situation in which the students must develop a complex set of skills or witness other students apply abstract concepts (Bicknell-Holmes & Hoffman, 2000). Simulation based learning allows the environment and situation to be manipulated and adapted, with no real life consequences. This helps guide discovery as students can make mistakes and not have to worry about real consequences. Simulation based discovery also allows students to do things that would be impossible in real life, such as taking and planning field trips to other countries, or even outer space. Ever growing use of technology makes this even more possible as computers allow students and teachers to easily manipulate an environment without using much time or effort. This also makes the simulations much more realistic and authentic as pictures and videos from real places can be accessed at any time.