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Is Discovery Learning the Way to Go?

The Deseret News, a newspaper in Utah, recently looked into what it called "one of the hottest trends in education theory": discovery learning. According to the paper, discovery learning allows "students to discover scientific concepts on their own through trial and error, debate, and reflection."

Laura Lanwermeyer, a biology teacher in Selinsgrove, Pa., told the paper that with discovery learning, the "point isn't to get the right answer," but instead "to reflect on the process of learning." The challenge, she added, is that it's time-consuming—one single experiment may take up a week's worth of class time.

To illustrate what the discovery learning approach looks like, the paper explains that a math teacher, for example, would have the class break up into small groups and brainstorm possible solutions to a problem. The teacher would not intervene with the correct answer until the students have gone through the problem-solving process on their own. In contrast, teachers using the traditional direct instruction approach would begin the lesson by modeling how to properly solve a problem, and then asking the students to practice problems on their own.

The article also highlights the work of Chipper Dean, an assistant professor of psychology at Bucknell University who conducted a study on the two teaching styles after a previous study had found that direct-instruction learners performed better academically than discovery learners. Dean had students take tests over a period of 17 weeks, and found that, while direct-instruction learners initially had an edge, discovery learners outperformed their peers by the end of the testing period. Discovery learning "is very efficient if we take a long view," says Dean.

Dean also argues that while direct instruction can help students to quickly master concepts and pass tests, discovery learning equips them with the skills needed to engage in problem-solving and to work collaboratively. According to the paper, "Parents, teachers, and policymakers need to think about which skills students need to be successful in today's information-based global economy."

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