Discovery learning v Direct instruction (it is not a binary argument)

The argument between these two styles of teaching has been raging on #Edutwitter for the last few years and it has become very divisive over whether you are a ‘Discoverist’ or an ‘Instructionist’.

Well, let’s just think about our own experiences of learning for a while. If I was to attempt an A-Level Mathematics problem, I could answer it, fairly quickly, as I have the knowledge and skills needed to answer the question, whereas, if I was asked to deliberate on the political issues surrounding Hong Kong, I would struggle more, as I do not have the knowledge and skills in this area. I do though have enough knowledge to begin to understand the different issues on a superficial level and can begin to make connections and create some understanding of the issues. Now, if I think of some PhD work on virology, (sorry got to bring the pandemic in somewhere!), I would be totally lost about how viruses work and the chemistry involved.

These three scenarios, hopefully, give an insight into how we learn. In order to create connections between different concepts we need to have a good enough understanding of them in the first place. If we have no idea of the concepts, then we cannot begin to make connections and cannot begin to solve the problem. At the other end, if we have mastered a concept, then we can use that to support our development of further skills and concepts.

These have often been distilled down into 4 groups: –

  • Unconscious Incompetenceyou don’t know about the concept and therefore have no idea how to use it; think about a newborn baby and feeding.
  • Conscious Incompetenceyou know about the concept, but have not practiced it enough to be skilled in it; now think about the baby who has watched a parent feeding and tries to imitate them, they understand the concept, but do not have the motor skill to do it consistently.
  • Conscious Competenceyou have practiced the concept, but it still takes a lot of thinking to complete it consistently; this is now the baby, who can feed themselves most of the time, but still needs to be cleaned afterwards.
  • Unconscious Competenceyou have completely mastered the skill and could be thought of as an ‘automatic’ process; adults when they eat, although Mrs H, would beg to differ!

Using this in an education environment, we can immediately see that, in order to develop our understanding, we need to be exposed to the concept first and then practice it until it becomes mastered. And here we have this conjunction between discovery learning and direct instruction. Both are essential for learning, it is how they work together that is the key.

Returning to our four groups, Direct instruction is key to the first two groups; introduction to a new concept and ‘copying’ an expert as without these parts, we do not even know the concept exists and how it works. Only by exposure and imitation can we begin to internalise them. At this point, we have not yet ‘mastered’ the concept, just become skilled at using it. It is only when connections to other known skills are developed that mastery of the concept can happen. This is the time for discovery learning, using one’s own knowledge to solve problems and this is a vital part of the learning process. If we continue to just practice using the process, then we get better at using them, but we cannot appreciate, where it sits in our own constructed understanding and begin to master the concept and without mastery of the concept, you struggle to keep developing your own understanding. Just look at the interconnectedness of school age mathematics to begin to understand how, without mastery of a concept, everything weakens and begins to fall.


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