Hot teaching trend and Common Core: Discovery learning vs. direct instruction

Published: Wednesday, April 18 2012 9:56 p.m. MDT

Social Studies teacher Josh Reinhart works with fifth graders (Left to right) Grace Patey, Tally Lagano, Claire Keiffer and Brody Dayton at the Soldier Hollow Charter School in Midway on Thursday, September 15, 2011. Soldier Hollow Charter School received a prestigious national award, the 2011 National Blue Ribbon School.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Related: Politics, misinformation feed Common Core debate, education official says

Laura Lanwermeyer lists items on the board — baby carrots, string, cornstarch, sugar, salt, water, plastic bags, baking soda, ice.

"Now use any of these items to design an experiment to show osmosis," she tells her class of 9th-grade biology students at Selinsgrove Area High School in Pennslyvania.

The students have been introduced to the concept of osmosis — water moves from solutions of low concentration to solutions of high concentration — but Lanwermeyer hasn't told them how to show osmosis itself. As the students set to work planning their experiments, it's clear they have no idea what they are doing. A few discuss the possible uses of string. Others debate which "chemicals" cause water transfer. Lanwermeyer doesn't intervene, other than to ask a question here and there.

Lanwermeyer's teaching style, called discovery learning by experts, is one of the hottest trends in education theory. Discovery learning teachers allow students to discover scientific concepts on their own through trial and error, debate and reflection. "The point isn't to get the right answer," she said, "but to reflect on the process of learning." This is in contrast to direct instruction, wherein the teacher explains in detail all topics and activities for students.

Discovery learning is part of a growing trend stretching across the country. Its principles inform the objectives of the new Common Core State Standards Initiative, a new standards-based curriculum for students from elementary school through high school. The Common Core, which emphasizes experimentation and problem-solving skills, will be implemented in 45 states across the country in August. While there is no doubt about the rising popularity of discovery learning, there is considerable debate about its effectiveness.

Expert opinions run the gamut. Initial assessments research shows direct, explicit instruction is more effective and efficient than discovery learning. On the other hand it appears that in the long-term, discovery learners have better understanding, retention and ability to transfer knowledge, said Deanna Kuhn, professor of education and psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College.

"How we instruct students is important for achieving educational goals," said Chipper Dean, assistant professor of psychology at Bucknell University.

If educators and parents want students who can quickly master concepts, pass tests and move on to the next thing, then direct instruction works well, said Dean. On the other hand, if the goal is to equip students with the ability to problem solve, to think critically and to work collaboratively, then discovery learning really works. Parents, teachers and policymakers need to think about which skills students need to be sucessful in today's information-based global economy.

Direct vs discovery

To better understand direct and discovery learning, consider the differences in the presentation of a math lesson on adding decimals.

A teacher using direct instruction begins the lesson with a problem: 12.1 + 3.3 = ? Then she will break the problem into smaller steps. First, write the problem so the decimals line up. Second, bring the decimal point straight down into the answer. Third, add the numbers beginning on the right and moving to the left. Teachers model several problems like this, and then allow students to practice until they've mastered the task.

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