July 3, 2020

Discovery learning vs guided instruction


As a secondary practitioner of seven years, I am always striving to improve my practise and consider the most effective way to deliver new content to my students.  When I reflect on this I find myself the question; how can I train my students to think and behave like experts in my subject?

For this reason I feel sure that as teachers/parents, we must model key concepts to students on a daily basis.  How can we expect learners to perform key skills and concepts without knowing what a good one looks like, or without seeing it modelled by an expert?  

When I think about this in relation to something I am not an expert in it makes complete sense. If I were baking a cake for the first time and following a recipe, I would need to see a picture of what I was aiming for and I would certainly be comparing my attempt to the finished article!  It would seem illogical to imagine what the cake is supposed to look like without being shown what I am aiming for.

When I first embarked on my career as a teacher I placed great emphasis on Discovery Learning.  I encouraged students to discover key concepts through investigations and try and figure things out for themselves. Over time, I have realised that this is not always the best approach. I am potentially opening up opportunities for my students to embed misconceptions before I have taught and explained.  

Of course there is a place for this style of learning, but when presenting new information I firmly believe students will benefit from written responses and solutions being modelled through a wide range of examples.  

Once students become fluent in this particular skill it is the perfect time to then introduce problems to solve. I have found that fully guided instruction using worked examples is more effective than unguided problem-solving when teaching students new material, because unguided problem-solving places a heavy burden on working memory.  I return to my cake example – once I become fluent in the basics of baking, it makes far more sense to then start exploring variations and understanding the science behind the baking!

So, what have I found to be the most effective way of teaching using this approach? Having a choice of examples is key.  

I have found that it is important to use a wide range of examples covering different scenarios.  We can also use non examples – lets show learners examples where a certain concept does not work or is not applicable. I also find that for an example to be effective it has to be accompanied by a problem to solve.  It is not effective to present multiple examples one after the other and then present a task.  Spaced examples have been far more effective for me.

This approach to delivering new content is largely based on inspiring those that are teaching!  It is important to set a ‘benchmark of excellence.’ Good models can inspire learners to want to do better.  I encourage you to pay attention to the following quote from Ron Berger;

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.”

This has resonated with me as a teacher – If I am not demonstrating excellence in my subject then I cannot expect my students to be inspired and reaching their full potential of excellence in whatever it is they are learning.

I would like to conclude by saying that like any style of learning, this approach comes with its limitations. I have had my concerns that too much of this approach could foster a dependency culture.  With this in mind, it is important that when using these models and examples we are ‘taking off the stabilisers’ gradually.  As we slowly take away some of the guided instruction we would hope that our learners are able to perform these new skills competently because of the wonderful examples and demonstrations that have taken place beforehand!