10 Direct Discovery

Direct Instruction vs. Discovery Learning
By: Megan Heath


Learning Targets

The reader will…
be able to identify the differences between discovery and direct learning and where each style stems from.
be able to explain methods of teaching for both instruction types.
be able to discuss the debate of which learning style is most efficient, and what educators and scholars think about each.


Mrs. Smith escorts the students, in her kindergarten classroom, outside to the playground. She asks her students to take off their shoes; she wanted them to feel the grass between their toes, to walk on the rocks and cement, and all the things that had different textures. They spent a little time while outside, just taking in the air and observing things around them. Then she asked them to put their shoes back on and follow her in a line back into the building. On the way back into the school, Mrs. Smith asked her students questions like, “What do you see as we walk down the hall?” “What does it smell like?” “Do you hear anything?” When all of the students returned to their desks, their teacher continued asking questions for the students to brainstorm. She asked them “What color was the fence?” “Did they see any people?” Then she asked her students “what parts of your bodies did you use to get all of this information?”
Across the hall, another kindergarten teacher starts her class; she takes out a folder full of worksheets and distributes them around the classroom; on each worksheet are five square boxes, and in each square is a picture. One picture was a hand, representing touch; a nose was in another box, representing smell. The students study each box, trying to better understand what their teacher was going to teach them today. The teacher takes out some markers and begins to write and draw on the board; she explains to her students what each of the five senses is, and she has them write the words in the correct boxes as she writes them on the board. She explains in detail everything she can possibly think of that her students would need to know about the five senses, including what body parts each sense works with, what smells and tastes one may discover, and even ways some people do not have all of their senses. The teacher talks and explains as her students listen, draw and write the things she puts on the board.


Both of these teachers have taught their students the same information today, however, they each used a different method of teaching to do so. Teacher one, who took her students on a field trip, was performing discovery learning through exploration; whereas, the teacher across the hall was implementing direct instruction.

What is Direct Instruction?

Direct Instruction can also be referred to as explicit teaching; it occurs when educators teach using lectures, presentations and text books to demonstrate a lesson to their students. This type of teaching is the most common way of instruction, and includes direction by the teacher. To teach by direct instruction, you must know what you want your outcome to be; teachers must have a purpose and a specific reason for teaching the subject in order for it to be structured and well planned out (Saskatoon).

What is Discovery Learning?

“Discovery learning is a type of learning where learners construct their own knowledge by experimenting with a domain, and inferring rules from the results of these experiments (Joolingen, 1999, p.385).” In other words, this means that students actively learn through hands-on and interactive experiences. In a discovery learning atmosphere, students are free to work with little or no guidance in order to discover information (Mayer, 2004). Discovery learning focuses on the beliefs of Jean Piaget, in which students should be able to choose how they are going to learn, discover new information, and do so without correction from an educator (Mayer, 2004; Piaget,1970). Of course, teachers would still be present in a discovery learning situation; they would monitor each student and ensure things ran smoothly.

“Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.”
(Piaget, 1970, p.715)

Educator’s Preference

Most educators in mathematics and science typically instruct using discovery learning, as opposed to direct instruction, because they believe it is the best way to achieve an understanding of the subject that will stick with the student, because students learn best by doing (Klahr, 2004). “Over the years, however, some researchers and educators have challenged the argument for hands-on learning. They maintain that a more straightforward approach—known as direct instruction—has the potential to help students learn science more effectively” (Cavanagh, 2004, p.12). Some educators also believe that using discovery education for younger children works better than direct learning, because it enables the young learners to be engaged and not bored with the subjects they are learning (Klahr, 2004).

What Statistics Show

A study was conducted by the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in which it was discovered that “many more children learn from direct instruction than from discovery learning” (Klahr, 2004, p.661). This study was conducted on 112 third and fourth grade students and it measured their ability to acquire and retain new information. Based on this information, it is obvious that discovery learning requires some past knowledge of the subject being “discovered” in order to obtain new information. Based on a “half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance” or discovery learning, there has never really been any scientific evidence that proves discovery learning works better than direct instruction (Kirschner, 2006, p.83).

What Method I Would Use in My Classroom

“If we teach today, as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”- John Dewey

Personally, I think the ideal classroom would be one that incorporated both direct instruction and discovery learning. I think novice information could be taught using direct instruction and then supplemented by discovery learning. For example, students could be taught the basics by their teacher and then allowed to work independently to discover more about that topic. I don’t foresee a classroom being able to run smoothly when their focus is solely on discovery education, because, in my opinion, at some point direct instruction would have to occur. I believe that educators should make it a priority to incorporate activities into their classroom that allows for students to discover and explore; technology is so readily available, yet so infrequently used for classrooms; something as simple as a WebQuest could allow direct instruction and discovery learning to intermingle as one teaching method.


Cavanagh, S. (2004). NCLB could alter science teaching. Education Week, 24(11), 12-13.
Joolingen, W. (1999). Cognitive tools for discovery learning. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 10, 385-397.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist discovery, problem-based, experimental, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction. Psychological Science, 15(10), 661-667.
Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strike rule against pure discovery learning?: The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.
Piaget, J.(1970). Piaget’s theory. In P. Mussen (Ed.),Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 703-772). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Saskatoon Public Schools. What is Explicit Teaching? Instructional Strategies Online. Retrieved September 17, 2008, from http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/DE/PD/instr/strats/explicitteaching/index.html


Test Your Knowledge

1.Which expert is related to the concept of Discovery Learning?

A. B.F. Skinner
B. Carl Rogers
C. Ivan Pavlov
D. Jean Piaget
2. What are three tools for Direct Instruction?

A. hands-on activities, interactive games, and lectures
B. lectures, text books and presentations
C. lectures,demonstrations, and interactive games
D. text books, labs, and group discussions
3. Mrs. Heath’s class is learning about volcanoes; Each student constructs an erupting volcano and discusses with the class how he did so. What is this student demonstrating?

A. Direct Instruction
B. Discovery Learning
C. Explicit Learning
D. Guided Instruction
4. What would be the most efficient way for Mrs. Heath to incorporate Discovery Learning into her classroom?

A. Allow her students to construct a lab in which they dissect a grasshopper.
B. Assign a chapter in the text book to read and answer questions on.
C. Create a worksheet for her students to fill out while listening to her lecture.
D. Write definitions on the board and let her students memorize them.

Answers: 1. D; 2. B; 3. B; 4.A



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