The following is a paper exploring Discovery Learning Theory written for Ed Tech 504 at Boise State University.
Discovery learning is a theory of learning born from the constructivist school of thought. Constructivism itself holds that a learner’s knowledge arises from personal interpretation of one’s own experiences (Applefield, Huber, & Moallum, 2001). In essence, each learner creates his or her own understanding based on their interaction with the world. Discovery learning specifically provides activities from which students may “author their own knowledge, advancing their cognitive structures by revising and creating new understandings out of existing ones” (Applefield, Huber, & Moallum, 2001, p.37). It is through discovery that a learner is able to make sense of the world and organize the information in such a way that it deemed new knowledge.
While discovery learning has been gaining more widespread popularity over the last twenty or so years, it’s roots trace back to the early twentieth century. At this time, Mary Boole shared her thoughts on the subject of learning Science in a booklet that shared many fundamental characteristics with modern discovery learning theory. Some aspects of discovery learning theory are also seen in the work of Maria Montessori (Taba, 1963). The major contributors to the modern understanding of discovery leanring theory are John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and, especially, Jerome Bruner (Applefield, Huber, & Moallum, 2001).
As stated, discovery learning as a concept is a branch of the constructivist school of thought. In this school, learning is thought to be formed by each individual learner as they interact with their environment. Each person creates knowledge as they gain experience through interaction with various situations and problems. They then organize those experiences cognitively, thus forming new knowledge. Factors such as the learner’s prior knowledge, social interaction and the creation of proper learning situations are also crucial (Applefield, Huber, & Moallum, 2001). Discovery learning begins with a student’s interaction with the world in an authentic learning situation. Learners are encouraged to explore in order to experience the principles to be learned on their own. Connections to prior knowledge are essential, thus well designed and proper sequencing of activities is typically seen as integral. A student must be able to make connections to material previously learned. It is worth noting that many discovery learning experiences are designed to induce a sense of confusion that the learner must resolve on their own. Beyond the individual experiences, students are encouraged to avoid verbalization of the principles learned until deeper connections have been internalized. It is through this process that students are able to reorganize their own knowledge. Through this process, “there is a gain in [the learner’s] ability to organize information; in addition, this organized information is more readily available for later application or problem solving” (Hermann, 1969, p.59).
Science education provides an excellent area for the application of discovery learning. By providing authentic experiences in which students make first-hand observations of natural phenomena, they are thus able to make their own connections. In Chemistry, for example, students may given an opportunity to mix various salt solutions in order to witness and record the results (formation of gas or solid precipitates for instance). If structured properly, student should be able to organize the data gathered and develop from them a basic understanding of solubility rules that can be applied to later tasks. A key part of this process would be that students are faced with a situation that they must interpret for themselves. Proper structuring of the experience itself is essential. For instance, students must come in with prior knowledge, such as the understanding that some substances are water soluble while others are not and that some substances are composed of various ions. It should be noted, however, that there are limitations to the role of discovery learning in this regard. Without proper structuring of the learning experiences, students may never be able to make the intended connections. Also, discovery learning experiences may be more appropriate for learning at a earlier levels of education when concepts are more general. The study of photosynthesis provides a good example of the limitations of discovery learning. While providing experiences with experimentation with growing plants in various conditions (different soil content, different lighting conditions, etc.) may allow students to gain an understanding of some of the basic needs of a plant, it is difficult to envision a discovery learning process in which students could gain a full understanding and appreciation of the complex biochemical processes happening within the plant cells. While it is conceivable that an elaborate, highly structured set of experiences might allow a student to eventually make those connections and discoveries, it seems more beneficial to blend discovery learning with a more expository experience to allow advanced learners to progress in their science education without having to constantly “rediscover” the science involved. This said, true discovery learning theorists would likely argue that such an experience would limit the true learning on the part of the student.
Applefield, J.M., Huber, R., & Moallem, M. (2001). Constructivism in theory and practice: toward a
better understanding. The High School Journal, 84(2), 35-53.
Hermann, G. (1969). Learning by discovery: a critical review of studies. The Journal of Experimental
Education, 38(1), 58-72.
Taba, H. (1963). Learning by discovery: psychological and educational rationale. The Elementary
School Journal, 63(6), 308-316.