When I tweet or blog about the problems with discovery learning – that it is time consuming, uncertain, inappropriate for novices – I often get the response that no-one really uses discovery learning in any case. Teachers, so I am told, use their professional judgement and combine some exploratory work with some explicit instruction.
Of course, this is true. Pure discovery learning would entail demolishing the school and firing all the teachers, so it’s not likely to go down well. The philosophy of discovery learning, otherwise known as constructivism, or the project method, or a million other names, does not take over completely, but it does pollute lessons sufficiently to make them largely ineffective for making changes in long term memory.
There are two parts to this philosophy. The first is that pupils need to find things out for themselves. Telling them the answer is a violation of their intellectual independence. It’s a form of intellectual abuse. The second is that there are no definite answers anyway. The individual creates their own truth, and giving definite answers is evil, fascist indoctrination. This relativist piety is a strong moral reinforcement for constructivist theory. Without the evangelical zeal provided by dogmatic moral relativism, constructivist notions would have struggled to make their way out of the lecture halls of universities.
Because of this philosophy, which is particularly influential where teachers do not even realise that they are following it, the typical lesson will contain multiple opportunities for pupils to develop confusions and misapprehensions, and if they are given any degree of clarity, it will tend to be towards the end, after they have had lots of time to think about the wrong answers. Sometimes pupils plead with the teacher just to be given the answers and released from uncertainty, and sometimes he caves in, all the while feeling a sense of guilt, as though he were violating some sacred taboo.
A fundamental principle of cognitive science is that pupils remember what they think about. If we actually care about making definite changes in pupils’ long term memories, it is therefore our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that they spend as little time as possible thinking about the wrong thing. Allowing most of the lesson to be spent wandering, guessing, and generating incorrect answers is not only a criminal waste of precious lesson time; it is a guarantee that pupils will only retain correct answers in the haziest and most muddled fashion, if at all.
Cognitive science also shows us that for the most part, we will naturally avoid thinking, instead relying on memory, imitation or guesswork. Thinking is very hard, and therefore needs to be done in a focused and reliable way, and in small, incremental steps. What passes for ‘thinking’ in most lessons is actually muddled guesswork, and half-remembered, garbled information from previous lessons that were also filled with guesswork, or with failing to get the answer and having to ask the teacher, or one’s neighbour, or with just giving up and staring out of the window.
Direct Instruction offers a radically different model, because it is based on a different philosophy, which is not opposed to telling pupils the answers. In fact, it favours starting with the answers, in the form of worked examples and whole class oral drill. A large amount of time is spent instilling correct answers to various model questions before allowing pupils to attempt answering any themselves. This is because it is vital that they do not wander off into confusion and guesswork. It is vital that pupils get things right, otherwise they are consolidating confusion, not learning.
Using the methods of Direct Instruction, most pupils will be right, most of the time. Those who do make mistakes will rapidly have them corrected, so that they do not remain long in the dark. This is one of the reasons that DI is not only effective for learning, it is effective for self esteem. Pupils like getting things right.
It’s such a relief not to be put through the pain of muddle and guesswork. And it’s such a relief not to be told that there is no right answer.