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Instructional teaching vs discovery learning – What sets them apart?

Adam Riches’ bite-size guides for busy teachers alights upon a supposed dichotomy that might not be as binary as it seems...

  • Instructional teaching vs discovery learning – What sets them apart?

The stark contrast between discovery learning and direct instruction approaches is hotly debated – understanding the difference is vital for any effective classroom practitioner.

Discovery learning is a technique of inquiry-based learning that’s often classed as a ‘constructivist’ approach to education. It’s an approach that utilises exploration; student aren’t provided with exact answers, but are instead given the materials they’ll need to find the answers.

Conversely, direct instruction focuses on the expert transferring knowledge to the novice. The first type of Direct Instruction (with capitals) was developed by Siegfried Engelmann, and concentrates on the idea that teaching should be built upon well-developed, careful planning, with learning broken down into small chunks consisting of clearly defined and prescribed learning tasks.

The second type (lowercase) was introduced by Barak Rosenshine in the late 70s. He used the term ‘direct instruction’ for an approach to teaching that led to optimal learning known as the Principles of Instruction, which continue to serve as the basis for the pedagogical approach in many schools.

A huge misconception about direct instruction is that it makes learning boring. In actual fact, direct instruction has positive effects on learners in terms of progress and wellbeing; parents are more positive about it, teachers feel more confident using it and it’s been shown to have a positive effect on learner attitudes, confidence and behaviour.

That said, the benefits of direct instruction shouldn’t be taken to mean that discovery learning is fundamentally flawed. We’re often coaxed into adopting an ‘either/or’ attitude towards approaches to learning, when often a blend of approaches can make for an optimal learning method.

In some contexts, the power of discovery can be a hugely motivational addition to a lesson. When used in conjunction with elements of direct instruction, learners can build incredibly strong schema.

What’s important is that you know when to use each, and the strengths and drawbacks of both approaches.


Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning; follow him at @teachmrriches.

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