K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

Important Announcement about Online Courses and LEARN NC.

Important Message about LEARN NC

LEARN NC is evaluating its role in the current online education environment as it relates directly to the mission of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education (UNC-CH SOE). We plan to look at our ability to facilitate the transmission of the best research coming out of UNC-CH SOE and other campus partners to support classroom teachers across North Carolina. We will begin by evaluating our existing faculty and student involvement with various NC public schools to determine what might be useful to share with you.

Don’t worry! The lesson plans, articles, and textbooks you use and love aren’t going away. They are simply being moved into the new LEARN NC Digital Archive. While we are moving away from a focus on publishing, we know it’s important that educators have access to these kinds of resources. These resources will be preserved on our website for the foreseeable future. That said, we’re directing our resources into our newest efforts, so we won’t be adding to the archive or updating its contents. This means that as the North Carolina Standard Course of Study changes in the future, we won’t be re-aligning resources. Our full-text and tag searches should make it possible for you to find exactly what you need, regardless of standards alignment.

Learn more

Related pages

  • Seeing, wondering, theorizing, learning: Inquiry-based instruction with Kishia Moore: In this article, first-grade teacher Kishia Moore shares some of the strategies she uses to bring inquiry-based instruction into the elementary classroom. Ms. Moore teaches in Mitchell County and is a member of the 2011 cohort of the Kenan Fellows Program.
  • The learning cycle: A three-part model of scientific inquiry that encourages students to develop their own understanding of a scientific concept, explore and deepen that understanding, and then apply the concept to new situations.
  • Science as a verb: Inquiry science requires active relationships between students, teachers, and science. Building these relationships is a three-step process that involves thinking about inquiry as a process of science, as a pedagogical strategy, and as a set of skills and behaviors to encourage in students.

Related topics


Please read our disclaimer for lesson plans.


The text of this page is copyright ©2009. See terms of use. Images and other media may be licensed separately; see captions for more information and read the fine print.

Discovery learning is an active process of inquiry-based instruction that encourages learners to build on prior knowledge through experience and to search for new information and relationships based on their interests.

History of discovery learning

Psychologist and cognitive learning theorist Jerome Bruner (1967) first outlined the principles of discovery learning in a book about how people construct knowledge based on prior experiences.1 Similar constructivist learning theories were developed by John Dewey2, Jean Piaget3, and Lev Vygotsky, all of whom suggested that discovery learning encourages students to become active participants in the learning process by exploring concepts and answering questions through experience.

Discovery learning in practice

Typically, the educational goals of discovery learning include promoting a “deep” understanding; developing meta-cognitive skills; and encouraging a high level of student engagement. According to Nadira Saab, et al., discovery learning is a process of inductive inquiry where learners conducting experiments, a theory which closely resembles the scientific process.4 First, learners identify variables, collect data, and interpret data. Then learners generate hypotheses in order to better describe and understand relationships between concepts. Finally, the continuous cyclical process of learning requires learners to interpret the data, reject hypotheses, and make conclusions about information.5

Similarly, Faye Borthick and Donald Jones suggest, “In discovery learning, participants learn to recognize a problem, characterize what a solution would look like, search for relevant information, develop a solution strategy, and execute the chosen strategy.”6

Tracy Bicknell-Holmes and Paul Hoffman explain that discovery learning has three main characteristics: exploration and problem-solving; student-centered activities based on student interest; and scaffolding new information into students’ funds of knowledge.7

Joyce Castronova identifies five characteristics of discovery learning that differentiates it from traditional learning models. First, learning is active and students must participate in hands-on and problem-solving activities rather than knowledge transfer. Secondly, Castronova suggests that discovery learning emphasizes the process instead of the end product, thus encouraging mastery and application. Thirdly, the lessons learned from failure within this model of instruction encourage the student to continue to search for solutions. Castronova also suggests that feedback is an essential part of the learning process and that collaboration and discussion allows students to develop deeper understandings. Finally, discovery learning satisfies natural human curiosity and promotes individual interests.8

Types of discovery learning

Support and criticism

Proponents of discovery learning explain that this theory:

  • Actively engages students in the learning process
  • Motivates students to participate
  • Encourages autonomy and independence
  • Promotes the development of creativity and problem-solving skills
  • Provides a individualized learning experience.9

Critics of this discovery learning caution that this theory:

  • May be overwhelming for learners who need more structure
  • May allow for possible misunderstanding
  • May prevent teachers from gauging whether students are having problems.10