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K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

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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