The Limits of Discovery Learning

"Discovery learning" is great, except when it's ineffective, says Reform K12.

The discovery learning method is a way for teachers to allow the child to discover things for himself or herself, because when a child makes the discovery, the learning is much deeper and more likely to be remembered. That spark of "Eureka" or "I have found it!" is what kindles the true flame of learning.

Actually, we don't disagree, it's just we have a better proposal: Teach! Students will learn a lot more in less time.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, we fully support the responsible use of guided discovery in the classroom. Master teachers have known this for years.

What we don't support is the abandonment of direct instruction, especially for some key concepts and techniques which must be taught.

For example, in the University of Chicago's Everyday Math program, they don't recommend teaching children the long division algorithm, saying "let the children discover a division algorithm for themselves." (The program also embraces calculator use starting with kindergarten, so we bet we know which "algorithm" the kids would pick!)

We were fully grown before we understood completely how the long division algorithm works, so we'd place the chances at our discovering it in childhood, oh, at about zero.

Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants."

Good thing Newton didn't have teachers enamored with the discovery learning method, or he would have been relegated to standing next to the aforementioned giants.

The California Curriculum Commission is urging the state ed board to not buy K-8 science books that rely heavily on "hands-on" materials and discovery learning. The Washington Post reports:

Thomas Adams, executive director of the curriculum commission, said critics are misrepresenting the panel's views. He said commission members are trying to balance the need for a comprehensive science curriculum with the limited science background of many K-8 teachers. Twenty to 25 percent of hands-on instruction seemed like "the most reasonable amount of time for someone faced with the challenges of limited facilities and limited time," he said.

Kimberly Swygert of Number 2 Pencil says too much lab work can become busy work.

Smart teachers call it "hands on, brain off."

Science Lite

Science testing  often is done so badly it doesn’t measure science knowledge, says this Education Week article. It gives examples of questions that telegraph the correct answer, testing students' ability to read and use common sense, rather than science knowledge. Here's my favorite example from an eighth grade science test:

Your school's Academic Team has chosen Archimedes as its mascot, and for the team shirt you have created a new symbol to represent Archimedes and his discoveries. The team members have asked you to attend their next meeting to inform them about your symbol. Write a speech to read to the team members, which describes and explains your symbol and tells why it is appropriate for the team.

Perhaps designing an Archimedes logo for a shirt does relate and use knowledge of Archimedes, but it also tends to treat science as a "scenic" background rather than a central element of the test. Another example from a 5th grade assessment asks students to measure the length of a caterpillar in a picture. The item tests only the skill of measuring, not knowledge about the living organism or its development.

What about kids who aren't good at design, drawing or writing but know a lot about Archimedes? They’re out of luck.

Here's another example.

The statement that the relative humidity is 50 percent means that:

A. The chance of rain is 50 percent.

B. The atmosphere contains 50 kilograms of water per cubic kilometer.

C. The clouds contain 50 grams of water per liter.

D. The atmosphere contains 50 percent of the amount of water that it could contain at its present temperature.

Even if students don't know the correct answer, they may sense that more effort went into writing answer choice D, and that the writing seems more cautious and scientific. As a result, students may be drawn to the correct answer for reasons unrelated to knowledge of science.

My science knowledge is limited, at best, but I could guess the right answer to every question cited in Ed Week.

Not Just a Buzzword

"Evolution"  is back in Georgia's proposed biology curriculum. Last week, the state superintendent, Kathy Cox, ordered the word removed because it is "a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction." Cox now says she goofed.

Fish, Unfried

When fire threatened the third-grade classroom at a Minnesota school, the class fish saved the day. Dory was swimming in a vase on a desk.

A forgotten candle started a small fire on the desk on Jan. 24, setting off the smoke alarm and shattering the fish bowl, spilling enough water to put out the flames.

Firefighters found a few embers still glowing on the desk -- and Dory still alive in a puddle.

Revased, Dory is doing well.


Ryan Sauer writes:

Schools have to cancel academic honors and competitions because those students not included may feel embarrassed or ridiculed!? Does this mean competitive sports are going to be canceled as well? I would hate to see a young athlete feel embarrassed or be ridiculed for losing. Maybe the school system can do away with lunch lines too. The students at the end of the lunch line may feel that they are physically inferior because they are not fast enough to be first in line.

Then we can eliminate the use of surnames. Students with surnames that begin with the last letters of the alphabet could begin to feel that are the least important, always being last. Finally, schools can stop having graduation ceremonies to keep from embarrassing students that did not make the grades to pass.

I have yet to see a school publicly display a list of students with less than satisfactory grades, or hold an academic "dumb off."

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

Respond to the Writer