Didactic teaching or discovery learning?

According to a study reported on by The Economist, 4 and 5 year-olds not told what could be done with an unfamiliar object explored it for longer and came up with more ideas than control groups who were shown, to varying degrees. The Economist states:

The researchers’ conclusion was that, in the context of strange toys of unknown function, prior explanation does, indeed, inhibit exploration and discovery. Generalising from that would be ambitious. But it suggests that further research might be quite a good idea.

Sometimes you HAVE to do it for yourselfDoes this imply that the advocates of discovery learning (and their associated preference for “guide on the side” to “sage on the stage”) are right? My thoughts are as follows:

  • These were 4 and 5 year-olds; perhaps their lateral thinking ability is limited. After all, according to Piaget it is not until the age of 7 years old that children have the idea of conservation of volume sorted out, ie have the ability to focus on more than one dimension of an object at a time. What would the results of this experiment be had it been carried out with 7 year-olds? Or 15 year-olds?
  • Does the nature of the object itself affect the outcome?
  • Does the perception of the purpose of the exercise have an effect on the outcome?
  • Is this experiment actually measuring something else, like imagination?
  • Even if the study shows what it purports to show, and can be applied more broadly, discovery learning will still not be relevant or appropriate in all circumstances, in my opinion.
  • What are the implications of this research, and of my scepticism about it, for the teaching of so-called "digital natives". Would it indeed be better if we simply stepped aside and let them get on with it?
  • There's another issue too. At the EDUsummIT 2011 conference I attended, there were repeated references to values, and the role of the teacher in guiding young people in both values and filtering the mass of information when they are doing research. Where does "discovery learning" fit in with that?

What do you think?

This is an expanded version of an article which was first published in Computers in Classrooms, the free e-newsletter for educational ICT professionals. Subscribe now, and be eligible for a free prize draw for a one year subscription to one of Scholastic's Child Education Plus Online or Nursery Education Plus Online (UK residents only -- sorry.)

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