So far in this mini-series of posts we have looked at two very teacher/trainer-centred strategies: firstly exposition, which is the straightforward delivery of information from the teacher/trainer/expert to the learner; and then instruction, a more deliberate process based on very specific learning objectives, which by necessity includes carefully structured interaction and assessment. The third strategy, guided discovery, which we examine today, has many similarities with instruction in that it is very much a structured and facilitated process, but follows a very different sequence of events.
While instruction moves from theory to practice, from the general to the specific, guided discovery starts with the specific and moves to the general. It is an inductive process – it leads the learner towards insights and generalisations, rather than providing them on a plate. Because this process is much less certain and predictable, guided discovery rarely has specific learning objectives – every learner will take out of the process something unique and personal. What they take out will depend not only on the insights they gain from the particular learning experience, but also to a great deal on their prior knowledge and previous life experience.
Guided discovery can take many forms – experiments in a laboratory, simulations, scenarios, case studies or teambuilding activities. In each case, the learner is presented, alone or in a group, with a task to accomplish. Having undertaken the task, the learner is encouraged to reflect on the experience – what went well, what less well; how could the successes be repeated and the failures avoided? The conclusions can be taken forward to further exercises and then hopefully applied to real-world tasks.
In fact, guided discovery could be based on real-world tasks to begin with: coaching, for example, encourages the individual to reflect and learn from real-life task experience, as he or she pursues a clearly-articulated learning goal; action learning involves a group of peers working together to resolve real work problems.
Less confident, dependent learners should be comfortable with guided discovery, as long as the process is carefully structured and facilitated, and does not leave them floundering. What is more important is that the learner should have enough knowledge and experience of the subject matter or situations underlying the learning activity that they can make a reasonable attempt at it – you can’t build on prior knowledge if you don’t have any.
Guided discovery works best when the topic is less black and white, when you require more than a superficial commitment to a set of ideas. When poorly designed and facilitated, discovery learning will seem pointless, perhaps even manipulative. Well managed and the result could be much deeper learning: as Carl Rogers once warned us, “Nothing that can be taught is worth learning.”