So what is it?
The third strategy, guided discovery, has many similarities with instruction in that it is very much a structured and facilitated process, but it 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.
How about some examples?
Guided discovery can take many forms – experiments in a laboratory, simulations, scenarios, case studies or team-building activities. In each of these cases, the learner is presented, alone or in a group, with a task to accomplish. Having undertaken that task, the learner is then 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.
Guided discovery can also take place in a more informal, on-job setting. A good example is coaching. The coach helps the learner to reflect on their real-world experiences, gain insights and make new generalisations that can be tested out on future tasks. The coach’s job is not so much to give advice but to challenge, support and encourage the learner as they come to their own conclusions. Job rotation and job enrichment, both of which seek to provide the employee with new job challenges, can also be regarded as examples of guided discovery.
When should I use it?
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 the situations underlying the learning activity that they can make a reasonable attempt at completing the task – you can’t build on prior knowledge if you don’t have any.
Guided discovery requires careful design and facilitation:
- The tasks that learners are set must be carefully designed to draw out key issues that are meaningful to the learner’s job.
- The tasks should be challenging but must not seem unachievable.
- The learner must be able to relate to the issues raised by the task.
- The learner should not feel they are being manipulated into taking a position that they do not really believe in.
- Ideally the learner should be able to experiment with different approaches without fear of criticism.
- The facilitator (should there be one) should resist the temptation to give advice unless their expertise is called upon by the learner.
Guided discovery works best when the topic is less black and white, when successful performance depends on making judgements in a wide variety of situations. 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.”
Move on to the next strategy: exploration
You’ve read them all. So what now?