Discovery learning puts the student front and center. Unlike direct instruction, discovery learning allows students to explore topics at will and to come up with answers the instructor did not necessarily anticipate. A common description of the instructor’s role in discovery learning is “guide on the side”. This is in contrast to the DI model often caricatured as “sage on the stage”. There is a difference though between actual discovery learning and just giving students a topic to research and turning them loose. The “guide on the side” really does need to play an active role. How active that role is depends on which specific discovery learning process is selected.

The classic Socratic method involves the instructor pulling answers out of the student through dialogic questions. (The etymology of the English word “to educate” derives in part from the Latin¬†educere –¬†to lead out.) In ancient philosophy, there was a metaphysical idea that humans have forgotten their true nature and the education process is a way to help students recall these existential truths. Moderns, in general, view knowledge more like something that needs to be constructed from scratch in the material world, so a purely Socratic method would only make sense if you are reasonably certain the student already knows the sought after answer from prior learning or experience. (Alternatively, Socratic dialog can be good for values clarification. This type of dialog challenges beliefs, not so much knowledge.) In any case, the Socratic method is a bit of a cheat from a discovery learning standpoint, because the instructor really does know exactly where the lesson is headed. Socratic dialog is a way to get the desired information to come from the students themselves rather than just stating it.

A more up-to-date version of discovery learning is Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed”. The original context for Freire’s work was adult literacy training for illiterate peasants in 1960s Brazil. This training had political implications, because in Brazil at that time, voting rights required the ability to read. (Freire’s work in Brazil was cut short by a military coup in 1964). Freire took great pains to distance his method from what he criticized as the “banking model” of education. For Freire, “banking” is a pure DI approach in which expert instructors push knowledge at passive students. Freire strove for the opposite. Rejecting even simple reading primers, Freire began by engaging students in “culture circles”. The point of the culture circle was to get impoverished, illiterate members of the Brazilian underclass to see themselves as autonomous persons with a say in their own destinies. Reading instruction only began after the students become conscientious of themselves as choice-making agents, and even then, the curriculum was effectively co-created by the students and by instructors Freire called facilitators.

Other forms of discovery learning aim at more purely cognitive outcomes. The assumption is that students generally are ready to learn, only suffer from more moderate forms of oppression like bad jobs or high rent, and were not born knowing IT already. The choice of discovery learning versus DI is just pragmatic in this case: will students learn more quickly or retain the information better if they problem-solve their own way to understanding? Or would it be better just to get straight to the answers through DI? There are also shades of gray approaches between pure discovery and pure DI. For example, one popular technique is called “scaffolding”. In a scaffolded lesson, the instruction starts out fairly direct (the instructor frames the situation), but then the lesson transitions to the instructor stepping back and letting students work out the details of whatever problem the instructor has proposed.

Considering the recommendation made earlier about diversity of assessment being good for managing student diversity in all its many forms, a judicious mix of DI and discovery learning can work better than just one or the other standing alone. For example, in teaching the syntax of a particular computer language, it can be helpful for the instructor to just state key elements of syntax and provide simple demonstrations of how each command works. Then students can do their own simple programming assignments practicing those same commands. That is pure DI, and it works well in the early stages of mastering a new computer language. But software development (as opposed to just learning syntax) demands far more initiative on the part of the developer. No one in the workplace is going to be handing employees the equivalent of worksheet questions to answer for a daily assignment. Actual code production requires some level of independent decision making, research, and creativity. Discovery projects sprinkled into each coding class along the way begin to acclimatize students to unstructured work with code, or better yet, to the need to create their own structured processes. DI by itself will not promote the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required of information technology professionals who face new problems all the time. DI to scaffold, followed by discovery to work the students’ problem-solving muscles, can be a more effective approach.