Methods of Teaching in the Classroom (page 3)

Updated on Nov 18, 2011

Discovery Learning

Discovery learning is an approach to instruction that focuses on students’ personal experiences as the foundation for conceptual development. It is unlikely that children will walk into your classroom with all of the necessary experiences that relate to the concepts you want to teach, so the challenge is to provide your students with the opportunities for experiences they need in the context of discovery. That is, allowing students to find the information for themselves by virtue of some activity you have provided. The students in your class will then share a common experience that you can develop as it relates to the concept under consideration. In essence, we are cheating just a bit because, from an instructional perspective the idea is to have children discover what we want them to discover. It’s new to them, of course, but it is all part of the strategy for the teacher.

Discovery learning channels the natural inquisitiveness of children (and the natural inquisitiveness that remains in adults) by providing structure to the experience without imposing unnecessary structure on the thinking. That is, unlike the science experiments that you did in high school that were “wrong” if they didn’t come out the way the book said they should, discovery learning encourages children to engage in the activity and document what does happen.

Even with structured activities in the classroom, twenty students will experience the activity in twenty different ways. Because of that, for discovery learning to be pedagogically sound it must be accompanied by a structure that goes beyond the discovery phase of the exercise. Such a structure, or framework, is intended to clarify the experience in terms of the concept being taught.

Four-Phase Learning Cycle

  1. Introduction: a question, challenge, or interesting event that captures the students’ curiosity.
  2. Exploration: the opportunity for students to manipulate materials, to explore, and to gather information.
  3. Concept Development: With a common experience to relate to, terminology is introduced and concepts developed in class discussion.
  4. Application: This could take the form of an enrichment activity, an opportunity to apply what has been learned, or a test to assess learning.

An example might be packaging an egg to withstand being dropped from a height of ten feet or so. After posing the question to the students about how this might be done (Introduction), students are provided time to devise various packaging strategies (Exploration). Instruction about packaging is not provided before the egg is dropped; the students are on their own at this stage. Discussions of forces, mass, acceleration, and so forth do not yet enter into the picture. It is only after the eggs have been packaged, dropped, and checked for survival that the lesson moves to a discussion of what has been found. With the common experience of this trial-and-error activity, students are prepared to have a meaningful lesson about the topics relating to forces and motion (Concept Development). Finally, the students might be challenged to package another egg (or something else) to apply what they have learned (Application). You can see that this entire lesson, though arranged by the teacher, is centered on the students’ thinking. In fact, the students’ thinking will drive the lesson as the teacher assesses and accommodates the various perspectives that the students will have.


We have placed inquiry at the highest level of our taxonomy not only because it involves the use of prior knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge, but because it also involves generating the question to be answered. It is no coincidence that the tendency to ask questions is characteristic of children as well as of adults at the top of their professions. Scientists, professors, writers, politicians, and others are people who frame questions and then go about finding solutions. Children, with their natural curiosity, are compelled to ask questions and take delight in finding answers. The task for professional educators is to channel that inquisitiveness in ways that are beneficial to the individual and perhaps even to the world at large. Suddenly our discussion has come a very long way from rudimentary direct instruction. Teaching changes lives, and it changes the world!

The teacher who uses an inquiry approach has a considerable amount of preparation to do and also must be prepared to teach the students how to use inquiry. Foremost among the concerns would be helping the student frame a question in a manner that can be investigated. For example, what would your response be if a child were to ask, “Why do birds fly?” Would you say that birds fly because it’s faster than walking? Because they enjoy being in the air? Just because? Why birds fly is a legitimate question, but likely one to be addressed by theologians or philosophers. A more appropriate question might be “How do birds fly?” This is a question that can be investigated in the context of school. Students could even investigate what factors allow one type of bird to fly faster or higher than another or, in the case of ostriches and chickens, not at all. Helping to frame an appropriate question, without diminishing the validity of the initial question, is a primary challenge the teacher faces.

A chief strength of the inquiry approach is that it can integrate the curriculum by involving many disciplines in meaningful ways. Children can read, write, calculate, engage in scientific investigations, address social concerns, and use the arts, all in the context of answering their own questions. While the amount of lecturing that a teacher does is significantly reduced, the intellectual challenge for a teacher preparing and conducting such activities is considerable, and considerably rewarding.

A teacher may use combinations of all of the techniques we have discussed in the course of a single lesson. A lesson plan may begin with a question-and-answer session that stimulates student interest and thinking and then proceed to a discovery-learning experience that will be followed by a discussion of what was learned. It is important for you to understand that teaching is a task that requires considerable instructional flexibility, and we still have not even considered the topic of knowing the subject matter!

If you were an astute observer of the nature of each technique that we have discussed, you may have already noticed that the first three levels represent approaches in which the teacher does the most talking or directing of student activity. The middle two levels transition to a dialogic approach in which the teacher and student share more of a partnership. The teacher continues to direct the activity, if only by virtue of having planned the whole experience, but the exchange of ideas is of central concern with these levels.

But notice what happens as we move to mental modeling and the levels beyond. See how the emphasis changes now to the thinking that students will do? At these levels students are not only investigating academic topics but ultimately are also asking their own questions and finding ways to seek answers and solve problems. You have probably heard that education is a process that seeks to develop lifelong learners. The teacher who uses all levels of the taxonomy with an eye toward leading students to these highest levels and allowing them to develop their critical and creative thinking abilities will be the teacher whose students develop that love of learning that we all wish to impart.

The Taxonomy of Instructional Techniques

Teacher Focused

  • Direct Instruction: Teacher explains or demonstrates
  • Drill and Practice: Repetition to hone a skill or memorize information
  • Lecture: Teacher provides information to students in a one-way verbal presentation

Dialogue Oriented

  • Question and Answer: Requires reflection as information is exchanged in response to a question
  • Discussion: An exchange of opinions and perspectives

Student Focused

  • Mental Modeling: Assists students in managing their own learning by modeling a problem-solving technique
  • Discovery Learning: Uses students’ personal experiences as the foundation for building concepts
  • Inquiry: Allows students to generate the questions that they will then investigate and answer
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