Discovery learning is hard to measure

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Freedom leads to discovery

Discovery learning is universally considered inferior to direct instruction. The reason for that popular opinion is that direct instruction is the way to program the brain towards a specific purpose such as tests, grades, and certificates. On the other hand, discovery learning is merely the best way of achieving the maximum potential of the human brain in terms of knowledge and intelligence in a specific educational or social context.

Pure discovery learning is nothing else than the best way of learning. It is nothing different than what I call free learning.

Superiority of direct instruction

By definition, discovery learning provides for fantastic outcomes. However, research consistently fails to prove its superiority. The problem is not much different from the difficulty with measuring any form of creative output. By definition, creativity is unpredictable. It cannot easily be measured.

There are many enthusiast of mass produced "quality" that provides nothing new to the creative wisdom of the crowds. With each new research paper showing that direct instruction works, crowds of zealous supporters of "mass education" pop with their glowing blog entries: "I told you so!".

Professor Alex Tabarrok, an economist of deserved TED fame, goes a step further and presents direct instruction like a new revelation (source):

What if I told you that there is a method of education which significantly raises achievement, has been shown to work for students of a wide range of abilities, races, and socio-economic levels and has been shown to be superior to other methods of instruction in hundreds of tests? Well, the method is Direct Instruction. I am reminded of this by the just-published, The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research which, based on an analysis of 328 studies using 413 study designs examining outcomes in reading, math, language, other academic subjects, and affective measures (such as self-esteem), concludes:

"Our results support earlier reviews of the DI effectiveness literature. The estimated effects were consistently positive. Most estimates would be considered medium to large using the criteria generally used in the psychological literature and substantially larger than the criterion of .25 typically used in education research (Tallmadge, 1977). […] The strong positive results were similar across the 50 years of data; in articles, dissertations, and gray literature; across different types of research designs, assessments, outcome measures, and methods of calculating effects; across different types of samples and locales, student poverty status, race-ethnicity, at-risk status, and grade; across subjects and programs; after the intervention ceased; with researchers or teachers delivering the intervention; with experimental or usual comparison programs; and when other analytic methods, a broader sample, or other control variables were used"

Bad research

Poorly designed research will compare direct instruction with discovery learning by trying to measure a pre-selected desired outcome. It is like trying to catch a rat by the rathole without knowing in which hole that rat emerges. Using the mountain climb metaphor, we could say that it is pretty obvious that pulling a kid on a line to a mountaintop is the best way to ensure a prompt arrival. However, the conveyor of direct instruction kills the possibility of reaching new peaks. It also ruins the fun of the climb and the possibility to collect rich specimen on the way up. The specimen are side effects of learning: unpredictable knowledge that is high in coherence, stability and applicability. The researchers stand at the top of the mountain, measure the speed of climbing and announce to the world that those who use the lines are the winners. Teachers critical of discovery learning, stand at the top and wait impatiently for new arrivals. When the students go their own way and choose another mountaintop, teachers get angry and exclaim "discovery learning does not work". As the teacher is the boss, direct instruction rules the world.

Evil mirror of PISA

PISA tests, like a magic mirror, always prophesize direct instruction as the fairest tool.

If we drill kids in quadratic equations, they will excel in quadratic equations and do great in tests. At the same time, unschoolers and others adepts of free learning may never get to quadratic equations due to their low applicability in the 21st century. Instead, they are more likely to master programming skills that will provide a foundation for solving any math problem with numerical methods: established or constructed ad hoc by a creative mind. They may even commit the ultimate heresy of mastering Mathematica that will leave all high school knowledge in the dustbin. Those who want to measure the outcomes of discovery learning should wait half a century and see which student is more likely to come up with breakthrough ideas in any discipline they turn out to be passionate about. Modern speedy peer review science can hardly afford to wait. Short research cycles receive preference and short-term optimizations rule in the peer review world. Thus human intelligence falls pray to mind robotization once again.

Is discovery hard?

Some research has shown that discovery learning is harder for novices. Teachers may see gaps in knowledge as troublesome potholes on the road to wisdom. Consequently, discovery is hard because there is little material to build upon. That's false. Gaps in knowledge are actually attractors of curiosity that propel further discovery. The younger the kid the greater the power of the learn drive.

The claim that discovery learning is hard and ineffective for novices must have been born in the confines of schooling. Only the demands of the curriculum may hamper the discovery. Only kids subjected to a couple of years of schooling can possibly be drained of the rudimentary skill given to all children: love of learning and love of discovery. We are all born curious explorers. Those skills can only die when the freedom of learning is displaced with intellectual slavery.

We love discovery

Robert Pondiscio while acknowledging the said meta-analysis on direct instruction, noticed that it is not only the creative kids that suffer (source): "For a significant subset of teachers, the mere thought of a set curriculum imposes an intolerable burden on their autonomy and creativity"

The meta-analysis of the wonders of direct instruction made global headlines. My suggestion for the next century of research is to, at the very least, consider the mental health of students subject to an increasingly robotized schedule. We are enamored with busy and conscientious Asian tigers. However, we may end up churning stellar graduates who will fail to meet their promise due to an epidemic of suicide.

Mass production vs. intelligence

The whole debate stems from a lack of reconciliation of goals. Education politicians want to drag kids from A to B and this is where direct instruction helps immensely. It does not require genius teachers, it does not require kids to be geniuses either. It works like any other factory.

In contrast, discovery learning may help convert ordinary kids into geniuses in the absence of teaching. In the absence of school indoctrination, student goals are not defined by the curriculum. Students just want to be smarter, more knowledgeable and more competitive. Discovery learning is the best way to reach extensive knowledge of high coherence and high applicability.

In the short term, direct instruction works better when coercive learning is to meet the goals of the curriculum for a specific test. Discovery learning works better for those who value high quality knowledge that powers intelligence

If you are not convinced with my words, let me leave you with a intriguing note that my own data shows that the efficiency of discovery learning may surpass direct instruction at the ratio of 100:1. As my half-baked data is just one of a zillion issues I have cooking in the stove, I have no publishing schedule. If you are curious, please send me a line. I will try to speed things up.

Further reading

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru