!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Use and Abuse of Discovery Learning

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Use and Abuse of Discovery Learning

Used selectively, discovery learning1 can produce strong retention of important knowledge and skills, especially for people who already have a good grasp of the basics.

But this sort of experiential learning can also lead to the disappointing situation of Mission Not Accomplished.

Fortunately, there is considerable research available to help training designers decide when to use discovery methods and when to use more directive methods. Just this year, Paul A. Kirschner (Utrecht University), John Swell (University of New South Wales), and Richard E. Clark (University of Southern California) published a paper in Educational Psychologist, in which they marshall evidence to show that minimally guided instruction2 is
less effective [the learner can acquire misconceptions, incomplete knowledge, and/or disorganized knowledge] and less efficient [due to the learners' false starts] than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide "internal" guidance.
Kirschner, Swell, and Clark support their argument with a review of research studies that tested discovery methods against direct instruction. These studies found that the latter led to deeper learning, especially in the case of novice learners. (See also this earlier post about Anders Ericsson's research on the relative roles of raw talent and deliberate practice in a person's development of expertise.)

The lessons I take away from my reading of the Kirschner/Swell/Clark article are that we should listen to people when they say they like classroom sessions because they can ask questions; we should generally confine discovery learning to selected modules of a training course, and make sure that the learning is debriefed well by the facilitator; and we should carry on with giving advanced learners real business problems to solve in their training, while providing guidance from master teachers (à la Toyota).

1 Academics use the term "constructivist" to refer to various types of discovery learning. You can read about constructivist ideas of learning here.

2 Kirschner defines "an unguided or minimally guided environment" as one in which learners, rather than being presented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themselves.