There’s an ongoing debate about whether direct instruction or discovery learning works best in ELT. Direct learning also known as explicit learning is when you give students new information explicitly. For example, you tell them that we form the plural in English by adding -s to the end of words. By contrast, discovery learning is letting students figure out the rules by themselves. I doubt this debate will ever be settled. In fact, it seems likely that in fact both methods work in different contexts with different kinds of information.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for five years, so the situation may have changed a bit (For example, here’s a summary of research projects on the benefits of direct learning for ESL students). But there are still plenty of resources like this one, describing discovery learning. I remember sitting in the teachers room writing input texts for students to deduce rules of grammar from. I think the pendulum has swung back the other way a bit. Still there’s a sense that explicit explanation or direct instruction should be used only as a last resort. It’s really for when your students are struggling and honestly it doesn’t work very well.

But, a few years ago, while teaching my then four-year old about magnets, I realized how useful direct instruction can be!

Can a four-year old discover magnets?

What does a magnet tell us about direct instruction?
What does a magnet tell us about direct instruction?

We were doing an activity about kindness. We read a book about bullying. Then I brought out some magnets and some paperclips. The idea was to teach what magnets are and how they work, while also talking about how kindness attracts people. Of course, he loved the magnets and he got very excited about picking up paperclips with them. Then he moved on to trying to pick up other things with them.

Now this seemed like a perfect time for discovery learning. Let him try to pick up a bunch of stuff with the magnet, see what works and what doesn’t. Then we could talk about what was magnetic and what wasn’t. The problem is, I didn’t prepare for this. We were in our living room on the floor doing a fun activity, so we had pencils, paper, crayons, and a book available. We didn’t have a lot of small iron-heavy things where he could reach them. So basically it was him not picking things up and getting upset. He quickly got very frustrated.

Our House is Surprisingly Metal-free!

After a few minutes, I told him magnets only work on metal things. I then steered him to the refrigerator and the metal near the fireplace (obviously, there was no fire burning). Without that explicit explanation, I doubt he would ever have figured out what things were magnetic and what weren’t. And the reason for that is that he doesn’t really know what metal is, let alone iron. In fact, our appliances are all stainless steel!

To make it worse, our bathtub is iron, but covered with a layer of porcelain. Not even I could figure out why our bathtub was magnetic, honestly, because iron tubs aren’t that common any more. So would he have been able to discover that the paperclips, fireplace cover, and sides of the fridge are all metal, whereas the dishwasher and front of the fridge and over are all metal but a different kind? Seems unlikely.

Discovery Learning is Contrived

These issues reminded me of how contrived a lot of the discovery learning exercises I created for my students are. To get him to discover magnetism I’d have to have a range of non-metal objects, then a range of magnetic and non-magnetic metal things. Maybe I’d decide to ensure a variety of colors or textures so he could learn those things are irrelevant. Or maybe have some big and small things in case he thinks the magnet someone picks things up. But now I’m doing a lot of guiding and prepping to trick him into discovering what I want him to discover. Why not just tell him?

Going back to teaching, I once made a chart for my students, comparing present simple to present progressive to help students discover the difference. As we all know, the textbook says you can’t use the progressive for stative verbs, particularly verbs related to feelings, thoughts, or experiences. Except of course, you can, but there’s a shift in meaning. Or you’re being poetic or colloquial or playing with language,

It was amazing how many verbs I had to exclude to help them “discover” the rule I wanted them to learn. I found that I was creating a very limited set of verbs. And a very simplified rule for my students to discover. Arguably, that’s doing them a serious disservice. It would have been better to lay out the ways present simple and present progressive are used, and to give them lots of good examples. Then, once I’d done the explanation, I could set my students off to discover nuances or exceptions or other examples.

But if they lack the necessary background knowledge, discovery learning is going to be far too frustrating for everyone.

Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee, Bruce L-Y?

A more ELT-related moment came up with my son shortly after the magnet lesson. My son had started learning to read. He was obsessed with how to spell words and constantly asked us how to spell words, “What letters are in boy?” “What are the letters of cow?” I once said he was perfectly perfect in every way. So he asked, “What are the lee letters? Perfect and perfect-lee”

He knew the basic vowel sounds and names of the letters. But he was often frustrated that the long E sound at the end of words like baby is made by a Y. And just as he started to figure that out, he discovered that the terminal Y can also make a long I sound in words like fly.

At some point, he got enough information and learned enough words to spell words and read words accurately. But in order for him to get to that point, he needed a lot of direct instruction. He needed to be told how words are spelled. He also needed to be told that Y at the end of words makes different sounds.

I love discovery learning. Lessons that involve discovery are often a great deal of fun and very communicative, with lots of talking and guessing and meaning-making. But I love direct instruction, too. Without it, students wouldn’t know enough to discover anything. For more, stuff I learned while playing with my kid content, check out my post on drawing Mario and how it taught me good teaching habits!

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