pedagogy · Progressivism

An argument for discovery learning in early years classrooms

apple bw and colour_3In this blog, I intend to address the issue of discovery learning. Critics have claimed that discovery learning has been the dominant ideology in education for much of the past 50 years. Some consider it to be the cause of many of the problems suffered by education during that period. I want to address the issue of discovery learning partially because of the negativity towards it, in certain quarters, but also because of the intense debate that surrounded the early years’ (EY) report bold beginnings.

Constructivism, an epistemology of knowledge, and the discovery method have had their fair share of critics but a seminal paper by Kirschner, Sweller, & Clarke  in 2006 entitled Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching has become something of a rallying call for critics of the method:

(…) those advocating the hypothesis that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment, generally defined as one in which learners, rather than being presented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themselves (e.g., Bruner, 1961; Papert, 1980; Steffe & Gale, 1995).

Another paper by Mayer in 2004 was more nuanced but offered a similar critique to Kirschner, Sweller, & Clarke. Constructivism underpins discovery; however, the two are often conflated. In this blog, I want to focus on the discovery method.

Discovery learning does not aim to teach students to discover essential knowledge for themselves. It embeds existing knowledge into long-term memory, which becomes a platform for new knowledge. The gap in knowledge between existing and new knowledge is bridged by a teacher or more knowledgeable peer.  As Fisher (2016) points out “Practitioners use interactions to affirm and consolidate children’s learning.” Bruner described the constant interaction between a teacher and a student in discovery learning as scaffolding (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976):

(…) scaffolding consists essentially of the adult “controlling” those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence. The task thus proceeds to a successful conclusion.

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) has a similar theme:

(…) the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

An example may be useful; in this case, a young learner discovering the mathematical concept of 1 + 1 = 2. The concept is introduced by an EY teacher using direct instruction referring to physical constructs such as apples, and employing embodied cognitive techniques. The young learner may be given two apples to hold and instructed that an apple in one hand equates to the mathematical representation 1, whereas, an apple in each hand equals 2.

The EY teacher now uses re-iterative problem-solving techniques to embed the new knowledge into long-term memory. As Bruner points it in his 1961 paper, young learners have to discover or figure it out for themselves. The EY teacher may set a problem for the young learners to solve in the form of 1 apple + 1 apple = ? apples; the teacher uses scaffolding techniques to introduce abstract mathematical concepts. Natural objects, experienced by the young learner. act as bridges to new learning. One could even introduce an aspect of play by asking the young learners to pick the apples from a tree. Teachers could also use peer support as young learners adopt the mantle of the expert and interact with other young learners explaining the concepts and acting as play partners.

In the EY classroom, this is most likely to occur during a period of child-initiated time. Contrary to the myths, often perpetuated by some non–EY educators, there are significant amounts of the day, which involve direct teaching (Dubiel and Kilner, 2017). Experienced discovery teachers will understand the relationship between direct instruction and child- initiated learning. An appropriate balance between the two ensures that the latter re-enforces the former.

The teacher will have put much thought into providing an “enabling environment” which encourages the child to explore different concepts during their child-initiated learning. For example, the teacher will have provided various objects of interest to encourage counting, sorting and sharing in the maths area. In addition, whiteboards, markers, paper, and pencils allow children to experiment with pictorial representations of their mathematical thinking.

A useful tool in the discovery teacher’s toolkit is modelling, which demonstrates how these different approaches may be used by the children.  This often involves an “idealization” of the act to be performed and it may involve completion or even explication of a solution already partially executed by the tutee (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976).” A modelling approach facilitates independent learning. The teacher will use judicious guidance, during child-initiated play reducing the amount of guidance needed as children develop their independence and finally gain mastery of the knowledge they are required to learn.

Discovery teachers will no doubt offer various “provocations” to encourage children to apply their newly acquired knowledge Examples of this approach could include a role-play scenario where an additional visitor comes to tea. An extra place must be set at the table, thereby, allowing opportunities to discuss calculations and apply the concept of “one more”.

By adopting these approaches to learning, the teacher generates new opportunities for formative assessment but more importantly, the young learner has to re-visit existing knowledge in order to solve the problem. Activities and follow up questions could be, go to the tree and pick an apple! How many apples do you have? Pick another, how many apples do you have if you have one in each hand? 1 in the left hand added to 1 in the right-hand makes…? What does that look like in maths? How might you show me what you’ve done? (pictorial representation) Can you write it on the iPad and show me?

For young children busy trying to create an internal model of the world and how it works the need to assimilate new knowledge and make the connection between it and what is already tentatively known is essential. Lots of time needs to be spent practising, repeating, revisiting and rehearsing (Fisher, 2016). Using the enabling environment, alongside judicious adult guidance, the teacher is able to provide children with the necessary opportunities to consolidate their learning and make progress.

A teacher competent in discovery learning can make several re-iterative passes using these techniques. By leveraging existing knowledge of the natural world, the discovery teacher demonstrates how mathematical concepts can represent the natural world. A less skilled practitioner may well lose sight of the fact that the intention is to embed mathematical knowledge into long-term memory; consequently, the young learners may well leave the session having enjoyed the experience learned a little, about apples and trees, but not much more. The teacher who simply gives the student the problem 1 +1 = 2 to solve and then says go and discover probably only exists in the collective imagination of a small number of cognitive psychologists, one or two government ministers and a handful of bloggers.

If the young learner struggles, at any point, to engage with the new knowledge the teacher offers guidance using scaffolding techniques. The advantage of using the environment to support, and scaffold, learning is that it allows the skilled teacher to extend for those children who truly understand the concept, and to scaffold, support and consolidate for those children who need further support. The learner advances step by step, re-iterating existing knowledge and gradually becoming less reliant on teacher input. Remember both Bruner and Vygotsky were psychologists concerned with cognition as Bruner put at the end of his 1961 paper “in sum,  the very attitudes and activities that characterize “figuring out” or “discovering” things for oneself also seem to have the effect of making things more accessible in memory”.   

The alternative to the discovery method advocated is the sole use of the teaching method direct instruction. Using this method would see a teacher instructing a whole class and then talking through the example of 1 + 1 = 2, which seems to have few benefits and relatively little impact upon cognition. This approach presumes that the child already has a sound understanding of cardinal number, conservation of number, abstract representation. The opportunities for misconception are manifold. Indeed, because of the nature of direct instruction, a young learner is far more likely to suffer cognitive load issues. Well-executed discovery learning on the other hand, which scaffolds knowledge under the guidance of a teacher simplifies a task by reducing the number of constituent acts required to reach a solution (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976).

In conclusion, discovery is a teaching method, which encourages learners to problem-solve or engage with the knowledge that has just been acquired; it does not expect the learner to discover essential information. Discovery does not intend, as its primary purpose, to teach problem-solving or to create problem-solvers although constructivists hoped that it would. Discovery incorporates others methods such as direct instruction and the mantle of the expert, in addition to, tools such as scaffolding and re-iterative techniques to sharpen the focus on the intended outcome and embed knowledge into memory.


This blog is a collaboration between myself and Ruth Swailes. Ruth has contributed the intelligent stuff about EY whilst the rest is mine.

10 thoughts on “An argument for discovery learning in early years classrooms

  1. I love the self-depricative note at the end of this piece. I also love the bringing together of the work of Bruner et al with that of Dorothy Heathcote and her Mantle of the Expert. Provocations are, in my recent, brief experience of spending time back in a Primary school (dotage, learning about teaching and offering my version of provocations) central to children’s mathematical development. Looking for ways of combining “telling” with actively enabling children to “explore” ideas, to solve problems is a challenge I embrace; being and acting in-the-moment becomes the life-blood of why I teach. But “telling” is not only the preserve of my teaching; if, in-the-moment I think a child has something important to “tell” her/his peers then so much the better. Than you for posting this blog.

  2. I really enjoyed this down to earth, balanced and well referenced piece and have nothing else to contribute except to say i think you covered all bases between you and will recommend as a really good unpicking and explanation of teaching expertise in action.

  3. Great article. At Annan School we fully support discovery learning in ECE and KS1 but also elements of child led discovery in KS2 to promote creativity and a love of learning.
    #Froebel @annanschool

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