Direct Instruction vs. Discovery Learning – How does this apply to Computer Science?

An interesting article on this debate follows. In my opinion, I lean more towards direct instruction, but agree this is not a “one or the other” approach and also agree is is more of a spectrum. The article follows:

I recently read a post by Mark Guzdial on the CACM blog entitled “Direct Instruction is Better than Discovery, but What Should We be Directly Instructing?”  (link).  This led me down the rabbit hole to:

  • Felienne Hermans’ blog post , “Programming and direct instruction” (link)
  • NY Times article “Why Are we Teaching Reading the Wrong Way.”  (link)
  • Kirschner, Sweller, Clark paper “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching” (link) (I’ll call this the KSC paper)

Felienne’s post doesn’t seem to make as strong a claim as Mark’s headline, but does make the point that,

“Children need help with learning to program because they will get stuck otherwise, drop out and decide programming ‘is not for them’.”  She concludes with the idea that we have to “embrace direct instruction,” and to “rote memorize the ifs and loops, if we want all children to learn well.”

The NY Times article was a nice interlude, which made the following point:

“While learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need [..] explicit, systematic phonics instruction.”

Okay, so kids need systematic instruction for basic building blocks that are not naturally learned.  I’ve seen this before, and I buy it. But does that mean, categorically, that, “Direct instruction is better than discovery”? Well, from the links above, we have a picture of direct instruction (DI): explicit systematic instruction; rote memorization.  What about the “other side.” The KSC paper wastes no time in painting this as a simple dichotomy:

“On one side of this argument are those advocating the hypothesis that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment [and] must discover or construct essential information for themselves.”

“On the other side are those suggesting that novice learners should be provided with direct instructional guidance on the concepts and procedures [..]”

The paper goes on to lump together, “Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based” and consider them all to be equivalent to the most extreme version of a single ideology: students must figure everything out for themselves. Before I go on, I will say that I make no claims to any special expertise here.  I’m basing my points on: (A) my past experience as a HS math and CS teacher, and as a state STEM education director; and (B) my current studies of STEM education research at a university, in the department of education, where constructivism is the dominant theoretical perspective.  This is not a research paper – I’m not going to cite sources. I’m not going to rigorously argue my points. I also recognize that science, math, engineering, and CS are unique disciplines that require different pedagogical approaches.  That said, I will try to keep things general rather than referring to any particular discipline. Here are my points:

  1. DI vs. Discovery is a false dichotomy
  2. That “Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based” learning are not identical, and are not equal to “just figure it out.”
  3. Inquiry-based learning has benefits that go beyond mastery of basic skills
  4. Rote learning has risks

DI vs. Discovery is a false dichotomy.  If anything, it’s more like a spectrum, but this is probably oversimplifying it too.  Educators can and should use a variety of strategies. “Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based” learning may all share a constructivist foundation (or maybe not necessarily), but they emphasize different strategies, or aspects of teaching.  Constructivism might hold that we construct knowledge and meaning from experience, but that does not imply that we need to “just figure it out.” Benefits of constructivist learning include development of:

  • Autonomy / agency / critical thinking
  • Communication / collaboration
  • Creativity / divergent thinking

Although these benefits are more difficult to measure than basic skills, evidence has been described in a number of empirical studies.  These skills are generally useful, and highly valued by employers. Risks of rote learning include:

  • False impression of what “doing science / math / engineering / CS” is really about.
  • Students may not have opportunities to have a voice in the class, or may not feel like their prior experiences are valued.
  • Whole-class direct instruction assumes that all students require the same instruction at the same time.  This can lead to frustration (and disengagement) for students who are not ready, or boredom (and disengagement) for students who have already advanced beyond the skills being instructed.

In closing, I encourage the reader to consider the pros and cons of different pedagogical strategies and draw their own conclusions.  See the original source here

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