Adult Modeling versus Discovery Learning: How do children learn best?

Ramp Play Prompts Reflections on Learning

My preschool students enjoy launching cars down ramps. I don’t have a store-bought set of ramps for them to play with like many preschools. Instead, I have a downspout left over from our gutter installation, wood scraps such as boards and blocks of various lengths and sizes left over from a pergola construction, baskets to hold materials, and a couple of curved bender boards from a gardening project.

Discovery Learning, Natural Inquiry, Playing With Ramps
Unguided Discovery Learning

Each day the children were given time to freely set up the ramps and blocks however they wanted.  Despite free access, their creative exploration with the ramps was limited: they would take either the longest board or the gutter, prop it up, and send their cars down.

Learning Takes a Turn

That changed one day when one of our parent volunteers came in.  While her child was playing with the ramps she thought out loud, “I wonder what would happen if I put this curved piece at the end of the downspout, and add a basket to catch the cars as they glide off the end.”

Adult Modeling with Ramps
Adult Modeling Possibilities with Ramps

That idea launched a whole new series of explorations by the children over several preschool days:  fine-tuning the distance of the basket, the length and angle of the bender board curve, the incline of the ramp, the alignment of the elements, the type of cars, balls, popsicle sticks and other objects to use – all with the goal of getting the objects to land inside the basket, plate, or other container they put out.

Constructivism and Discovery Learning with Ramps
Discovery Learning after Adult Modeling

Concerns over Adult Modeling

Unfortunately, many preschool teachers who are faithful to constructivism feel that children should be left alone to manipulate and explore materials without any adult input – as if adults would adulterate children’s learning!

“We have to be careful to model behaviors or events that could be naturally found by the child (through natural inquiry),” said one early childhood educator in response to my post on Purposeful Modeling.

Discovery Learning and Constructivism

Jean Piaget

I assume by natural inquiry the educator is referring to Discovery Learning.  This is a type of learning inspired by the theories of Swiss epistemologist, Jean Piaget, who believed a child constructs his or her own knowledge by actively engaging with the environment.

“The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things.’ Jean Piaget

Taken to an extreme, many teachers feel that modeling something in front of a child destroys the child’s creative and hands-on learning potential.

Adult Mentoring

However, a competing theory by Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, views the adult as a critical component in supporting a child’s knowledge acquisition.

Lev Vygotsky

“What a child can do today with assistance, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.’ ~Vygotsky

“Using imitation, children are capable of doing much more in collective activity or under the guidance of adults.’  ~Vygotsky

“The zone of proximal development… is 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

Back to the Ramps

What happened with the ramps at my preschool brought to mind aspects of Vygotsky’s social development theory and Piaget’s cognitive development theory.  When the parent explored the ramps with the children, proposing new possibilities, it fell in line with Vygotsky, while the children’s subsequent creative exploration (albeit, based on the parent’s modeling) was attuned with Piaget.

Problems Surface with Discovery Learning

Discovery Learning with Ramps
Discovery Learning Continues

Over the years, studies have shown that pure Discovery Learning is not the best way for children to construct knowledge (Mayer, 2004; Alfieri, Brooks, Aldrich, & Tenenbaum, 2011).   In fact, when children are completely left to themselves with learning materials, even when a context  is provided by the teacher, they do not usually construct knowledge effectively.  In comparison, direct instruction (aka explicit instruction) has been shown to be a more effective teaching tool.

An Alternative: Guided Discovery Learning

However, guided Discovery Learning is different and has been shown to be effective. With Guided Discovery Learning, the teacher supports the student each step of the way, giving space for the student to work with ideas but using a highly scaffolded approach – very much in consonance with Vygotsky’s social development theory.  In Guided Discovery Learning the adult is in constant interaction with the child, providing the child a context to understand the subject through explicit instruction, posing questions, eliciting answers, giving hints and feedback, encouraging experimentation, and sometimes modeling. It is a highly analytical process. If a child is developmentally ready for this type of focused analysis, it is a great learning tool. However, I have seen teachers push children into this analytical thinking and reflection before they are ready or receptive.

Adult Modeling

Adult Modeling is a shade different from Guided Discovery Learning. In Adult Modeling, the adult is presenting an experience or a possibility to the child by way of demonstration.  Ideally, the child is then free to experiment with the materials and the new information. This type of teaching is appropriate for the youngest as well as older children.

Teacher Models with Playdough

In response to a post I wrote on this topic, Adults as Natural Models, one preschool teacher commented, I have sat at a play dough table and played with and shaped play dough in interesting ways that children may not have thought of and have then seen them imitate what I am doing and test it out.”

Imitating and testing are key words here.  When used in combination, the act of imitating gives children quick access to new knowledge, while the testing part is children’s creative exploration based on this new knowledge.  In addition, by repeating the experience on their own many times, the children solidify and internalize the knowledge.  I feel this is a superb way for children to learn.

Connecting to the Past

This pedagogy falls closely in line with traditional modes of learning still found in indigenous hunter-gatherer societies.  In traditional modes, children imitate the adults in their environment but also have plenty of unstructured time to creatively explore materials on their own.  Perhaps it is part of our genetic make-up to learn this way and that is why it is so effective.

Discovering the Seesaw through Discovery Learning
Discovering the Seesaw

Pure Discovery Learning Sometimes Works!

Not to confuse you, but the picture above was an example of my students exploring on their own – yes, pure Discovery Learning.  Taking a board and curved wood block from the ramp set, one boy came up with a crude but functional seesaw! Has this boy seen seesaws before in action or could he have stumbled on this accidentally?

Hmmm… maybe the final verdict is to provide kids opportunities for both pure discovery learning and learning by imitating adults – and when children are receptive and ready, introduce guided discovery learning to develop analytical skills.

A Historical View

Children imitate adults as they engage in their day-to-day activities, learning and absorbing the culture and knowledge of the community they live in.  This along with two other key ways of transmitting knowledge were part of the traditional modes of learning since ancient times.

For a brief overview of traditional education: 

Your Turn

What do you think? Do you have any personal experiences with  Discovery Learning, Guided Discovery Learning, or Direct Instruction? Please share in the Comments box below!

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