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What is Discovery Learning?
The theory of discovery learning assumes that children learn best through experimentation and discovery of facts and relationships on their own. Rather than being asked to memorize facts or learn by listening, children are ask to manipulate materials, experiment, make assumptions and discover by themselves. Most activities that are based on discovery learning are planned quite by accident! For example, a teacher may plan an autumn nature activity that involves making leaf rubbings. While the children are outdoors collecting leaves for this activity, a child discovers a squirrel hiding acorns. The child may ask a question which leads to a discussion of how animals live through the winter months. If the teacher is open, the classroom planning may evolve towards a hibernation theme or a broader animal theme.
If you are open to trying this kind of curriculum in your preschool classroom, keep in mind that it is not for everyone. It will involve a certain amount of flexibility in the daily schedule as in your own plans. If you are the type of teacher who needs to plan her schedule of activities well in advance and is uncomfortable with mixing it up or playing it by ear, a discovery learning curriculum may not be right for you. However, even if you're not ready to embrace the concept completey you may be able to introduce some of activities and elements of it into your early childhood classroom.
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Starting with Science
If you choose to give discovery learning a try, start with your preschool science curriculum. Since this area of the day usually revolves around making discoveries and executing experiments, it will be an easy transition for students and teachers. The key to a discovery learning curriculum is to ask, and encourage the children to ask as well as answer, "what if?" questions. For example, set out a simple balance scale in your science center as well as some empty cups, a few small weights, and a collection of paper clips, rubber bands, and other office supplies. Allow children to discover the materials on their own and observe how they manipulate the objects. Notice if they are filling the empty cups with water or sand, attempting to balance the scale or tip it in one direction or the other. Observing how children manipulate the objects in their environment will give you a clue as to what questions to ask when you step into the play.
Notice how children interact with each other while they are manipulating the objects. Are they asking each other questions? Posing challenges to each other? If they are, continue to observe. If they are not, step in and begin asking the "what if" questions yourself. For example, ask: "What would happen if we filled this cup with water and put all of the red paper clips on the other side? Would the scale balance or not? Which side would be heavier? Let's try it and see!" Or, you can challenge your students by saying "Hey, Ryan, can you make the scale balance using the weights and the elastic bands?"
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Discovery Learning Across the Curriculum
Once you and your class understand the basic principles of it will be easy to implement in other areas of your classroom. Keep in mind the simple principles of discovery learning: experimentation, "what if?" questions, and the aha! moment. When a child is driven to solve a problem on his own through experimentation and perseverance, this is learning theory at its most basic. Here are some other activities that are appropriate for the early childhood classroom:
Art: This is one area of the curriculum where it may be a challenge to implement discovery learning. Try this approach. Purchase a print of a work of fine art such as Van Gogh's Starry Night. Place it strategically in your art center along with several easels, colored pencils, markers, crayons, charcoal and paint in the colors of the artwork. Encourage children to study the painting and create their own interpretation of it. Notice which medium children use to recreate the painting and ask questions to get them discussing their reasoning for choosing the medium they did. Some children may choose what they are most comfortable with, while others will have really studied the painting and chosen the medium that most matches Van Gogh's style.
Manipulatives: Similar to art, try to challenge your students to experiment with different types of building materials. Ask the children to work in teams to build the tallest tower they can with the cardboard blocks. Once they have completed this challenge, observe to see if they continue to challenge each other in other ways, such as "Hey! Let's use Legos to build the tallest building!" or "How can we make a ramp for the cars?" Once children become accustomed to discovery learning, they will begin to ask these questions of each other on a regular basis.
Circle Time: When you are reading a story to children, be sure to pause throughout the story to ask questions about what they believe will happen next, what they might see in the illustrations, or how a character may be feeling based on the pictures and actions in the book. Get children in the habit of making educated guesses. When the story is finished, ask a few "what if?" questions. Give children a chance to speculate and create their own stories. For example, ask "What would have happened in the story if all three of the Little Pigs had built their houses from bricks? What would have happened to the wolf?"
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Conclusion and References
Remember that while a discovery learning curriculum is not for everyone, you can incorporate some of the basic principles into your everyday lesson plans. Plan a few discovery learning activities for your early childhood classroom and see if your students will benefit from this type of curriculum.
Taylor, Barbara J. Early Childhood Program Management. Macmillan Publishing (1993)
Katz, Lillian G. and Diane E. McClellan. Fostering Children's Social Competence. NAEYC Publishing (1997)
Author's own classroom experience
Photo Credit: Kara M. Bietz