A 5-step Learning Process to Encourage Learner Discovery

The other day, a friend and I were discussing a school where children were encouraged to discover new things on their own. He'd shown me an article describing the children learning to build or assemble some structure. It reminded me of an instructional process I'd learned almost forty-five years ago at Philmont Scout Ranch. I still use the process to great effect today.

5-Step Process

The 5-Step Process

The process I learned has five steps and works well for youth as well as adults:

  1. Guided Discovery In this step the learners discover the need for what they are about to learn. In my case, a man came into the classroom where we were assembled and told us a child had been lost in the woods. We were to join others in looking for her. We fanned out and looked high an low for the missing girl. After most of an hour, one boy found her hiding under a bush.
    It was all a setup: the girl was acting for our benefit.
  2. Evaluation The idea here is to evaluate the Guided Discovery activity and learn what went wrong and what went right. "Debrief" would also be a good description of this step. In our case, we'd run around wildly looking for the girl. We had no plan or procedure, only a sense of urgency.
  3. Teaching-Learning The next step is to teach the actual content. Because the learners will be primed from the evaluation, they are likely to be more receptive to the content and this step can proceed much faster than in a more traditional learning environment.
    We learned how to lay out a search grid and then use it to find a missing person (or anything else, really).
  4. Project In this step, participants try out what they've learned. For us it involved staying in the classroom and waiting for a different child to hide. When we searched, after only a few minutes we found a boy hiding in a crevasse of some rocks.
  5. Evaluation As a wrap-up it's important to debrief the entire experience. Remind the learners what happened, what they learned, and of the success of the Project phase.

This method is based heavily on the idea of constructivism in learning. It is a kind of problem-based learning or experiential learning. Each of these concepts has supporters and detractors, and it is way beyond the scope of this post to discuss their arguments. But, I know that in one afternoon I learned not only how to set up a search grid, but how to employ this teaching method.

Philmont Vista Grande View

Philmont Vista Grande View

Parents tell me that they unconsciously use this method with children. They give them a (fun) task, see how they try, show them a way to do it right, watch them do it, and then remind them what they learned.

Whether it is with children, youth, or adults, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the learners might exhibit a better way to do things during the guided discovery! This makes the whole process a learning experience for everyone and the teaching-learning can become "another way".

The first step needs to be interesting or fun or otherwise gain the interest of the learners. That's important for making them ready for the teaching-learning.

Finally, this seems to work better in some areas than others. It doesn't always have to involve physical activity, but it works especially well when it does. The guided discovery works best for adults when there are one or more groups of learners sharing the experience.

I hope you have a chance to try this process. There are other effective teaching processes, of course, but I've found this one to be particularly useful.