Is Discovery Learning a Bust?

Is Discovery Learning a Bust, and

Has PWC Blown it By Embracing Discovery Learning?

Several years ago Prince William County Schools (PWCS) adopted a mathematics program called Investigations in Number, Data, and Space as it’s elementary math program.  PWCS is currently pushing Connected Mathematics into the Middle Schools.  Both of these programs are based on an instructional philosophy which concludes that students’ learn best when they discover knowledge on their own – a philosophy which is commonly referred to as discovery, or constructivist, learning.

The current trend in extending the tenets of discovery learning to mathematics can be traced back, to an extent,  works published in the 60’s.   Researchers noted that children learn things easily outside of school when they discover it themselves, while learning in a school environment takes a lot of effort and work.   They theorized that if schools duplicated the “outside of school” environment, students would learn more in less time with better retention and greater depth of understanding.

Whole Language was one of the offshoots of this approach to learning.  After years of suffering the reading wars, Congress commissioned studies to determine how children learn to read.  The results of those studies brought about the more balanced reading instruction we see today where phonics is one of the pillars on which a sound reading program rests.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of the Math Wars, with PWC on the front lines.  Several Years ago the National Institutes of Child Health convened  studies to ascertain how children learn math and what contributes to math learning disabilities.  One such study is currently in it’s 6th year and has reported some of it’s conclusions. Dr Dave Geary recently published an article, based on those studies, (see here) in which he concluded that some things, like talking and walking, are inherent biological functions which humans are genetically designed to develop, while other functions, like reading and math, aren’t inherent and are needed only because society demands them.

Geary’s research indicates that these non-inherent functions (which he refers to as biologically secondary knowledge) aren’t learned the same way that inherent functions are learned; that discovery and self learning, the primary means by which children learn to talk and walk aren’t the most effective means of teaching children to read or write or understand and perform mathematical calculations.

Geary’s study concludes that math and science instructional programs need to include direct instruction and practice if we want our children to learn math and science.

Yet in the fall PWCS will be officially extending it’s discovery based math program to 5th grade and officials in PWCS are working diligently to unofficially implement it’s discovery based math program, Connected Math, in the middle schools.  You have to wonder why the county would continue these programs, when the evidence suggests that these programs, while engaging to our children, don’t actually teach them math.


With thanks to Elizabeth Carson of NYC HOLD and Dan Dempsey of The Math Underground for bringing this research to my attention.


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