There’s a natural tension between two broad modes of learning, what Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, has called “guided discovery” versus “routinized learning.”
Teachers, educators, and instructional designers need to recognize this tension. One of the challenges in education and training is finding the right balance between these two modes of learning—we need both.
Guided discovery represents the process of learning that humans naturally adopt as children. We explore the world, turning to adults to help make sense of it, and to teach us, in Gopnik’s words, “to make predictions, formulate explanations, imagine alternatives and design plans.” This process remains a powerful one as we pursue life-long learning.
Routinized learning represents more the more formalized pedagogy found in schools. It involves students mastering what they’ve learned, often through repetition (the familiar “skill and drill” approach) or through an instructor’s presentation (the “sage on the stage.”)
Guided discovery offers a natural and engaging way to introduce learners to new topics. It’s the basis for apprenticeship programs and for training models like USED (Understanding, Showing, Experiencing, Doing). In online learning, guided discovery can be achieved through interactive exercises, through simulation, and through other gradual learning techniques.
Routinized learning can provide a mastery of concepts and skills that offers a solid foundation for learning. One of educator E.D. Hirsch’s valuable insights was that “learning builds on learning”—his recognition that in reading, for example, acquired knowledge provides the context needed for comprehension of new and difficult material.We need to offer learners both modes.
Some adults have little patience with the pace of guided learning, preferring to learn through the more direct presentation of routinized learning. Other learners find guided learning and storytelling a more compelling approach. It many cases, a mix of both is necessary.