What works in Teaching: Discovery Learning or Explicit Instruction?

I am learning how to juggle three balls. I was trying to relate the concepts of working memory and cognitive load theory with a concrete example and learning how to juggle three balls made a perfect sense to me.

And, I also wanted to experiment on myself. First, I would try to learn juggling by watching a few juggling experts on youtube. Then try to figure it out myself on how it’s done — The Ekalavya way of learning archery. I made sure not to click any videos with “Learn how to…” or “Juggling for beginners…” Tempting thoughts though.

Week 1:

Some of the videos I watched are:

Video 1: Juggling 3 Ball Trifecta


Video 3: World Juggling Day Festival 2016 in Japan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRSq-qZQLF4

[By the way, what the hell was I thinking watching these videos !!!]

So, after almost a week of watching the experts and trying to emulate them — without any guidance or instruction — I couldn’t still figure it out. Except for a few flukes here and there.

I could not grasp the idea or technique on how to throw the three balls up in the air and catch them in a perfect sync. I slowed down the videos so that I could exactly see the way they would throw the first ball.. and the second ball.

Nope. Not helpful at all.

I felt like I have “fossilized” and crossed far beyond the point of learning any new skills. May be if I was younger, I could learn it easily. May be if I had different set of balls. May be.

Week 2:

After a week of failure, feeling overwhelmed and feeling dumb, it was now time for me to watch the tutorial videos.

And, right out of the bat, I realized that: no one starts with the three balls. How could I make such a mistake!

So here are the tutorial videos I watched (and rewatched):

Video 1: By Josh Horton, a gold medalist in the world championships of juggling.

Oh bummer. The first step is the Body Position — and not about the balls.

Josh breaks down the complex skill of juggling into the fundamentals and I started practicing the ‘rudiments’.

Video 2:

“Dropping is a part of it. A big part of it.” — Tayler Glenn
Wait… what !!!

The more I watched these tutorials, the more I could visualize internally the minute/concrete mechanism of how to throw and catch the balls.

I even started practicing for 5 mins, just before I went to sleep… expecting that I would also practice this in my dreams. (Laughable, I know.)

And, now my practice routine was something like this (along with a timer)

Step 1: Warm up with a single ball, without dropping it [ 2 mins]
Step 2: Now with two balls, starting with the right hand. Throw. Throw. Catch. Catch [2 mins]
Step 3: Switch, starting with the left hand. Throw. Throw. Catch. Catch. [2 mins]
Step 4: Now right to left. Left to right. [2 mins]

I did this for 3 days, with just two balls. I resisted trying this with all the three balls. And it did pay me well.

Step 5: The Flash: Two balls on the right hand. One ball on the left. Start with the right. Throw. Throw. Catch. Catch. End up with left hand having two balls. [2 mins]

This is where I struggled a lot. To the level of frustration.

Step 6: The Cascade Flash. Now it was about stacking up the counts while not losing the patience at all.

Okay, this is me practicing and improving just a little every day.

— — —

So, that was my little experiment on trying to learn juggling through ‘discovery’ process vs through the tutorials — the ‘explicit instruction’ way. My best timing so far is 15 secs. Yeah just 15 secs but this is a massive gain when compared to what I could do (or couldn’t do) in the first week.

In many ways, I could experience the cognitive load going crazy on my working memory during the first week. But after practicing the rudiments, and taking it one step at a time, I was able to unburden my working memory — and surprisingly, I started to enjoy the whole thing. Even though I am yet to reach the state of flow, I am sure that with more practice each day, I will be able to juggle three balls for more than a minute.

Now let me tie everything to the theory.

Which one is better? Discovery learning or Explicit Instruction?

The research clearly points: the nature of instruction depends on the level of the learner (novice or expert)

Explicit Instruction is way too helpful when the learner is a novice, and has no prior-knowledge/experience. And, as the learner moves up, gains more knowledge, increases the competence, discovery learning is more appropriate.

What does this mean for the teachers?

Without trying to nerd out on Cognitive Science and Human Cognitive Architecture, here’s my conclusion:

When the students have no or little prior knowledge, start with Explicit Instruction. And, when they have gained enough background knowledge, scaffold & move ahead with “Guided” Discovery Learning.

The Ekalavya Way, even though it looks so flashy/trendy these days among teachers, school leaders, and parents, does not really work with the beginner level students. So be aware. Discovery looks fun but fun doesn’t always mean learning.

# May be I went into this experiment with a bias in my mind. I have come to believe that ‘discovery learning’ doesn’t really help, especially in the novice stage. And, this could be a result of the confirmation bias. May be. May be not.

# I was only giving 20 to 30 mins each day. If I had given more time, the result could be a different. Better. Or, worse even. Or, if I had set a deadline of 1 year to learn juggling, I would have learnt it. But at the expense of what !

# Explicit Instruction is not “filling the student’s empty head with information”. A part of it is, but not the whole. EI mostly aligns with Rosenshine’s Principle of Instruction.