Direct Instruction AND Discovery Learning: What Po Learned

An argument has been raging in education about direct instruction versus discovery learning methods of teaching and learning. What is best for kids? Which method facilitates learning? Which approach raises test scores, places students on a path for college, or generally prepares them for life in the 21st century?

Direct instruction (DI) refers to more “traditional” methods of teaching. Think of the typical images of a teacher standing in front of a class of bright-eyed children, and lecturing while students listen and answer the occasional question. There may be some individual desk work or group projects, but direct instruction is primarily characterized by highly structured, unidirectional teaching methods.

Charlie Brown teacher

Discovery learning (DL), on the other hand, is mostly student-led. The process has held many monikers but usually means minimally guided and more “progressive” approaches to teaching and learning.

Crazy classroom

Most researchers, scientists, and educators stand one on side of the argument or other, creating a DI vs. DL situation. I would like to propose, based off of research, my own experience, and the actions of a kung-fu-fighting panda, that the issue need not be an either/or situation but that true effective teaching and learning takes place when DI and DL are used in combination with each other. 

Po, a panda raised by a goose in a noodle restaurant in ancient China, was not your typical kung fu fighter. After a series of unlikely events, Po is named the legendary “Dragon Warrior,” the one destined to save China with his unprecedented kung fu skills. No one is more surprised or enraged by this situation than Master Shifu, a meerkat whose job it is to train Po.

Level Zero

Master Shifu begins his efforts to teach this “Level Zero” student with the only method he has at his disposal – direct instruction through rigorous physical and mental concentration and effort. This method is not wrong or ineffective. After all, Master Shifu has used direct instruction to successfully train the “Furious Five,” a team of kung fu fighters made up of a tiger, a monkey, a crane, a snake, and a praying mantis.

Furious Five

But with Po, something else is needed. If Master Shifu is to accomplish his goal of turning Po into the person entrusted with the secret to limitless power, he must look beyond the rigorous physical and mental exercises that have been historically used for success.

We can give our students “the secret to limitless power.” It is called being a life-long learner. A student who is entrusted with the self-regulation skills needed to become a life-long learner can accomplish anything. As Zimmerman (2002) said,

Self-regulation is not a mental ability or an academic performance skill; rather it is the self- directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills. Learning is viewed as an activity that students do for themselves in a proactive way rather than as a covert event that happens to them in reaction to teaching. (p. 65)

Self-regulation skills, and other useful skills for becoming a life-long learner, are best fostered in an environment that balances factual knowledge with real-world exploration. To create deep and lasting learning processes, we need both content and context as well as both application and assimilation.

Direct Instruction may be “traditional” but it is not outdated, inefficient, or unnecessary. Kirscher, Sweller, & Clark (2006) stated that instructional guidance “provid[es] information that fully explains the concepts and procedures that students are required to learn” (p. 75). Students need content delivered from experts (e.g., classroom teachers, dojo masters), within adequate motivational and situational contexts (e.g., reasons for the learning, linear place of the content in the accumulation of knowledge, strategies for accessing the learning).

Direct instruction

On the other side of the argument, Discovery Learning is not overly progressive, unguided, or inadequate. In quoting Flum and Kaplan (2006), Kuhn emphasized the “need for the young child’s natural curiosity to evolve into an active search for information and its examination and evaluation in a self-reflective manner” (Kuhn, 2007, p. 109). After receiving content within the appropriate context, life-long learners need time and opportunities to apply their knowledge and assimilate the learning into long-term memory. Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000) say it best in their book “How People Learn: Mind, Brain, Experience, and School.”

Knowledge of a large set of disconnected facts is not sufficient. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have opportunities to learn with understanding. Deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge. (p. 16)

Discovery learning


Returning back to Master Shifu and Po, the great kung fu master realizes he must look at the problem of training the panda in a different way. Po still requires the “factual information” and skills of a kung fu warrior that Shifu can teach him through direct instructional methods, but he will also need some discovery learning to turn his facts into “usable knowledge.”

Cut to the montage of Master Shifu training Po in all of the traditional kung fu moves using noodles, dumplings, and bean buns as a motivator (more about this in my upcoming Po-sychology blog on differentiation). After an indeterminate amount of time, Po returns having mastered the learning gleaned from DI. But his education in kung fu is not complete. The villain, Tai Lung, is coming to fight Po and lay waste to the Valley of Peace. What will he do? Will his rote learning be sufficient for this challenge? Can he defeat Tai Lung with DI information alone, or must he rely on some DL to accomplish the task?

Tai Lung Sit on me

In the final climactic moment of the movie, at the end of an exciting (and hilarious) hand-to-hand combat scene, Po epitomizes the benefits of combining DI and DL. At the end of the fight, Po catches Tai Lung in his signature move, “The Wuxi Finger Hold.” Here’s the dialogue:

Tai Lung: The Wuxi finger hold?

Po: Oh, you know this hold?

Tai Lung: You’re bluffing, you’re bluffing! Shifu didn’t teach you that!

Po: Nope. I figured it out.

And with that, Po flexes his little finger and skadooshes the villain to the spirit realm. Po could not have defeated Tai Lung and saved the valley without the DI of Master Shifu, but he also could not have won were it not for the DL of “figuring it out.” As Kuhn (2007) said, “there is a place for both direct instruction and student-directed inquiry. The challenge is to get the balance and sequence right” (p. 112).

Be like Master Shifu. Teach Direct Instruction the best way you know how.

Be like Po. Involve yourself and your students in Discovery Learning to apply Direct Instruction and become life-long, self-regulated learners.

Become awesome.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Mind, Brain, Experience, and School. National Academy Press: Washington, D.C.

Flum, H., & Kaplan, A. (2006). Exploratory orientation as an educational goal. Educational Psychologist, (41)2, 99-110.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, (41)2, 75-86

Kuhn, D. (2007). Is direct instruction the answer to the right question? Educational Psychologist, (42)2, 109-113.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, (41)2, 64-70.

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