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Uncovering a Dilemma About Active Learning vs. Direct Instruction


Are Active Learning and Direct Instruction Mutually Exclusive?

I've been a big fan of active learning in its many potential forms for years. For example, in this piece from 2013, I dug into how flipped learning facilitates active learning whether it be experiential, project based, inquiry based, constructivist, etc. Recently I stumbled across a reference to “discovery learning” which quickly piqued my interest and led me to google the term. It also led me to a realize there is this weird debate about active learning vs. direct instruction which strikes me as ill informed and off-base.

Wikipedia says, “Discovery learning is a technique of inquiry-based learning and is considered a constructivist based approach to education. It is also referred to as problem-based learning, experiential learning and 21st century learning. It is supported by the work of learning theorists and psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert.” (I wrote this piece, inspired in part by Papert's work, a few years back).

So, again, discovery learning is clearly a form of active learning.

The Dilemma: Active Learning vs. Direct Instruction

This article provides a good overview of discovery learning and it also includes cautions and the inference that everyone has to learn everything for themselves under this model, but I don't really see it that way. There are studies published that focus on direct instruction being superior to discovery learning and other active learning models, but again, I feel that there is an assumption here that active learning and direct instruction should not co-exist. Why not? I don't believe this should be a ‘black or white', one-way-or-the-other sort of thing.

In fact, to my way of thinking, direct instruction should go hand in hand with active learning: provide guidance (i.e. direct instruction) and then explore and apply the principles and concepts being taught (i.e. active learning). Of course, the process should continue through a full cycle of learning activities including assessment and further work on subjects requiring it, as applicable to each student (ideally), and perhaps closing the loop with some sort of reflective activity.

So, readers, I ask you – are you a practitioner of active learning? Do you mix active learning and direct instruction? Do they compliment each other or contradict each other? Please comment below. Thanks!


  1. Outcomes of learning should be explicit enough to guide the mode of instruction.
    Maintaining “balance” is a challenge in itself and depends upon individual’s personal understanding and experience. Furthermore direct instruction may fracture the context and compromise in depth learning while providing “structure” to learning. Similarly everything don’t need to be discovered.

  2. I think that in order for optimum learning to occur in the classroom, there needs to be a good balance between active learning and direct instruction, with active learning perhaps taking more of a weighting once the students are aware of what the material is that they need to be focusing on. Direct instruction, however, is critical, especially to start with to provide a good basis for the topics that are being covered.


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