Discovery Learning – What, Why, and How Do You Use It?

Coaching can come in many forms, and discovery learning is one method among many.

In the context of retention of a skillset, there are many things that can be encouraged and discovered. The capacity for learning, the retention of said learned skillset, and the ability to recall the same skillset at a specific contextual time and place, will be discussed in this article.

Discovery Learning

Discovery Learning

When browsing through several texts, I’ve come across a few interesting pieces along with the idea of “discovery based learning” that I thought was very interesting.

A review of the literature suggests that discovery learning occurs whenever the learner is not provided with the target information or conceptual understanding and must find it independently and with only the provided materials. Within discovery-learning methods, there is an opportunity to provide the learners with intensive, or conversely, minimal guidance and both types can take many forms (e.g., manuals, simulations, feedback, example problems).

Alfieri, Louis, et al. “Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning?.” Journal of educational psychology 103.1 (2011): 1.

What are the implications of a dynamical systems approach to understanding learning and performance of football skills and tactics? First, there is a clear emphasis on discovery learning. Exploratory practice encompasses problem solving behaviors and is commonly referred to as active learning, because players participate actively in the learning process rather than passively receiving knowledge.

Davids, Keith, Duarte Ara├║jo, and Rick Shuttleworth. “Applications of dynamical systems theory to football.” Science and football V 537 (2005): 550.

These pieces imply that there is some sort of value in teaching without teaching, or gaining knowledge without exactly receiving explicit instruction. It also brings into light several questions – can someone learn without instruction? What are some of the fundamental pieces of learning without explicit instructions? Can you provide an adequate learning experience without someone telling you what to do every step of the way?

Discovery Based Learning and the Developmental Process

Before continuing, I’d like to define the phrase “mental representation” as “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about,” taken from the book Peak by Anders Ericcson.

The reason I define what a mental representation is is because the attention of focus must revolve around what the mental representation actually is (either consciously or subconsciously) before any internal or external attention of focus can even be applied to it!

This means I can use the concept of what a mental representation is in several manners in order to guide my coaching and discovery learning process. No matter if I am working with an athlete or regular person, if the human organism does not understand what their leg is in relation to the rest of their body, it will have an even greater reduction in capacity during walking, running, or side shuffling.

Now let’s use an example of catching an object to several different populations and ages. First, let’s define what happens during catching with a ball:

  1. An individual is poised in anticipation of some sort of ball moving closer towards them.
  2. The ball begins moving (say 20 feet from them) and it begins moving closer.
  3. At 15, 10, and 5 feet they see the ball getting closer – and it is also getting bigger.
  4. At 1 feet they need to create some sort of aperture for their hand (or other body part) to catch said ball.
  5. At 0 feet (contact), the ball makes contact with their hand – and they need to have enough grip strength to make sure the ball stops in their grip. Not enough grip, and the ball will fall or slip through their hands. Not enough anticipation, and the individual will either be too early with their hand closing, or too late with their hand closing – and they won’t catch it.

Now, let’s use this example in the context of different populations/ages:

If a baby/sees a ball approaching, can they catch it?

Interestingly, there is the concept of utilizing both eyes simultaneously in order to conceptually understand perception of information. In this case, there are developmental milestones that can be ascertained in relation to this question. Around 4-6 months of age, a baby will begin to develop eye and body coordination, which will help coordinate an action of their body and perception of the depth of movement. In 7-8 months of age, there are greater connections built for visual perception as it relates to more movement of the body, because crawling occurs in this phase.

And to more confidently answer this question, it is my opinion that the baby can certainly see the ball (excluding any abnormalities) moving forward towards them, but the lack of coordination, along with the lack of ability to accurately time the hands, fingers, and palm to close at a particular space relative to their body (are they catching in front of their body, to the side, or anywhere else?) means they will be unable to catch the ball.

If a toddler (1-3 or 4 years of age) sees a ball approaching, can they catch it? What is the fastest ball they can catch? Does the size of the ball matter?

Leaning on the hope that there have been many experiences of seeing objects move to and fro (birds flying away, cars driving closer, mom and dad moving closer and further from them), the anticipatory factors involving catching a ball will be theoretically called upon, as well as understanding the learning of what happens if the ball cannot be caught.

Does the toddler move away (ducking or jumping out of the way) from the ball if it is moving too fast? Does the toddler move up if they know the ball will not reach them to prevent it from bouncing on the ground? This is an age where discovery learning should be utilized in an often implicit manner, meaning explicit instructions (words being said and needing cognitive and coherent instruction) shouldn’t be used.

Implicit teaching will teach the individual what certain qualities different balls have – if they look like they can bounce, or not enough bounce, will be dependent on the material it is made of, which can be felt, touched when the toddler picks up the ball and examines it. No matter what you do, you cannot put explicit words to the experience of what a toddler feels when they pick up a ball for the first time. It is because they need to experience that for themselves to develop their own mental representation of what the ball is, provided it is not a ball that possesses any harmful qualities.

If the ball is moving at a slow enough speed that the toddler can visually confirm the spatial area, on top of understand that the ball is approaching at a certain non-quantifiable speed, they can close their hands and grasp it. If it is too moving too quick, it will either slip through their hands, and they may drop it or it will hit them – and that specific experience of “successful” or “unsuccessful” attempt will be stored for their own understanding later on.

If a young child sees a ball approaching, can they catch it? What is the fastest ball they can catch? Does the size of the ball matter?

This is unfortunately, an age where many adults view younger children merely as smaller adults – which couldn’t be further from the truth. A young child is certainly still creating many connections as to what is occurring in the physical world. But some may develop certain visual and motor coordination (of visually tracking a ball, and hands closing on time) better than others – this may be due to previous experiences the child may have and will continue to have.

The size of the ball will certainly matter – again a young child is not merely a small adult – and in this case the ball will need to match the size of the hands of the child in order to catch it. Sometimes the hands are too small, so companies will make different size variations of the ball in order to accompany different age groups.

If a teenager (14-19) sees a ball approaching, can they catch it? What is the fastest ball they can catch? Does the size of the ball matter?

This is an interesting question, because many individual believe that you either “have it or don’t have it” – and it is my opinion that we will always have an ability to learn something (even into adulthood and beyond).

The fastest ball that a teen can catch will be dependent on the mental representations built up over time (from 0 years old to however old the teen is now), along with the visual perception (can you track the ball) and motor coupling (can your hands close when the ball approaches) on top of either during motion or in a stopped manner (wide receiver catching a ball while running, or 1st baseman making a catch and standing with his foot stationary on 1st base).

A follow-up question that should be asked here is, “Can you learn how to catch better?” It is my opinion of yes – based on the tenets of discovery learning.

If an adult (who has never played formalized sports) sees a ball approaching, can they catch it?

Now this is an even more interesting question, because it largely has to do with spatial representation from a task that hasn’t been utilized at all, or if it is an adult that hasn’t played formal sports in year, then it is a region of the brain that hasn’t been stimulated in years.

All the normal things apply, with an added layer of motor unit contribution (can your muscles move with speed to catch) coupled with the schema or mental representations necessary for learning (or refreshing) the idea of catching a ball.

In order to teach an adult how to catch, several of the many tasks that were initially taught to teach a baby could theoretically be used to teach an adult to catch a ball. I’ll make up a lesson plan here, with a floating timeline for how to incorporate this.

Step by Step Process for Catching:

  1. Roll the ball on the ground from Point A to Point B (adult’s foot). This gives the adult time to recognize the quality of the ball, what friction is like if the ball hits the ground and rolls, how bouncy the ball is, how heavy/light the ball is, and whether or not it takes a lot of effort from the individual to roll it towards him/her.
  2. Bounce the ball to the adult from Point A to Point B. This gives the adult the ability to see the quality of the material of the ball to understand if it has a lot of elastic quality (a bowling ball will bounce less than a tennis ball), along with tracking an object that is not touching the ground all the time (when the ball is in the air when  it bounces).
  3. Get very close with the same ball (less than 2 or 3 feet), and gently toss the ball to the adult to their center of mass (torso). This is a static distance that allows an adult to prepare their hands and torso and legs to prevent any de-stabilizing movements and allows them to anticipate catching the ball.
  4. Get very close with the same ball (less than 2 or 3 feet), and gently toss the ball outside of their center of mass This is a static distance, albeit outside of their center of mass (so to the side, up high, or down low) that allows an adult to prepare their hands and torso and legs to prevent any de-stabilizing movements and allows them to anticipate catching the ball in a position that is inherently unstable (or out of their norm).
  5. Now, repeat steps 3 and 4 but at further distances. All of these movements require the individual to be relatively static.
  6. Now, have the thrower begin throwing to a pre-determined distance of (x) feet, and have the adult move towards that target AND catch it in their center of mass (aka torso). 
  7. Repeat 6, same pre-determined distance, and then throw to OUTSIDE of their center of mass.
  8. Now, one of the harder steps, involves the individual moving to a pre-determined distance with speed, while the thrower throws with speed as well (hopefully to their center of mass).
  9. Now, adding in another aspect of difficulty, the individual will go to a pre-determined distance, but the thrower will either throw short, or throw too long outside of the context of that distance – and the adult (catcher) will have to compensate and cut back or go  further to adjust for the alteration.

This seems like a bit too much drawn out, but when it comes to skill acquisition, the following are the variables to consider:

  • Physical distance between individuals (Point A to Point B)
  • Visual perception of an object (how fast the ball is approaching) (speed traveling from Point A to Point B)
  • Aperture of hands (wide grip? small grip? one hand? two hands?) (can you stop the object at Point B?)
  • Speed and mobile nature of moving to a target with simultaneous visual confirmation of a target (can I move to Point B and also catch it at Point B?)
  • Catching outside of center of mass (moving multiple degrees of freedom)
  • Catching inside of center of mass
  • Altering the distance based on feedback from how far or how short the ball is to the intended target (last step)

Now, what would happen if any of these qualities were to have experienced degeneration (either physically such as in an elderly individual, who does not have the ability to move with as much speed as a teenager)? What would happen if an individual only had one available hand and had to catch a larger object such as a football (with one hand)? Can they use other body parts to catch the ball (without their hands)?

All of these questions can be discovered and explored either through exploratory practices (small sided games), or through practices such as the constraints led approach.

Discovery Learning and Attention of Focus

Hopefully now you have a good understanding of what happens on a fundamental level when someone needs to catch something that is being thrown at them. The above was delivered in such a manner to build the mental representation, and the experiences, necessary in order to catch an object (ball or otherwise). Now, however, to address another topic – attention of focus.

There are two pieces to this puzzle involving attentional focus – internal and external attention of focus. This is an area that has been highlighted in recent years through researchers in the motor control and motor learning academic world, but has also trickled down into the strength and conditioning (and now also fitness) industries. Many different proponents discuss the pros and cons of either an internal attention of focus or external attention of focus. The matter of the case here is that attention of focus is one quality that must be developed overtime within the context of the mental representations stored above. Meaning, if there are errors in any of the steps listed above, you can HIGHLIGHT certain regions (on the individual, on the object, on the thrower, on yourself, on the environment, etc) in order to draw out, and bring attention towards, certain aspects that will create a learning experience.

So, for example, if there is no error in step 1 of the above catching task (rolling the ball, and it stops at the “catcher”), then you can move on to step 2 (bouncing the ball). If there is an error in catching in step 2 (mis-timed hands closing, or mis-interpreted the erratic nature of the bounce), then this is where internal or external attention of focus can be utilized in order to create a learning opportunity.

For example, the learning opportunity here if there was a mis-timing (or lack of strength in grip) can be used with an internal cue:

Coach to Individual (Internal Cue):

“Grip your hands as hard as you can (together).
Now relax.
Now do it as lightly as you can. Feel your hands when they are lightly touching? What does that feel like?
Now relax.
Now try to grip your hands as tightly as you can as QUICKLY as you can. Feel your hands when they are tight? What does that feel like?
Now relax.
Now go back to step 1 (rolling), and grip the balls as quickly and as tightly as you can.
Now relax.
Back to step 1, and grip the ball as lightly AND as QUICKLY as you can.

Now, which version do you think you can use to successfully catch this ball?

Now, you have a wide bandwidth of what sort of grip you can use in order to stop the ball in step 1, on top of the somatosensory sensation of what it feels like to sense a light and/or very tight grip in your hands.

In order to visually perceive how to track the ball is another topic altogether – where you’ll have to perhaps have several random bounces to visual observe, and then make an attempt to catch.

With respect to an external attention of focus, you can also use an external cue to draw out a certain quality from the mental representation in order to create a greater performance. If the problem remains the same (step 2 is unsuccessful, but step 1 is successful), you can perform the following (if mis-timing of the hands closing is the error):

Coach to Individual (External Cue):

“Let the ball come to you” (implies direction of the ball moving towards you, instead of you moving towards ball).
“When the ball gets close, catch the ball with the logo on your shirt (if there is a logo in the middle of the shirt), and secure the ball.”

Yes, the amount of directions is greatly reduced. However, the mental processes that are going on under the hood are plentiful, even if they are not explicitly stated such as in this article – object recognition, visual depth perception, motor output, along with interpreting the timing of everything.

Further, the mental representations that needed to have been developed will now be called upon when the external cue is used – sometimes an individual will literally try to ONLY use the logo on their shirt to catch the ball (and get hit in the chest) without understanding how to then clasp their hands on top of the ball at the same time.

All of these are stated in relation to a ball – but what happens when the actual ball changes? Can you apply the same statement to a football? Basketball? Soccer ball? Tennis ball? Baseball? An apple? Intrinsically they are all round-ish objects (barring the football), but the object recognition of one of these items being thrown may be represented differently in an individual’s brain – especially if the individual has never experienced catching a football, an apple, or an orange before.

So hopefully it makes sense that the interpretation of what is occurring, the recognition of the object, and the motor output of whatever the task you are attempting to perform all have mental representations based on your wide and varied experiences in life.

Why Use Discovery Based Learning?

The purpose of utilizing this method is to create a greater depth of retention for the individual coming to you for help.

Have you ever worked with someone where you showed them the exercise, gave them 2 or 3 cues to utilize, and then also helped them “feel” certain things as they perform their movements?

Then, they come in one day, three days, or even 30 days later – and they don’t remember anything that happened in your last session?

The 30 days seems like it is a forgiving amount of time to “forget” what happened.

If all you did was go over a new exercise, and they didn’t come back for them to “retain” any other information, of course your client won’t remember what those words mean on a piece of paper.

This is where discovery based learning comes into play.

If you can incorporate any methods to have them “remember” something you did 30 days, 60 days, or 365 days ago – and you only did it once – would you do it? I know I would – it makes my job easier, it allows them to retain information at a greater pace, and they can progress faster from there.

Now, it isn’t outlandish for me to expect a client to remember something that happened only 48 hours removed. But, think back to what you had for breakfast 48 hours ago – do you remember? Can you recall? Chances are you either had the same breakfast, or a breakfast at a different time (perhaps, breakfast rolled into lunch time). But, if you had to forage for your breakfast, and pick food out of a few pieces of food made up from last night’s dinner, you’d probably remember better.

These pieces speak to the basic concepts stemming from memory science – encoding storage and retrieval processes. Now, there are a whoooooole lot of other processes that go on other than three simple words, but those phrases will do for now.

Let’s use comparisons, because that is how we may be better served to evaluate certain coaching methods.

In the context of discovery based learning, if an individual were to learn how to catch (see above), they will probably remember for quite some time. Even more if the mental representation of the whats, the hows, and the whys of catching were explained to them further, as opposed to simply throwing something at someone and hoping they catch it.

Encoding, Storage, and Retrieval

This mental representation of the action and observation of catching will be better encoded if there are greater explanations of what this will serve to do.

Specific language should be used to ensure that the motor output lines up with perceptual qualities of how fast the ball arrived (was it fast? was it slow? was it in the middle?), along with understanding how the sensation of what it was when the ball was grasped and held immediately after the catch (was it a slight pain? was it an easy fit? what is the material of the ball?)

The process of encoding also involves relating it to anything that an individual has experienced in the past. So, by asking if the individual has caught anything else similar to it, you’ll be able to create an adjacent memory store of the object.

Q: What was it? Was it an apple? Was it a different ball? What are the qualities of it?
A: This ball (it can be a baseball) is about the same size as a tennis ball, but is definitely bigger than a golf ball. It has different ridges on it that I haven’t seen before.

Accessing this information via storage speaks to the familiarity with the mental representation of the object over time. Perhaps questions can be asked later on (hours, days, or weeks removed) about what happened (did you play catch? what did you play catch with?) in order to verify the experience.

And finally, the retrieval side of things involves accessing the information later on in order to identify the successful transfer of the motor skill from the respective region of the brain involved with the skill (in this case, preparation and successful catching of a ball).

If You Decide Not To Use Discovery Based Learning…

For comparison’s and Devil Advocate’s sake, using discovery based learning takes time. It asks a lot of questions, and it can be frustrating if the outcome is not clearly defined. This is in comparison with many modern coaching methods I’m previously used to using myself, which involves more or less barking orders, being as explicit as possible, along with making people simply sweat to get a good workout in. There isn’t much learning when I’m only saying what not to do, and what to do – versus learning more about what kind of relationship you have with your body, and in relation to a motor task.

If barking orders is more of your style, then the discovery based learning may not be a good fit for you to use. Teaching what an individuals’ body can do is important in order to optimize outcomes in performance, and to also help one’s relationship with themselves. Explicit instructions where words are used verbally to tell someone where to put their hand, and where to place their foot in order to execute a movement often leads to a lack of autonomy, as the individual won’t need to remember on their own because they have access to you as a coach, practitioner, or trainer.

Retrieval of a memory probably won’t be necessary if everything is simply given to an individual, because the brain won’t need to adapt to remember what is necessary in order to survive. Plasticity works both ways, and the brain can forget.

What Now?

If you’re just a normal practitioner/strength coach/personal trainer, and feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information in one article, don’t worry – I am too. There are tons of texts on this type of information aiming to improve how information is stored and processed via the memory system, along with how to help everyone from youth athletes to adolescence to the elderly in the context of discovery learning, all the way to the information that is visually perceived in catching, throwing, and all around movements.

Anecdotally, I’ve changed my cueing from large amounts of explanations (unless they request more information) to using certain single syllable words to explain the movement while simultaneously showing the movement. This is so the movement is linked with the verbiage that I’m using. Next, I also have individuals also say the movement out loud as they successfully perform the movement, so not only do they get certain neurotransmitters firing (dopamine) when they perform the movement successfully, but they also match the motor output with the phonological loop to link the movements together.

When I’m aiming to help someone discover a movement, I am aiming to create a metaphorical and perhaps literal environment where they can discover the weight of an object (some medicine balls look heavy, but are light, and vice versa), along with asking questions (guided questions) to help them learn more about their bodies (what did you feel when you picked up the kettlebell off the ground? what did you NOT feel?).

This is all to help enrich what they sense, what they feel, and how they feel things in the context of the weight room, on the field, and in life.

Hope this helps.

As always,
Keep it funky.


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