Insights from Direct Instruction: Part 3

This is the third post looking at the relevance and application of the five key philosophical principles that underpin Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. You can find the first one here and the second one here.DI book cover

3) All teachers can succeed if provided with adequate training and materials p.2

When I started teaching, I was shockingly bad and I’m convinced that part of this ineptitude was down to a combination of two things. Firstly, I was largely left to my own devices and encouraged from the beginning to create schemes of learning and medium term planning in the absence of any evidence based principles, knowledge about cognitive science or actual experience. Secondly, I was broadly led down the path of group work, generic skills, discovery learning, being a ‘learning facilitator’ and creating engaging (fun) lessons. Although these methods may work in some contexts, in my experience-especially compared with an explicit, deliberate practice approach-they were pretty useless. I now fully subscribe to the idea that novices-and this includes both students and novice teachers-learn more effectively and efficiently through fully guided instruction. Summarising the seminal Kirchner and Sweller paper that has been so influential, this AFT article looks at this idea in more detail.

I have mentored a number of NQTs and, following the DI principle, I always give new teachers planning, lessons and resources to use, training them incrementally with regards to the theory behind them and their practical application. To draw an analogy, asking a new teacher to plan a scheme of work from the beginning is likely to be as ineffective as asking a student to write an essay in order to improve their writing: it will result in misconceptions, confusion and a lack of success. My own experience as a novice teacher saw me being encouraged to experiment with a whole spectrum of disconnected ideas and approaches and I was given little guidance as to their relative efficacy. While you could make the point that taking risks, attempting to innovate and developing an individual approach are laudable aims, they pose significant problems. School time is finite. Students get one shot at their education and, if this is made less effective due to teachers being encouraged to find their own methodology and innovative approaches-especially when there is extensive and robust research that demonstrates the efficacy of already existing techniques-then this is both unprofessional and harmful. Although comparing teaching with more established professions has its flaws and limitations, you would be appalled if an architect or a doctor approached a procedure in a way that ignored research, justifying their radicalism in the name of personal autonomy or creativity.

The idea that ‘By providing the most effective and efficient way to present materials, teachers are free to provide the support students need’ is also of vital importance. I am not claiming that our curriculum is flawless or complete-we have a long way to go; however, the fact that it is centralised and long term, planned by experienced teachers and based on sound research means that teachers are ‘free to provide the support students need’. I want teachers to have the time and energy to deal with the innumerable and spontaneous problems that arise each and every day. I want them to be able to give corrections that are efficient and immediate. I want new teachers to learn how to teach effectively through fully guided instruction, not through a drawn out and potentially flawed process of discovery.

When you remove the additional burden of planning lessons every day (or at least the requirement to continually create things from scratch) then these aims become realistic. Workload is a problem for teachers: a centralised approach helps to prevent unnecessary and unsustainable working habits. Instead of changing units every year, we evaluate, adapt and refine the ones that we already have.

4) Low performers and disadvantaged learners must be taught at a faster rate if they are to catch up to higher-performing peers.

This particular philosophical principle is a tricky one. How do you accelerate the progress of those that are behind? When I began teaching DI sequences, I taught Corrective Reading and Expressive Writing to bottom sets instead of their usual English curriculum. This decision was a double edged sword: over time and as expected, their basic skills deficit, particularly with regards to writing, was reduced; however, removing them from the mainstream curriculum meant they were not accessing as much new vocabulary (see this AFT article  which explains that once decoding is secure, reading proficiency is almost entirely based upon vocabulary and domain knowledge). In future, we are looking at offering DI interventions in addition to normal English lessons, meaning students get the best of both worlds.

Students taught with DI ‘learn more in a short amount of time’ due to the meticulous design of the programmes and the extensive field testing that goes into their development. Although this level of complexity and rigour is out of our reach (I have been told that they can take up to ten years to develop), our choices as to what we teach can go some way towards helping low-attainers catch up. Our aim should be the development of well sequenced, methodical curricula filled with high-utility concepts, moving students along a continuum from flexible to inflexible knowledge whilst also promoting generalisation. Although an insistence on teaching for retention is important for all students, it is crucial for low performers and disadvantaged students as they will have less information stored within long term memory. Creating centralised resources that define content down to a word-level is the first step to addressing their knowledge deficit. In the absence of such detailed resources, it is very difficult to engage in effective and efficient retrieval practice.

5) All details of instruction must be controlled to minimise student misinterpretations and to maximise learning p.3

Engelmann states that ‘years of research on how children learn show that even minor changes in teachers’ wording can confuse students and slow their learning’. The idea of ‘faultless communication’ is a central part of DI. Sequences of examples and teacher wording should only communicate one logical interpretation. Naveen Rizvi has written here about how this idea applies to teaching algebra. I am currently reading Theory of Instruction, Engelmann’s comprehensive and detailed explanation of his theory, and have begun developing example and test sequences that follow this principle. Future posts will explore this.

To explain the idea of ‘faultless communication’ and giving you an idea of what it must be like to be a novice learner, here is an example from Clear Teaching by Shepard Barbash (a short introduction to Engelmann’s approach and a great place to start if you want to know more!)

‘Try this experiment. Make up a nonsense word for a familiar concept and try teaching the concept to someone without using its regular name. Engelmann holds up a pencil and says, “This is glerm.” Then he holds up a pen and says, “This is glerm.” Then he holds up a crayon—also glerm. So what is glerm? A student responds: “Something you write with.” Logical, but wrong, Engelmann says. Glerm means up. The student learned a misrule—Engelmann’s examples were deliberately ambiguous, exemplifying both the concepts for up and for writing implements, and the student came to the wrong conclusion. This is one of the exercises Engelmann uses to teach instructional design. His point is to make us aware of the minefield teachers must navigate to avoid generating confusion in their students. Next he wanders around the room giving examples of the concept graeb, without success. At last he opens the door, walks out and shouts: “This is not graeb.” Graeb means in the room. To show what something is, sometimes you have to show what it’s not. He points to a cup on his desk and says, “That’s glick.” Then he holds up a spoon and says, “Not glick.” He points to a book on a student’s desk—glick—then raises a pen—not glick. What’s glick? No one is sure. Finally he puts the spoon on his desk—that’s glick—lifts it—not glick—puts the pen on the student’s desk—glick—and lifts it—not glick. Everyone gets it: glick means on. (p.19)

For a novice learner, normal communication and instruction is riddled with ambiguity. As shown in this example, students are unaware as to which points are important and instructions may contain multiple terms that, despite being clear to the teacher, are vague, ill-defined or meaningless to the student.

One of the main controversies surrounding DI sequences is the fact that lessons are scripted and that all teachers are expected to teach the same thing in the same way. Critics believe that this removes teacher autonomy, replacing it with a mechanical and sclerotic approach, dehumanising students and deskilling practitioners. However, it is precisely because we are not robots that scripts and standardisation are helpful: teaching is incredibly complex, containing numerous variables and requiring hundreds of split-second decisions and sequences of communication every lesson, each one fraught with the potential for errors regarding interpretation. I disagree with the oft stated axiom that there is no best way to teach. Like all scientific endeavours-and if we agree with Engelmann we should definitely approach teaching as a science-some ways are probabilistically more effective than others.

In case you are wondering, we are not developing scripted lessons, although I see the benefit of creating communication sequences that are as unambiguous as possible, particularly when dealing with what Engelmann calls Basic form concepts (in English this could refer to specific sentence structures and vocabulary). No-one, not even staunch DI enthusiasts, is suggesting that scripted lessons are appropriate to teach extended essay responses, literary analysis or other such subjective, deeply complex skills.

Next post: Insights from Direct Instruction part 4



Insights from Direct Instruction: Part 2

In my last post, I outlined how Engelmann’s Direct Instruction has helped inform how we sequence, plan and resource our English curriculum. This post will look at the first two of five key philosophical principles that drive and underpin Engelmann’s programmes and how these ideas are relevant to everyday planning and teaching. The five principles have been taken from Successful and Confident Students with Direct Instruction.DI book cover

1) All Children Can be taught p.2

With DI, the assumption is that ‘if children haven’t learned, the instruction is to blame-not the student’. This is a refreshing and interesting position, putting full responsibility for success upon instructional design, clarity of communication and teaching quality. Although we may not like to admit it, I’m sure we have all asked ourselves why don’t they get it! when presented with students who struggle to understand, our incredulity and frustration causing us to settle for the easiest explanation which, as a result of our exasperation, may end up being the students themselves. Blaming students, the alternative to taking full responsibility for the success of instruction, can often lead to the soft bigotry of low expectations where disadvantage, need, class set or other such labels and categories can be blamed for underperformance. This often leads to other related issues such as the dumbing down of content or problematic differentiation, ideas that this blog discusses in more detail.

This chain of thought is not being dismissive of student needs in any way whatsoever-I recognise students have myriad needs, differences and challenges that make learning and general school life difficult. In fact, by raising the level of accountability with regards to the programme of instruction and teaching, starting from the high expectation that ‘all children can be taught’, you could argue that teachers are paying greater respect to student needs as the first principle of this line of thinking is a solution not an excuse. If student success is entirely predicated upon the quality of instruction, then it forces teachers to be more rigorous, thoughtful, reflective and methodical: this cannot be a bad thing!

This post by Katie Ashford looks at how labels can damage students, the implication being that the label itself can sometimes be used to justify low expectations, reinforcing the idea that the student is at fault. Similarly, in a post about how labels can be used to make excuses for students who cannot read, Dianne Murphy writes ‘Various deficits within Richard are now being offered as the explanation for why he is struggling. No one questions the teaching’

In this interview with Engelmann he talks in more detail about ‘dysteachia’, the idea that ‘confusing, illogical, or inconsistent’ teaching is the cause of poor achievement, not the student. Although the interview is worth reading in full, here are a few quotations from the transcript with some commentary:

  • ‘You need to look at their mistakes for qualitative information about what you need to change in your instruction to teach it right.

Engelmann’s point about looking at mistakes and output in order to make inferences and judgements about the quality of the input is crucial. DI programmes are extensively field tested before they are published in order to check that they are effective. Although we cannot create an actual DI programme, we can and should analyse student responses carefully, both successes and mistakes, in order to inform our instructional decisions and adaptations. During a sequence of teaching, this could be through the use of whole class feedback  where common errors are compiled and addressed through extra teaching or practice in subsequent lessons. At a curriculum level, this could be through the analysis of summative assessments in order to draw inferences as to which elements of a course have been misunderstood. For example, we teach specific sentence constructions such as appositives, the intention being that students will be able to use them across types of writing. We use NoMoreMarking to summatively grade all of our student assessments and when judging an entire year group’s essays, we compile lists of misconceptions-see this post for an analogous approach.  One such misconception in our last set of literature essays was the prevalence of redundant and non-analytical appositives such as:

a) Sheila, Birling’s daughter, seems to change as the play progresses.

b) Priestley uses dramatic irony, a technique where the audience knows something that the character does not, in order to accentuate Birling’s ignorance and pomposity.

Following Engelmann’s approach, this is the fault of the instruction, not the student. We should be looking back through our curriculum in order to see where best to include tasks that address this misconception: this will involve creating sequences of examples and non-examples in order to induce student mastery of the difference between analytical and superfluous constructions, an approach for a future blog post!

Both whole class feedback and the analysis of summative tests are reactive approaches, responding to student outcomes; however, the latter approach, if done thoroughly, is preventative: the adaptation of instructional sequences ‘based strictly on feedback’ should progressively refine the curriculum so that the errors picked up through whole class feedback become less frequent and less complex. In an ideal world, reactive feedback-especially complex, multifaceted corrective work-would be largely unnecessary as student success rates would be consistently high. In DI programmes, students should be at least 70% correct on anything that is completely new and 90% correct on items that have been introduced earlier in the programme. These statistics should makes us pause for thought. If what we ask students to do consistently results in lesser percentages, is this adequately remedied by feedback? If students initially fail to reach a similar success rate, does our feedback reliably ensure that they will close the gap? Or, is our obsession with perfecting feedback blinding us to the imperfections within our instructional sequences?

Although the idea of a yearly departmental review is fairly commonplace (see this post as an example), Engelmann’s ideas should make us look at student responses in far more detail. Feedback to the teacher about the effectiveness of a programme of study is vitally important. As he bluntly puts it in the interview: ‘If they make mistakes, they’re telling you, fundamentally, that you goofed up and they’re also implying exactly what they need to know.’

2) All Children can improve academically and develop a stronger self-image p.2

Low attaining students often have low self-esteem and poor levels of motivation, but which direction does causation run? Does their lack of motivation cause low attainment or does their low attainment cause poor motivation? Nick Rose has written a lot about the psychology behind motivation and it seems to be a complex and contentious area. In this post, he links to the 2014 report from The Sutton Trust entitled What Makes Great Teaching, a review that notes ‘In fact the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.’

Think back to when you were at school: I bet there is strong positive correlation between the subjects that you enjoyed and those that you were successful at.

In Project Follow Through, the 30 year longitudinal study that compared pedagogical approaches in the US, Direct Instruction students placed first with regards to attainment and self-esteem. Perhaps unsurprisingly, being successful is motivational and contributes to a ‘stronger self-image’.

David Didau looks at motivation in this post, pointing out that Daniel Pink, the author of ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us’, sees motivation as being driven by mastery, autonomy and purpose. The ideas of purpose and mastery are linked to how students perceive the value and worth of what they are learning. A curriculum that ensures that ‘skills and knowledge do not go away. Once introduced, they are used throughout the rest of the program’ helps to reinforce the idea that what is being learnt has inherent value. In our English curriculum, students initially encounter items and concepts via decontextualized, restrictive practice exercises, moving towards freer application tasks, hopefully resulting in fluency and mastery. When combined with cumulative quizzing across units and years and the benefit of choosing high utility content, this process allows students to see the value of what they are learning.

In the next post I will explore the last three philosophical principles:

3) All teachers can succeed if provided with adequate training and materials

4) Low performers and disadvantaged learners must be taught at a faster rate if they are to catch up to higher-performing peers.

5) All details of instruction must be controlled to minimise student misinterpretations and to maximise learning