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



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