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



7 thoughts on “Insights from Direct Instruction: Part 3”

  1. I enjoyed this, but it all feels very theoretical. I would love to see what some of the ‘DI sequences of examples’ you mention actually look like. I can’t work out from this article if they already exist, or you’re in the process of creating some yourself?! If they already exist, can you please link to where I can see some, ideally in my main subject, maths?


    1. Hi Josh, I’m not aware of anyone writing about this from a specifically History perspective sorry. I would recommend the book’Successful and Confident Students with Direct Instruction’ as a good overview.


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