Dismissing Direct Instruction (DI)Posted: July 24, 2015
I am not a cheerleader for Direct Instruction (DI) programmes. To be clear here, I am using the convention of capital letters to refer to the curricula developed by Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues. DI units are a set of scripted lessons that teachers are meant to deliver pretty faithfully. Personally, I have always viewed the planning of lessons – at least in collaboration with others – as part of a teacher’s role and so I struggle a little with this idea. However, this may just be enculturation. As proponents point out, we don’t expect pilots to design the plane and we can recognise the talent of an actor even if she is reading lines written by someone else.
So I have a sense of ambivalence. However, I am also aware of the powerful evidence for DI programmes and the almost visceral hatred they arouse in their critics. There are dodgy analyses that attempt to substantiate the extraordinary claim that participation in an early years DI programme causes criminal behaviour in adolescence. And then there are attempts to obscure or flatly ignore the evidence from the largest education experiment in history; Project Follow Through.
Earlier this week, I tweeted a link to an article in The Australian reporting the initial results of a trial of DI curricula in Cape York, Australia. The schools involved serve disadvantaged students. Noel Pearson is a community leader who has introduced DI in an effort to raise educational attainment. This is far from a conventional approach and has attracted much criticism in Australia.
In response to my tweet, I was soon being sent links to such criticism of DI. The first was an article from Chris Sarra and it is a tour de force of persuasive writing. Sarra characterises DI as you might expect; a stifling programme that restricts teacher autonomy. Fair enough; this is relevant to my own ambivalence. However, I also recognise that the key question is whether it works. After all, education systems are here so that kids learn stuff not to promote the cause of teacher autonomy. So this argument offers no resolution.
In fact, a killer blow is missing throughout. Despite asserting that, “If [Noel] Pearson is serious about having his views seen as worthy in reputable education dialogue, his energies are best spent on highlighting what is good about Engelmann’s Direct Instruction as this will require some effort,” little evidence of harm or ineffectiveness is produced. Moreover, the substantial evidence in favour of DI is not really dealt with or critiqued. Indeed, Sarra concedes, “To be fair, and not wanting to cherry pick the data, Hattie does rate positively the effectiveness of Direct Instruction.” And he even expects positive evidence to emerge from Cape York. “The data will of course show some improvement and this should not surprise us.” With this statement, Sarra allows us no way in which to prove him wrong (an unfalsifiable position should always trigger alarm bells).
Sarra makes a point that DI programmes talk about wolves, for example, and yet students in Cape York will not have encountered any wolves. Is this a problem? I don’t know how the participating schools are structured but I suppose that if local culture and conditions are not a part of the school curriculum then this really would be a problem. Does Engelmann’s DI fill-up all of the school day? Even if there are no wolves in Cape York isn’t it still useful for students to know the meaning of the word ‘wolf’ in order to engage in world news, literature and culture? However, I do take the broader point that a DI programme better tailored to Australia would be preferable. Is Sarra arguing for funding to be made available to create one? No.
In fact, Sarra makes dark allusions to the fact that DI is proprietary and that the materials are expensive (as an example of cost, the teacher’s guide for a writing program that I recently investigated is about $150 US). There are two important points to make here. Firstly, someone has to plan lessons. The alternative to buying-in a programme is for teachers to plan lessons themselves and, whichever way you look at it, this incurs a cost. Freed up from such planning, teachers could do something else with the time. Or maybe they could just do less in total and spend more time with their families.
Secondly, do we really think it wrong that we have to pay for it? How else could Engelmann develop the programme given that government agencies – the only source who could perhaps create something like this and make it available to schools for free – tend to be full of educationalists who disapprove of DI in a similar way to Sarra? Yes, I have to pay money for hayfever pills and I would rather be given them for free. However, the fact that I pay for them doesn’t mean that they don’t work. Do we think that Engelmann should take a regular job and put his curricula together at weekends as some kind of altruistic hobby?
You sometimes see a similar argument made about Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes. Excluded from universities for their views, proponents of SSP often have to work in the private sector and market their materials to schools. This is then used against them in ad hominem attacks implying that you can’t trust a word they say because they have something to sell. Let us perhaps look at the evidence instead.
However, it seems that Sarra thinks proponents of DI aren’t the kind of rational people who weigh the evidence, “Engelmann DI advocates are not like most quality educators. They are zealots convinced they have the one true faith and the rest of us are heretics.” That doesn’t sound very nice. Who’d want to be a Zealot? I’ll get my coat…
Substantive evidence is also lacking from Alan Luke’s piece, “Direct Instruction is not a solution for Australian schools.” It reads as a cry of anguish from the education establishment.
The article actually starts pretty well, making a useful distinction between DI and other forms of explicit instruction; a distinction that I am always keen to make when arguing for the latter. It states the usual criticisms of the restrictiveness of the approach which are fair game. However, it is let down in my view by the section, “Does DI improve students’ achievement and participation levels?”. Firstly, it does not mention Project Follow Through, even to dismiss it. It is hard to conceive of a discussion of the evidence base for DI that makes such an omission. Instead, we have an ungenerous, highly qualified and debatable statement about the limited effectiveness of the programme:
“Reading the research, I have little doubt that DI – and other approaches based on explicit instruction – can generate some performance gains in conventionally-measured basic skills of early literacy and numeracy.”
Do you see what he’s done there? There are ‘some’ gains in ‘conventionally-measured’ ‘basic’ skills. What does the qualified ‘some’ signify? How can it be quantified? Why does it matter that these skills are ‘conventionally-measured’? Presumably, there are indications that alternatives to DI are better on unconventional measures or this statement would not be relevant. What are these measures? Where is this evidence? It is certainly not what Follow Through showed. How about the notion of gains being on skills that are merely ‘basic’? They sound a bit low-level and unimportant and yet, without basic skills, it is pretty much impossible to develop any sophisticated ones. Even so, this statement is misleading. In Follow Through, DI demonstrated the greatest gains of any programme on both basic skills and more sophisticated processes such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving. Hmmm…
Again, Luke mentions cost and notes that the dastardly Engelmann has copyrighted his materials.
However, Luke is generally more measured than Sarra and he does offer us crazy zealots a ray of hope. His view is potentially falsifiable. He notes – in reference to a previous report on Cape York – that, “In Australia, the recent ACER report on the Cape York implementation of DI does not provide any clear scientific evidence that DI delivers generalisable cohort achievement gains.” So there is a possibility, just a possibility, that as this evidence accumulates, Luke might change his mind.