Dismissing Direct Instruction (DI)

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.

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21 Comments on “Dismissing Direct Instruction (DI)”

  1. It is ironic that Hattie has been cited by an opponent of Direct Instruction. In “Visible Learning”, Hattie says: “Direct Instruction has a bad name for the wrong reasons, especially when it is confused with didactic teaching, as the underlying principles of Direct Instruction place it among the most successful outcomes” (p.205). It is important to note that Hattie discusses two different but similarly named approaches in this section of his book. Specifically, Hattie found an overall effect size for ‘little di’, i.e. the generalised teaching procedures of Direct Instruction (as derived by Rosenshine for example) of 0.59. That is a significant number.

    However, later in the section the effects of ‘big DI’ (Engelmann, Carnine et al’s Direct Instruction scripted programmes) are given as 0.99 for regular students and 0.86 for lower ability and special education students. These are even bigger effects, as any educator who is professional enough to study research will know, and such effects are what critics need to face up to. Complaints about teacher autonomy or restriction of student expression won’t cut it – especially when, for example, the affective impact of DI in Follow Through also exceeded that of every other approach tested.

    What about the competition? There is plenty to choose from. We could, for example, look at the whole language approach to teaching reading (0.06), inquiry based teaching (0.31) or web-based learning (0.18). But if we did that, as with the reaction to Follow Through, the obvious course of action would simply be intolerable; it would imply that not only do we as a profession have a lot to learn, but that for decades we have been getting it wrong. Which we have.

  2. harrysblakey says:

    Greg, I am interested to know where you get the idea that part of teachers role is to plan lessons. The implication here is that they must plan all their lessons or a large percentage of them and it is not the occasional need to tailor a lesson plan or update it that is required. But that implies that even for subject matter that is relatively stable over time there is no existing plan that they won’t improve on by creating the plan themselves. That seems unlikely. Is the idea that the act of planning the lesson is a better way to prepare than studying an existing lesson plan? A sort of discovery learning is better idea applied to learning to deliver a particular lesson.

    The idea that every lesson must be planned afresh by each teacher implies a massive cost with which teachers want to burden themselves. I can see the self interest in wanting the work for themselves as opposed to seeing those education dollars going to someone else. But in the world where Wikipedia like tools are free, online collaboration should quickly make it easy for any group of teachers to undercut a third party if they can do as well or better in terms of quality.

    • gregashman says:

      If I’m honest, the teams I work in share planning. And we build on plans from year to year. However, we are all still involved in it. Perhaps this is just enculturation.

      • harrysblakey says:

        Surely it begs the question at what point to does the return on time spent polishing a plan diminish below that from some other activity? Would you recommend to a new teacher taking on a lesson you have been developing a plan for over a few years spend time on planning it or perfecting delivery or mastering the content? What does the equivalent of the actors effort to perfect their delivery look like for a teacher?

  3. You have hit on an interesting issue with the question of whether teachers are meant to design their instruction, and your analogies strike me as being sound. The acting one is perfect, in fact. We do not scorn an actor who reads a script; why should we scorn a teacher who does? It is my opinion that the parasitic layers of the education industry – those that profit from failure – feed teachers these kinds of expectations to keep them feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, and thus much more easily manipulated. I am not a teacher, but do comparative analysis of education as a hobby, and it grieves me to see how richly the planted uncertainty about teachers’ roles serves all the occupations that live off of teachers’ work, and to see the psychological cost it imposes on teachers.

    I have studied the quality of the dialogue in education for some 20 years and have read research/writing (most isn’t research) that spans more than a century. I note that the interesting aspect of the contra-DI writing is that they demand of DI what they do not deliver themselves: proof of effectiveness, relevancy, and creativity, for example. When it comes to evaluation of their own programs, these advocates of whole language, discovery or inquiry learning, critical pedagogy, social justice teaching, or any other non-DI programming have absolutely no tolerance for any of those questions.

    -Whole languagers demanding that DI show proof of effect is a double standard, they have absolutely no concern with whether WL has any effect. But when it comes to DI, they are suddenly rigid statisticians.
    -Social Justice Warriors (SJW) in the classroom do not quibble about whether their students have ever met a person who is transexual, but are concerned that students have never seen a wolf?
    -And on the topic of climate, the competition among teachers is not for creativity but for who can best toe the line, or most slavishly propagate the propaganda – a test of the faithful if you will. Here’s a beaut: http://www.vsb.bc.ca/district-news/gladstone-teacher-recognized-internationally-2014-community-climate-change-fellowship.

    The long and short of it is that there is money to be made in deceiving teachers into a mode of continuous failure, and the people who critique DI are among those making it. Let someone develop and sell a simple product that works to make teachers’ jobs easier and more successful, as Zig Engelmann did, and cue the howls of outrage from those parasitic layers.

    If the education system were to be debrided of its parasites, in which I include anything that does not directly support teacher success at achieving the mandate of the public education system and the reason children are constrained to attend, the critics of DI would vanish into thin air and not be missed.

    The ultimate irony, and one that is always missed unless Project Follow Through is not only cited but also described, is that parents chose DI. If parents and not the government were dispensing education dollars (as is beginning to be the case as Education Savings Accounts make their way across the US), DI today would be thriving and whole language, Reading Recovery et al would have long since withered and died – as such methods did on every previous occasion when some bright spark thought of teaching reading backwards and managed to sell the idea on spec to a few teachers (per Nila Banton Smith). It was only once teachers were captive – once schooling was compulsory and teacher training was captured by the universities – that the industry of deceiving teachers became so profitable. It takes people like Siegfried Engelmann and Noel Pearson, who embarked on this course with no skin in the game except a sincere desire to see teachers (and thus children) succeed, to illustrate that.

    And BTW, what else do whole languagers, inquiry learners, social justice warriors, critical pedagogists oppose? Anything that would release teachers from the massive empire that has been built around failing teachers.

    • gregashman says:

      I agree with many of your comments. However, I come from left of centre and so I might just be one of your social justice warriors (I think we also probably disagree about climate change although that is not a topic for this blog).

      I have less faith in markets than you do. In my experience, people can be persuaded to buy all sorts of things. Not all UK free schools use sensible pedagogies and plenty of independent schools sell themselves on Inquiry Learning and the like. Remember, the first flourishing of progressive education took place in U.S. private schools.

      For parental choice to work and make teaching more effective, consumers need to know what this looks like and advertisers rarely present balanced information. If I go into my local pharmacy, I can buy homeopathic remedies which cannot in any way be effective. Why are they there? Because people will buy them and someone can make a buck in selling them. Personally, I would use big government to pass a regulation to prevent this.

      • I come from left of centre too, and have been a social justice warrior for 35 years.

        Secondly, this is not about markets, but about people. Massive compulsory public systems share a key attribute with massive corporations – one might call it corporatism, or the exercise of power to consolidate power – and only by devolving the power to people, rather than to systems, will one achieve any of the espoused objectives of the left. In fact, it is about actually meeting the espoused objectives of the left rather than pretending to do so and profiting from the continued neediness instead.

        My analysis of global education systems actually begins with DI. The elementary school my children attended was an inner city school where the teachers happened to be doing a trial of Reading Mastery the first year we were there (19 years ago). The results were stellar, and the instigating teachers were convinced. So was I. I felt like I’d been in the room when the cure for cancer was discovered. I was beyond excited to learn that the perpetual proneness to failure of disadvantaged children could be solved. I fired off a letter to the editor of the teachers’ union newsletter, and in person I broadcast news of this great innovation in parent, academic, political, and bureaucratic circles (I would have just tweeted, but it was pre-internet). Of course the teachers and principal involved were doing their share of sharing as well, and no fewer than 4 Vancouver schools were doing DI within a few years.

        Then I watched as the various pillars of the public education system acted to crush this promising little initiative. Platoon after platoon aimed its cannons at the school and eventually wore down the ramparts – the program dwindled and disappeared from all but one location. The local universities starved it of research attention and ramped up their bugling and piping of progressivism. To this day (AFAIK) they don’t teach DI to prospective teachers. Every time the principalship turned over, the district sent an avowed progressivist with instructions to demolish the program (I suspect candidates for principalship were selected with this objective in mind). The province sent audit teams seeking compliance with failure-sustaining procedures. The inner city education society redoubled its attention to progressivist and anti-poverty strategies, burying the DI experience under a flood of edubabble. The union made black sheep of the instigating teachers. I nominated the lead DI teacher for a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, but my nominee, who could guarantee to teach every inner city student to read, was trumped by a local teacher who made puppets for each incoming Grade 1 student. Teachers and student teachers applying for jobs at other schools were looked at askance.

        What was equally interesting to me was that at the same time as it trialled and adopted RM, the school introduced (without a trial) an absolutely bogus anti-bullying program. I call it bogus because anyone who knew anything about children could have told you it was all show, no substance. But it was with equal fervour that the SAME staff who championed DI took on this anti-bullying nonsense. Bullying of course remained rampant, and student behaviour standards declined, but that program swept not just the district but the whole province; the same bodies that were stamping out DI were shovelling anti-bullying indefatigably.

        As I watched all this, it became evident to me that there was something wrong with this system. As my education and experience happened to be in pertinent fields (organizational analysis), I used my analytical frameworks to investigate, and 20 years later, I’m still investigating but have the system more or less sussed out. I’ve ascertained that the business of education requires a reliable supply of failing students and teachers who feel desperate, overwhelmed, and under-appreciated (better yet, reviled). As you may know I’ve blogged on the theme a fair bit, most recently on the myth of teacher professionalism: http://edrogue.blogspot.ca/2015/07/what-it-would-take-to-make-teaching.html. Warning – that’s a long piece.

        It’s my final conclusion that the core problem is that the guarantee of bums in seats makes children an exploitable resource, which like any resource creates an enormous competition for the power to harvest income from it. The tools for harvesting income are the teachers – whoever controls the teachers owns the income stream, and the more failing children/desperate teachers there are, the bigger the income stream is. There is nothing wrong – as I said earlier – with teachers using resources designed to help them succeed. But the people who demonize DI have the exact opposite objective – they need teachers to fail because that is what keeps them – the parasitic layers of consultants, analysts, professors, union staff, spin doctors, superintendents of this that and the other, testing agencies, and even education reformers – employed.

        Evidence-based analysis has to go beyond the classroom to analyze the functioning of the system to fully understand why evidence-based teaching practice cannot get a toe-hold in national public education systems, no matter how compelling the evidence.

        Such analysis needs to move beyond thinking in units of “schools” to units of people: parents or delegates choosing teachers for children. Teachers and principals choosing to work together. Teachers and principals choosing programs to use.

        That’s why my most recent initiatives involve going to court to speak for the interests of the people, against the interests of the systems that hold us all – and I don’t use this word lightly – enslaved.

      • This is something I can jump into. I am clearly on the right end of the spectrum, and agree with Karen’s remarks. As you know, Greg, on educational issues you and & see eye-to-eye on most things, but we are at odds on many political issues. In particular I am an AGW skeptic and happy to discuss evidence and science. But that is not (really) the issue at hand here; and nor is whether one is a social-justice warrior — I think it *IS* important to observe that “our” position on education transcends one’s political perspective. That is an important point, and often lost in the discussion. Many of the UK anti-fuzzy ed crowd is left-left politically, and many in America lean to the right. We get a hearing in the conservative and center think-tanks but are anathema to the left-of-center think tanks … for *no good reason* (we’d appreciate you UK/Oz folks giving them a good talking to, Bolshevik-to-Bolshevik … )

        I think Karen makes the right point here. It is not that some educators are social justice warriors. (We right wingers consider ourselves warriors for justice too! We just don’t see the point of adding “social”. All justice is important; adding “social” suggests one values group rights over individual rights, and we react against that.) It is that some consider the classroom to be the battleground in which political issues are forged and the minds of future generations indoctrinated into “right” thinking.

        I took Karen’s point to be that such does not belong in the classroom. I hold the same, by the way, for “right wing” political issues. I am an evangelical christian — but I oppose enforced participation in prayer in public schools (in private schools subject to parental choice, that’s a different matter). It is not a place to wedge an advantage for “my” favourite issues. Over on the left, there is Agenda 21. Not the conspiracy theory version, I’m talking about the actual version promoted by the UN. Our provincial ministry is very much on board Agenda 21, it is now encoded in the ministry’s mission statement and official priorities. But it is largely a left-wing wedge of socialist principles encoded in the generic language of environmentalism.

        Teachers of all types will personally identify as “warriors” for this or that agenda item. Go ahead … it’s a free world. However, when it comes to teaching children — and particularly those who have underdeveloped pre-frontal cortexes and are more inclined to adopting behaviour and ideas they regard as pleasing the adult authorities in their lives rather than actually forming their own concepts of right, wrong and justice in this world — why should it be (as is increasingly the assumption in educational circles these days) the responsibility of school to turn these children into “warriors” for political causes?

        There is a difference between education and indoctrination (however fuzzy one might agree the boundary is). Much of what I see promoted for use in classrooms today, by our own ministries of education, is far across that dividing line, on the side of indoctrination. That it indoctrination into political ideas I happen to disagree with does rankle, but the principle is the same regardless.

        I remember when the rallying cry (in the 1970s) was “get values education out of the schools”, people trying to separate “traditionalism” with its religious and cultural overtones, love of family etc etc out of public education. Perhaps they had a point. Perhaps it was the same point as I’m making here. But at the time I did not believe the proponents of this idea really believed that education should be “values-free” as their rhetoric suggested — they had a clear political bias and a clear ideological agenda: they found it inconvenient that traditional though was supported in the schools, and wanted it neutralized. And before that project was complete these same people were already injecting their own values into education … anti-traditional values, and political values antithetical to the ones they wanted excised.

        I do not believe that education needs to be an exercise in political indoctrination. I believe “values” education ought to be determined by the home. I believe this is the point of Article 26(3) of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — made necessary by 26(1), which states that education should be compulsory in Elementary school:

        ***********
        Article 26.

        (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
        (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
        (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
        ***********

        Until children have reached a developmental stage where they can grapple with competing ideas and values, compulsory public education in which parents have no choice should be as free of values and ideas as possible.

  4. Rob, it’s very true that one set of values was simply supplanted with another. Compulsory schooling provided at public expense can, in my opinion, legally only provide values that are held in common, so the more diverse a population, and the more polarized an issue, the fewer values that can be conveyed through schooling.

    But the point I was trying to make with the climate teacher was on the issue of hypocrisy in the critique of DI. Another thing that happened after my kids’ school adopted DI (by staff vote) was that the staff who were opposed virtually all left the school. One said, and I quote: “it’s not creative enough for me.” That being the case, the teaching done in lieu of DI should also be held to that creativity standard, but it isn’t – climate teaching is slavish repetition of a script. Whether you think it’s a good script or not is something of a red herring, I think.

    And one of my primary forms of entertainment for the past 20 years has been observing patterns of how camps are organized, and I guarantee that anyone who denigrates DI would cheer unreservedly at the idea of, let’s say, showing the Al Gore film to a class (which, if I recall correctly, in the UK must be shown with advice to the students of its inaccuracies).

    It’s a crazy institution that has, in my opinion, no hope of changing its preference for failure and, while that is the case, no legal basis for confining parents to patronize it.

  5. Interesting to read Karen’s comments. After many years teaching I too have recently begun to move from being grieved that the system tolerates failure to wondering whether it requires failure by some students (and some teachers). I am saddened, but unsurprised, by the story of how DI was systematically rejected in Vancouver. It is an old story. DI will eventually become ‘industry standard’ – but we may have to wait a long time and it will probably have to be rebranded as someone else’s bright idea to make it politically acceptable.

  6. Teacher says:

    Nobody seems to have pointed out that the children on the Cape are mostly learners of English as a second langauge (whether they speak a creole or a traditional language). DI does not account for this. A program which does not adjust the delivery for students’ English proficiency levels or assist them to learn the langauge of instruction is doomed to fail.

  7. Teacher says:

    I can’t I’m afraid as it wasn’t online, but rather from a former teacher. I won’t say anymore though as I don’t want to implicate them.

    Genuine question though, how *could* it work if it doesnt teach English langauge or account for proficiency levels when teaching content?

  8. Stan says:

    To Teacher, I think the article answers your question well enough. The students may or may not have a different first language but their English is clearly sufficient for the material used to teach reading and at least some of their parents also seem to have no trouble with English and providing books written in English for the children to read at home.

    So a question to you. Does that resolve your concern and are you impressed with the results of DI here?

  9. […] ‘Stronger Smarter Institute’. He has been a longtime critic of Direct Instruction and, in my view, has been perhaps a little unfair. He is quoted as saying, “One of the great tragedies in all […]


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