Is Direct Instruction a cause of the trouble in Aurukun?

I did not intend to comment on the recent trouble in the remote community of Aurukun which has seen teachers evacuated until at least July. However, by now many of you will have read this piece in The Guardian in which a former principal of the Cape York Academy in Aurukun lays some blame for the issues at the introduction of Direct Instruction in the school. So I felt the need to comment.

The model of Direct Instruction used in Cape York is not just any generic form of teacher-led instruction. It is a specific and highly structured curriculum developed in the U.S. using the model of Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues. Direct Instruction programs of this kind are developed according to a set of principles that are set out in Engelmann and Carnine’s book, ‘Theory of Instruction’. But it doesn’t stop there because each program is then extensively field-tested and revised according to these field tests.

The Guardian article suggests two plausible ways in which Direct Instruction could be linked to the carjackings and attacks on teacher accommodation that have been reported in the media. Firstly, it is suggested that many strong teachers are not keen to teach the program. Chris Sarra runs a different education program through his ‘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 of this is not only kids disengaging but exceptional quality teachers disengaged and walking away as well.”

It is certainly true that Direct Instruction has a poor reputation in Australia, partly due to attacks by Sarra and others and partly because it is at odds with the prevailing educational orthodoxy of child-centred learning. Its use of scripted lessons may also not appeal to teachers who see this as an attack on their autonomy. If this means that Cape York can only recruit low quality teachers then this could lead to a downward spiral at the school which could have a broader community impact.

It is also plausible that there is community resentment at the fact that Direct Instruction is an American program that has not been tailored to meet local cultural needs. I remember reviewing the Direct Instruction “Expressive Writing” curriculum, finding it scattered with Americanisms and wondering whether Australian teachers and their students would fare well with it.

Sarra makes the interesting suggestion that, “If government was serious about providing quality education they could spend $150,000 over 12 months and have a specialist curriculum writer go to Aurukun, live in Aurukun, sit down with people and design a local school curriculum.”

This might be a great idea. Unfortunately, it would be pretty hard to design a Direct Instruction curriculum in this way. There are few, if any, people in Australia who are able to design an Engelmann-style program. If we could find such a curriculum designer – or perhaps buy one in from the U.S. – then the curriculum is only the start of the process due to the requirement for extensive field-testing. Much is made of the fact that Direct Instruction is an expensive intervention but I seriously doubt whether many people are getting rich out of it. The expense pays for the costly way that the programs are produced. I would be interested to see an Australian home-grown set of Direct Instruction programs but I can see why Cape York took the pragmatic choice of buying the American ones.

I think the Guardian article is misleading in the way that it compares the Direct Instruction curriculum in Aurukun with, “the regular Australian curriculum” used by Pormpurraw which is run by the Stronger Smarter Institute. These are very different things. The Australian curriculum is essentially a series of bullet-points and contains far less detail and nothing about individual lessons. Schools can implement it however they like and it is therefore much cheaper to produce and free to use because it is provided by government. Whatever Pormpurraw are doing, it is not simply implementing this curriculum. There must be much more to it than that.

The low-cost success at Pormpurraw is good to see and it is a credit to Sarra and his institute. However, I am not convinced that this is evidence that the approach works better than Direct Instruction because there are many other factors that might plausibly vary between Aurukun and Pormpurraw. If we just look at Aurukun itself then it seems that the introduction of Direct Instruction has been correlated with some improvements in attendance and results. So it might be having a positive effect.

We also have to acknowledge that there is a lot going on at Aurukun. It was interesting to read this piece on the BBC news website about the same series of events. It doesn’t mention Direct Instruction at all but it does suggest the following:

  • The community has a history of unrest and violence, caused by complex factors including alcohol and drug abuse, family breakdown, and long-standing tensions between the five clans which make up the 1,300-strong community.
  • Residents and community support staff say that Aurukun’s mostly law-abiding population is angered by the actions of about 30 “disengaged” children and young people believed to be responsible for most of the recent disturbances.
  • Locals are frustrated at an apparent failure of government to provide adequate security for teachers and what they see as a softly-softly approach by Aurukun police. Footage circulated earlier this month showed officers standing by during a public brawl.
  • Aurukun has been a testing-ground for policies such as “income management”, where welfare payments are credited to a card which can only be used to buy food and essential supplies.
  • An ‘influx’ of new faces to the police force has eroded community support.
  • There are ongoing disputes about the use of Aboriginal land for a bauxite mine and about a nurse who faked his credentials and is currently facing trial.
  • Although Aurukun is meant to be alcohol-free, drink is sometimes smuggled in and its use affects school attendance.
  • Many of the children and young people who roam the streets at night are not attending school.

Although there may be some plausible ways in which Direct Instruction may be linked to the issues at Aurukun, it is clear that this is a community facing some profound problems. It seems likely that a number of factors are at play and that the influence of the school curriculum is relatively minor. Given this context, I have to say that I find it unedifying to see the events at Aurukun used to attack Direct Instruction.


23 thoughts on “Is Direct Instruction a cause of the trouble in Aurukun?

  1. pamcorbyn says:

    Very good indeed! It is unbelievably ridiculous that the form of reading and maths instruction in the primary school, in this case DI, can be responsible for the behaviour of a gang of teenagers not even attending the school!

  2. Tempe says:

    It seems to me that it is a bit of a stretch to blame the problems entirely on DI. In fact that sounds like an excuse so that Sara can wrestle control away from Pearson and help him “sell” his ideas.

    Frankly I can’t believe anyone would buy the story that he presents as it’s so simplistic. I’d like to see the evidence that DI has caused these problems. Also, it would be good to see evidence as to whether DI was helping in the schools were it had been implemented. Can this information not be freely shared? Maybe it’s to soon to tell.

    Certainly DI has had amazing results according to other research’ including raising self-esteem, so it flies in the face of previous evidence to make these connections and claims.

  3. Sarra is so strangely aggressive when it comes to the Cape York model. I don’t understand it. I would have thought the two had far more to gain by working together than by trashing each other, but hey…
    The other, more serious, problem is that this is affirms the ‘feelings’ (and they are feelings) of several people who know nothing about education or pedagogy that teacher-led as opposed to child-centred education is bad and is a colonial-imperialist hangover when practiced in Indigenous communities. Sarra’s criticisms are getting traction on the basis of ideology rather than an actual assessment of how his approach differs from and how it is similar to the Cape York model.

  4. Tempe says:

    Well said Trisha. I went onto the Pormpurraw school web site (Sarra school) to look at their Naplan results and their teaching methods. It is true that they seem to be doing very well against similar schools but what I found of interest was their pedagogical approach. They use explicit instruction ie teacher-led with rote learning and chanting and drills etc. This is not so very removed from Direct Instruction except that DI is highly prescriptive and scripted.

    For want of a better name Noel Pearson’s schools also do better in many areas than similar schools, but not as well as Pormpurraw. It is hard to know if the lawlessness is more severe in some communities than others and if this may explain the difference in results.

    However, the link that seems to be being made between DI and hooligans seems absurd. Are they suggesting that these kids became disengaged with school because of DI and turned to a life of crime? Seems unlikely to me. Also, it seems to me that some of the venom being directed towards Pearson is due to his idea that the high achieving kids should go to boarding school for a better education and to remove them from some of the societal issues in Aurukan. Perhaps this is what many of the elders object to. I think it’s a good idea as long as all parties voluntarily agree to it.

  5. Benny says:

    With respect, I disagree that explicit instruction is ‘not so very far removed’ from Direct Instruction’. Engelmann’s approach is grounded in a deficit understanding of students, (being that it had its genesis in its approach to teaching standard curriculum to poor, disadvantaged students,) and essentially reduces the role of the teacher to a deliverer of content, rather than a professional educator who understands the need for a range of pedagogical tactics to successfully teach.

    Explicit instruction, the teaching of phonics, sight words, repetition, etc IS one of those tactics, and essentially important to a child’s education, but not at the expense of teaching curriculum that is culturally relevant and important to the community, I think that you will find, Tempe and gregashman, that this is the key difference in the approaches between Aurukun and Pormpuraaw. One treats people as having something valuable to offer the schooling experience, while the other prescriptively ignores this.

    This is linked to how programs like DI can affect community attitudes and behaviours. It is vital to remember that not so long ago schools were seen by people in Indigenous communities as places where their children were forced to go and learn ‘whitefulla way.’ This sent a clear message about how the Australian government felt about the Aboriginal ways of teaching and learning. (You know, the kind that produced a thriving society in tune with the land for 60 000 years.) So imagine what happens to modern communities when their children are put through curriculum programs that actively divorce their academic knowledge from the knowledge of the community. How is what community wants for their children reflected in this curriculum? How do they show their frustration? We may be seeing the answer to this question in the current goings on in Aurukun. If you have low expectations of people, they will meet them every time.

    This is not to say that there aren’t serious problems outside of education that the people of Aurukun need to address, but, as Sarra states, the DI approach is almost certainly PART of the problem.

    Finally, I agree that Sarra and Pearson have much more to gain working together – each have compelling, useful ideas. However, Trisha so rightly points out that there are many people out there who know nothing about education or pedagogy, and feel they can comment constructively. In matters of teaching and learning I will take a former teacher and principal with a PhD in Education over a constitutional lawyer who merely has ‘feelings’ (and they are just feelings) on how to educate children every time. But hey, that’s just me.

      • Benny says:

        Does the paragraph preceding that assertion not make my case clearly enough? That’s probably a fair enough criticism, looking at it again.

        To put it another way, while I understand that the ’cause and effect’ argument is not so plainly seen here, there are underlying tensions between Indigenous people and the Australian education system that are exacerbated by educational policy approaches such as DI. A community that has been wounded by educational policies of the past would understandably be more skeptical and react more strongly to policies that seem to be a return to these archaic, rigid approaches to education.

        I suppose I am finding it hard to understand why some people are finding it difficult to believe that curriculum linked to government policy (children must attend school) would create civil unrest… of course it can.

  6. Tempe says:

    It was my understanding that the programs were careful to include a lot that was culturally relevant and that is why the schools ran until 4-4:30 with programs addressing these ideas. I’m not sure that the idea of “culture” should trump making sure ALL children can read and write and participate in society at large anyway. To deny them this is to deny them a voice in our modern world. Research on DI has consistently proven it to be a highly effective method that also led to higher self-esteem.

    Personally, as a parent I find The Australian Curriculum to be very light on content/knowledge with an emphasis on cross-curriculum transferable skills and not nearly prescriptive enough. That is, it divorces itself from facts about the world and as a result is very bland and boring.

    I await the evidence (if such evidence exists) that there is a direct link between these events and the introduction of DI in the school. I am yet to see any such evidence just here say..

    • Benny says:

      Thank you for your comments, Tempe.

      To your first link, I would comment that 5C is a good starting point but that while this may be the rhetoric, the feedback from the community is that this is far from the reality of the situation. The issue I have is that DI accepts as its very basis that the children it is teaching are deficient. That was what it was designed for. Importing a program that has this as its conceptual basis means that what is strong and good about the culture of the people will be consistently undermined – this is my opinion based upon fairly extensive reading on the subject. For your own interest you may like to look at Luke, (who argues that it is not a definitive solution,) Sleeter and Delpit (who argue for culturally responsive pedagogy,) and Bishop (who is critical of building an entire pedagogical system on such a narrow curriculum focus.)

      As a parent and a teacher, I understand your concern that the Aus Curriculum is to broad while being light on content and knowledge. One way to view this is that schools’ responsibility is to equip students with the tools to investigate the things that truly interest them. The narrower the focus, the more children will find the curriculum bland and boring. It is by no means a perfect policy or a perfect system, but I would argue that you suggestion will take us further backward rather than forward.

      There is no evidence that what has happened in Aurukun is a direct result of DI (See my comments to gregashman above.) I wouldn’t characterize this as hearsay, however. I’d say it’s more informed opinion.

      • “The issue I have is that DI accepts as its very basis that the children it is teaching are deficient.”

        I have also read a lot about DI and I do not recognise this characterisation. Unless you believe that all education is a process of drawing-out innate capacities then you will accept that children need to have things explained to them that they don’t already know. I wouldn’t characterise this as viewing the children as deficient but, if we were to view it that way, then the same would apply to all programs that explicitly teach content to students, including the explicit programs used by Sarra. Indeed, it would apply to a parent showing a child how to hold a set of chopsticks.

  7. Tempe says:

    Thanks Benny. It sounds like you may have had experience in this community or others like it so perhaps you have “insider” knowledge which we don’t have access to. However I have read a lot over the years about DI and I do not believe it was ever meant to assert that the children were deficient. In fact the opposite was true. What they attempted to do in the US was show that any child, regardless of socioeconomic issues and other problems has the ability to succeed academically given the right educational program, both pedagogy and curriculum. DI is also equally successful for children from the disadvantaged, learning problems to the talented and gifted. That is it serves ALL children well. The children in Arukun are deficient in a sense because they live in a community that has many barriers to their success. That doesn’t mean they are less intelligent but they do not have the opportunities afforded to others.

    DI is obviously succeeding in most instances so the question is has it succeeded in Aurukun. You would argue that it has not because it has alienated some of the kids there by “forcing” them to go to school – which I think is a good idea – and now they are causing problems. I would say the jury is out.

    I strongly disagree that schools are places where children should explore their own interests most of the time. In my view they are places where my children should be exposed to the best and brightest minds/ideas etc. Where they are explicitly taught about history and scientific theory/scientists, where they read the best literature not the latest fad Lit. and facebook. They should learn all that stuff that has endured through the ages. That is what counts. Students today are vacuous. They seem to know so little. Schools seem to be happy that they can access web sites. I don’t call that an education, that’s outsourcing to Google. I’m not even sure teachers know their role anymore. They are confused thinking they are baby sitters, parents etc.

  8. Benny says:

    I don’t know how to reply (mechanically, not ideologically) to gregashman’s above comment, so I’ll just do both here.

    To gregashman:

    I think there is a little bit of confusion here between Direct Instruction and explicit instruction. I believe in explicit instruction – the teaching of the basic blocks that help us construct meaning. It would be a brave educaitonal theorist who would suggest such teaching is not important. However, I don’t believe in building entire pedagogical approaches on this premise – which is what has happened in Aurukun and other Indigenous schools across the Top End. The basics are supposed to help us engage with the complex.

    The teaching of these basic blocks as a means to hold up a piece of paper and say ‘look how good we are at these basic blocks’ is not the point of education for mine. Particularly when other schools who are doing more interesting things with pedagogy are STILL outperforming schools that champion DI. (Pormpuraaw).

    Please accept that it is not facetiousness to ask you to tell me some of the researchers you’ve read who have influenced your thinking. I am genuinely interested.

    In response to Tempe, I must clarify that I do not have ‘insider knowledge’ of the Aurukun community, but I do confess that I listen to and ask questions of the people who come from these communities. My experience is as a researcher and former teacher.

    Your comments about DI accept as a premise that academic success is the highest aspiration that a child can aspire to, and I simply disagree with you there on an ideological level. I understand that in many ways we are conditioned to accept that this is what schools exist for, but there are many things that go on in Australian schools that now contradict this, and I think rightly so.

    I would take issue with your assertion that obviously DI is ‘obviously succeeding’ in most contexts – I think you’ll find that the schools who consistently perform ‘best’ in most traditional ranking systems don’t use DI as their pedagogical base… simply as a part of the whole.

    Again, I think we are simply ideologically opposed on the points you make in your last paragraph. I have a different viewpoint as both a teacher and an educational researcher that probably contradicts yours. That’s OK – just means that we have a lot to learn from each other.

    • I am still unclear as to why you think DI is a deficit model yet explicit instruction is not. I also don’t think you can compare Aurukun with Pormpuraaw because many factors might vary between these communities – this was one of my objections to the Guardian article. You would need a rigorous research approach to tease these out.

      I have read a number of papers about DI and Project Follow Through (PFT), both from those broadly in favour, such as Carl Bereiter, and those against such as House et al and Schweinhart and Weikart. I am not convinced by the critics. Bereiter makes the point that many claim that DI is only about instilling basic skills. Indeed, that is its focus. But the PFT students in the DI condition also did better than most other conditions on mathematical problem solving or reading comprehension. As Bereiter notes:

      “When child-centered educators purport to increase the self-esteem of disadvantaged children and yet fail to show evidence of this on the Coopersmith Self-Concept Inventory, we may ask what real and substantial changes in self-esteem would one expect to occur that would not be reflected in changes on the Coopersmith? Similarly for reasoning and problem-solving. If no evidence of effect shows on a test of non-verbal reasoning, or a reading comprehension test loaded with inferential questions, or on a mathematical problem solving test, we must ask why not? What kinds of real, fundamental improvements in logical reasoning abilities would fail to be reflected in any of these tests?”


      • Benny says:

        Thanks for that. Will read with interest. Although I note that Bereiter helped Engelmann develop the original model. Are you aware of any researchers further removed that claim DI success?

        Engelmann created DISTAR in an attempt to accelerate progress for disadvantaged children. This means that this particular approach was grounded, (appropriately or not) in a deficit understanding of the children it was designed to help.

        Explicit instruction is an approach that is focused on clear desired behaviours and outcomes that are then made explicit to students. I believe that this broad educational philosophy is sound, and can be applied to any context. (Luke) I don’t think this is deficit focused.

        Not being allowed to compare Aurukun to Pormpuraaw because many factors may differ between these communities is a slippery slope. While I completely agree with the premise of this argument, the only reason that DI exists in Aurukun is because people compared the community to other communties with ‘differing factors’ and found it lacking.

        The issue with DI as it exists in Aurukun is that it is a collection of (extremely costly) curriculum materials and instructional scripts that are seen as the ultimate answer in teaching and learning. I believe that this approach is part of the solution, but not at the expense of solid instructional design that engages with the strengths, interests, and desires of the local community.

        I am not the only one who decries DI, either. In the most explicit (No pun intended) example, a longitudinal study of direct instruction effects found that many teachers in the study were particularly skeptical about DI’s approach to such factors as poverty, race, and culture (Ryder, Burton, Silberg)

        The program is not widely adopted by schools in which students excel. If it is such an essential program, why do the grammar schools of Australia not use it as their pedagogical paradigm?

        Not to mention that the country where it has been implemented the most broadly, the US, is one of the few school systems that Australia consistently outperforms in all OECD areas, (PISA). Why are we taking our cues from a failed school system? As Luke puts it:

        “Can a steady diet of pre-packaged materials, SRA reading lab materials, and other ‘generic’ reading materials generated by US-based curriculum developers in itself suffice for a curriculum, any curriculum, much less the Australian primary school curriculum?”

        I get why DI’s promise is seductive to both educators and to the average Australian. It seems to offer us all the solutions with minimal effort – but teaching and learning is infinitely more complex than this. It’s not disputed that DI can have a positive effect on learning outcomes when implemented well – but equally we have seen that it is ineffective and arguably causes damage when it is used in isolation, as the only pedagogical choice for a school.

  9. Tempe says:

    Benny – you are correct in your assertion that we are fundamentally opposed in relation to what we believe schools are for. I think most parents assume that they are sending their kids to school largely for academic purposes. Why else would we send them? We assume the teachers have the knowledge/skills to teach our kids – something we may not have. We assume they are well trained and know their subjects. As I said so many schools have lost sight of this. Teachers act as de facto parents, psychologist, social workers, doctors (diagnosing disabilities), disseminators of ideology. But they are not these things. Their job, first and foremost, is to teach my children knowledge.

    As Greg pointed out DI is supported by a heap of research. You don’t have to look far to find it. Project Follow Through and Hattie’s meta-analysis are the two obvious ones. Here is a run down of the research.

    The reason it is not adopted in more schools in Aust., in my view, is because there is a tradition here were educators are wedded to,and heavily invested in, progressive, ideologically driven pedagogy and curriculum. Teachers are afraid that their autonomy is taken from them under DI. My view is that I’m not really concerned about how teachers feel about autonomy they should use what works best. If they wanted to actually maximise learning then they might put these attachments aside for a moment and look at evidence. It’s a good place to start.

    I agree that explicit instruction is also another good pedagogical approach. Sadly, from what I have seen in relation to it’s implementation in the schools I have been involved in is that they pick bits out of the approach but don’t fully implement it. So my daughter in high school spends an inordinate amount of time writing out learning goals (which they never refer to again) but she isn’t taught in an explicit way that involves teacher-led instruction, modeling, practicing together and practicing individually. So what I have seen is a mangled version of EI and critically the schools are leaving out the most crucial element ie having the teacher teach the content as opposed to inquiry based Googling.

    I’ll leave you with this article in relation to Aurukun. This morning an ex principal of the school defended DI and the progress that was being made there.

  10. Tempe says:

    Benny – This morning an Aurukun ex principal defended DI.

    If you want evidence that DI works extremely well here’s a link on some research

    The reason, in my opinion, it’s not accepted practice in Aust.? So many teachers are wedded to, and heavily invested in poor progressive teaching practices. Great shame.

  11. Benny says:

    Thank you Tempe.

    A bit busy at the moment, but I will read with great interest. I appreciate and value your views and the time you’ve taken to engage with me. You too, gregashman.



    • Tempe says:

      Thanks for the chat, Benny. Glad you’re reading Greg’s blog with an open mind as it really is excellent.

  12. Benny says:

    Hello again!

    Firstly, thanks again for the respectful, engaging way we held this conversation. All too often we are seeing people with opposing views held up in inexorable opposition to each other, and this ‘us and them’ mentality often leads to nasty confrontation. The conversation we have held here really restores my faith in public dialogue and debate.

    I realise that this thread has been inactive for some time, but thought that you might find this interesting to read – particularly Tempe, who has children of her own and was respectfully clear that she was both limited and delimited by this position. It is the first significant evaluation of Direct Instruction in Aurukun and gives some pretty interesting results.

    I would be keen to hear what you all think.


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