So long, Zig

This weekend saw the passing of Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. He was a giant among educators and a true social justice warrior. By that, I mean that he dedicated his life to improving outcomes for the disadvantaged, not that he was some great wet lettuce who opined about emotional labour and set his critics three books to read before he would discuss anything with them.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Engelmann took part in the largest educational experiment of all time – Project Follow Through. The aim was to give disadvantaged kids the best possible start to their education. The planned U.S. government funding was cut by congress, so what was intended initially to be a large scale intervention was stripped back to an experiment. The idea was that of ‘planned variation’. Different groups would develop their own programmes and implement them in different centres. Outcomes from the different programmes would then be compared in order to see which was the most effective.

Engelmann and his colleagues developed the Direct Instruction model. This is not to be confused with just any form of explicit teaching. The Engelmann model had unique features that drew upon a specific theory of instruction and, controversially, employed the use of scripted lessons. Apparently, scripting the lessons was never the original intention, but the first teachers involved in the programme kept going off piste.

Direct Instruction was the clear winner of the Project Follow Through experiment. Despite being labelled by researchers as a “Basic Skills” programme, it was the best performer in terms of higher order cognitive skills, such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving, as well as the affective domain of student self-esteem. This is despite the fact that many competitor programmes were explicitly set-up to focus on cognitive and affective skills – most of these actually had a negative impact.

This evidence has been largely dismissed by the educational establishment. Because it was so big, Project Follow Through was also messy and so you can poke holes in the methodology. You might think that this would prompt academics to set-up more rigorous trials of Direct Instruction and the alternatives, but they have been strangely reluctant to do so. This means that much of the further research on the method has been conducted by Engelmann and his small group of Direct Instruction advocates centered on the University of Oregon. This then provides another line of attack for those who wish to dismiss the research.

Why is it so important to dismiss Direct Instruction? It is inconvenient to the dominant ideology of educational progressivism or, latterly, constructivism. Who cares about kids’ life chances when there is an ideology at stake.

This means that an independent school like mine will make use of Engelmann’s programmes, but his work is either unknown or dismissed in the schools and kindergartens he was trying to help.

I think all of us would like to leave the world a better place than we found it. Zig Engelmann certainly achieved this, but I cannot help feeling that it could have been even better if more of us had listened.


26 thoughts on “So long, Zig

  1. Rob Craigen says:

    A good summary; to put a finer point on one item, it’s not merely that it wasn’t the original intention, Engelmann didn’t like the scripting but saw it as a solution to the training problem in the run-up to PFT. He felt a teacher properly trained in the method needn’t use a script but they saw no good way to ensure that sufficiently many teachers were following the method precisely enough by the time they needed to be in the classroom teaching, so they used scripts as a shortcut to ensuring fidelity to the program. Remarkably, it worked very well in scripted form. I don’t know if Engelmann was ever proven right in his belief that the unscripted version would have been superior. If memory serves (I have the article he wrote somewhere …) he used “DIstar” for the scripted version, “DI” for the corresponding unscripted method and “di” for the more general category of direct instruction methodology, for which I believe you prefer “explicit instruction”.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for the context – I am presenting on explicit instruction and want to make the point that explicit and direct are synonyms for the most part, but that DI, the product, is worth differentiating.

      Also, as a fan of the programs, and a very experienced teacher, I still find the script useful for allowing me to stop, manage the class or give feedback, and easily pickup where left.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      I used Spelling Mastery and Corrective Spelling quite extensively with SEN pupils until eventually I developed similar material which had enough additional overlearning to address to their needs. One of the great advantages of scripted lessons is that they can be used to good effect by TAs and parents who receive relatively little guidance; with the latter, I found that one session per week observing me enabled them to make good progress at home the other 4 school days each week. By teaching pupils in small groups that were well matched for spelling scores, we were able to help quite large numbers of pupils for extremely low cost. I published our results in The Dyslexia Review.
      Although the scripts are absolutely essential, I never followed them pedantically nor did I encourage TAs or parents to do so. It’s very interesting to read that Zig was thinking along similar lines.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    Thank you, Greg, for this splendid obituary on Zig Engelmann. You’ve captured a good part of the significance of Engelmann’s contribution to the field of education. I’m hoping that many more tributes will continue to highlight the absolute importance of his work — to the field and the lives of so many children who’ve benefitted from his insights and methods.

    But, as you so perceptively mention, serious opposition and disappointments and sabotage tormented Engelmann. This is what he said in his 1992 book, “War Against the Schools’ Academic Child Abuse”:

    “Schools are guilty of much academic child abuse because they don’t approach the performance standards that could be met if they used enlightened practices. The school failure is not the failure of kids, and often not the failure of teachers. It’s the failure of a sick system that places more value on the whims of adults than on the obvious needs of children.”

    This last weekend I had the great experience of attending the researchED Conference in Vancouver, BC.
    This is an event, staged out of the UK, which brings forth speakers committed to evidence-informed education practices and serves as professional development for many practicing teachers who attend. We heard people say that teaching is not a “profession”, but might be called a “semi-profession”. A keynote speaker said that education that is not backed up by research is “social injustice”. Many agreed that education, unlike professions like medicine and law, has yet to “grow up”.

    When Nat Hentoff , who wrote many education books (eg, 1977, Does Anybody Give a Damn?) died two years ago, we were reminded that he had written an article detailing how education was “The Greatest Consumer Fraud of All”.

    My comment today is not to digress from the immense loss we suffer from Zig Engelmann’s passing. I’m just hoping that maybe, maybe if we can mount some kind of undertaking to promote education’s maturing into a disciplined profession, then that would be a great legacy of Zig’s.

  3. Alex says:

    I use DI (Expressive Writing 1 and 2) in a public school. It’s expensive, but it works. Kids also love the structure and routine of classes where success occurs nonstop.

    It’s extraordinary the lengths critics will go to to disavow DI.

  4. Joe Kuhn says:

    I found it easy to listen because I had trouble learning to read in first grade myself. Turns out identifying diphthongs, vowels and consonants doesn’t have much to do with it. My father showed me how to sound out the words and except for some minimal difference errors, I was good to go. Because of this, Zig’s instruction and the logic behind it made so much sense I made a college career out of it.

    After college I switched to computers and learned that skill on my own by playing with minimum differences and positive example ranges. I’m now at the short end of a career as a business process programmer in database land. I also taught both my kids to read with “100 Easy Lessons” and have passed on a few things to some neighbors.

    Last summer I helped my neighbor with her mute child of four. She’s a doctor and was frantic about his inability to speak. I modeled some speech about things we could see and touch in the world. They purchased a talking toy with animal pictures on a dial that spoke with a pull cord, and continued working on talking in their home. Just last week my wife gifted the boy with a box of toy vehicles my son used to play with. He later came to my wife and had a conversation with her:

    I want to thank you.

    Thank me for what?

    I want to thank you for the trucks you gave me.

    His mom says, what kind of trucks?

    A police car, a tow truck, a garbage truck and a dump truck.

    And then his mother smiled the biggest smile in all the world.

    Thank you Zig.

  5. Joe says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful obituary. I’ve used many of the programmes; I’ve followed the scripts diligently and I’ve witnessed remarkable results. The DI programmes work and are a joy to teach with.

    Finally, The Theory of Instruction is – or ought to be regarded as – a foundational text. To have written that book alone would have been an amazing achievement, but to have written it alongside all the DI programmes is truly astonishing.

    Thanks again.

  6. I’ve been looking at DI lately, primarily because while I certainly don’t like it much, I am perplexed as to why superintendents or principals or foundations would refuse it. The usual culprit is teachers, but that’s absurd, for reasons I mention here:

    I think the four logical objections ( to DI are logical indeed. If people would stop talking about DI as the be all and end all,and just say it’s a good method for low ability kids who need structure, maybe it would meet less skepticism. But that wouldn’t explain the various times it’s been yanked out. (There’s also no evidence to suggest it works regardless of age, despite the claims.)

    I also looked in detail at one miracle case, and while it certainly did improve scores and I am flummozed as to why they pulled it out, but it wasn’t the miracle claimed:

      • Sure, but you said:

        ” it was the best performer in terms of higher order cognitive skills, such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving, as well as the affective domain of student self-esteem. ”

        That makes it sound like a miracle fix. And many people write about it as if it as a miracle fix. Zig himself implied that the achievement gap was due purely to a failure to implement DI.

        Besides, if all it does is a little bit better, if it’s not a dramatic (miracle) fix, then surely the well-documented negatives maybe offset the little bit better.

      • Nope. What I wrote does not mean it is a miracle fix, it means it was the best performer of the approaches that were tested. I am not aware of any well documented negatives, only the high/scope stuff which is obviously laughable research.

      • Joe Kuhn says:

        Another thing my student teacher supervisor would do is take videos of me teaching so that I could do my own data collection. This was back in the day when video equipment was in the form of reel-to-reel systems and a big problem to move from place to place. But it was worth it. There’s nothing like watching yourself in front of a group of kids. Pacing, corrections and reinforcement, or lack there of become hugely obvious in a third person viewpoint. You go back into the classroom reset and ready to do a better job.

        My second semester I got a new supervisor which was good because every one of them had their special touches. Randy was his name and he specialized in behavior which I needed help with in a higher level grade school class room. One boy in by group of 10 or 12 was prone to act up and always got a response from some of the girls in the group. I sat down with Randy and came up with the idea of moving the boy to the back of the class the next time that happened. When it did happen the boy actually started crying and Randy noted it was ok, this would have an effect in the end that is productive.

        Randy went on a trip for the Follow Through Project and I worked with this boy steadily over the next couple of weeks. One day the boy started answering my questions from the single seat in the back, so I brought him down to the front and asked the girls if they noticed he was responding correctly. He quickly became the star responder and I often went to him when wrong answers were given because I knew he could provide a correct answer. Randy came back from his trip, monitored all this and gave me an A for the semester based on the positive change I had caused in this class. Man, that grade felt so good.

  7. My sense is that the movement away from DI is a behaviour/energy management tool for teachers: teaching full on DI six lessons on the trot is exhausting, better to kick back and let the kids flounder a bit in the name of self-discovery

  8. “What I wrote does not mean it is a miracle fix, it means it was the best performer of the approaches that were tested”

    Yes, but you also wrote this:

    “I cannot help feeling that it could have been even better if more of us had listened.”

    and also this:

    “He was a giant among educators”

    You also acknowledge that no research had really been definitive and that PFT was “messy”, but your presentation and celebration makes it clear you think that DI really could do a better job of educating kids, particularly at-risk kids. I mean, why write the obit if you aren’t accepting that DI was a huge achievement?

    (Although frankly, I don’t know why you fixated on “miracle cure” when I was discussing a case that others, not you, describe as a miracle.)

    I’m far less certain that DI’s promise is anything other than providing kids with low cognitive ability a better grasp of basic skills. That’s no small thing, obviously. But in the US, at least, getting more people to 8th grade abilities is not considered a suitable goal, so celebrating DI purely for that achievement gets you nowhere.

    Well-documented negatives:

    *it’s creepy to lots of people,
    *rich folks don’t use it in exclusive private schools
    *no evidence that DI-instructed kids do better in high school and go on to college
    *requires tracking, thus politically unacceptable

    Those are facts, not anything that needs to be borne out by research. You can argue the creepy charge is unfair, that rich folks are wrong, that DI gives better reading decoding skills than other methods, and that tracking *should* be acceptable. Doesn’t mean they aren’t facts.

    • I see we have returned to your unpleasant preoccupation with IQ.

      You use the term ‘miracle case’ as a bit of hyperbolae to try to imply that proponents are silly and naive. You then doubled-down, insisting I was also making the case for a miracle fix. You can’t square that with my post and so now you prefer me to stop mentioning it. It is quite possible for DI to be an important achievement and for the world to be a better place if we had listened more to Zig without anyone requiring it to be a miracle cure and so I won’t accept that spin.

      Your list of four negatives is laughable. ‘It’s creepy’. Seriously? Have you heard of evidence? Have you heard of data? Are you a serious person?

      The fact that some people do or do not use it makes no difference at all. They might be right. They might be wrong. Who knows? As I mentioned in my post, we use DI at the private school where I work.

      Why would we find evidence that DI makes more kids go to college? That’s a long time lag right there. Such evidence would represent one of the longest and most robust causal influences in education. What about all the other classes taken in the 11 or 12 intervening years? What about the curriculum? What about the influence of parents, friends, gangs, aspirations? Judge DI on its own terms eg is it better at teaching kids to read, rather than insisting it has to demonstrate miraculous effects.

      • I’m not unpleasantly preoccupied with IQ. If you wish to assert that all students are equally capable of achieving at every level, then by all means do so. Otherwise, cognitive ability has some impact on outcomes. Given that I support DI precisely because of this, I don’t see any reason for you to be cranky about it.

        The rest of your comment is bizarre. You say the man is a giant and his work is ignored. Are you now denying you think his curriculum is effective? I was not implying you said his work was a miracle cure. I was referring to others who talk about the Lewis Lemon case.

        “to try to imply that proponents are silly and naive”

        That’s quite wrong. I don’t think proponents are silly or naive, and if you bothered to read even one of the links you’d see that.

        “‘It’s creepy’. Seriously? Have you heard of evidence? Have you heard of data? Are you a serious person?”

        Yes, seriously. People think it’s creepy. Not everyone, obviously. But its creepiness is a big reason for its failure to take hold. And yes, it’s unfair that subjective feelings like “creepy” offset actual data (which isn’t quite as strong as some people, not you, suggest, but still).

        “The fact that some people do or do not use it makes no difference at all. ”

        Wrong again. DI has, most of all, an image problem. And there’s a strong sense that its rigid curriculum and script is “good enough” for poor kids but not what real educators use, not the ones who can afford anything better.

        Illogical? Sure. But nonetheless, it’s a serious question: if this method is so successful, why don’t rich people use it? And since they don’t, and not only that, they’d find it incredibly unattractive, it hurts DI.

        That’s not fair. It doesn’t have to be.

        “As I mentioned in my post, we use DI at the private school where I work.”

        I know. It’s used in a few private schools in the US, too, but not the exclusive ones. The schools that use it tend to be the ones whose parents want their students to be taking advanced subjects at a young age, not rich parents.

        “Why would we find evidence that DI makes more kids go to college? That’s a long time lag right there. ”

        Because in the US, fadeout is a huge problem and there’s less support for programs that don’t have long term impact. If DI is great to get kids math facts and decoding, but doesn’t help them with more abstract concepts as they move ahead in school, then it’s hard for some people to see why it matters.

        Not me–I’m fine with giving all kids a better chance at decoding and math facts.

        I’m not judging DI. For myself, I think it’s a perfectly adequate way to teach young kids, and probably better than adequate at teaching low IQ kids. That’s great, and I have no objections to its use.

        I am, in fact, trying to explain why DI has failed to take hold, because your reason–that it conflicts with the dominant thought–doesn’t hold up if you look at its history. The Ford Foundation actively worked against DI to change the criteria. In every case it’s been pulled out despite test scores that seem linked to its use, it’s been a superintendent, not public outcry, not teachers, not academia, but the most pragmatic people. It’s weird.

        So don’t be a snot and stop attributing positions to me I don’t hold.

      • You say in this comment:

        “I was not implying you said his work was a miracle cure.”

        But in an earlier comment, you say:

        “Sure, but you said:

        ‘it was the best performer in terms of higher order cognitive skills, such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving, as well as the affective domain of student self-esteem. ‘

        That makes it sound like a miracle fix.”

        You are twisting in the wind. It is ironic that you accuse me of criticising positions you don’t hold.

      • hahaha. Fine. You lionize the guy, say he was a giant, say that you wish people had listened to him so he could have impacted the world, but you don’t think his work is all that special. Got it.

        Once again, my original post wasn’t meant as a rebuttal to you, and despite your extremely limited ability to handle nuance in others (whilst demanding it for yourself, mr. i didn’t say it was a miracle, only that he was a giant in the field and everyone should have listened to him), you should have been able to figure I wasn’t criticizing him or his work.

        But you’ve always been such an unpleasant little shill.

  9. “My sense is that the movement away from DI is a behaviour/energy management tool for teachers: teaching full on DI six lessons on the trot is exhausting, better to kick back and let the kids flounder a bit in the name of self-discovery”

    That’s a pretty silly sense, from an American perspective at least. Teachers who embrace DI do so in no small part because it is easier.

    • Falsson says:

      Is DI really easier? Even assuming that DI just involved reading word for word from a pre-written script, is it really easier to spend 40 minutes reading from that script (getting all the words right) or to spend 40 minutes wandering around watching kids do whatever (making vague encouraging comments and making chit-chat)? One involves precision and focus; in the other the teacher can zone out whenever they like and say whatever they like.

      Sure, I’m comparing two caricatures here, but the point is sound. A lot of teachers would find any form of DI physically and intellectually taxing. Some might find alternative methods taxing too. Neither seems INHERENTLY easier, but in the non-DI system, it’s easier to game the system. You could do DI like a zombie and the process might still have some effect on the students. You could do the non-DI methods in the same way and no-one would benefit at all.

      • Yes, they are caricatures and the point isn’t sound. There’s nothing taxing about DI, and the most challenging part of teaching is planning curriculum, particularly for a diverse group, and classroom management. DI covers all those bases. DI allows fairly ignorant teachers to become productive fairly quickly–Zig bragged about that quite a bit. It’s definitely cognitively easier, and it’s far less work from a planning perspective.

  10. Joe Kuhn says:

    It’s no miracle, It’s hard work. There’s a lot in this program that Zig designed and passed on to others so they could pass it on to even more. I was in the DI supervision program as a student teacher. The first day my supervisor showed up she had a piece of paper on a clip board, stop watch and a pencil. She data logged my pacing, reinforcement and corrections for errors. Pacing is to be 6-9 questions/answers per minute for a couple of minutes interspersed with feedback about what was right and corrections for what is wrong in student responses. Doing that with a small group of five is like balancing 5 plates on sticks in front of a live audience.

    You do get better at it with practice and then you see that Billy was getting all his addition worksheet items wrong until you corrected him at his seat and now he’s getting them all right.

    After you get the pacing going you take breaks with the students because they’ve gotten it correct. You talk about who got it wrong and is now getting it right and you praise the change. You talk about how they must have been paying attention because look at how good they are doing now. Yesterday wasn’t this good. I bet tomorrow will be even better. And it is.

    We studied specific corrections for certain errors in methods classes outside of our student teaching. We brought specific errors from the kids to those classes in case the written program didn’t cover them all and it didn’t. The programs are a guide book to follow mostly, but there are always side trips and diversions. That is where the teacher comes in. Keeping it going, balanced and fun and rewarding and pow. Your classroom is a place you love to be in, work hard and go home each day knowing you have helped some children meet their potential.

    I tutored some kids during the summer breaks and had one child who couldn’t put on his socks, snap his pants or unlock the car doors when they had a post in the corner by the window. Remember that? I thought about this on my way to Zig’s design class and finally realized the child hadn’t been taught you have to squeeze the objects between your fingers. He would just place his fingers on both sides and was expecting something magical to happen, I guess.

    So, what do you suppose is the best program to teach this skill?

    I had his mother bring in an extra pair of pants so we could do a tug of war with them. I had the child hold the pants at the two snaps and I pulled on the legs. I won. I got a point on the black board. He caught on fast with the third pull and guess what happened when he squeezed to win the tug of war? He snapped his pants. I immediately pointed to his fingers and the snap and said, you snapped your pants. Good job. Then I unsnapped them an asked him to snap his pants which he did. His mother cried. We went on to a similar thing with the socks and by then the car door was a piece of cake when we checked that. She later told me her son liked me, that’s why he was doing so well. I knew I had pondered the problem for a long time wondering why he hadn’t learned this skill, finally saw it and what to do to teach it, and that was the hard part for me.

    If you’re not on the inside and know all that goes into it, it looks like a miracle, or a friendship with the teacher, or something. The mind always looks for some explanation. I can tell you the details are hard won and with these instructional programs a lot of the hard work has already been accomplished.

    Thanks to Zig and thanks to his team.

  11. Pingback: T&D: Goodbye to One of the Fathers of Direct Instruction. RIP. | EPPIC - Pursuing Performance

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