On a personal note:
I was first introduced to DI in 1980, when the Australian Psychological Society invited Zig’s colleague, Wes Becker, to its national conference in Melbourne. At the time I was a young educational psychologist consulting in primary and secondary schools with the Victorian education department, and becoming aware of how little practical knowledge I had to offer schools with their day-to-day student learning and behaviour issues. I had obtained very few useful resources, either from my teacher training or my post-graduate studies.
Wes’s vibrant presentation on DI was a revelation to me, and he also spoke of its strong results in the huge national US experiment on effective teaching models known as Project Follow Through. The notion of selecting methods of instruction based upon demonstrable student outcomes resonated strongly, and offered a pathway to a workable and productive style of educational practice.
I subsequently employed DI in local schools successfully, and was drawn to further study. I resigned from the Victorian education department in 1992 for RMIT University as a lecturer, and completed a PhD with a study using the Corrective Reading program with mid-primary school students who were low progress readers. I subsequently taught DI to masters and doctoral students engaged in training parents to deliver DI programs.
Meeting Zig in 2004 at the DI Conference in Oregon was a personal highlight in my career, despite my being over-whelmed and unable to express all I wished to say. I have some continued involvement with NIFDI in that I was invited to write a blog for them. However, I have no financial involvement with NIFDI.
Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann, the co-developer of the educational model known as Direct Instruction (DI), died at his home on February 15, 2019 aged 87 years, after some months of illness. Zig’s career in education was both extended and productive. He received 9 funded research grants, and wrote 18 books, 27 book chapters and monographs, and 47 articles. In conjunction with colleagues, he was primarily responsible for an array of educational programs, including 20 in reading, eight in spelling, 18 in mathematics, 10 in language, and three in writing. Probably the most well-known of these are Reading Mastery, Spelling Mastery, and Corrective Reading. In recognition of his contribution to education, he was awarded a Professorship in Education at the University of Oregon. Engelmann was also the director of the non-profit National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI).
What is Zig’s contribution to education?
Zig had an unusual pathway into education. He was working in advertising, and interested in how an advertising message might be structured so that it was more likely to be remembered by children. Following this slightly chilling start, he became fascinated with the broader implications of this work, and moved into the education field.
Without denying the influence of genetics, he asked what are the limits on instruction to alter the learning trajectory of students - whether young, struggling students, second language learners, gifted, or average students? So, a major step was a shift in emphasis from the quality of the learner to the quality of instruction as a modifiable element in the learning process. For more than 50 years Engelmann productively addressed the conundrum of why some students learn following typical classroom instruction and some don’t. In avoiding the learner-at-fault explanation for the latter event, he began analyses of stimuli, communication, and behaviour as the important addressable variables. He developed a logical technique for designing curriculum with an emphasis on avoiding ambiguities that might distract students. He also considered the gulf between a given curriculum and the resultant student outcomes. His approach focusses upon what processes are necessary when a teacher, working from a curriculum, attempts to ensure students master the concepts/knowledge/tasks/routines that the curriculum contains. Thus instructional quality becomes a necessary component of interventions. That the philosophy and principles of instruction have been able to be translated into so many instructional programs is further testimony to their validity. The wide range of curriculum domains addressed by DI programs includes reading, writing, language, spelling, maths, and spoken English.
For those interested in detail about his programs, there are many journal and web articles. See the NIFDI pages (https://www.nifdi.org/) and Zig’s own site (http://www.zigsite.com) for a start. See also the reference list at the end.
What is the background to his message?
Empathy for students who suffer the indignity of sustained educational failure clearly drove Engelmann’s endeavours. This is reflected in his shifting of the focus from student responsibility to an instructional focus. This empathy was not simply a saddening recognition (a hollow bemoaning) of a supposedly inevitable reality but a determination to do something productive about it. His capacity to show how this can be achieved has changed the life trajectory of many of these students.
Following his death, there will be much written about the substance of his work. I decided to largely let Zig’s words carry his message about Direct Instruction and its development.
“If we are humanists, we begin with the obvious fact that the children we work with are perfectly capable of learning anything that we have to teach. We further recognize that we should be able to engineer the learning so that it is reinforcing—perhaps not “fun,” but challenging and engaging. We then proceed to do it— not to continue talking about it. We try to control these variables that are potentially within our control so that they facilitate learning. We train the teacher, design the program, work out a reasonable daily schedule, and leave NOTHING TO CHANCE. We monitor and we respond quickly to problems. We respond quickly and effectively because we consider the problems moral and we conceive of ourselves as providing a uniquely important function-particularly for those children who would most certainly fail without our concerted help. We function as advocates for the children, with the understanding that if we fail, the children will be seriously pre-empted from doing things with their lives, such as having important career options and achieving some potential values for society. We should respond to inadequate teaching as we would to problems of physical abuse. Just as our sense of humanity would not permit us to allow child abuse in the physical sense, we should not tolerate it in the cognitive setting. We should be intolerant because we know what can be achieved if children are taught appropriately. We know that the intellectual crippling of children is caused overwhelmingly by faulty instruction-not by faulty children.
Because of these convictions, we have little tolerance for traditional educational establishments. We feel that they must be changed so they achieve the goals of actually helping all children. This call for humanity can be expressed on two levels. On that of society: Let’s stop wasting incredible human potential through unenlightened practices and theories. On the level of children: Let’s recognize the incredible potential for being intelligent and creative possessed by even the least impressive children, and with unyielding passion. Let’s pursue the goal of assuring that this potential becomes reality.” (p.725)
Engelmann, Z., & Carnine, D. (2016). Theory of instruction: Principles and applications (Revised edition). Eugene, OR: NIFDI Press.
What is the message?
“The philosophy behind the program is basically simple. We say in effect; “Kid, it doesn’t matter how miserably your environment has failed to teach you the basic concepts that the average five-year-old has long since mastered. We’re not going to fail you. We’re not going to discriminate against you, or give up on you, regardless of how unready you may be according to traditional standards. We are not going to label you with a handle, such as dyslexic or brain-damaged, and feel that we have now exonerated ourselves from the responsibility of teaching you. We’re not going to punish you by requiring you to do things you can’t do. We’re not going to talk about your difficulties to learn. Rather, we will take you where you are, and we’ll teach you. And the extent to which we fail is our failure, not yours. We will not cop out by saying, “He can’t learn.” Rather, we will say, “I failed to teach him. So I better take a good look at what I did and try to figure out a better way.” (Zig Engelmann, unpublished)
DI and Explicit Instruction
It is of interest that many of the long standing elements of DI are now recognisable in those expressions evidence-based practice and systematic explicit instruction that have increasing currency in the world of education. Engelmann employed the term explicit in his writings, as a component of DI because it was represented in the means of instruction, but as his programs also incorporated the curriculum, the term explicit was not an overarching description of DI. Another term direct instruction (lower case) has also been used to refer to a broad set of educational programs that incorporate elements of systematic or explicit instruction. An explicit approach can be content free, and could be applied to any efforts to teach that employ explicit means of instruction. So, just because a program is described as explicit or direct instruction doesn’t necessarily mean it is effective. The quality of the content is as important as the explicit delivery method, and is a prerequisite for success.
Explicit instruction and direct instruction overlap greatly, and some might argue that they are basically the same thing. So when and why did much of the field move from “direct” to “explicit?” (p.143-4)
Hughes, C.A., Morris, J.R. Therrien, W.J., & Benson, S.K. (2017). Explicit instruction: Historical and contemporary contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32(3), 140–148.
DI is best known for its reading programs, and from early on (i.e., 1969) it incorporated phonology in its approach to beginning reading:
“The difference between the Direct Instruction orientation to phonological skills and that of other early programs that presented children with phonological manipulations is the precise articulation of how the various skills served as necessary preskills for a beginning reading program in which children were to sound out and blend words. For Direct Instruction the needs were very precise and were based on analyses of the various reading tasks presented to the beginning reader. … The single purpose of these [phonological] tasks for DISTAR was to prepare children for specific decoding tasks they would soon encounter. The basic argument that Engelmann used for the necessity of phonological manipulations was that they were components of corresponding decoding manipulations. Component tasks are analytically “easier” to learn than tasks that incorporate the component (because these tasks involve the components plus additional components that must be coordinated). Therefore the components should be mastered before the more complex operations are introduced. The components involve less learning and less coordination. A similar argument would hold that the child should learn the “sounds” for the various letters that appear in the word to be decoded before being required to decode the word. Decoding each individual sound is a component of decoding the entire word. Therefore, the sounds for the various letters should be pretaught. … Another way of viewing the instructional-design question is to consider the possible causes of failure. When a child attempts to decode a word like ran (by sounding it out and then identifying it) the child could fail if the child did not know the sound for any component letter; similarly, if the child could not blend the various sounds, the child could fail. If the child has been pretaught various components (verbal blending, the sounds for the various letters, the orientation of ordering the sounds from left to right) the likelihood of failure is greatly reduced. Also, the ease of correcting the child who makes a mistake is greatly increased.” (p.43)
Engelmann, S. (1999, Winter). Phonemic awareness in Reading Mastery. Effective School Practices, 17(3), 43-49. Retrieved from https://www.nifdi.org/research/esp-arch ... /file.html
It’s not enough to simply write a curriculum. The orchestration of the detail of instruction is critical, and is a separate variable to the curriculum content.
Zig may downplay DI’s complexity; however, anyone reading of Theory of instruction: Principles and applications will quickly be dissuaded from the belief that instructional design is a simple matter, and that instructional issues are easily handled by most teachers.
“There is no big thing. It’s all pick, pick, picky details. Direct Instruction is just attention to a lot of tiny details” (Engelmann, 1977)
Hempenstall, K. (2014). Review of T. W. Wood (Ed.), Engelmann's Direct Instruction: Selected writings from the past half century. Eugene, OR: NIFDI Press.
“The field has to recognize that because highly effective educational programs are inventions, there is no intellectually honest way to describe their structure or why they are highly successful without presenting a myriad of criteria. These would not paint in brush strokes the size of a bulldog, but in picky details of how the tasks are formulated, how the example sets are designed, how the details of lessons are organized and sequenced from lesson to the next so that only about 10-15% of each lesson presents brand new material, how exercises are designed so they are unambiguous about details of the content, and therefore, how the analysis of the content permits the progressive and systematic transmission of the content to the average and low-performing students. If you think about it, you see that the program has to be an orchestration of detail. If it weren't the moment-to-moment performance of the students would not be smooth and successful but lumpy, with no control of tiny details that could make it smooth.”
Engelmann, S. (2004). Prologue to the Dalmatian and its spots: Why research-based recommendations fail Logic 101. Retrieved from http://www.zigsite.com/DalmatianPro.htm