Engelmann and Direct Instruction (Part 1)

We are art’s mercenaries,
firing our thought’s arrows
at the mystery of things
— R. S. Thomas, Paving

Engelmann comes highly recommended:

In his book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, the researcher John Hattie evaluates the success of a range of different teaching approaches. As the subtitle suggests, he synthesised the results of hundreds of different analyses of achievement and measured the effect of different factors . . . A specific Direct Instruction programme was developed by the American educator, Siegfried Engelmann, in the 1960s. It proved incredibly successful but also incredibly controversial because it contradicted so much of what theorists like Dewey and Freire advocated. Hattie specifically endorsed Engelmann’s programme.

— Daisy Christodoulo, Seven Myths About Education, location 751 Kindle edition

Later on in the book, Hattie confronts the dominance of empirically unsuccessful constructivist ideas in teacher training. He explains the effectiveness of Direct Instruction, a structured and unapologetically teacher-led method of instruction originated in 1960s America. Despite being shunned by the American education establishment, Hattie’s analysis shows that Direct Instruction has one of the largest effect sizes (0.59) for any teaching programme.

— Robert Peal, Progressively Worse, location 2689 Kindle edition

I was intrigued and wanted to find out more, so I recently read Siegfried Engelmann’s and Douglas Carnine’s book Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? which can be thought of as an introduction to the philosophical underpinning of Direct Instruction.

I claim no particular expertise in this field beyond that of a working teacher with a couple of decades of experience. I suppose that it is also appropriate at this point to disclose that my practice generally tends towards the traditional-didactic rather than the progressive end of the spectrum, so I am perhaps predisposed to be sympathetic to Engelmann’s ideas. Nevertheless, this blog will attempt to engage critically with his ideas and arguments.

Engelmann and Carnine open by saying that (unfortunately, in their opinion) education has historically been excluded from the domain of science. They suggest that the five principles of induction put forward by philosopher John Stuart Mill in his A System Of Logic (1843) would form a suitable basis for a scientific systematisation of effective educational practice. The efficacy of these principles when applied to education was not recognised at the time, not even by Mill himself, until Engelmann and Carnine rediscovered them in the 1970s.

I was unfamiliar with this aspect of Mill’s work, and it was a delight to be introduced to it. I was particularly struck by this bombshell from Mill:

In another of its senses, to reason is simply to infer any assertion, from assertions already admitted: and in this sense induction is as much entitled to be called reasoning as the demonstrations of geometry
— J. S. Mill, A System of Logic, location 175 Kindle edition

Philosophers have long debated the “problem of induction”. It is generally recognised that deductive reasoning (e.g. Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal) is more dependable that inductive reasoning (e.g. every swan I have seen to date has been white; therefore every swan I will see in the future will be white).

However, it is a under-acknowledged truth that in our day-to-day lives (and in science generally) we rely primarily on induction and inference and, for the most part, they serve us well. What Mill is attempting to do is address the philosophical “second class status” accorded to inductive truths by formalising a set of rules that allow us to generate valid inductive inferences.

Engelmann and Carnine argue that these rules are of fundamental importance to the teacher as they allow her to construct a system of instruction that allows students to generate valid inferences and minimise false inferences:

In summary, the fabric of well designed instruction consists of details that promote specific inferences and rule out inappropriate inferences. Effective instruction is not born of grand ideas or scenarios that appeal to development or love of learning. It is constructed from the logic and tactics of science.
— S. Engelmann and D. Carnine, Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? location 1944 Kindle edition

One example they present is that of a constructivist approach to the teaching of prime numbers by getting students to lay out numbers of beans in rows and columns: students are invited to notice that some numbers (e.g. 7) cannot be laid out in rows of more than one bean which have equal numbers of beans. Englemann and Carnine argue that this activity does not accord with Mill’s principles because it will encourage students to generate a number of false inferences:

The false inference is that prime numbers are odd numbers. Imagine the consternation of the student who later discovers that 9 and 15 are odd, but they generate multiple rows. In contrast, 2 is even, but it is prime. A related false inference is that there is some form of predictable pattern for the occurrence of prime numbers, rather than the fact that some numbers are primes and others aren’t. Unless students had received previous instruction on what primes are, the bean counting has a potential of inducing false inferences; however, if students first learn the properties of prime numbers, the bean counting is a pointless activity. It simply provides validation that prime numbers are different from numbers that are multiples.
— location 1779 Kindle edition

I discussed this criticism with a Maths colleague who disagreed that the constructivist approach would necessarily generate false inferences — but more on that in a later post.

In summary, I am fascinated by the potential of Englemann’s and Carnine’s approach and intend to post more as I mull over its details and implications. Lord help me, but I could not help but be stirred by what could be interpreted as a call to arms:

[Our system] could certainly be improved by a concerted effort to do so. What it needs is a comprehensive critique by serious logicians and philosophers. It needs attention to its details so they can be refined or replaced to be more in accord with logic or empirical evidence.
— location 2591 Kindle edition

And perhaps more importantly, by working teachers too.

(Part Two here)

22 thoughts on “Engelmann and Direct Instruction (Part 1)

  1. ijstock May 4, 2015 / 3:53 pm

    Interesting – I await the future instalments with baited breath… I too am trying to reconcile the notions of teaching as an art/craft with that of it as a science. Perhaps the answer lies in the degree of resolution given by scientific method? In other words, it may be possible to map out broad-brush principles that are widely applicable without impinging on the need of the individual teacher to teach as they need. It strikes me that attempting micro-control of the process is where problems have lain in the past.

    • e=mc2andallthat May 4, 2015 / 4:11 pm

      Thanks! I wanted to see if (perhaps) Engelmann and Direct Instruction had been over-hyped. My interim conclusion is that it is not. I found his ideas interesting, coherent and persuasive, especially in defining the role of the teacher as that of encouraging correct inferences. I have not completely researched Mill’s principles of induction but they seem sound. Any endeavour which relies on evidence and argument is ‘scientific’ in some sense…

    • julietgreen May 4, 2015 / 4:37 pm

      “It strikes me that attempting micro-control of the process is where problems have lain in the past.”

      I think that’s the nub. I’m currently suffering from a kind of educational meme overload and I’m tending towards the view that there was an overcomplication (and a great many bandwagons) through the 20th century. I’m beginning to think we need a paring down – it’s a simpler process than all the gurus would have us believe.

      • e=mc2andallthat May 4, 2015 / 4:57 pm

        I’ve always liked Robert Coe’s comment “Learning happens when you have to think hard”. In the end, I think education boils down to that. Engelmann’s work interests me because he is attempting (I think) to put that thought on a rigorous foundation. Thanks for the comment!

  2. julietgreen May 4, 2015 / 6:17 pm

    I think I could boil it down to ‘learning happens’. OK that may be a bit trite, but it is the nature of organisms.

  3. teachwell May 4, 2015 / 6:18 pm

    The example of the prime numbers is a case in point. It’s laughable that teachers should just facilitate and hope!! In fact the most direct instruction needs to take place earlier on. I don’t think that billions of humans before us were stupid in allowing children direct instruction but also time to play. Mixing the two has not proven to be successful. Montessori is such a middle class movement that it would be hard to pull apart whether it is the environment or the fact that the children will have encountered many of said objects with parental instruction in the first place.

    • ijstock May 4, 2015 / 8:49 pm

      Yes, that’s all good. In the end, learning is simply about the transmission of stuff from people who know to people who don’t. There are probably more ways to make it work than not. Put more than one person in a room together and some learning will probably happen! But leave people to work it out for themselves and they will probably struggle.

      Much of what has happened since is simply the product of vested interests within education and interference from outside raising the stakes to a level that is helpful to nobody – and which is probably counter-productive to boot.

      • ijstock May 4, 2015 / 8:50 pm

        …and it just occurs to me – if learning does ‘just happen’ does it really matter whether it’s a science or not?

    • chrismwparsons May 5, 2015 / 10:27 pm

      I think the simplicity of that idea – that children can have direct instruction, and they can have play, but the two things don’t necessarily work better if you mix them up, is really profound. As humans we have a straightforward capacity to cope with the distinction, and indeed thrive on the difference between the two… But how many children are being allowed to discover that in their lives…?

      • teachwell May 6, 2015 / 6:41 am

        Well exactly – its all dogma of the least intellectual at work here. There is a lot of retrospective theorisation to justify reality. I spoke to a person who was convinced by a newspaper article that young children were meant to not listen to adults as it was their ‘role’ to question. I think testing boundaries is one thing. Another is to justify not setting boundaries for children with an excuse. Of course young children want to play but they also get bored by it at times. Different children enjoy different things as well. It’s funny how the traditionalists are charged with one size fits all but then the whole child-centred learning through play is exactly that too!!

  4. heatherfblog May 4, 2015 / 11:59 pm

    I am also trying to tease out a position given my own instincts towards teaching as a complex craft and my experience using Engelmann’s maths materials with my children. I can’t comment on the bean example in particular but in practically any learning task there are false inferences to be avoided. Engelmann offers us a real insight.

  5. Becca Leech August 20, 2015 / 4:23 pm

    As an American teacher who used DISTAR and Reading Mastery curricula during the 1980’s and 90’s -both developed by Engelmann and published by SRA- I suspect that the reason Direct Instruction (in the capital letter sense) fell out of favor was because it was published as a series of “teacher-proof” products that left out the very philosophical exploration of why the strategies were used that I am reading here. We were given the highly scripted curricula without evidence-based discussion or opportunities for exploration of its foundational principles. This was in a time when it was almost impossible for American teachers to access research results. Most teachers, including myself, felt there was an underlying disrespect for our profession inherent in the presentation of the curricula. I think more writers are noting the role that teaching practice plays in influencing education policy, for example, this by Larry Cuban – https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/policy-influences-practice-but-does-practice-influence-policy/ which I think was the primary reason Engelmann’s strategies were rejected.

    • e=mc2andallthat August 20, 2015 / 5:08 pm

      I have to admit that the idea of a completely “scripted” lesson dispiriting — I even find it difficult to use colleagues’ worksheets! I am by no means an expert on D.I., but the guiding principles seem sound. Possibly “script” was a bad choice of word (and I would have found the “teacher proof” sell insulting as well). I might borrow the word “gambit” from chess and supply the teacher with a “book of lesson plays” rather than a “script”, picturing her as a grandmaster selecting the appropriate strategy as needs present…but I am jumping way ahead of where I am in researching D.I.

      Larry Cuban is brilliant at describing the stubborn ” one way street” of policy reform. Je suis Mrs Oublier!

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