Engelmann and Direct Instruction (Part 2)

In Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools?, Siegfried Engelmann and Douglas Carnine discuss the philosophical foundations of their acclaimed Direct Instruction programme (see Part 1). They write of their serendipitous rediscovery of Mill’s work and that they

came across Mill’s work and were shocked to discover that they had independently identified all the major patterns that Mill had articulated. Theory of Instruction [1991] even had parallel principles to the methods in [Mill’s] A System of Logic [published in 1843].

— location 543 Kindle edition

What Engelmann and Carnine are attempting to do is no less than develop a scientifically reliable model of education. In their view, learners learn by constructing inferences based on the evidence or examples presented by the teacher. In other words, learners use the rules of reason and logic (consciously or unconsciously) to develop general principles from specific examples by inductive reasoning.

To me, this is a fascinating idea. Have Engelmann and Carnine hit upon the elusive essence of what learning is? Is learning genuinely a matter of constructing inferences from evidence by formal or informal logical rules?

My view is that it certainly seems a plausible idea. In the light of my own experience and thinking it has a “ring of truth”, and I suspect that I am going to find this a profoundly influential idea for the rest of my career.

Many authors and thinkers have argued that human beings construct “mental maps” or conceptual models constructed by inductive reasoning from often limited information. Anthropologist Louis Liebenberg describes an example involving the !Xõ people of the central Kalahari Desert:

While tracking down a solitary wildebeest spoor [tracks] of the previous evening !Xõ trackers pointed out evidence of trampling which indicated that the animal had slept at that spot. They explained consequently that the spoor leaving the sleeping place had been made early that morning and was therefore relatively fresh. The spoor then followed a straight course, indicating that the animal was on its way to a specific destination. After a while, one tracker started to investigate several sets of footprints in a particular area. He pointed out that these footprints all belonged to the same animal, but were made during the previous days. He explained that the particular area was the feeding ground of that particular wildebeest. Since it was, by that time, about mid-day, it could be expected that the wildebeest may be resting in the shade in the near vicinity.

— quoted by Steven Pinker in How The Mind Works p. 193

The trackers were using miniscule traces of evidence and their knowledge of the environment to make inferences about the behaviour of (currently) unseen entities. In other words, they were using inductive reasoning to put together a tentative model of what their quarry was doing or attempting to do. (And I use ‘tentative’ in the sense that the model will be adapted and corrected in the light of further evidence.)

As do we all! I would suggest that all humans use similar techniques of inference, or ‘mental modules’ in Steven Pinker’s memorable phrasing, even with vastly different subject matter. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow even go so far as to suggest that:

we shall adopt an approach that we call model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality.

The Grand Design p.9

And where does this leave us? If Engelmann and Carnine are correct (and I believe they are} then education becomes a matter of logic. They argue that a vital criterion in designing what they call “sound instructional sequences” is that sets of examples should “generate only the intended inferences”. They note

that logical flaws in instruction could be identified analytically, through a careful examination of the teaching. If we know the specific set of examples and the inference that the learners are supposed to derive from the instruction, we can determine if serious false inferences are implied by the program.

— location 1514

And I, for one, find that a highly engaging and strangely comforting thought.

(You can read Part 3 here)

12 thoughts on “Engelmann and Direct Instruction (Part 2)

  1. Requires Improvement May 12, 2015 / 11:23 pm

    Having only really encountered the 1 page Janet and John summary of DI (very scripted, very effective, possibly not much interest to teach/be taught by), this has been an interesting pair of posts to read.
    What strikes me is the emphasis on content/ideas/sequencing, over pedagogic technique. I suspect that management of sequencing and logic is easier to do well in a more teacher-centric approach, but yes; it does feel comforting (and a bit exciting).
    It might also be that a focus on what we teach over how we teach it squares the circle between two intuitions I have. First, that there probably aren’t huge gains to be had by changing pedagogy (I’d like to see proper trials of this though), but second, that what teachers are collectiviely doing at the moment isn’t qute right.
    It also feels relevant that one of the main bits of ed reseach that seems clear and convincing (synthetic phonics) is more a “what to teach + when” thing, not a “how to teach” thing.

  2. Pat Stone August 11, 2016 / 1:37 pm

    I read this, and part 1. Thank you. You describe just how I go about teaching a child to read, having been trained in Reading Recovery.
    This especially:
    “..learners use the rules of reason and logic (consciously or unconsciously) to develop general principles from specific examples by inductive reasoning.”
    I would call it deductive reasoning – I’m not yet sure of the difference – but no matter.
    I just noticed Part three is here – I’ll read it now.

    • e=mc2andallthat August 11, 2016 / 2:26 pm


      Where and when did you do the Reading Recovery training? I haven’t had any formal training in Direct Instruction, but I am interested in the ideas. These posts are just my thoughts on reading Engelmann’s and Carnine’s writings. As I understand it, inductive reasoning describes when the conclusion is probable based on the premises, rather than logically certain as in deductive reasoning.
      Part 4 https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/engelmann-and-direct-instruction-part-4/ . Working on part 5 as we speak 🙂

      • Pat Stone August 11, 2016 / 2:41 pm

        I wouldn’t call Reading Recovery DI. It takes a constructivist approach, but fits perfectly with what you have been saying, as far as I am concerned. Most Trads would see RR as Progressive. I trained in 07/08 and ongoing each term for 5 years. I looked up inductive and deductive – as long as there is reasoning, I’m happy.
        As far as I understand it, DI basically involves teaching facts and knowledge first, thinking about them afterwards, and is Trad.
        Cans of worms have probably now been opened…

      • e=mc2andallthat August 11, 2016 / 2:54 pm

        I think the reputation of DI is that it that it is a Trad, Gradgrindian “facts first” approach, but in reality it seems to me to be a very creditable attempt to put together a systematic approach for effective teaching. As for the Traditional/Progressive divide, I think @heymisssmith hits the nail on the head in this post: http://heymisssmith.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/two-tribes.html

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