Crystallising “Clear Teaching” by Shepard Barbash – Direct Instruction – An ignored tool in closing achievement gaps? Part 1

Veteran journalist Shepard Barbash took over 10 years to write his publication “Clear Teaching,” which takes a comprehensive look at the story of Siegfried Engelmann and Direct Instruction. This is something I am really interested in at the moment. Direct Instruction has a massive PR problem so I think it’s important to shed a positive light on it. Engelmann’s DI programs have been proven over 50 years to teach children of all ages and help them make progress at a rapid rate. They are scripted programs. Completely scripted. They help students with a range of skills from following instructions, early language acquisition, phonics and basic maths skills to higher level algebra, earth science and language for thinking. Here is a timeline for Direct Instruction that I put together with the advice of James Murphy and Kris Boulton. Massive thanks to Oliver Caviglioli who produced it for me – he is genius!

I am going to try to crystalize the highlights that I have gleaned from the document so that, one, it’s easier to remind myself of the key points and, two, readers of this blog can then go on to read more here if they are intrigued to do so.

The more I read about Engelmann’s work, the more I realise that he is simply genius. He was one of the first to successfully close attainment gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers and was one of the first to think about phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds that make up words.

All of the effective learning strategies that are beginning to become more prevalent such as retrieval practice, the importance of background knowledge, spacing, interleaving, concrete examples, embedded formative assessment, variation theory, cognitive load theory, motivation – it’s all there! Engelmann had thought of these things 40 years earlier without putting a label on it. Well… maybe he did – they all encompass Direct Instruction. His instructional design is second to none – no wonder it’s scripted.  We could NEVER have thought of all of the things that he has thought through, tested and adapted in such meticulous detail. We just don’t have the time. He originally tried to write the content in a non-scripted fashion and found that the variety in human intuition meant that the programs were just not delivered effectively and were littered with misdirection – forming misconceptions in students that he refers to as “misrules.”

There is a theoretical framework and set of underlying principles that we can borrow and use to design our curricula, instruction and resources. We can dip our toe into the DI stream and tell people what it feels like without throwing ourselves in.

  1. He believes wholly that “children have the ability to learn anything that we have to teach them.” His programs work for low attaining disadvantaged “at-risk” pupils as well as higher attainers. A district in America has had to re-write its curriculum for maths for it’s higher attaining pupils because the use of DI  now means that their old curriculum was not challenging enough.
  2. “We know that the intellectual crippling of children is caused overwhelmingly by faulty instruction – not faulty children.”
  3. Engelmann did not elicit his principles from books – they are trialled through a painstaking process within classrooms – he is EXTREMELY self-critical. One 5 minute sequence took over 20 hours to write.
  4. Project Follow Through – the largest teaching method comparison in history in the 1960s and 70s – compared 22 teaching methods using 70,000 children across 170 disadvantaged communities at a cost of over $1bn to the American government. DI  was the only one that came out on top for all three measures – basic skills, cognition and problem solving and self-concept.
  5. He appreciated that the language gap was the biggest factor in attainment differences between majority low-income communities.
  6. “What humans learn is completely consistent with the input they receive.” The document summarises “Rules, Not Misrules” into 5:

Rule 1 – Be Clear – order your presentation of examples so that a rule can be developed and generalised. All other possibilities need to be ruled out. Below is a passage on how he would teach the concept of blue. We can learn a lot from his work by including examples and non-examples during concept development.

Rule 2 – Be efficient – His programs are designed to teach pupils in less time and at less cost. Rather than teach knowledge as an encyclopaedia to be mastered – a series of examples and algorithms is shown to allow students to learn, organise, generalise and remember and connect lots of information. He believes that smart choices need to be made when teaching disadvantaged pupils – the language of instruction so that children can learn new things more independently in future. 9-12 tasks can be presented per minute. It is highly interactive. He uses “hot verbal sequences” – Doug Lemov would refer to this as “call and respond”, where students are subjected to many questions that they have to respond to by calling out in unison.

Rule 3 – Teach to mastery – Only 15% of the content in each session is new. 85% is reviewed, built upon and applied to another context using intelligent variation of questions. Examples and exercises allow students to see non-typical examples from the beginning, as well as showing the range and limitations of a topic. “Repetition is the mother of memory – at-risk students are rarely given enough practise to master the skills that they need.” He pioneered the “Model – Lead – Test” technique using tests that are designed to assess mastery. He believes that testing and teaching are the same package so that we can correct mistakes immediately. “A correction procedure that makes sense to the learner is the coin of the realm.” He says that correction is the hardest thing for a teacher to do but offers lots of advice in his books. His seminal book, Theory of Instruction: Principles and Applications has a whole chapter dedicated to this.

Rule 4 – Celebrate Success – Engelmann completely understood that “achievement often leads to motivation but motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement.” He played games (see below) with younger pupils to make them think that they had beaten him. He would say to the children, “You got lucky this time. I’ll get you next time!” Even though the lessons are scripted for instruction and content, teachers who deliver the program talk about have to make many decisions during delivery and it being mentally taxing. These are important things that students are learning. Constant formative assessment through high frequency, high quality questioning allows teachers to praise students and mean it. There is a high success rate – students should aim to get 70% of content correct. No question type will be posed or assessed that has not previously been taught. He was one of the first to realise that positive re-enforcement can also correct poor behaviour. He also talked about praising pointedly and specifically. “Off-task behaviour diminishes because students are kept busy with tasks they can succeed at, because in the end, students don’t cling to the behaviour itself – but the teacher’s attention and affection.”

Rule 5 – Engelmann is highly evidence driven. He talks about teachers thinking they know what they’re doing based on their intuition. “But self-perception is not the same as independent assessment based on science.” Engelmann’s standard for performance is so high – he won’t publish it until it has been tried and tested until students who are subjected to the instruction achieve a 90% success rate.If they don’t he assumes he has done something wrong and adapts the program. Astonishing. This is the type of rigour we need with disadvantaged students.  “Kids never lie. The information they give you should feel like somebody hitting you with a brick. If it doesn’t, you’re not teaching – you’re just presenting.” Data is kept by Engelmann on how many chances per minute students are given to respond, percentage of first time correct responses, error patterns, think time, trails before mastery, the spacing interval required before review is needed – SO much of Engelmann’s work is put under the microscope… by himself. He is his own worst critic. He was testing the things that we know are important for learning and performance a long time ago and we can learn a lot from his work.

This is only the first two chapters. I will go onto summarise the others soon. I will begin to help you understand why, over time, this teaching method is not sweeping the world… yet!

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