Superb headteacher and sensible Tweeter Nat Nabarro tweeted this over the Christmas holidays:
So, obviously, I went and bought my own copy.
Clear Teaching is great. It’s a pithy synopsis of Direct Instruction: the main ideas, the controversies, and why Engelmann himself is a master teacher. Reading it made me want to revisit the ideas in more depth, so I went back to my copy of Engelmann’s Teaching Needy Kids in our Backward System and found myself all fired up again. There are so many reasons to love the late Engelmann; here are mine.
1. He believes every child can learn
For Engelmann, there is no such thing as a child who cannot be taught. This sounds obvious, but how many times are children written off or excluded from the system? I remember being told when given a bottom set exam class in my early years of teaching: “just make sure they behave – they’re not expected to get a C.” I’ve had teachers and sometimes SENCOs tell me of certain children that “they need to be in a special school.” It is wonderfully refreshing to hear someone who affirms the belief that all children can learn, and it is awe-inspiring to hear this from someone who actually wrote the programmes which proved in study after study that all those supposedly “needy” children could learn and catch up with their peers. Engelmann himself wrote in Theory of Instruction: “We begin with the obvious fact that the children we work with are perfectly capable of learning anything that we have to teach… We know that the intellectual crippling of children is caused overwhelmingly by faulty instruction—not by faulty children.” In Clear Teaching Engelmann is quoted as saying: “the problem was not that the children had dyslexia, but that the teacher had some form of dysteachia. Most of the schools we worked in were concerned with the children’s ‘readiness’ but not with providing instruction that would make them ready.”
2. He believes that the children furthest behind can learn the same curriculum
…They just need to go faster. This is refreshing, as even in the very best schools I’ve worked in which did great things for children despite low starting points, there was an acceptance that those children needed to only study part of the curriculum to be able to succeed, be that narrowing their subject options or reducing the content of the curriculum studied. The Engelmann way is to intensively use his programmes early on to ensure those children catch up, and again he put his money where his mouth was and created and tested these programmes to show what was possible for those furthest behind. Clear Teaching tells the story of one preschool he ran: “The Bereiter-Engelmann preschool, as it came to be called, was the first to show that the academic achievement gap between rich and poor could be closed, and that early intervention with an hour or two of well-designed instruction per day was the key to closing it… Open half-days and serving poor families, the preschool resembled others in that children were encouraged to play, sing songs, listen to stories and get along with each other. What made it unique was that for twenty to thirty minutes two or three times a day, they were taught skills in language, reading and math whose mastery Engelmann understood to be critical to their future academic success.”
3. He believes in teachers
But says they need a curriculum – you wouldn’t expect a pilot to construct the engine of his plane. Unlike many of his critics who allege he thinks teachers are too stupid to be trusted to work out how to teach, Engelmann repeatedly speaks warmly of all the teachers he trains in his methods, praises the gains their classes make, and asserts that absolutely anyone – with the right materials and the right training – can make all children learn. In Clear Teaching Barbash writes: “He found that, contrary to popular belief, kids enjoyed learning hard things from adults, and gained confidence as they gained skills. Most important, he found that the results did not depend on him or a few gifted colleagues: he could write programs that allowed most people to use his methods after some training.” This is important: particularly in a time of challenge in teacher recruitment, we certainly cannot rely on a magic pipeline of genius teachers to change the futures of all the children in this country. We need something at scale which works to support all teachers to have impact – Engelmann believes all teachers can do it, with the right programme.
4. He gets kids
It is rare to find an academic who so understands the human and emotional side of the classroom, but books on and by Engelmann clearly demonstrate his skills with children. One tried and tested adage is that we must catch children being good – easier said than done for the new teacher – and Engelmann provides a solid way to do this: “DI programs make it easier because they generate such high rates of correct responses. Off-task behaviour diminishes because children are kept busy with tasks they can succeed at, and because in the end, what kids really cling to is not the behaviour itself—good or bad—but the teacher’s attention and affection.” In Teaching Needy Kids Engelmann writes: “When we trained new teachers, we stressed the importance of their responses. If they treat something as if it’s very important, that’s the way children will respond to it.” Finally, his emphasis on the choral response reveals both his understanding of how young people learn and the way to a controlled but joyful classroom: Barbash writes: “The most visible efficiency features of DI programs are concise teacher scripts and choral student responses. The scripts eliminate extraneous teacher talk, which often unintentionally confuses students. The choral response maximizes the number of times individual children respond, per minute, per period.”
5. He made programmes which work, and which have been measured a thousand times and proved to work
Not only do children taught by Direct Instruction do well, they enjoy learning. Why? Because success motivates. Direct Instruction programmes are meticulously designed to “identify key skills and teach them first… [They] build mastery through practice and intervene early to prevent bad habits.” The longest chapter in Clear Teaching consists of the references to all the multiplicity of studies which show just how effective Direct Instruction is. The challenge remains for UK curriculum makers to adopt the lessons learned in all these many trials and meta-analyses and forge curriculums which have the same impact for the children who need them most.
Clear Teaching sums up the Engelmann legacy: “He showed that poor and disabled children can learn at reasonable rates using standard levels of funding, and that it is therefore fair that we hold ourselves accountable for their learning. He showed that student behaviour is inseparable from instruction: the better the instruction, the better students behave. He showed that teacher quality is inseparable from curriculum: the better the program, the better teachers teach.”
Clear Teaching is available on the NIFDI website here for anyone interested in a digital copy: