DI ≠ di, and why that matters.

When is direct instruction not Direct Instruction? Can we use evidence from Direct Instruction as evidence for direct instruction?

I think these are pertinent questions for advocates of ‘traditional’ teaching methods, direct instruction, explicit instruction and Engelmann’s DI. In this post I’m going to make the argument that Engelmann’s Direct Instruction has distinct and important differences to a more general approach of explicit teacher-led direct instruction.

Without wanting to get bogged down by typologies and definitions, it is vital to point out that the words direct instruction can mean lots of different things to different people. This has previously been talked and blogged about by Kris Boulton, Greg Ashman and Barak Rosenshine. There’s even a handy Oliver Cavigoli designed poster to help understand the five meanings of direct instruction.

However, for the purposes of this post I am interested in two specific meanings. The first is what Rosenshine calls the ‘teacher effects pattern’ or “the observed
instructional procedures that were used by effective teachers”. These are known to us in the form of Rosenshine’s seminal ten ‘principles of instruction‘. This explicit form of instruction is described by Paul Kirschner as so: “you have to set the stage for learning, you have to make sure learners have the prerequisite knowledge to learn, which can also include creating a learning context for them. You have to make sure there is a clear explanation of what is expected of them and what you want them to do and to give them the procedural knowledge to carry out what they are doing. You have to model the process, show them how it is done, and try to explain what you did and why you did it. You have to provide guided practice time. That gradually gives way to independent practice. Finally, you should assess it, formally, informally, and formatively throughout”.

When people use the words direct instruction, or explicit instruction, this model is usually what they are referring to. This style of teaching is, simply, what people consider to be good teaching.

However, this form of direct instruction is not that same as the second form identified by Rosenshine, the Engelmann designed model of Direct Instruction (DI). Again, Oliver Cavigoli has produced a fantastic resource to help understand DI. Direct Instruction refers to specific programmes developed by Siegfried Engelmann at the University of Oregon in the 1960’s. It is characterised by periods of scripted instruction that teachers are trained to carry out. Students learn in small steps with mastery required to move on to the next lesson in the course. Teaching is fast paced, characterised by rapid call and response choral questioning in which a typical period of instruction includes fifteen exchanges per minute. Lessons are set up so that 85% of material is review with only 15% of the lesson being new material. Each programme that Engelmann has designed has been extensively field tested to ensure that there is a 90% success rate in each lesson. All of this build into to the underpinning philosophy of DI as ‘logically faultless communication’. That is, that if instruction is designed properly there should be no reason why students shouldn’t learn exactly what is expected of them. In the words of Siegfried Engelmann “if the students haven’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught”.

Engelmann’s Direct Instruction has a number of specific differences to Rosenshine’s ‘teacher effects pattern’, or ten principles. I think that the most significant of these are that Engelmann’s programmes are scripted, require choral response and are rigorously field tested over a number of years. Whilst both of these forms of instruction can fall under the headings of explicit instruction and teacher-led approaches,  it is important to note how these forms of instruction diverge. In short, Rosenshine’s ten principles of instruction are not the same as Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, and this is important. When people refer to evidence to support teacher-led instruction, one of the most cited pieces of literature is Project Follow Through, a 10 year educational research programme which compared the results of 10 different teaching methods involving 200,000 students in the US. In fact, here is Nick Gibb doing exactly that last month.

The results of Project Follow Through were emphatic: “students who received Direct Instruction had significantly higher academic achievement than students in any of the other programs. They also had higher self-esteem and self-confidence. No other program had results that approached the positive impact of Direct Instruction. Subsequent research found that the DI students continued to outperform their peers and were more likely to finish high school and pursue higher education.”


However, when discussing these results, it needs to be noted that it was the Siegfried Engelmann designed programmes of Direct Instruction that were studied, not a more generic model of explicit instruction.

With this in mind it’s important to note that whilst there is the perception that explicit instruction is an effective way to teach, a significant body of evidence for direct instruction comes from Engelmann’s DI programmes and that these are actually quite different to explicit instruction.

In my opinion, identifying these differences are important for three reasons. Firstly, I don’t think it is appropriate to use Project Follow Through as evidence for the effectiveness of the ‘teacher effects pattern’. That isn’t to say that teacher-led instruction isn’t effective, clearly there is a wealth of evidence to support it. However, the instruction in Project Follow Through was exclusively designed, coordinated and run by Siegfried Engelmann and the Unviersity of Oregon, and thus the evidence can only support DI. Secondly, Direct Instruction differs greatly enough from other forms of instruction that we should be strongly considering implementing Engelmann designed programmes in British secondary schools. A number of schools are already beginning to do so, including the Magna Academy in Poole and Saint Martin’s Catholic Academy in Stoke Golding. Finally, those specific aspects of DI’s pedagogy that are unique to it, such as rapid-fire questioning, choral response and scripted instruction deserve far more attention in and of themselves. I have previously blogged about my experimentation with them in the classroom.

It is then, in my opinion, the case that ‘DI ≠ di’. Whilst both are called direct instruction it does not mean that they are both the same. The success of Engelmann designed programmes in the USA and distinctiveness of the instruction suggest that we need to think deeply about what it is about DI that creates successful students and how we can apply these insights to our daily teaching.

3 thoughts on “DI ≠ di, and why that matters.

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