“There is order in what we wish to teach, just as there is order in the pattern observed in clouds, sea shells, or traffic moving down a freeway. Our task is to discover it and to communicate this order. If we do it properly, the development of the skills will seem so easy that it might strike the naive observer as “cheating”” (Siegfried Engelmann)
I started experimenting with scripted instruction this year. From the outset, it felt like cheating. Just telling students the answer, testing them on it and then asking them to apply their learning felt like a rebellious act. Yet the evidence before me suggested that it was working. Whilst I do not want to suggest that Direct Instruction could be all things to all people, it has transformed my teaching. In this blog post, I will share some of the principles that underpin the planning of some of the DI inspired scripts that I have used in the classroom.
The most striking difference between a ‘normal’ lesson and a DI lesson is that the latter uses “concise teacher scripts and choral student responses” (Barbash, 2012, p.24). Many teachers may balk at the idea of standing at the front of the room imparting facts and hearing students chant these facts back verbatim. Yet, if it’s good enough for the most effective teaching method ever invented, then it’s more than good enough for me. Yes, it is weird to teach from a script to begin with. Sure, students may be initially hesitant to chant in unison. However, there is something unique about seeing 32 students in a classroom understanding a concept and working hard in silence on a topic that you are sure they are achieving success in.
Engelmann’s scripts had the benefit of 50 years of experience, meticulous design and field testing before they were published. There are some fantastic examples available for Mathematics, English, and the social sciences online. As a caveat to everything I am about to share, my scripts are merely imitations of Engelmann’s work. They cannot, and should not, be held up as an example of his work. Nonetheless, I hope they exemplify the application of some of Engelmann’s principles in a more conventional classroom setting.
Typically I have used scripted instruction in content heavy lessons. For example, teaching about the adaptations of flora and fauna to Arctic environments. Alternatively, teaching about the impacts of deforestation in the rainforest. I have not used scripted instruction for teaching ‘skills’ such as interpreting a bar graph. That is not to say one could not design instruction for teaching skills, Engelmann’s work shows that you can, Instead, the context of my planning is that it is to teach content rich lessons.
Some examples of these scripts are available here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1y8l5zY5ZHV0tcAemfBE7pIRzoI6fnws-i7rl9f-_uG8/edit?usp=sharing
1. Start at the end
Every lesson that I have used DI style scripts in have a clear question defining the lesson. For example, ‘why did world population explode?’. The outcome of all of my lessons is for students to produce an extended piece of writing to answer the question for the lesson. The planning process will begin with me writing an exemplary model answer to that question. For example, students will need to know that world population exploded because of the control of death rates. They will also need to know that we have controlled death rates by reducing deaths by war, famine and disease.
Having written a model answer I will identify ten pieces of content that students need to know in order to produce a good quality piece of work. These constitute the objective facts and knowledge that I will design my instructional script around. To return to the quote which began this post, this constitutes giving “order in what we wish to teach”. There is clearly a debate on which knowledge should be taught. However, my experience with DI is that there is a limit to how much knowledge can be taught in an hour so that the students ‘get it’. Therefore, choices have to be made on which knowledge is the most important to teach. Whilst ten pieces of knowledge sounds arbitrary, I have found it to be enough that students can remember it all and apply it properly in a relevant context.
Below is an example of ten core pieces of information for a science lesson script.
2. Atomise the knowledge and chain it together
Once I have a list of ten pieces of ‘content’ for students to learn, I try and break it down into easily digestible chunks. For example, I may intend to teach that some plants in the rainforest have a waxy surface known as a drip tip to drain water so that they do not die. An example of these chunks would be “one example of a plant in the rainforest is a drip tip. Drip tips have a waxy surface. Drip tips have a waxy surface to drain water. Drip tips drain water to avoid rotting and dying”. These instructions would then have simple expected learner responses. For example, “what type of surface does a drip tip have?” in which the expected response was “waxy”. This ‘atomisation’ draws out each important piece of information for the learner to memorise.
Throughout, the expected student response is kept as simple as possible. As Engelmann states in The Theory of Instruction: “if the statement is too long for the learner to repeat, we present only part of the statement at a time”. Getting students to chant “they are waxy so water drains off of the leaf” is unlikely to be successful. Breaking long statements up aids working memory by reducing the amount of information students have to hold. In addition, it keeps the pace of the lesson high, which is an essential part of DI. As is exemplified below, students are then given the chance to build this chain back up by explaining to their partner how a drip tip is adapted.
3. Be economical and consistent in your language
The first two of Shepard Barbash’s rules are ‘be clear’ and ‘be efficient’. The atomisation of content aids this process. However, one method of efficiency is to be consistent in your use of wording.
One example of economy of language is using the same phrase to indicate student response. In the case of my scripts, I will always use the phrase “okay, your turn”. Another way of improving efficiency is to phrase questions in a similar way that you have phrased the instruction. For example, if the information is presented as “the drip tips waxy surface helps water to drip off the leaf”. The question is best phrased as “what does the drip tips waxy surface help water to do”. A less optimal phrasing may be “why do drip tips have waxy surfaces”. Whilst the learner response is essentially the same “to drip water”, the latter example requires a deeper level of complex thinking. In my experience, this deeper complexity can come at a later stage in the lesson. In the initial presentation of information, consistency and simplicity is key.
A second way of improving efficiency is by consistently re-emphasising important pieces of information. For example, one way of presenting a drip tip is to point at a picture and say “some leaves have drip tips. These help them to drip water off.” However, there exists an additional opportunity to re-emphasise the name of the plant. Instead, a more optimal instruction would be “Some leaves have drip tips. Drip tips help water to drip off the leaf”. This is a strategy used later in a script. For example, “draining the water stops the leaf rotting. If the leaf rotted then it would die” this is a more optimal example than “draining the water stops rotting. If this happened it would die”. Alongside the inflection and pacing of instruction, consistently re-emphasising this information can aid student recall.
4. Apply Engelmann’s ‘three level’ strategy
Engelmann’s three level strategy is very similar to small scale interleaving. Within the instructional sequence, information is constantly re-tested, even after learners have given a positive response.
The strategy starts at level 1, which is the easiest, and progresses to level 3, the hardest. In this example, the circled A constitutes an expected student response. For example, each time there is a circled A, students may respond to the question “what percentage of Earth do rainforests cover?” with the answer “7%”.
Level 1 may represent the very first introduction of the piece of content. To progress to Level 2, students have to provide the correct answer to a question straight after the presentation of the information.
Level 2 is the next level of complexity. Students are presented with new information, tested on that new information but then also tested on information that they had previously been exposed to. An example of Level 2 is available below, with students asked to identify the rainforest coverage of Earth and the location of rainforests straight after being tested on other newly presented facts. Throughout the instructional sequence, each set of facts are repeatedly interwoven to aid Level 2 testing.
Level 3 is the final level of complexity. After being exposed to each instruction of atomised information, students are asked to review all of the information at the end. This has given them time to forget the information and places a greater complexity demand by requiring learners to switch between lots of newly learned information.
If students can answer all of these questions at the end of the instructional sequence, then the lesson can move from scripted instruction and choral response to individual level practice drills and extended writing.
5. Plan the application of learning
Once the instructional sequence has finished, I move my students rapidly into a silent 10-12 question quiz on the content. The vast majority of time, if there has been loud and convincing choral response to all of the recap questions, then at least 90% of the students will achieve 90% on the quiz. If the students haven’t done this, then it is likely that there is a problem in either the planning or delivery of the script.
Once students have achieved over 90% in the individual level quiz, they can then apply this new learning into the extended writing that had served as the basis of the planning in the first place.
6. Remember, it’s just an experiment
In all of this instruction, it is important to remember all of the caveats surrounding scripted instruction. It is a difficult and time consuming process to go through. In addition, as Engelmann himself emphasised repeatedly, it will often go wrong in a myriad of stunning unexpected ways.
However, if you were interested in planning your own script then I hope this can be of some use. Feel free to get in touch and tweet me @s_hall_teach if you wanted to share any thoughts, ideas or scripts.
Examples of some of my scripts are available here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1y8l5zY5ZHV0tcAemfBE7pIRzoI6fnws-i7rl9f-_uG8/edit?usp=sharing