Why isn’t DI more popular?

In 1977 the results of Project Follow Through, the largest educational research project ever undertaken, were released. The conclusions were clear. Direct Instruction was, by far, the most effective teaching method studied.

But, today, despite contemporary evidence of its efficacy, DI still isn’t popular. Few schools use the programmes. Teachers don’t discuss the pedagogy. And, at best, Zig Engelmann is seen as a peripheral figure in education.

For a while, this confused me. I couldn’t understand why people hardly talked about DI. I still feel like we’re missing a huge opportunity by not adopting it more widely. If education simply adopted practices that were shown to be effective, then DI would surely be very popular? Clearly, though, there’s other forces at play.

I want to use this post to explore some ideas of why DI isn’t more popular. To do that, I’m going to look at three different reasons. In doing so, I hope it can encourage some thought into how more people can be encouraged to adopt it.

First up, Zig Engelmann argued that DI is unpopular because the evidence of its effectiveness was buried. The instigators of Project Follow Through hoped that a number of different teaching strategies would be found equally effective. That would enable them to recommend a couple of different approaches and then discourage the rest.

However, nobody expected DI to be the runaway winner of the study. First and foremost, because it didn’t fit with prevailing theories of teaching and learning. Constructivism, discovery learning and student-centred approaches were popular in the sixties and seventies. DI is a teacher-led pedagogy with tightly controlled scripted lessons and a strict curriculum. Such an approach just wasn’t popular.

As a consequence, the US government argued that the results of Follow Through showed that all teaching strategies studied were effective. Direct Instruction wasn’t singled out as being better than any other. And it wasn’t rolled out nationally to raise standards for America’s children. Engelmann called the failure to act upon results of Follow Through ‘Academic Child Abuse‘. According to him, the US government has been complicit in promoting failed educational ideologies. If the results of Follow Through had been taken seriously, then DI would be more popular.

I have a lot of sympathy for Engelmann on this one. If the results of Follow Through had been properly acted on, then maybe DI would be super popular. Yet, the reality is, that this didn’t happen. But, I’m not sure regularly bemoaning that fact helps DI’s cause. Today, it’s not hard to stumble upon evidence of DI’s effectiveness. As a result, it can’t just be a lack of knowledge about DI that’s holding it back. Instead, I think there are other barriers standing in the way of its widespread adoption that are important and need thinking about.

A second significant factor holding DI back is that it’s difficult to implement. Many insights from cognitive science have gained traction in recent years. It’s now pretty normal to chat to other teachers about cognitive load, retrieval practice, dual coding and booklets. Lessons are sprinkled with interleaved quizzes, embedded questioning and effective teacher explanations. I think this has been possible because each of these insights requires just a small tweak to teachers existing practices. Much of the research we share backs up what we’ve always thought good teaching is. With just small changes, we can implement ideas from cognitive science. In addition, these changes are effective and lead to better outcomes in the classroom. Thus, lots of insights have quickly become popular and used widely.

But, DI isn’t like that. You can’t just tweak your lesson and make it DI. Instead, Direct Instruction is something exceedingly specific and pretty different to conventional practices. Ask a teacher to add in a low-stakes test? Easy. A bit more teacher talk? No problem! Rigorously scripted lessons from field tested educational programmes that require choral response? Hmmm…

DI is an all or nothing scenario. Widespread adoption requires asking teachers with years of experience to rely only on a script in front of them. Unsurprisingly this a restrictive and unattractive proposition. Many teachers have told me that they worry about losing their agency. I think it’s a significant problem.

An alternative would require each individual teacher to spend hours and hours scripting each of their lessons to conform to the principles of DI set out in the Theory of Instruction. Good luck to any head of department that asks their staff to do that…

Thus, I think a significant problem is that it’s just very hard to implement DI. Constructing example sequences and scripting lessons is time consuming and challenging. Equally, teaching scripted lessons requires the introduction of new routines for behaviour, which is off-putting. Added to that, many teachers find the idea of teaching through a script awkward and restrictive.

All of the above are problems. It could be argued that they’re just problems of perception, however, they create a third even more complex issue. Teachers that advocate for DI beyond their own classrooms stake their reputation on it. And, the risk of failure is huge.

Take the experience of Noel Pearson in Australia. He’s a passionate advocate for DI and its effectiveness in raising educational standards amongst the Aboriginal community. But, his use of DI has been criticised heavily. It’s been vilified as an expensive, American programme not appropriate for Australian children who would be better off playing and discovering knowledge for themselves. Implementing DI and going against the status quo means sticking your head above the parapet.

I’m not sure it’s surprising that teachers, heads of department and school leaders shy away from DI. It’s so different to conventional practices, that its an unattractive approach to adopt. By advocating for it, teachers open themselves up to the same sort of criticism that Pearson has faced.

Tversky and Kahnemann showed how we are naturally loss averseDI is a perfect example of this. The cost of implementing DI and failing are greater than the cost of following the status quo and failing. It’s easier not to gamble and do what is orthodox, than risk the criticism that comes with an unsuccessful foray into DI.

So, there’s my suggestions of why DI isn’t more popular. Despite the wealth of evidence, DI is very difficult to implement. Many teachers fear the loss of agency. And, we’re naturally averse to the risk taking involved with a widespread adoption of DI.

Are there more problems with DI? Undoubtedly.

What can we do about them, how can we make DI more popular?

I hope that’s a discussion this post provokes. I have some thoughts. But, for now, they’re better off in another post…


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