DI: An Introduction

In 2002, a team of underhand pitchers, fat batters and washed up stars came within a few games of winning baseball’s biggest prize. Playing out of Oakland, California, the A’s were one of the poorest teams in the division. Nobody had heard of half their players. And so-called experts had written them off before a pitch was thrown. 

But, the Oakland A’s proved everyone wrong. They chose the chubby outfielder, the first baseman who couldn’t catch and the batters who were really good at not hitting the ball. In doing so, they transformed baseball. They changed how the best teams played the game. And they reformulated how the top athletes were valued. 

They did this by rejecting the way things had always been done. They listened to the outsiders. The ones who had compiled a new body of knowledge about the game. Those who had, for years, been written off because their ideas were unconventional. 

I really like the story of the Oakland Athletics. It shows that the way-things-have-always-been-done crowd can be wrong. That evidence of a better approach can be rejected by people who ‘know better’ simply because.  And, that doing things differently requires courage.

I think there are some clear links between the story of the Oakland A’s and Sigfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction model of teaching. 

Engelmann was an outsider. A maverick who rejected convention. One who compiled a huge body of evidence showing that the status quo was wrong. That things could be done differently and done better. 

Yet, Engelmann’s ideas haven’t been able to transform education in the same way the Oakland A’s transformed baseball. DI remains a fringe theory. And that is a loss to all of us.

DI is the most effective method of teaching ever invented. But, the insights, knowledge and methodology that derive from it lie untapped. In Engelmann’s work we have a guide to improving our teaching. However, most teachers have never heard of DI or read about its pedagogy. And, frankly I don’t blame them. DI isn’t popular and it’s an absolute mission trying to find out any information about it. You might stumble across the results of Project Follow Through, but there are no videos of DI in action and no programmes to browse through for free. In addition, to understand the ideas behind Direct Instruction, one has to wade through the dense, academic and technical tome that is the Theory of Instruction. Given these barriers, it’s unsurprising that there is little knowledge about DI. 

In an attempt to fill this information gap, this blog will be an introduction to a series of posts delving into the details of DI. I’ll introduce some of its foundational theory, from how to categorise knowledge to constructing an example sequence and understanding how we learn. In doing so, I hope I can make some of Engelmann’s work a little bit more accessible and enable people to harness some powerful and undervalued knowledge. 

But before I do that, I want to give a broader background to Engelmann and the story of DI. One, because it’s a remarkable story. And two, because it’s impossible to untangle Zig from DI and imagine how 60 years of being forced into the periphery affected him. 

So Who Was Siegfried Engelmann? 

Siegfried – Zig – Engelmann was a professor of special education and founder of the Direct Instruction method of teaching. 

A philosophy graduate and native of Chicago, Engelmann didn’t start out his professional career in teaching. Instead, his earlier years saw an array of different careers including investment counselling, exploratory oil development and marketing. It was in the last of these that Engelmann found his calling as an educator.

Whilst working as a marketing director in the 1960s, Engelmann was asked to investigate how many times a child needs to hear a slogan before remembering it. To find out, he began running experiments with his own children and children of friends. This process led Zig to realise he was pretty good at teaching kids. Or, at least, better than his kids teachers. Because, within months he was teaching his 4-year-olds to solve complex maths problems considered appropriate for far older children. 

This is one of the things I love about DI. Engelmann’s approach to teaching wasn’t based on forays into philosophy or from ruminations in an office. Instead, he found the best methods of teaching and then set out to explain why he was an effective teacher. Engelmann’s work isn’t a theory of how learning would ideally happen. Instead, it’s an explanation of how to design instruction so that learning will happen. As a result, if Engelmann’s instruction failed then this theory of how to design instruction most effectively changed.

Following success with his 4-year-old twins, Engelmann sent a video of his accomplishments to universities around the country. He was rejected by almost every single one. Thankfully, the University of Illinois, Champaign was able to see past his lack of formal qualifications in education and offer him a job. It was there he met Carl Bereiter, a significant early collaborator. Together, they set up the modestly named Bereiter-Engelmann pre-school which served unprivileged inner city students from Chicago. 

The Direct Instruction teaching system developed from Engelmann and Bereiter’s work at the pre-school. I’ve already covered before how this system is very different to lower-case direct instruction, and you can read about that here

Even in the 60s, DI was out there. In the throes of a constructivist, progressive, self-discovery era, Engelmann advocated scripted lessons with whole class chanting and a rigorously defined curriculum. Unsurprisingly, it ruffled a few feathers. 

Despite battling against conventional thought, the work he did with Bereiter was by all accounts extraordinary. Working with some of the most underpriveleged students in America, amongst other things, he was able to teach pre-school (!) students how to solve linear equations. And, thanks to the wonder of modern technology, we can see those results in glorious black and white footage.

This initial work in maths developed into a number of different programmes being developed in reading, spelling and writing. Then, in 1967 a huge opportunity arose for him and Beretier to show the potential of DI at a much greater scale. 

Project Follow Through

Project Follow Through was the most expensive and extensive educational research programme ever carried out. At the cost of one billion dollars, it ran from 1967-1995. The purpose of the project was to identify and disseminate information on the most effective teaching methods.

A range of 22 teaching strategies were studied including both child centred and teacher centred approaches. Engelmann and Beriter’s DI programme was included. The study was evaluated by comparing the standard of students’ results in English, Maths, problem solving skills and self-confidence, with initial results released in 1977.

The findings were unexpectedly clear. DI was determined to be the most ‘effective’ instructional practice of all studied. Working with 75,000 at-risk students in 170 communities from kindergarten through the end of third grade, DI produced the top results in all areas measured. 

Not only did students have better English and Maths scores, 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.


In four different analyses of the project, DI came out on top. No other approach came close.

So, these results would speak for themselves. Naturally, politicians looked at them, saw that DI came out on top and transformed American education for good…

War Against Schools: Academic Child Abuse

A generous explanation of Follow Through would argue that the results were quietly tucked away and poorly disseminated. Engelmann’s explanation is a little different… 

He argued that the US government wanted to recommend a number of approaches. DI didn’t fit prevailing theories of how education should work. And, it would have been unpopular to recommend just one approach. So, the government buried the results and threw more money at the constructivist programmes that didn’t work as well as DI but that educators wanted to work.  

The response to Project Follow Through is described in Engelmann’s words as “academic child abuse”. 

The refusal of insiders to accept the work of the outsider infuriated him. And it would be fair to say that the rest of Engelmann’s career involved being shut out of the national education about DI. 

In short, his ideas were never accepted. Despite a huge amount of evidence of its effectiveness, including this meta-analysis of over 348 studies, DI has always been a fringe theory. No school district in the world has run immersive DI institutions as Engelmann would have designed. 

Despite being frozen out of the conversation, Zig was prolific in his work. And, he continued writing lessons and advocating for DI. Over the course of his career he produced numerous programmes for studies including 20 in reading, 8 in spelling, 18 in mathematics, 10 in language, and 3 in writing. 

All of this work is a feat of instructional design in its own right. But, beyond that Engelmann put 60 years of work down into one book: The Theory of Instruction. Described as equivalent to Darwin’s Origin of Species it’s maybe the most important book on education ever written. 

If you ever open its pages you will find dense prose littered with technical language and pages upon pages of examples. Yet, you’ll discover a text that preempts work on cognitive load, non-examples and dual coding, amongst others. But that’s not all. The deeper you delve into it, the more insights about teaching and learning you can gather. It’s this knowledge that I’m interested in. The stuff that Engelmann discovered that nobody else has, the things that we don’t discuss enough. 

The courage to do things differently 

Advocates of DI argue that Engelmann is the outsider that we should be listening to. The unconventional maverick whose ideas were rejected because he didn’t fit the mould of typical education professors. 

There is still a small group of teachers who continue to promote the work of Engelmann. Those who read the Theory of Instruction, use programmes in their schools and advocate for his work. 

In Engelmann lies a hidden body of knowledge. One that is maligned and ignored. 

If we continue to underutilise his work, then education will progress in the same way it has done for 60 years. DI won’t penetrate into the mainstream and generations of students will continue to under-achieve their potential. 

As a result, I hope that the next few posts can help more people engage with Engelmann’s work. Then, just as the Oakland A’s, we may be able to benefit by applying ideas that have been unfairly rejected for years.

We can’t lead with our chin or our hearts. It must be a cerebral battle, governed by data and the understanding that if we try hard enough, we can design effective practices that will accelerate the performance of at-risk kids. And if we don’t try hard enough, damn us.” Zig Engelmann. 


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