Defining "DI"—My history
To what does "Direct Instruction" refer?
For many people, “direct instruction” is a generic term referring to a range of practices that spans lecturing to providing practice opportunities. In this post, I begin to clarify what I mean when I say “Direct Instruction” or “DI.” Subsequent posts will refine my explanation. (See the catalog at the end of this post to learn what topics I think are important.)
As I began writing this post, I realized that there were many ideas that I wanted to explain. It wasn’t going to be as simple as di vs DI (though I’ll get to that). There was sooo much more. Those are the refining posts. But, I start with my personal history.
My history with DI will help set the stage. There are lots of topics to come: Similarities and differnces with related perspectives. The under-girding ideas. The practice. The evidence. Sigh, too much to put into one post.
So, I’m starting here with a personal history…getting it out of the way so that I can devote the subsequnt posts to important ideas such as teaching techniques, sameness analyses, sequencing examples, field testing (i.e, being data based!), philosophy, and so many other topics.
My DI story
I learned the most about DI from Zig Engelmann, Doug Carnine, Barbara Batemen, Wes Becker, Phyllis Haddox, Linda Meyer, Linda Youngmier, and others. That mostly happened while we were in Eugene and I was in grad school. However, I first heard about DI in about 1969 from Teddee Blumberg, a teacher for whom I was an assistant in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Los Angeles, before I went to Oregon for graduate school.
Teddee nudged me
Teddee was a well-informed teacher who loaned me a copy of Engelmann’s 1969 book, Preventing Failure in the Primary Grades, and ordered the first edition of the DiSTAR materials for us to review. Although I owe a helluva lot to Teddee (with her charm bracelet and her clogs) for all that I learned from her about reading (e.g., she introduced me to the original Gillingham & Stillman book), instruction, and behavior management, I owe her a special thanks because she introduced me to DI.
Teddee was a leader. She helped me learn about DI and discussed the ideas with me; that means that I shall forever be in debt to her. Teddee’s nudges proved to have substantial influence on my choice of graduate programs. She was a model teacher in the way she kept current with what was happening, was smart, questioned what she saw and heard…open to new ideas, usually willing to entertain a proposal, but skeptical enough that she would await thorough examination of the ideas before making definitive statements.
Teddee attended professional development sessions and conferences where she heard Zig speak. Of Zig, she said,1 “I think his ideas about teaching systematically are fabulous. I just wish he didn’t use so many off-color words when explaining those ideas.” As a regular member of the International Cussers’ Organization (teehee), I knew what she was describing. But she went on: “It’s as if every three or four words is about intercourse or excrement. ‘The f-ing this or the sh-y that.” Teddee nailed it, as I would later learn.
The Eugene years
Pat and I spent the fall of 1973 through the summer of 1976 in Eugene. Pat was working with a public-school classroom for kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, serving on the Oregon state board about EBD (traveling to meetings with another board member, Hill Walker), providing residential support for a group of adults with intellectual disability living in a group residential facility in Eugene, and (serious, now!) gestating, giving birth to, and mothering our daughter.
Me, I was just off in the ivory tower…studying, learning from great authorities, and goofing around.
Pat and I moved to Eugene in the summer of 1973. I was hot to have a masters program that would allow me to learn about effective teaching. I had already decided, based on my classroom experience and interactions with people like Teddee (and others), that I thought teaching was pretty wayimportant. I still had some misguided ideas about teaching (e.g., learning styles), but I was aiming in the right direction.
My master’s advisor, Barbara Ring, allowed me wide latitude in selecting courses for my degree. I told her I wasn’t interested in taking work that would qualify me for Oregon teaching certification; I’d never had formal certification and had already taught for years. I wanted to learn about teaching. She let me have an independent study reviewing research about handwriting (I had a theory about cursive, based on Gillingham, and I wanted to see what the research was; she said I should go for it and report back to her every couple of weeks). She said that I should, indeed, take Barbara Bateman’s intro-to-LD class immediately. She challenged me to take a fundamental class on behavior disorders, though I explained that I thought I knew all there was to know about EBD. There were my starters….
My comeuppance was that the very first class meeting of my new quarter’s classes was Bateman’s intro to LD. Forty years after that first class I related my experience of Barb’s first class in this way:
My introduction to Barbara Dee Bateman came on the first night of my first class as a masters student in 1973 at the University of Oregon. I was a bearded young guy who had been working with children with disabilities since I was 18 and I thought I knew a pretty good bit—both from experience and books—about special education. So there I was, sitting among about 60 people in a long, skinny room in Deady Hall when she began the Introduction to Learning Disabilities class promptly on the hour by introducing herself: “Hello. I'm Barbara Bateman, first-year law student.” Over the following few hours she delivered a lecture—with neither any notes nor any “uhms,” “ahhs,” or “uhhs”— that described the state of LD as if it was a metaphor for special education, even for education in general. In those few hours she covered content that I had reviewed over the previous several years in texts by Cruickshank, by Lerner, by Quay, and by Sarason and Doris and along the way she integrated it with lots of research that I did not know. This diminutive figure at the front of the room made clear to me that I had a lot to learn, a lot. That night, at 25 years of age, I was hooked.
In that first lecture, when professors and students both smoked cigarettes in classrooms, I was nearly woozy from the onslaught of powerful ideas that Barb presented. Oh, maybe patching up students’ perceptual-motor weaknesses was a waste of their time! Oh, maybe adapting instruction to students’ learning styles was misguided! Oh, maybe the real issue was attending to instructional quality!
So, I stood among the knot of students who gather around a famous professor at the end of the class. (Never happened to me.) I waited. When the knot had thinned to just Janet Derby, Barb, and me, I asked for a dispensation from the assignments, but my request was not for an easier assignment; I wanted to have flexibility to write something longer than Barb’s requirements. She said she’d take it under consideration (what I wrote became my first published paper, Lloyd, 1975).
I asked, “Time for a beer?” Barb and Janet agreed. It turned out that that beer meeting was my very first of many advising meetings I had with Barb. She asked me why I was in graduate school. I said, “I want to learn about teaching.”
“OK, then.” She replied, “You should take all the classes you can from Engelmann.”
“Oh,” I replied, “What classes are those?”
She didn’t say, “Oh, you naive waif, get a clue!” She said, “I think he’s teaching one on reading this term…300-something. Check the schedule.”
I found it the next day. I enrolled. Barb’s recommendation, along with Teddee’s nudge, were two of the best helpers I got in my academic career.
My first quarter, I had classes from both Barb and Zig. I frequently had after-class beers with Zig and Barb (separetely; Zig taught in the afternoon, but Barb taught at night). We had wide ranging conversations, some of them hardly connected to special education.
One I recall with Barb occurred early on in my first semester. Janet, Barb, and I were in a place just off campus. After we ordered a pitcher of beer, she turned to me rather suddenly, and asked, “If you could do any scientific thing you wanted other than special ed, what would it be?” Caught unprepared, I dropped back to my fascination with astronomy.
She started grilling me. “What’s good about doing that?” I said that it was very clear science. “What’s the matter with science that’s not so ‘clear,’” she asked. I said that I admired those “hard” sciences.
She asked, “Why aren’t you doing that?” I explained that I’d grown very fond of kids, especially those who had disabilities, and (gratuitously?) that I wanted to advance instruction by standing on her shoulders. With a wave at her hair, she replied, “No, not my shoulders. I want you to stand on my head.”
I remember one afternoon with Zig and one of the Lindas in which we—they mostly—discussed how US cities would align with species of felines: There was debate about whether New York City would be the lion or the jaguar of cities; what would Chicago be? I think Zig liked the tiger for Chicago. LA? I don’t recall. What was the most fascinating aspect of that discussion to me was that Zig tossed off a comment about alinging what he called transformations. He explained the the association of great cats with cities was like the association of common fractions with decimal fractions; you had to know an algorithm for how to transform one to the other (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982). Bang! I had just learned something about instructional programming.
I remember another afternoon beer break with just Zig and me. Zig routinely paid for two pitchers, regardless of how many of us were attending (well maybe a third if there were many of us), and when those pitchers were gone our sessions were finished. This one day when it was just the two of us, I asked him about the frustration he must have felt with getting so little traction despite the substantial achievements. Remarkably, he told me that, yes, it was frustrating, “But what the fuck are you going to do? Give up? Hell no! We have got to keep pressing, got to go ahead. Kids deserve good teaching.”
I also remember Zig inviting Pat and me to a holiday party at his house (with Therese). There were a lot of high-powered folks there (Becker, Walker, etc.). We were the only students in attendence; we had our brand new daughter with us and needed to take care of her; the Engelmanns were very accommodating of us needing to care for Corey. That night, when we dropped our coats on a bed, I saw that Zig had a copy of Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior on his bedside. I thought, “OK, this guy’s serious.” (If you don’t know JEAB, it’s a quite rigorous journal of behavior analysis across species such as pigeons, rats, chimpanzes, planaria, and humans, to mention a few.)
There are many more anecdotes (e.g., meetings at “the corp” over beer at 4:00 PM when Zig and I discussed heros, cornering the market on a commodity, his violin collection, and lots more). Perhaps I’ll relate them later. For now, let’s move ahead.
When I left Oregon to take a job at Northern Illinois University in 1976, I was happy to team up with Mike Epstein and Doug Cullinan on a demonstration project for improving outcomes for kids with learning disabilities. Mike landed a grant to support a project to employ precision teaching as a means of providing data for teachers to make educational decisions. We put it into place…but Mike came back from an observation early in the first school year and said, “They’re using the data collection part of the plan, but I don’t see much instruction going on.”
We agreed that it would be wise to put serious instructional practices in place. I called Zig and explained the situation. I asked if we could use his in-preparation remedial reading suite. Zig agreed. In just a few days, we received 100s of pages of typescript of what would become Corrective Reading. He sent us exactly what he had just submitted to the publisher—and a letter indicating that the publisher should not hassle us for using the pre-publication version.
Five of us (two teachers, Mike, Doug, and I), used that pre-publication version of Corrective Reading in an under-powered (and otherwise flawed) randomized trial about it’s effectiveness. We found that the kids who got DI did better on a lot of measures Lloyd et al., 1981).
Over the year’s until his death, Zig and I kept in touch. I would get a call from an assistant at the Engelmann-Becker Corp saying, “Zig Engelmann would like to talk with you.” I took those calls. Duh! The man taught me so much. I wanted to hear why in the world he would be calling me.
When we visited Eugene, I made sure that I (or both Pat and I) stopped at the corp to visit Zig. I timed it so that we were there for late-afternoon beer time, often shared with others such as Brian Wickman.
On those visits, I usually learned something. One afternoon, he invited me to visit and explained that he was very interested in a lecture occuring that evening. This would have been the 1990s, and the lecture was to be about holographic storage of data. Zig was pretty excited about it. He had lots to say about the potential. Pat and I had a dinner date, so we bailed on the lecture. Zig and Therese attended. In later conversations, Zig gave me an earful, recpimtomg what he’d learned.
While we were keeping up with each other, we had some disagreements, but we collaborated on projects (e.g., I helped broker publication of an incredible book Zig and Don Steely wrote; that book Inferred Functions of Performance and Learning is still one of the most impressive books I’ve read).
I made a major faux pas when, late in his life, we were talking about a publication project. I explained to him that I didn’t want to re-design a book about DI for which I had a plan (still unpublished). He signed off of that phone conversation with, “OK, John. Well, I guess that’s it. See ya’ around the pool hall.” That was our last conversation.
If one considers the history I’ve just recounted, it is pretty obvious that my time with Zig was very important to me. Zig’s ideas about Direct Instruction had a substantial influence on my career. Subsequent posts in this series will explain why I think Zig’s advocacy and explanations about DI represent incredibly important contributions to education.
Zig had a substantial influence on my career. He was a mentor who counseled me wisely. He was a friend who hung with me over beers. He honored me with opportunities. He was an intellecutal leader. And, probably most importantly, he taught me about instruction.
But, Zig’s influence is way more important than his effects on my history. He is a giant in advancing the influence of teaching and instruction. Shep Barbash () published an informed and admirable acknowlegement of Zig’s contributions; it’s called Clear Teaching. If you don’t have a great background with DI, it will provide an extraordinary introduction. If you do have a great background, it’ll reinforce your advocay.
Zig defined “Direct Instruction.” In subsequent posts, I hope to explain that definition. Some of the topics I hope to cover (order may change) follow. I’ll indulge myself in fewer anecdotes in these posts, but I hope that they will advance folks’ understanding of just was DI is.
DI as a strategy vs. DI as program and practice
“Little di” and “Big DI”—Barrak Rosenshine
Tim Slocum’s excellent explanations
Teach Units—Doug Greer
Understanding sameness analysis
Evidence of effectiveness
The match and mismatch of DI and behavior analysis
Resources (practical books about teaching and programming)
Wow, that’s an ambitious list of topics…and it might be incomplete. But, I hope readers with stick around so that I can do some ‘splaining.
Barbash, S. (2012). Clear teaching: With Direct Instruction, Siegfried Engelmann discovered a better way of teaching. Education Consumers Foundation. http://www.education-consumers.org/ClearTeaching.htm
Engelmann, S. (1997). Theory of mastery and acceleration. In J. W. Lloyd, E. J. Kameenui, & D. Chard (Eds.), Issues in educating students with disabilities (pp. 177-195), Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. W. (1982). Therory of instruction. Irvington.
Gillingham, A., & Stillman, B. W. (1960). Remedial training for children with specific disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship. Educators Publishing Service.
Lloyd, J. (1975). The pedagogical orientation. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8(2), 78-85. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F002221947500800202
Lloyd, J., Epstein, M. H., & Cullinan, D. (1981). Direct teaching for learning disabilities. In J. Gottlieb & S. S. Strichart (Eds.), Developmental theory and research in learning disabilities (pp. 278-309). Baltimore: University Park Press.
Although I cast them as quotations here, I do not have contemporaneous records to document the words that people said. These are my recollections of those conversations. I might have mis-remembered them, but I’m pretty sure they are true to what transpired.