Why isn’t Engelmann in our library?

Following the little kerfuffle over the new BPP University PGCE, there has been a bit of discussion about whether or not Theory of instruction: Principles and applications by Engelmann and Carnine, should be available in university libraries for PGCE or other Education students.

It isn’t in my university’s library. I’m open to persuasion that it should be but here is what I think at the moment. I would be interested in any corrections or constructive comments.

Firstly I think it is important to be clear that Direct Instruction (DI, with capitals) refers to specific programmes of scripted lesson sequences. The original DISTAR programmes were designed for EYFS and KS1. More recently programmes for older primary children and an intervention for struggling readers have been developed. The approach is very specific, to the point where there is a rubric for deciding if a programme is genuinely Direct Instruction or not. It is worth quickly skimming this just to see its length (133 pp.) and level of detail. However, if you want to understand DI you might be a lot better off looking at this really excellent interactive tutorial for psychology students at the University of Athabasca.

By contrast, direct instruction (without capitals) tends to refer to any teaching that involves the teacher setting out the expected learning clearly, as opposed to providing learning activities that help the learner to construct their own learning. Typically, this is narrowed further to a situation in which a teacher is engaged in whole-class interactive teaching: laying out clear explanations, asking questions, modelling, and then getting children to practice independently, perhaps initially with scaffolding that is gradually withdrawn.

DI is clearly a good example of direct instruction, but the overwhelming majority of direct instruction is definitely not DI. Use that 133 page rubric to check if you’re not convinced!

Project Follow Through provided pretty conclusive evidence that the DISTAR programmes were very effective for disadvantaged young children in the USA in the ’70s. Arguably that’s a bit dated but I think, given the strength of the evidence, it is highly unlikely that a similar evaluation now would not produce a similarly positive result. Is that also evidence in support of direct instruction generally? Yes, I think so, but only weakly. Why? Because it’s not clear which elements of DISTAR made it so effective.

Here are the features of DI:

  • Attention focused on the teacher.
  • Active, cued, responding as a group and individually.
  • Frequent feedback and correction.
  • High pace.
  • Children taught in small groups; grouped by ability.
  • Scripted presentation.
  • Meticulously designed instruction
  • Faultless communication achieved through application of logic
  • Sequence of examples and non-examples, leading to generalisation

It is these last four, and arguably the grouping, that mean the DI is not conclusive evidence in favour of direct instruction generally. Firstly there is other evidence that suggests expertly designed, scripted lessons may be more effective than lessons planned by individual teachers. Secondly, most direct instruction does not use the logical system of examples and non-examples that is central to DI.

Much better evidence in favour of direct instruction is available. The two main sources I make use of are the ubiquitous Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) (or the lighter professional version of this paper Clark, Kirschner & Sweller (2012) ) and Muijs & Reynolds (2010). The latter is a very good overview of the evidence on effective teaching and learning from two important figures in the Educational Effectiveness Research movement. I should state that Daniel is a colleague and David used to be, but some time on Google will probably establish their credentials and some of their thinking.

But if DI and direct instruction are both effective, why are my students not reading about both? Well, I think that DI is really about curriculum design and I think it is at completely the wrong level, with it’s incredibly meticulous approach, for anyone planning sequences of lessons as a trainee or early-career teacher, or a HoD squeezing out a new SoW in their evenings and weekends. There are things that have worked for me in the past, that are similar to some features of DI, and I share these as part of the PGCE I work on. There has been work done elsewhere (I’m particularly aware of Kris Boulton) but I haven’t come across anything fully developed, nor have I come across any of the NFIDI programmes in use over here. If I’m missing something then do please let me know. I think there should probably be more comparison of examples and categorisation exercises in teaching, and therefore in ITE, but until I’ve read an accessible overview that my trainee teachers can make properly make use of I don’t think there is very much they can usefully take from reading Theory of Instruction.

There is another argument I’m aware of. As a Russell Group university with one of the leading schools of education in the country, perhaps this book should be available for students engaging with the traditional/progressive debate, and maybe part of this is to be aware of the way in which DISTAR was sidelined despite the quality of evidence in its favour from Project Follow Through, but Theory of Instruction isn’t going to tell them much about that. Possibly a later publication deals with that well – if anyone thinks that there is a book specifically on this topic that beats the journal articles that the students can already access then let me know and I’ll pass on the recommendation to colleagues whose modules head in that direction. However, as far as the PGCE goes, I’m going to upset some people by saying that I don’t think the progressive/traditional debate is very useful and I don’t think I’m the first person to suggest that focusing on evidence-informed ideas about effective teaching is more helpful to trainee teachers than getting into the sociology of education. I therefore intend to stick with direct instruction, and will park Direct Instruction until I am convinced of its utility: convince me!


Clark R., Kirschner P. & Sweller J. (2012) Puttting Students on the Path to Learning: The case for fully guided instruction. American Educator, Spring 2012

Engelmann S. and Carnine D. (1991). Theory of instruction: Principles and applications. Eugene, OR: ADI Press

Kirschner P., Sweller J. and Clark R. (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist. 41(2) pp.75-86

Muijs D. and Reynolds D. (2011). Effective Teaching: Evidence and Practice. London: Sage Publications Ltd.


4 thoughts on “Why isn’t Engelmann in our library?

  1. Morning! On the debate, Engelmann has two books that might be more useful – WAR! Against the schools’ academic child abuse (199x) and Could John Stuart Mill have saved our schools (2016)

    On Theory of Instruction and DI in general, a bit more worth saying. First, the (Good?) Book *is* available in the IOE library. Next, the DI programmes are being used in a few schools I’m aware of, mainly for their nurture groups, with, I’m told, remarkable results.

    On the theory itself, although he programmes were created for young children, I think he theoretical principles apply all the way up to adults. For a while now I’ve been working on stress testing the theory – what are the things it *can’t* help us to teach. It has limits, but they’re much further out than you might think, and for anything within its limits it remains the most powerful theory of instruction I’ve seen (almost the only theory, since everything else tends to be tid bits and grab bags, rather than a comprehensive theoretical framework.)

    Happy to chat more.

  2. Thanks, Kris. IoE is massive – takes something like 10% of global education postgrads and must be 20x larger than our education school – I should think their library is pretty comprehensive. Did you see I linked to Carnine’s ResearchGate page, which has the full text freely available?
    Thanks for those suggestions for reading.
    That’s really interesting about DI for UK (secondary?) nurture groups; are you aware of any independent evaluation? I’m feeling quite smug about steering clear of Growth Mindset on the grounds that the evidence on its effectiveness came mainly from Dweck’s own teams or close associates. I suspect that fidelity might be an important issue with DI, affecting impact, but it may be quite robust (which would be a massive bonus).
    I’m don’t think I made the point in my post but I think there is potential for a big improvement in quality of curriculum design in this country. There have been some very well thought-through courses in science over the years but they tend to be good at a broad level, less-so at the small-scale, which I think matters a lot. DI might be part of that improvement, if it ever happens.
    Maybe one day I’ll be working really hard on getting my trainee teachers to fully understand how DI works so they can make a good job of engaging with extensive DI work out in schools – not there yet though.
    Best wishes

  3. I would recommend procuring a copy of Theory of Instruction for the library, although I’m still working my way through my personal copy. Firstly, as you rightly point out, DI (with capital letters) is the proprietary scheme developed by Engelmann et al — I have zero experience of using those materials. However, Theory of Instruction is the theoretical underpinning of those schemes — a “how to” manual, if you will — and I have found reading it provocative and interesting. You are also correct in pointing out that much of its emphasis is on teaching younger age groups (but Kris’ point above about nurture groups is well taken). What I find most engaging is Engelmann’s interest in ensuring “flawless” instruction i.e. where the learner makes the inference or generalisation that the instructor intends. And I think he has powerful examples of unintended inferences generated by sloppily chosen sets of examples. Kris is also right in recommending “Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools” as a concise introduction to Engelmann’s ideas.

    I’ve blogged about the ideas quite often, some of which have been well received, others less so, and sometimes I’ve repeated myself (unintentionally!) and banged on with more enthusiasm that discernment, but that’s often the nature of blogging (at least for me). As a sample try: https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/engelmann-and-john-stuart-mill-revisited/

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