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Direct Instruction of “big ideas”

Dr. Fitch with Zig Engelmann at a DI Conference

Dr. Fitch with Zig Engelmann at one of many DI conferences attended by TIEE staff members

Direct Instruction programs • effective teaching extraordinaire
Zig Engelmann is an intellectual giant with compassion for kids to match. He has worked tirelessly since the mid-60’s developing effective instructional programs in all basic skills areas and in some content areas. His reading programs (DISTAR, Reading Mastery, Horizons, et al.) are the most research-validated programs in existence. These and other DI programs have been used in TIEE’s schools since the early 1980’s and we continue to use them today in all of our schools. See the National Institute for Direct Instruction’s website for a whole lot more on DI.

Scripted lessons, group responses, and much, much more
On seeing DI in action, the casual observer is often drawn to the group choral responding and the scripted lessons. Engelmann’s detractors have denigrated his efforts, calling them “rote learning,” but “rote” could not be further from the truth. What goes into the building of DI programs, and what Engelmann and his associates have given to the instructional design and development community, goes way beyond the script and is responsible for the compelling success of DI programs.

Analysis, design, and delivery
DI is more than a method of instruction and much more than scripted lessons with signals for group responses. Conceptually, DI is three quite distinct enterprises. First, Engelmann’s DI is a way of analyzing and organizing subject matter to make it easier for students to learn. The critical concept driving this effort is “big ideas.” Big ideas are those that have great generality, so that, once learned, many related concepts and facts are easier to learn. Our favorite of the dozens of “big ideas” incorporated in DI programs is the concept of convection currents that forms the basis of Engelmann’s Earth Science program. Once students come to understand a convection cell, all sorts of concepts related to earth science are understandable, including the water cycle, weather patterns, plate tectonics, and volcanism.  Another of our favorite “big ideas” is “problem-solution-effect,” which is a common theme in history and permits understanding of many historical movements. Doug Carnine, one of Engelmann’s most famous students, developed an American History program that used this “big idea.”

The second component of Engelmann’s DI is the design of lessons. What words the teacher is to say and what examples the teacher is to present to illustrate a concept or principle are chosen with great care. These and other design principles developed by Engelmann and his associates result in the creation of lessons that are highly effective and efficient. To make sure that they are, extensive field-testing of programs is undertaken and changes to the program are made when it is clear that the students are not learning effectively and efficiently. This design-test-design process for building instructional programs is unique to DI.

Finally, DI is characterized by a host of teacher delivery practices that encourage student engagement. The most obvious of these is unison group responding, which is done so that all students can practice desired responding and so that the teacher can evaluate all students many, many times during the course of a lesson, thus accomplishing both student engagement and curriculum-based measurement at the same time.

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