Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):


You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.


Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):


Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?



So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.


About educationrealist

27 responses to “Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

  • Stirner (@heresiologist)

    Ken DeRosa used to blog extensively about Direct Instruction, and is a great resource arguing the pro-DI case.

    Definitely worth checking out:

    My two cents on the issue is that DI seems especially effective for learning and mastering fundamental skills, and would get increasingly un-DI at upper grade levels. Sort of like Montessori in that regard.

    One exception would probably be learning foreign languages. DI-style drills would be great for getting prog kids to learn Mandarin (huge opportunity here folks!).

    • educationrealist

      Yes, I read a lot of Ken DeRosa. He kind of lost me when he argued that DI would be great for algebra. But I do agree he’s an important resource.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Agree with your last 2 paragraphs.

      What ever happened to Ken DeRosa? He just stopped putting up stuff. No warning. No explanation.

      • educationrealist

        But you hated the rest?

        I don’t know. He was part of that kitchen table community, maybe he just started commenting there. I used to read him all the time.

      • Roger Sweeny

        No, no. I was referring to Stirner’s comment. I completely agree with your paragraph:

        It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

        As I’ve said elsewhere, gaps will almost certainly exist, but if DI could raise the floor for “at risk” kids, say to an 8th grade reading level and “can do fractions and percentages,” it would have accomplished something very, very, very good.

        What was especially weird about Ken’s dropping out was that his last post begins, “I’m in the process of wading through the 100 or so comments generated in my five part Economics for Edupundits to address the issues raised. But, in the meantime …”

        It sure sounded like he meant to write and post more.

      • Mark Roulo

        Roger: “What ever happened to Ken DeRosa? He just stopped putting up stuff. No warning. No explanation.”

        Ed: “I don’t know. He was part of that kitchen table community, maybe he just started commenting there.”

        Ken’s kid got into college. As did Catherine’s from KTM. KTM got a lot less active after Christopher went off to Rutgers (?).

        A hobbyist blog on education is a more interesting pass time when you are playing for real as opposed to observing from the sidelines.

        My guess is that Ken decided that he had better things to do with his time once his kid was out of high school and off to college.

  • surfer

    Weak arguments. It’s racist, rich kids don’t like it, and behavioralist. Who CARES. Does it work or not? And you can’t even verify the “boring” issue. Is it boring for the TEACHER or for the student. Remember for the student, the subject itself is new. I have done lots of drills in wrestling, boxing, football, etc. And it was not boring. And I did learn from them.

    Now I don’t know whether it is a good system or not. Could be a bad one. But your arguments are pretty weak. And your stance is basically PROVING the “teachers will hate it” stance. I see the same thing with university teachers who want the freedom to design the course content and assign books themselves. I can understand how that appeals to them. But it is NOT for sure that this is the best method to get the best education for the average student (versus central resources deciding).

    I think you are a very cool guy and I have ZERO doubt that your kids respond to you. All that said, I kind of get this impression you want to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (opening the eyes of the robotic Asian kids to a little American mischief and such). Now, there is not even anything wrong with that. Per se. But it does not mean that DI is not more effective. It just doesn’t.

    I think you can look for reference to programmed instruction. A very cool 60s technology. That I have found personally works very well. I did programmed instruction texts for accounting and for nautical rules of the road. And they were incredibly effective and teaching me, especially with severe time constraints. But it just has not caught on enough. And it’s not clear to me that this is from ineffectiveness versus just educational inertia in the public school setting.

    If the traditional public school system were so great, why are we having so much interest in things like home schooling, Kahn Academy, self instruction, etc.? (What is old is new again and you can see several similarities to correspondence courses.)

    I don’t even know if you are right or wrong. Maybe Pangloss was right. But I would just ask you to step back and consider that “how you do things” or “how you like to do things” may not be the best way. Certainly we have seen fields like medicine where there was huge bias for doing something one way, for decades, and it turned out to be wrong.

    • educationrealist

      Oh, my lord. Did you *read* the piece? Or just write a bunch of nonsense you found in the Big Book of Educational Platitudes.

      You didn’t understand the piece in the slightest since you think I’m arguing against it.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Ed did give DI some props, e.g.,

      It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

      I read him as arguing against the idea that it is a cure all, that it will eliminate “the gap”, that it will not require “ability grouping”, and that teachers have kept it out of most schools. No doubt, this made the essay sound more negative about DI than would a more broad-ranging one.

      Just like you, I have used the athletics analogy because I think it is a good one. We both know that many people do find drills boring and/or unpleasant. They drop off the team or don’t try out in the first place. However, students don’t have that option when it comes to academics.

      I have no doubt that if early reading and math was all done as DI and if students were passed on only as they master more elementary steps, there would develop a tremendous “gap” between the faster and slower students. The faster groups would have more Asian and white students and fewer blacks and hispanics. For better or worse, this is absolutely unacceptable in today’s education business.

      If students were required to stay in one inclusive group and only proceed when everybody “gets it”, the pace would be incredibly slow and the faster kids would get incredibly bored. And you can be sure there would be complaints that they were not being challenged and that their chances of eventually getting into a good college were being destroyed (though that would no doubt be phrased differently).

      If the pace were quickened somewhat (“Teach to the 25th percentile,” my old department head told us), you would lose many in that bottom quarter, while still boring a good number of high achievers.

      I think it’s useful to go back to the early days of the internet and recall some of the things that people were saying. By placing much of the information of centuries within the grasp of everyone, it would result in a tremendous increase in people’s education. BUT THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Instead, we got facebook and sites that detail every episode of every popular television series. Most people weren’t that interested in what educators consider education.

      Of course, some people are, and some people have very specific things they want to learn, perhaps accounting and nautical rules of the road. For them, programmed instruction is wonderful. But most people don’t have the discipline and/or interest to do it. Now, perhaps it is possible to make PI so that it is more interesting for more people. I keep reading about making it more like video games. But at least for now, it is still a niche market. As is Khan Academy; as were correspondence courses.

      We are hearing more about alternatives to public schools because they have overpromised and underdelivered. I believe, and I think Ed does too, that no school system that has to take everyone will ever meet those promises, not even come close. We may be doing “about as well as can be expected.” Arnold Kling calls this the Null Hypothesis when it comes to educational improvement. His most recent statement is here (Ed and I feature in some of the comments):

      • DensityDuck

        So I’d think the elevator-pitch version is:

        “By gating off higher levels until mastery is demonstrated DI creates tracks, and tracks are politically unacceptable to American education, which is why nobody uses DI.” It doesn’t have anything to do with snotty teachers or wimpy administration.

      • P Burgos

        Is direct instruction used in other countries? For some reason I get the impression that it might be popular in Japan, where teachers seem to have worked out the best ways to introduce mathematical concepts like fractions down to the minutest detail (i.e. you have to use a positive fraction that contains a prime number in the numerator and an even number in the denominator- not a real example). I guess I am just wondering what the evidence is regarding direct instruction in other countries.

      • educationrealist

        other countries use explicit instruction, but not DI, which is trademarked and pretty explicitly American.

      • P Burgos

        Is there a difference between explicit and direct instruction?

      • Roger Sweeny

        Direct Instruction, capital letters, is a scripted program developed by Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann and his colleagues.
        It involves a lot of back and forth between teacher and students and a lot of repetition. Skills and knowledge are broken down into small parts where the next part builds on the previous part. Students are not supposed to advance until they have mastered the particular skill/knowledge/level they are on. Direct Instruction, capital letters, is one very particular thing.

        Direct instruction and explicit instruction, small letters, can be a lot of different things. I don’t think there is one universally accepted definition for either term, though Ed would know that better than I.

      • educationrealist

        It’s more one of many strategies than one thing.

  • Robert Pondiscio (@rpondiscio)

    Fair is fair. This entire post is predicated on a misreading of *my* post about DI, which the author likewise “didn’t understand in the slightest.”

    • educationrealist

      What on earth are you talking about? I don’t mention your ideas in this post at all. I only quote you when you cite facts–facts that are widely agreed to. I’m not challenging you at all in this essay. Perhaps you misread.

      Or, perhaps, you’re referring to the prior post on this topic, and there I didn’t misread you, unless someone else wrote this paragraph:
      “For a significant subset of teachers (actually a very large subset), the mere thought of a set curriculum imposes an intolerable burden on their autonomy and creativity. Yes, DI lessons are scripted, specifying “the exact wording and the examples the teacher is to present for each exercise in the program, which ensures that the program will communicate one and only one possible interpretation of the skill being taught,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI), an advocacy organization based in Oregon. *This, as much as anything, probably explains how DI can be both highly effective and the perpetual wallflower at the curriculum dance hall.*”

      That says exactly what I wrote about, which is that you believe teachers are the reason DI isn’t widely adopted.

      But as I saide, that’s another essay, not this one. If you think I’m talking about your positions in this one, you are misreading.

  • PhillipMarlowe

    “And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?”

    So true.

  • Alphahel1x

    Hello. I apologise for this misuse of the comment section, but I’d like to draw your attention to a new blog post by Scott Alexander that I think may be of interest to you:

  • Is there a good way that schools could better serve their most advanced students? – Teaching With Problems

    […] play in the classroom. Although test scores may go up, the improvement is not without a cost.” Ed Realist worries that its pedagogy is unsavory, has not been shown to work for older students, that […]

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