Last school year, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas talked of mandating Direct Instruction (DI), a scripted, phonics-based reading program. His unofficial word spread through the Chicago Public Schools like the flu. Now the official word is out: low-performing elementary schools are “strongly encouraged,” not required, to adopt DI. But that queasy feeling hasn’t subsided, and the controversy won’t die down.

Critique of Direct Instruction

In April, the Chicago Metropolitan Association for the Education of Young Children, fired off a letter to Vallas stating that DISTAR’s “rote learning” went against the teaching practices recommended by major professional organizations. (DI is short for DISTAR, which originally stood for Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading.) In June, Parents United for Responsible Education surveyed Chicago preschools to see whether they had been asked to adopt DI, which some educators deem especially inappropriate for preschoolers.

“It’s like, they’re poor, so they can’t learn the same way middle-class kids learn,” contends Barbara Bowman, president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development. Just look up north, she says, “Winnetka ain’t using DISTAR.”

All the furor has left Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James dumbfounded. Last year the School Reform Board of Trustees gave the Personalized Curriculum Institute of Malcolm X College a $924,000 contract to help schools on the state’s academic watch list set up DI programs. The board also contracted with nine other service providers, including progressive models. Of the 10, only DI has a history of success and a solid research base, says St. James. “So why, why the intensive scrutiny? Why? I don’t know why.”

Pershing Road shouldn’t have been surprised. DI has been around since 1968 and awash in controversy all the while.

“It’s rote, it’s memorization, it’s not good solid practice,” says Karen Smith, associate director of the National Council of Teachers of English. “It goes against everything we think.”

“It’s extremely authoritarian,” observes Larry Schweinhart of the highly regarded High Scope/Perry Research Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., and can lead children to “dependency on adults and resentment.”

The California State Board of Education excluded DISTAR from its 1988 list of approved reading programs on the grounds that its stories in the early levels had no literary merit. More recently, the California board has called for more teaching of phonics though not specifically DISTAR.

Initial interest in DI waned in the early 1970s as more experiential, progressive approaches gained momentum. But now DI is on the rebound. To some, it looks like another swing of the pendulum.

“We’re living in conservative times,” says Sharon Murphy, president of the Whole Language Umbrella, an international organization of groups employing the progressive whole-language approach. She attributes DI’s rising popularity to “pressure to go back to a highly, highly controlled education system.”

DI does indeed have that back-to-basics appeal. Principal Thaddeus Lott of Wesley Elementary in Houston, Tex.—a nationally celebrated DI site— lectures on his success to enthusiastic crowds of Christian fundamentalists. “It’s nothin’ but old-time teachin’ in a box,” says Lott.

How does the brain work?

So, is this then essentially a political battle—forward-thinking progressives vs. skill-and-drill conservatives? Somewhat, but not entirely. At the heart of the DI controversy lies a far greyer matter—the human brain.

On each side, learned theorists hold fundamentally different ideas about how the human brain operates. Their debate centers on the answer to this question: How do we best learn knowledge and skills?

Let’s look at two camps of psychologists who have influenced opinions on this matter: behaviorists and cognitive psychologists.

Here’s what behaviorists believe: (1) Learning is defined as a change in behavior. (2) A trainer can change anyone’s behavior by leading them through a given set of activities. (3) The proper activities can be identified by measuring the response of the learner at each step along the way and making appropriate adjustments.

Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, approach learning from the inside out. They believe: (1) Learning takes place as the nerve cells of the brain process information. (2) Brain “wiring” varies to some degree from person to person, which means that the learning process is somewhat different for each person. (3) The challenge for a teacher is to pick the activity that best matches the needs of an individual child.

Gardner’s multiple intelligences

In the early 1980s, these ideas were further refined by a group of cognitive psychologists at Harvard University, lead by Howard Gardner. Research had revealed that damage to a specific area of the brain could destroy one ability while sparing others. Based on this finding, Gardner proposed seven distinct “intelligences” (e.g., logical-mathematical, linguistic, musical, bodily-kinesthetic), each located in its own region of the brain. Gardner chose the word “intelligences” to inspire more respect for what are usually termed skills, abilities or talents.

In Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, your potential to excel at a given skill depends upon the brain wiring you inherited. In his view, the reason many children do poorly in school is that instruction traditionally has focused only on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences (i.e. skills measured by pencil-and-paper tests). To reach more children, he says, classrooms must be set up to nurture more skills.

Even Gardner was surprised at how fast the education community snatched up his theory. Educators “knew the idea behind Gardner’s intelligences intuitively, that children are wired somewhat differently,” says Bowman of the Erikson Institute.

Learning styles, developmental stages, etc.

There are a few other ideas about the brain and learning that have contributed to progressive education:

Learning styles. Akin to Gardner’s intelligences, learning styles are the ways people most readily acquire knowledge. There are many styles, but the ones educators most commonly refer to are auditory (remembering what you hear), visual (remembering what you see) and kinesthetic (remembering what you touch).

Developmental stages. Children’s brains develop in stages, which determine what kind of learning they are ready for. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, some children may not be ready to read until the age of 9.

Prior knowledge. Humans construct knowledge by actively selecting information and connecting it with what they already know.

Connectedness. A concept is stored in a particular part of the brain around which related facts are linked. Unrelated facts are “unlinked” and less easily remembered.

Meaning-based learning

If you’re a progressive educator, here’s how you tie it all together: Start with a theme or topic, such as rainforests, and identify key concepts children should learn. Find out what children already know about the theme and what they want to know. Allow them to choose readings to answer their questions. Link new information with their prior knowledge. Weave in all areas of the curriculum, including math, science and the arts. Finally, assess children’s knowledge “authentically” through projects, plays, writing and other activities that give all seven intelligences a chance to shine.

In the area of reading, progressive educators start children with authentic literature, not phonics. Isolated letter sounds are like unrelated facts, they reason, and children will not retain them.

First, you read to children. Then they “read” back to you, telling the story from the pictures. Next, you provide small books with repetitive phrases children can easily memorize. As they “read” these stories, they become more familiar with certain words and learn to recognize them on sight. Gradually, they begin to notice individual letters. Now it’s time for more formal instruction.

Because you have a variety of learning styles, intelligences and developmental levels in your class, you cannot teach reading the same way to all children. One approach will not work for all children. Rather, you provide children with a variety of strategies and let them choose those that work best for them. Some teachers even provide sandpaper letters for children to feel.

Contrary to popular opinion, whole language teachers do teach phonics. But they don’t march children through a particular order of sounds. Mindful of learning styles and intelligences, they use a variety of methods, too, including games, music, drawing and rhymes. Students having difficulty with particular letter sounds may receive brief lessons, either individually or in small groups.

In other words, children get direct instruction. Yes, whole language teachers use direct instruction—the kind with a small “d” and a small “i.” They would like you to remember that.

DI in theory

DISTAR (DI for short) developed in a whole different fashion. Founder Siegfried (Ziggy) Engelmann started with a behaviorist idea—-that the effectiveness of a teaching strategy can be measured by changes (or lack of changes) in behavior. In his view, when kids fail to learn, it has nothing to do with brain wiring. Rather, the instruction was unclear or poorly organized. His goal was to design a program that was clear enough to teach any beginning learner.

He focused on skills most useful for school success, what Gardner would term linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences. Thus, to many progressives, DI seems an extreme version of the traditional classroom where some children are bound to fail.

In 1964, Engelmann and his colleagues, then based at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, set out to design a reading program for disadvantaged preschoolers. Their premise: The underdeveloped language skills many poor children bring to school can make learning to read difficult—if not impossible.

As a first step, the researchers identified the skills and concepts needed for reading and which of those this group of children lacked. From that point, their approach was straightforward. (A) Start from where they are. (B) Look at where you want them to end up. (C) Find the shortest route from A to B.

Finding that route was a process of trial and error. If students failed to learn from a particular lesson, it meant either that they needed to be taught a more basic skill or concept first or that the teacher’s communication had been unclear.

“We let the kids teach us,” says Engelmann, now in Eugene, Ore. “We let them show us by the mistakes that they made what we screwed up on when we tried to teach it.”

Every year through 1967, the researchers worked in Urbana with twenty 4-year olds and twenty 5-year olds, designing language, reading and math programs. The reading series has been revised five times since then, and field tested each time with both low- and middle-income children in two to 20 classrooms. Every lesson was tape recorded, every classroom monitored, and every misread word tallied—all to see where the instruction had failed.

DI in action

The mistakes children made during the field testing determined the sequencing of skills: Letter sounds are introduced before students see them on the page. Children practice a word for several lessons before they see it in a story. Comprehension questions build from literal meaning in the first two levels of the program to literary interpretation in the sixth, and final, level.

In Engelmann’s view, developing any skill is simply a matter of good training and practice. Recent research by behavior analysts supports this claim. One study demonstrated that the difference in performance levels (among chess players and musicians, for example) correlated with the number of hours they spent on concentrated practice, and was not due to inborn talent.

Generally, the early levels of DI reading and language teach less content knowledge than the early years of whole language. Rather, they concentrate on mastering skills (reading, sentence patterns, logical thinking) that the developers believe will allow students to absorb more information from textbooks later on.

DI does teach some concepts (e.g., tools and vehicles). As in a progressive classroom, one concept is linked to another for better comprehension and retention. Unlike progressive strategies, however, DI does not aim to address individual differences in children. The goal for DI developers is to communicate clearly enough to prevent any student from misunderstanding.

Engelmann gives a simple example: A teacher wants students to learn the concept “red.” She puts three red triangles on the felt board. Here are the possible interpretations: red is red; red is triangles; red is only red triangles (not squares); red is triangles on the feltboard; red is anything on the felt board. Without further examples of what red is and is not, many students would—quite reasonably—pick up a wrong interpretation.

“What they learn is entirely consistent with what you teach,” he says. “It’s not that they have funny heads. It’s that you’re a funny teacher.”

By the way, Englemann and his colleagues in Oregon are amused at the notion that they’re political conservatives.

“Everybody here’s a Democrat,” reports Prof. Douglas Carnine, himself a 1960’s anti-war activist. “Yup, marched on the Pentagon, all that stuff.”

“It was a liberal group who started all this,” confirms DI developer Jerry Silbert, currently with the Chicago DI project. “Ziggy rides a motorcycle to work, and he’s 64.”

Variety of strategies

Just as DI advocates and progressive educators have two entirely different views of how children learn, they also hold contrary beliefs about the role of the teacher.

“We don’t have an approach,” explains Patricia Horsch of the Erikson Institute, “we have a philosophy.” Erikson works with schools to set up thematic units that integrate all curriculum areas, and provides teachers with a variety of strategies to try in their classrooms.

Whole language is essentially a grassroots movement. Teachers innovate methods based on a common philosophy and spread them through workshops and professional literature.

Since children’s intelligences, styles, and developmental levels vary, teachers need to become skilled at accurately matching strategies with individual children.

“You don’t have to be doing statistical tables or longitudinal studies” to show what teaching methods work, according to Marie Donovan of Erikson. “We teach teachers how to research their own practices, to ask themselves, Is this working? Why or why not?”

“DI is short-circuiting efforts to come up with innovative programs,” she says.

For DI developers, the bottom line is identifying specific procedures that lead to measurable results. “Its not about innovation, it’s about the kids learning,” argues Joe Layng, DI project manager at Malcolm X College. “Who cares if it’s new if it doesn’t work?”

DI proponents often speak of their programs as a “technology.” Teachers should have access to technology, they argue, the same way other professionals do: You wouldn’t expect a doctor to build an X-ray machine or a CAT-scan, would you?

Emphasis on early years

Despite the differences, both camps share one view: Classroom reforms are most crucial in the preschool and primary grades.

“There’s a myth that all kids enter 1st grade at the beginning of 1st-grade level,” says Layng. “Kids are coming in a year or two behind at 1st grade.”

Efficient teaching can catch kids up, he believes. As children see their skills develop rapidly, he adds, they’ll be motivated to keep on learning.

For the progressives, children need early experiences with content-rich curriculum that relates to their personal interests. “Their interest is as important as their skills,” Bowman contends. Poor kids will always be disadvantaged, she says, “unless they get turned on to intellectual activity.”

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