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[xmca] Direct Instruction: observations at Djarragun college, Cape York, Australia

I've just returned from a 4 day observation at Djarragun College
http://www.djarragun.qld.edu.au/cms/ for indigenous Australians, near
Cairns, during their first week of Term 2.

Their programme is directed by NIFDI (National Institute For Direct
Instruction), an American group set up by Zig Engelmann. The
initiative to implement this in Australia originated with indigenous
leader Noel Pearson, as outlined in his essay “Radical Hope”

In the following I describe some of the characteristics of the NIFDI programme

Without fail, every school day, from 9am to 1pm there are 3 hours of
English language instruction (broken up into decoding, comprehension,
writing) and 1 hour of Maths instruction

The lessons are  heavily scripted. The various teachers manuals are
thick books with precise instructions about how lessons must be
delivered. So all the teachers are pulling consistently in the same
direction. Robotic yes, but they are good robots.

This aspect of the program has major, major implications. Scripting
lessons takes away from teacher creativity or autonomy. All teachers
are delivering in quite similar ways. Does the lack of diversity in
this respect matter? For instance, in education a methods war between
the relative virtues of constructivism (which emphasises the value of
children exploring) and behavourism (which emphasises formal
transmission of knowledge from teacher to student) has been  going on
in various guises for years. NIFDI is as behaviourist as you can get
so there is bound to be substantial opposition from constructivists or
from those who advocate some sort of even balance between the two
apparent extremes.

With NIFDI, student participation is close to 100%. Quite often this
takes the form of chanting in unison in response to a signalling
system from the teacher (finger click or tap on a book). Students are
trained to not answer until the teacher signals so the "smart"
students don't dominate and the "slow" students don't hold back.
Everyone participates. I observed this being consistently implemented
in a variety of primary and middle school classes

The curriculum, from what I observed, is very purposeful. Engelmann
claims to have developed curriculum design to the level of a precise
science. There is a strong emphasis on logical elements in the
comprehension part of the curriculum such as deductions, inference
etc. (and of course much more). For example, in one lesson about the
skeletal and muscular body systems these elements of curriculum design
were included in rapid succession: Deductions, Evidence,
Classification, Definitions, Parts of Speech, Inference, Definitions
and Following Directions.

Some of the features of the programme that struck me as unusual and /
or interesting were:
(a) Strong emphasis on logical elements such as deduction, evidence
and inference
(b) Continual verbal participation (chanting) from students. The
chanting was not only copying what the teacher said but also
performing logical operations independently, after initial preparation
for this by the teacher
(c) Expectation and achievement of participation in all tasks by all
students (not 100% in all cases but close to it in nearly all of the
classes I observed)
(d) Lessons proceeded briskly, some tasks were strictly timed and the
message that time was precious was both explicit and implicit.
(e) A system of student points and teacher points was present in all
classes. Students obtained points for doing the right thing, teachers
obtained points when students did the wrong thing (eg. not waiting for
the signal before answering). The class receives a reward when a
specified target of points is achieved.
(f) Virtually no misuse of mobile phones. Students who misuse phones
may lose them for a week or even the whole term.
(g) Self checks and peer assessment in various contexts. For example,
I gathered that reading was assessed every day in paired groups with
one of the pair recording words read in, say, 2 minutes and the
errors. This was then followed by a reversal of roles. I asked one of
the students who recorded 2 errors for her partner what they were and
she could tell me.

All class groups are based on current ability level and not year or
age level. So you might see year 8, 9 and 10 students in the same
class. Decoding and comprehension occurs before recess; Writing and
Maths after recess. The class groups are resorted at recess since
abilities in these subjects will vary.

The goal is always mastery learning (85%-90%) for each and every student.

The data collection process is both arduous on the teacher and awesome
in its scope. A copious amounts of data is collected each week by each
teacher. Marking for each day must be completed by the next day.
Students are reassessed each day for items they have not achieved
mastery learning in the day before. If there are 3 strikes on an
assessment item then the student is dropped to a lower ability group.

Much of the work from the previous day is repeated in slightly
different form next day. There might be only 10 or 20% of new material
taught each day. Hence continual repetition is built into the program.

The biggest problem is poor attendance. Hence the need for Noel
Pearson's other community based initiatives to get students to attend
regularly. See “How do miserable people progress in the world?”

The data is faxed to a  Direct Instruction expert in Canada once a
week and this is followed by a conference call to discuss progress.
So, there is an external expert continually advising and also checking
that no one is drifting off from full implementation of the package.

In other schools teachers deviate all over the place, this is the
first school I have seen where that is strictly not allowed. I
observed some minor deviations but no serious deviations.

So, one outcome from the Engelmann approach is the ability to scale.
For this to happen you need both the broad scope of a well designed
and scripted curriculum (coverage of all aspects of literacy and
maths) and the rigour of copious data collection and checkups. Without
those elements scaling could not be achieved. That is what Engelmann
provides which no one else does. Teachers do become like robots (in
some, not all, ways). But through the rigour of the scripting they are
purposeful robots and so on the mass scale much more is being achieved
than would be achieved in the normal course of events, with teachers
pulling and pushing in a variety of different directions (even with
some of those directions being educationally sound ones and justified
in isolation from each other)

There is a huge potential for spottiness and teachers not implementing
the NIFDI approach properly. From what I saw in various classes there
were subtle differences of implementation creeping in. But they were
subtle, not serious deviations. Of course these would deviate further
if there wasn't a rigorous way to prevent it. This explains why NIFDI
have put in place such rigorous checkups through their data collection
process. Part of me still doesn't like that side of it (the
restriction on teachers ability innovate in their own, sometimes
creative ways) but certainly I can see the necessity for it.

Hence other methods can and do work in isolation (good teachers in
isolated classrooms) but the NIFDI approach seems to be the only one
to provide all the elements necessary for scaling whereas other
methods out of respect for teachers independence do not scale. And
scale is everything since we have a large percentage of indigenous
Australians who can't read, write or do basic maths. Other methods
have failed.

 I'll also mention that I'm a big fan of Seymour Papert's
constructionist approach to teaching with computers and have employed
that approach successfully in both middle class and disadvantaged
schools in Adelaide. But when working in a disadvantaged school in
Adelaide's northern suburbs I realised I had to incorporate much more
behaviourist type approaches in my teaching due to the low starting
point of many of the students there. See my 1998 article “The place of
behaviourism in schools”
http://www.users.on.net/~billkerr/a/behaviourist.htm which advocated a
mixture of methodologies and I still think provides a valid critique
of some aspects of behaviourism. (See footnotes 1, 2 and 3 in
particular. These issues still need further research IMO)

Noel Pearson has also significantly influenced my thinking after I
heard him speak in Adelaide about 10 years ago. Subsequently I have
read most of his writings. When I read "Radical Hope" I thought
interesting but education isn't really his primary area of expertise
so he's being one sided here and going overboard in his support for
Engelmann. I then read some Engelmann and thought interesting but he's
too angry and criticising all forms of constructivism and I know that
some forms of it are good, since I have been a successful
practitioner. But then I couldn't get away from Engelmann's proven
success in Project Follow Through
http://www.zigsite.com/PDFs/chapter5-6intro.pdf and so gradually came
to the view that I should look more closely at his DI approach and
what still seemed to me to be exaggerated claims. I've now come to the
belief that for disadvantaged students in particular who haven't
grasped the fundamentals of language and maths that Direct Instruction
is the best method developed that I am aware of.

Many thanks to Don Anderson (Principal) and the teachers and
administrators of Djarragun College for permission to observe and for
discussion about their implementation of Direct Instruction

Ending the groundhog day of educational reform (Noel Pearson speech,
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