“So long as we use a certain language, all questions that we can ask will have to be formulated in it and will thereby confirm the theory of the universe which is implied in the vocabulary and structure of the language.” Michael Polanyi

In this post I wrote about the fact that one of the tenets of Direct Instruction (note the capitals!) is scripted lessons which aim for ‘flawless communication’. Let me be clear at the outset: I am not advocating the use of scripted lessons, nor am I claiming DI is the best way to teach. What I am suggesting is that there is compelling evidence in support of DI (included scripted lessons) and that we should at least investigate the potential with as open a mind as possible.

As you might expect, some people weren’t keen on the idea. Obviously, that’s fine, but some of the reasons underpinning their objections were a bit odd. Here are a few:

  • Teachers need to ‘own’ their lessons – reading from a script would be either an insult to teachers, dangerous or deprofessionalising.
  • Using scripts would not allow teachers to respond to students’ questions.
  • Uncritically adopting someone else’s lesson plan never works for me.
  • What if the scripts were terrible?
  • Who would write the scripts? No doubt it would come from someone who has never taught!
  • Teaching is too complex to be reduced to a script.
  • Good teaching is all about relationships and scripts depersonalise teaching
  • You can’t replicate good teaching in a script.
  • DI (and by extension scripts) only help children do better in tests but don’t help with ‘real learning’.

There are probably others, but these were the main ones.

Let’s deal with them in turn.

Teachers need to ‘own’ their lessons

Why? This strikes me as received wisdom and not rooted in either logical argument or evidence. It might be true, but then no one bothered to offer any support beyond their own intuition and experience. I’ve argued before that, contrary to what we want to believe, teachers’ judgments about how to improve students’ learning don’t seem to improve with experience. Teaching is a ‘wicked domain‘ and as such, any argument which relies on opinion, intuition or experience is dubious at best. I’d be interested to read either a logically constructed piece of reasoning in support of this statement or, even better, some research evidence to support it.

As Richard Feynman famously said, “It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.” The evidence on DI suggests that scripted lessons improve outcomes, if your opinion is in conflict with this you need to subject it to a fair test. So, if you feel suggesting using scripts is dangerously unprofessional, I’d counter that your unsupported guesses are far more dangerous. If you’re insulted by that, get over it: education is for children. It is not a job creation scheme for teachers.

Using scripts would not allow teachers to respond to students’ questions

This conjures images of teachers reading in robotic monotones to serried ranks of soul dead children. It inspires horror and revulsion amongst all right-thinking human beings. But, hang on, what if the scripts allowed for children to ask questions? In fact, what if the script deliberately prompted questions? This is the reality of Direct Instruction, which relies on interactivity, high pace questioning, and continuous instant feedback with rapid correction of misconceptions. You still might not like the sound of this, but teachers ‘just’ reading from scripts it ain’t.

Uncritically adopting someone else’s lesson plan never works

Well, why not be critical? DI scripts are not like most of the guff that’s popped up on the TES resource site, they’re the result of collaborative planning, extensive field testing and iterative improvement and they should, if they’re any good, result in ‘flawless communication’. If you want a set of DI scripts, you have to buy them! I doubt whether many teachers have ever had the chance to trial a lesson plan billed as ‘flawless’, and so would not be in a position to say whether it worked. Speaking for myself, I doubt I’ve ever planned a flawless lesson. I tend to plan em, teach em and move on. You can, of course, have a go at making your own scripts but they’re unlikely to be anywhere near as good as something so carefully crafted.

What if the scripts were terrible?

Sheesh! Don’t use them then! Obviously, the quality of the script is of paramount importance and I would be dead against the idea of any Tom, Dick or Harry cobbling something awful together and then compelling teachers to follow it.

Who would write the scripts?

DI scripts are, as I understand it, written by specialists with many years of experience at creating flawless communication of concepts as well as considerable expertise within the subject area in question. They take many hours to write, hours most teachers just don’t have.

At Michaela School, teachers have had time to write and refine plans for their lessons which new teachers are given instead of being expected to plan their own. This appears to be a liberating rather than oppressive experience according to reports I’ve read and teachers are encouraged to offer critique and improve resources. Now, the staff at Michaela don’t talk about scripts or, as far as I know claim to be using DI, but this might be a model we could use to plan renewable resources which saved teachers time and maybe did a better job a job of teaching our students.

Teaching is too complex to be reduced to a script

There’s no doubt teaching is complex – probably too complex to be left to chance. So why then is it the norm for individual teachers to make it up as they go along? If field-testing and iterative improvement led to lessons with flawless communication, wouldn’t that be better that what most of us manage to whip up on a Sunday evening?

The word ‘reduced’ is pejorative – what if instead we saw scripted lessons as expansive, as providing a means for reducing the load on our working memories and allowing us to concentrate on individuals’ needs?

Good teaching is all about relationships

Is it? Surely good teaching is as much about what as how we teach? I’m not suggesting relationships are unimportant, but I certainly don’t believe they’re all important. What’s more, I can’t see any reason to think using a scripted lesson would prevent good teacher-student relationships being formed.

You can’t replicate good teaching in a script

Yes you can. Unless, perhaps, you believe ‘good teaching’ is all about relationships. (See above.)

DI only helps children do better in tests but don’t help with ‘real learning’

This is a common cop-out for anyone who wants to dismiss educational research. We create unfalsifiable positions which can’t be challenged because what ‘works for me’ is unassailable. I reject this. Carl Sagan said, “Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value the may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.” If your going to advocate something spooky like ‘real learning’ you have to specify what you mean and lay out how you would measure it.

Inconveniently for nay-sayers, Project Follow Through found that DI not only out-performed competing methodologies in tests of students’ basic skills, students also performed better in measures of problem solving and self-esteem. Anyone who claims DI only helps children pass tests (as if that’s a bad thing!) needs to have a rethink.

There you go. There might be other, better arguments against scripted lessons and, as ever, I remain open to persuasion. But the arguments above are poor.

There’s also this from Alex Quigley which suggests that because the system’s shitty and teachers are overworked advocating scripts obfuscates the deeper problems in education. Apparently we should worry about debating the efficacy of scripts because “this small, simple solution appears puny in the face of bigger, more complex problems.” Obviously that could be said of anything and is a manifesto for doing nothing. How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time. Things don’t get better until we make a start.