When I was 16, Whose Line Is It Anyway? first aired on UK television. The show, hosted by Clive Anderson, asked four comedians to ad lib responses to various prompts and scenarios, much of it shouted out by audience members. The whole thing was completely unscripted with the comedians having to make everything up on the spot. The results were anarchic; always daft and often hilarious. I’d never seen anything quite like it and I was in awe of the quickness of their brains and the way the could conjure a laugh out of almost anything.

Here’s a taste:

As you can see, it’s quite funny, but a little bit embarrassing and self-indulgent. You probably wouldn’t want to watch a whole episode and definitely wouldn’t want this format to replace more traditional scripted forms of entertainment.

Why is it that teaching is ad libbed rather than scripted? As teachers, we’re given a scenario and a couple of prompts and asked to make it up on the spot. This is pretty hard to do. When I first began teaching I would be so overwhelmed with the complexity of classroom interactions that I would spend hours planning my interactions. I would write out in exhaustive detail what students should be doing at any moment during the lesson. I would time the length of activities and, if it was clear from the plan that the lesson would run over, I’d shave a few minutes off some of the activities in order to make them fit.

Lessons seldom ran to plan. I would routinely have underestimated how long activities would take and sometimes we’d just miss off the last half of the lesson, sometimes – especially if I was being observed –  I’d stop students midway into an activity and get them to move on. Getting a lesson to run to time was my overriding concern; failure to do so was a constant source of shame. I had very little mental energy left over to even consider what my students might have learned. When I got round to marking their books I was often amazed at how little work they had done.

Gradually, as I became more experienced, things became easier. When teaching a lesson I’d taught previously I had a rough idea how things would go. I had a narrative in my head of how the lesson should look and feel and, therefore, more energy to be attentive to what students were actually doing. Planning and teaching both became more intuitive and I started to relax into my role. I reckon the comedians involved in Whose Line…? might have had equivalent experiences.

Now when I teach a lesson the structures as well as most of the content is so familiar it’s like I have a script in my head. The performance is stored in long-term memory and my working memory is free to unobtrusively managed behaviour and respond to feedback from students. There’s little doubt that I am a far more effective practitioner than I used to be.

It seems so obvious that giving me a script to read would deprofessionalise me. This sort of response to the idea that scripting lesson might have some value is common:

As teacher – especially experienced teachers – we know best. And “authentic relationships” (whatever they are) trump everything else.

But do they? This blog from Joe Kirby does a good job of summing up Siegfried Engelmann’s method of Direct Instruction (DI). Now, as someone who considers myself fairly proficient at teaching, my immediate response is to feel a little repulsed by the idea of teaching from a script. I’ve had plenty of experience of using other teachers’ resources and finding them wanting. What makes DI different?

First, it’s important to note that Engelmann’s DI is completely different to anything usually referred to as direct, or explicit, instruction, which tends just to be a stand in for teacher led lessons. Engelmann’s method is described thus:

The teacher is in face to face contact with the students, often in small groups in a semi-circle. The teacher is in control of the interaction, telling, showing, modeling, demonstrating and prompting rapid active responding of the learners. Teachers follow carefully constructed scripts that have been designed to maximize learning and minimize confusion through faultless instruction. Implementation involves frequent systematic assessment. For example, a teacher is required to ask 300 or more questions each day, and to check to ensure that children are at 100 percent mastery in reading every five or ten lessons. (American Federation of Teachers, 1998). [emphasis mine]

Engelmann recognised that “the cause of educational failure is the curriculum.”

Instructional sequences have the capacity to make children smart or not. If children learn from their interactions with the content that (a) they are expected to dabble (b) there is no requirement to retain what is learned today and to use it, and (c) there is no requirement to follow the teacher’s directions, the children will perform at a level that permits them to be labelled as specific learning difficulties by the time they reach the 8th grade…

The solution, as Engelmann saw it, is to take lesson planning away from teachers. As he pointed out, “there’s a great difference between teaching and designing effective instruction.” Instead, lessons were planned by genuine experts who would script lessons that produced ‘faultless communication’, defined as:

A sequence of instruction, frequently involving examples and non-examples in a well-crafted order, which logically leads to an accurate communication of the concept and eliminates the possibility of confusion. The determination of “faultless” is structural rather than behavioral. That is, it is possible to analyze a communication to assess if it is faultless without reference to the behavior of the learner.

See here for an example of what this might look like. And here’s an example of a DI script shared by Heather Fearn:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 09.57.04

Through a process of field testing with actual students, these scripts would go through many iterations until they were deemed faultless. Like an actor performing a script, delivery of this sort of instruction sequence and still relies to some extent on the personality of the teacher and our relationships with students, but less of the end result is left to chance.

Does it work? Well, according to the evidence we have, yes. Project Follow Through made Direct Instruction the clear winner in its extensive, longitudinal field study.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 09.38.04Here’s an 1966 clip of Engelmann teaching using one his scripts:

Some people consider it a scandal that the conclusions of Follow Through, the largest, most expensive education study which has ever taken place, have been routinely ignored. Obviously, you could try to argue that since this study took place over 40 years ago its conclusions are no longer valid, but for this to make logically sense you’d have to show that children learn in a qualitatively different way today. For those who’d prefer to see more recent research, this is a good start.

Until very recently DI were very rare in the UK. I have little first hand experience of their effectiveness but everyone I’ve met who has used them swears by them. None of the critics – as far as I’ve been able to find out – have any direct experience either. What they do have is their intuition that they know ‘what works’ for them and their students. As I argued here, this is the flimsiest, most tenuous of evidence. If the best objection you have to offer is based on your intuition then your opinion is, in the words of Carl Sagan, “veridically worthless”. On reflection it seems almost criminally negligent that as a new qualified teacher I was left alone to develop ‘naturally’. I’m sure my students and I would have benefitted from a little less autonomy.

In summary, if scripted lessons could produce faultless communication which resulted in improved basic skills, problem solving and self-esteem, then maybe we should give it a go? At the very least, maybe we should probably be a little less dismissive.