No one seems clear who first said it, but it’s become an abiding truth of journalism that, “If a dog bites a man, that is not news. But if a man bites a dog that is news.” To publish an article in which an octogenarian educationalist says basically what he’s been saying for the last few decades would not be news. But if said educationalist were to bite another well-known bastion of traditional education? Publish and be damned!

So, in a recent article about the nonsense of selecting what to teach based on whether material is cognitively ‘age appropriate’, ED Hirsch Jr makes the following aside in the midst of a solidly sensible and perfectly reasonable argument:

We have become disappointed in policies and programmes that seemed experimentally promising, such as smaller class sizes, direct instruction and Success for All. They were all supported by carefully conducted experiments, but in the long run they have disappointed.

Somehow this got turned into, “There is no scientific basis for Direct Instruction” on the front page of the TES magazine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been seized upon as some sort of proof that so-called traditional teaching methods don’t work. It should also not come as too much of a surprise that I don’t think this is a reasonable conclusion to draw from Hirsch’s remarks.

First, we have to work out what Hirsch means by direct instruction. It may be that he’s using it as a catch-all term for what’s more commonly referred to as explicit, whole-class or teacher-led instruction. This would include any teaching method where teachers tell kids stuff, explain what things mean or direct practice. Seeing as this approach to teaching has held sway for most of human history and has over that timed proved very effective at passing on human knowledge and culture, it seems unlikely that Hirsch is arguing for a more child-centred, discovery approach to teaching. Instead, despite the lack of capitalisation in the TES article, it’s rather more likely that he’s referring to Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programme.

Direct Instruction is a very specific method of both teaching and curriculum design. It takes as its starting premise that if children struggle to learn, this should be seen as a problem with the instructional design rather than evidence that the child is incapable of learning. Engelmann sought to eliminate anything in his instructional sequences that could be considered ambiguous or misleading with the result that his scripted programmes could be faithfully reproduced by any teacher anywhere.

The “carefully conducted experiments” Hirsch mentions might be a reference to the humorously titled Project Follow Through, which ran from 1967-1995 – the largest, most expensive education study ever conducted involving over 70,000 students in 180 schools across the US. Follow Through pitted various approaches to teaching against each other in a straight horse race with Direct Instruction the clear winner in all categories. Not only was it the most effective programme at improving students’ literacy and maths skills, it also  outperformed all other models for more generic cognitive skills and other affective areas such as self-esteem and student engagement.
screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-22-46-01So, what happened? Did Direct Instruction go on to conquer the world as the most effective method for teaching children? No. In fact, As Douglas Carnine (2000) observed:

[DI] was not specially promoted or encouraged in any way…federal dollars were directed toward less effective models in an effort to improve their results…. [S]chools that attempted to use DI —particularly in the early grades, when DI is especially effective—were…discouraged by education organizations.

Hey ho. The fact that few teachers in the UK are even aware of what DI actually is, let alone used it in the classroom speaks volumes. No wonder Hirsch finds it disappointing.

But, that’s not all. It turns out Engelmann and Hirsch have some beef. In 2002, Engelmann took umbrage at an article Hirsch had written criticising educational research as cargo cult science. Engelmann spelt out in no uncertain terms precisely where he felt Hirsch had failed to appreciate the merits of a study such as Follow Through. The debate between these two elder statesmen of traditional education makes for interesting reading and I have some sympathy with the positions of each. Hirsch is right to point out the inability of classroom research to find out why an intervention might work, but Engelmann is right to say that it can still prove that one approach is more effective than another. Could it be that Hirsch dropped in his DI reference as a bit of academic afters? I couldn’t possible comment.

To conclude, we may not know what the best way to teach is – we may never know – but we do have  very clear guidance, from a wide variety of sources, that some interventions are more successful than others. I’m not claiming DI is the way to go if you want to deliver the sort of knowledge-rich curriculum Hirsch advocates, but there is clear evidence, both from laboratories and from field testing, that minimal guidance is less effective than more explicit approaches for school students.

Ignoring what evidence there is in favour of what you prefer to be true is exactly what Hirsch says we need to stop. He argues the problem is that a belief in what he calls “providential individualism – the focus on the unique individual rather than on acculturation, combined with the belief that some supervising providence, like nature or the free market, can guide our educational policies. On the contrary, it’s neither providence nor nature, but we adults who need to decide quite specifically what our children should know and be able to do.”

I’d end by saying, and who could argue with that? Except of course, they are all too many.