Chapter I: Radical Optimist
The creator of the ‘Direct Instruction’ is Sig Engelmann and it’s not for nothing that Chapter I of Barbash’s book is titled ‘Radical Optimist’. In it, he describes Englemann as believing ‘that the mind of every child, even the least impressive, is an incredible thinking machine gifted with extraordinary powers’ (p.9). Since the moment I read that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and, if we accept the proposition, it isn’t difficult to believe that every child is ‘perfectly capable of learning anything we have to teach’. The idea turns the education world and how we look at it upside down, or arsey versey, as Hugo Dewar once coined it.
Barbash goes on to cite a study which looked at over 5,000 cases of students evaluated by educational psychologists as falling behind in their studies. What the study found was that, while the children’s problems were invariably attributed to the individual student or to their family, not one connected the children’s failure to learn to the teaching methodologies being employed.
I tested an eight-year-old child only the other day. The child has a reading age of seven years and two months. Her spelling age is considerably lower and has stayed that way for a year. We know this because it’s in the educational psychologist’s report. To what would I ascribe the child’s difficulties? Unquestionably to poor teaching! Her skills of blending and segmenting are not quite perfect but they’re really quite good, certainly good enough to start learning the complexities of the alphabet code. What she is prone to is guessing and, of course, because she doesn’t know any more of the code than the one-to-ones, double consonants and the basic consonant digraphs (sh, ch, and so on), she makes errors in every sentence she reads. The result is that she no longer expects to make sense from anything she reads.
You might want to know that the educational psychologists noted in her report that, when asked to say the sounds in CCVC words, the child was separating sounds, so that in the word ‘plum’, the child said ‘p’ ‘l’ ‘u’ ‘m’. The ed. psych. seemed to believe that the correct response was ‘pl’ ‘u’ ‘m’. Is it any wonder that children experience failure when professionals within the psychology service aren’t trained to teach reading and thus misdirect parents and teachers alike?
As Engelmann is quoted as saying, ‘it’s not the teacher’s fault; it’s the theorists’ fault’ (p.9). Barbash elaborates: ‘Constructivists,’ he writes, ‘say the mind creates its own knowledge largely through its own efforts. Learning styles theorists say different minds learn the same things in physiologically different ways, requiring different teaching methods for different children. Developmentalists say the mind matures in phases we cannot change – a notion derived from the theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget…’
It’s easy to see how, when a child fails to learn, that failure is attributed to the incapacity of the child or to their unreadiness to learn. For Englemann, the corrective lies in the pedagogy. Get the curriculum right, train teachers properly and ensure good management of schools. [Engelmann appears in this regard to be just the educator for our times!]
Barbash concludes the chapter by underlining three principles Engelmann considered of paramount importance:
Do away with ambiguous language which confuses children. Talking about magic letters, hard and soft sounds, letters saying their own names, short sounds and long sounds, letters that ‘make’ and ‘say’ sounds is enough to confuse the sharpest mind.
Teach children the necessary knowledge. When it comes to reading and spelling, teach them essential skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation; teach them conceptual understanding of how the writing system works; and teach them how the sounds of the language are spelt. And do all of this from simple to complex.
Lastly, give children the requisite practice, the amount varying with the child.
As Barbash writes, ‘fix these problems and the mind will learn’ (p.11).