Engelmann on ‘Making up for What Amy Doesn’t Know”

The central cause of all failure in school is the teaching. When the leaching fails, the kids fail. This fact seems obvious enough; however, the solution of correcting the teaching is more elusive to reformers. They tend to recommend “upgrading” the teaching in some unspecified way. They sometimes turn to “motivational magic” and assume that if the teacher had more autonomy, more incentives, higher pay. The teaching would improve.

Possibly, these remedies will produce some improvement. In most cases, however, the cause of kid failure is the curriculum. The curriculum, after all, provides the specifications of what the teacher is to teach and therefore what the kids are to learn. If the curriculum is lumpy, the teaching suffers.

Amy is an example of a teacher who is victimized by her instructional material. She teaches fourth grade, using one of those traditional basal programs that presents a succession of topics like “main idea,” “fact versus opinion,” and “cause and effect.” Amy doesn’t know that the programs are causing a lot of the effects she observes in her kids, but she does know that the kids have a lot of trouble.

Like most teachers, Amy is not an ace diagnostician of student problems or an instructional designer. The closest Amy ever came to experiencing instructional design in college, occurred in her senior year of college when she made a creative bulletin board. When her kids don’t learn. Amy doesn’t know exactly what to do, except to keep trying. Like the other day, when she tried to teach main idea. The first three passages the kids read from their basal presented the main idea in the first sentence — a great big topic sentence. By the third passage, every hand in the room went up when Amy asked, “Who can tell me the main idea for that passage?”

Then came passage four. The main idea was not in the first sentence. It wasn’t in the last sentence. It wasn’t in any sentence at all. It was an idea that had to be gleaned by putting together events from different sentences. The kids read the passage and hands went up. Amy called on a kid. The kid, very predictably, identified the first sentence of the passage as the main idea.

“Well,” Amy said. “That’s one of the things that happened. But what’s the whole main idea, the whole main idea?”

With resolution, kids went back to the passage to find that elusive whole main idea. It must be here somewhere.

More hands went up. One belonged to a kid who identified the last sentence as the main idea. Another belonged to a kid who read the first sentence and the second sentence. After each kid’s efforts, Amy said, “Yes, that happened, but what’s the whole main idea?”

Not one kid in Amy’s class figured out that the main idea was to be synthesized from the events described in the passage. But the kids were surely not to blame; nor was Amy. The curriculum caused the problem by implying that the main idea was the first sentence of a passage. It presented three examples of this form. Understandably, the kids assumed that main idea was a sentence game and that the main idea was the first sentence of the passage. From their standpoint, this was the message conveyed by the material. If main idea was not to be interpreted this way, why didn’t the program present a counter example earlier?

The problem with the program is technical. The infraction, however, is caused by a lack of empathy. Amy’s program is designed from the standpoint of adults, designed to appeal to adults. The program does not view instruction from the viewpoint of a naive kid.

Fixing up the instruction involves presenting a very careful sequence of examples and presenting explanations that are relatively unambiguous. The wording of these explanations is very important. If the teacher talks too much, the kids will have trouble identifying what’s important. If the teacher uses non-functional expressions, such as referring to the “whole main idea,” kids won’t really understand what she’s trying to say.

There are different solutions to solving this problem of effective communication. One is to try to train the teachers to be effective curricular designers. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been done, and for good reason — it would take several years of intensive training to make teachers effective. Another solution is to control what the teacher says by scripting it. This is the approach that we use in designing programs. We provide verbatim wording for the teacher to follow. The script specifies the examples that are presented to the kids and exactly what the teacher is to say when presenting each example. On the surface, this solution may seem restrictive. Actually, it works quite well. The teacher doesn’t have to spend hours planning a lesson. Everything is there. The teacher should rehearse the lesson so that she presents in a lively manner. She should be fluent enough with the script so that she can observe what the kids are doing and respond to them appropriately. But the solution is effective because it reduces preparation time and it assures that the kids will not be zapped with confusing presentations, confusing examples, or confusing language.

A program that is scripted is very up-front about what is being taught and how it is being taught. The up-front presentation lets the teacher see just how much practice it takes to develop particular skills over time and what kind of practice is effective.

The tightly designed program also makes teacher training feasible. The program provides a sequence that will work if presented appropriately. If the kids are appropriately placed in the program, the program has the potential to teach all of them, on schedule. Conversely, if the kids are not being taught on schedule, some teachable aspect of the equation is not in place. The core teacher training simply focuses on all those aspects of the teacher’s presentation and interaction with the kids that could foul up the teaching — pacing, reinforcement, challenging, correcting errors, and managing. This scope is incredibly smaller than the scope we would have to deal with if the teacher made up the instructional sequence and taught it (or even made up the “corrections”). In fact, it would be difficult for us to work on relevant teaching behaviors in situations like Amy’s where the curriculum is sloppy. Before we could work on any teacher-presentation skills, we’d have to redo the curriculum so that it had the potential to work.




Engelmann, Siegfried. 1992. War Against the Schools’ Academic Child Abuse. Portland, OR: Halcyon House. pp. 78-80. || Amazon || WorldCat

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