Siegfried Engelmann (1931 - 2019)

Note: Glossary links are in boldface.

photo of Siegfried EngelmannSiegfried E. Engelmann is a passionate philosopher who has dedicated the past forty years to advancing the theory and practice of instruction. He was born November 26, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois. Engelmann married Therese Piorkowski at the age of 21, and two years later he completed his Honors BA in Philosophy at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. According to Contemporary authors: New revision series (1998), Therese and Siegfried raised four children. Following graduation Engelmann worked from 1955 to 1960 as a self-employed investment counselor. From 1960 to 1964 he served as the creative director, vice-president and holder of various other positions in advertising agencies. In a feature article in the National Review, Richard Nadler (1998) linked Engelmann's advertising job to his future in education:

"Exploring psychological literature on behalf of clients who marketed to kids, he recognized a dearth of research on how children learn. 'I wanted to see what kind of input it took to induce retention, and what the range of individual difference was,' Engelmann recalls. He initiated child focus groups for test marketing, using his own pre-school twins, Owen and Kurt, plus the children of neighbors and co-workers.

Education soon replaced advertising as his obsession. In his spare time, Engelmann, working with his sons, outlined sequences of instruction that would form the kernel of his later curricula: skills communicated with logical precision in discrete, child-sized bits; careful measurement of mastery; rapid correction of mistakes; strict schedules; an early emphasis on phonics and computation; and incessant review to integrate old skills with new. In the early 1960s, Engelmann sent home movies to educational institutions demonstrating his math-teaching techniques. His toddlers performed computations typical of upper primary students, as well as simple linear equations."
(p. 1)

The remainder of Engelmann's professional life reads like a well-crafted sequence of learning opportunities designed to foster a sensitivity to the needs of young learners and a base of knowledge grounded in empirical research and field tested methods. In 1964 he began working with children, serving until 1966 as a Research Associate for the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children in Champaign, Illinois. During this period he directed two projects funded by the United States Office of Education. The first project, the Bereiter-Engelmann Program, marked the beginning of the Bereiter-Engelmann Preschool Program. Focusing on disadvantaged children between 4 and 6 years old, Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann studied the effects of intensive instruction on the acceleration of cognitive performance. They demonstrated that well-crafted instruction could boost cognitive skills. The second project was a direct challenge to Jean Piaget's interpretations of intellectual development. The research did a critical evaluation of the kinds of information that young children needed before they were able to "conserve" liquid. In contrast to Piaget's view that children's intellectual development was a function of stages of development and time, Engelmann demonstrated that intelligence could be taught.

Prior to returning to the University of Illinois as a Senior Educational Specialist for the Institute on Exceptional Children and Bureau of Educational Research (1966-1970), Engelmann ventured north to Toronto, Canada where he taught one summer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Once back in his home state his research continued. From 1966 to 1969 Engelmann was heavily involved in a number of other grant-funded projects aimed at exploring the extent to which special instructional methods and innovative curricular approaches would enhance the learning of children and young adults. These programs included high school students from poor backgrounds, preschoolers with Down Syndrome, and disadvantaged youngsters attending the Bereiter-Engelmann Program. It was during this period that he formalized the logic and methods for Direct Instruction. In 1970 Siegfried Engelmann took the position of Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Oregon. In 1974 he was promoted to Full Professor.

Engelmann's Vita (Engelmann, 1998) lists an impressive assortment of scholarly activities: 9 funded research grants, 18 books, 27 book chapters and monographs, and 47 articles. Furthermore, Engelmann has put his ideas into practice through an inspiring array of instructional programs: 20 in reading, 8 in spelling, 18 in mathematics, 10 in language, and 3 in writing. If these print materials were not enough; Engelmann has also been involved in the authoring of 7 educational videodiscs, 8 achievement tests, and a game. In 1984 Western Michigan University, in the form of an Honorary Doctorate Degree, celebrated Engelmann's contributions. It is easy to understand why the American Psychological Association presented Siegfried Engelmann with the Fred Keller Award of Excellence in 1994. (To see a list of selected books by Engelmann, click here.)

The Project Follow-Through Years. The period between 1969 and 1993 was an important one for Engelmann and Direct Instruction. From 1969 to 1972 he and his colleague, Dr. Wesley Becker, were involved in the U.S. Office of Education's Project Head Start. Quoting from Engelmann's Vita: "The purpose of this grant was to provide a comparison of the effectiveness of different 'models' of early childhood programs with disadvantaged children. Children in three Engelmann-Becker sites were compared with the children in other models of instruction" (Engelmann, 1998, p. 2).

Related to the Head Start study was another grant funded by the U.S. Office of Education and the Office of Economic Opportunity, Project Follow Through, often times referred to as the largest controlled comparative study of teaching methods in human history. Project Follow Through, initiated in 1967 as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty, aimed to "follow through" on the often temporary gains observed with Project Head Start. According to Engelmann's Vita: "Originally, the Engelmann-Becker model worked with twenty school districts to implement effective instructional programs in grades 1 through 3. Training and research focused on the specific variables that make a difference in student performance" Engelmann, 1998, p. 2).

It is important to understand that Project Follow Through was conceived as a massive educational experiment using "planned variation". Proponents of various models of teaching and development were asked to submit proposals as to how they would structure the educational experiences of elementary school children. Parents of children in each identified community were asked to select from available models, and the selected proponents were funded to provide teacher training and curriculum. Those models showing positive impact on improving the achievement of disadvantaged school children were to be promoted across the United States. When Abt Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts analyzed the data collected by Stanford Research Institute, the findings were remarkably skewed in favor of one of the nine models -- Engelmann's Direct Instruction. Nadler (1998) reports: "When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in math, first in spelling and first in language. No other model came close" (p. 2). It was expected that the better models would be adopted and funded by the U.S. Office of Education, but as you will learn later in this learning module, that was not to be.

In spite of the fact that Engelmann's Direct Instruction was the only model to yield consistent beneficial outcomes for students, Direct Instruction was spurned by the majority of the educational establishment. There is a saying that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. It appears that Siegfried Engelmann and his colleagues had built a better way of teaching, yet there was little support for the adoption of Direct Instruction. Engelmann's ensuing battle against ineffective teaching methods is told in his provocative book, War against the school's academic child abuse (Engelmann, 1992). In that book Engelmann describes how they worked with over 9000 children a year, empirically validating and field testing each element of the curriculum: "Our format for developing programs involves first figuring out what works well, and then incorporating these practices into lessons" (p. 6). Engelmann laments: "Apparently, the key decision makers had a greater investment in romantic notions about children then in the gritty detail of actual practice or the fact that some things work well" (p. 6).

To begin to understand why Direct Instruction is effective (and unpopular) we will first look at the features of Direct Instruction. Next we will examine more carefully some of the evidence in support of the effectiveness of Direct Instruction. Then we will explore some of the rudiments of Engelmann's theory of instruction.