It is a rare opportunity to be able to read anything from a educator who has successfully educated. Mostly we get opinions from those who have never educated anyone except those kids at the top of the distribution who seem to learn no matter how they are taught. What you mostly get from these sources is bad conclusions drawn from faulty premises.
For example, most educational programs and curricula are poorly designed. Teacher designed curricula are some of the worst offenders in this regard because teachers are novices when it comes to curricular design. They will unwittingly reveal this when they say things like the frequent canard that "not all programs work with all kids." That's unwitting code for "I don't know a thing about instructional design."
The implication is that because not all programs work with most kids, that teachers need lots of instructional programs to pick and choose from. Skilled teachers can then creatively determine which programs work with which students and then creatively design the perfect curriculum for each student using all those creative skills they learned in ed school. Test scores show us that teachers aren't doing a very good job of this. The predictable result is that teachers hate tests.
And, that's the primary problem with taking advice from teachers. Even though the crave to be professionals they are naive observers when it comes to their own "profession," education. Their observation, based on hundreds of hours of classroom observation no doubt, that "not all programs work with all kids" is flatly wrong because it is based on observing only bad instructional programs. What the teachers are really saying is that bad instructional programs don't work with all kids. So, their proposed remedy is that they want the creative freedom to pick and chose among a bunch of bad instructional programs. Now you see one reason why education is in such a mess today.
So, the canard "not all programs work with all kids" is the end product of a long chain of faulty logic based on a bunch of naive observations from educators. Education policy is full of such nonsense. So how does the non-educator desiring to learn something about education separate the few grains of wheat from all that chaff?
Read Engelmann. He's not a naive observer of education. Once you understand what Engelmann is talking about, you have the antidote to all the education nonsense you'll encounter on a daily basis. If chapter one is any inducation, this book will be an easily accessible introduction for the layman. For example, Engelmann relates an amusing anecdote about the time he was teaching his four year old son how to tell time:
The program I used had the clock divided into two halves. The left half was “before the hour;” the right, “after the hour.” I presented the rule about which side shows before and which after, and I applied it to examples showing different times on the clock. Eric had consistent reversals. Finally, I said in an irritated tone, “Eric, the right side is after the hour.” On the verge of tears, he touched the left side and said, “But Dad, this is the clock’s right side.” He had applied what I taught him, but I hadn’t seen that the rule was ambiguous.
Based on observations like this Engelmann concluded:
I learned a simple test for the rules and specific examples I presented. If the rule or example is consistent with more than one possible interpretation (like the clock’s right side), some children will learn the unintended interpretation. Learning the misrule is not guaranteed because there’s another interpretation the learner might learn. Eric could have learned that the left and right referred to our left and right, rather than the clock's left and right. However, the only way to assure that there would be no mislearning was to purge the teaching presentation of any possible rules or examples that could be consistent with more than one interpretation.
That's the problem with the vast majority of instructional programs out there today. They are full of poorly designed instruction which leads many kids to draw the wrong interpretations. The inevitable result is that many kids don't learn or have their learning capacity reduced while the kids try to make sense of all the ambiguous material presented to them.
Engelmann comes to the right conclusion because he isn't afraid to question his own ability.
From an operational standpoint this orientation translated into the immediate conclusion that if children made mistakes and confused things, it was most probably the result of learning what I had unintentionally taught. Maybe I didn’t provide enough practice, or maybe what I showed and told generated the confusion, but in either case, it was probably my fault.
This is the exact opposite of the current state of education. If this were the case, we'd speak of "teaching disabilities" instead of "learning disabilities." Maybe then education would improve. But, don't count on it anytime soon. As Engelmann points out, learning the misrule is not guaranteed, some kids will draw the right conclusions even when the the instruction is poorly designed. This is why some kids successfully learn from the poor constructivist math and balanced literacy programs that are out there.
As long as you hear that "not all programs work with all kids" you know that educators are still focusing on the students who happened to have learned the right rule from the ambiguous instruction instead of the deficiencies in the instructional programs that are causing other kids to learn misrules from the same presentation.
It's not the kids that are deficient, it is the instruction. And, the fact that "not all programs work with all kids" proves it.
Engelmann goes on to describe just how difficult the task of designed unambiguous instruction really is (and likely the reason why it doesn't). Maybe some of you expert teachers can tell us why you wouldn't teach low-performing children how to count by saying “Count to three,” why you don't give problems that have the same number twice, like 2+2, or why you don't give problems that have the small number first, like 2+4. You'll find out if you read chapter one of Engelmann's book.
There are a lot of gems in these 88 pages. I'll excerpt a few more over the rest of the week, but you really should go read the whole thing for yourself.