Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann is a maverick in the field of education who has dedicated his life to the education of children. He is best known for designing the Direct Instruction model, which he based off of the philosophy that if a child fails to learn it is not the fault of the child, but rather the instruction. Beginning in the 1960s, Engelmann sought to determine how children learn, how best to instruct them, and how to insure that they have mastered the content. He designed the Direct Instruction model to maximize efficiency and effectiveness so all children may succeed inside and outside the classroom. The education programs and techniques he developed have continuously been proven successful with a wide range of students of varying ages, skills, and abilities. These programs have been shown to be more effective than other instructional programs in hundreds of studies over four decades.
After earning his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Engelmann worked in advertising agencies, where he began analyzing what type of input was necessary to induce retention. His work on these marketing strategies led him to develop techniques for teaching children, initially his own two sons. These early experiments led to the first Direct Instruction programs and techniques. Engelmann realized the relation between what his sons learned and how he instructed them and applied this knowledge to his work with education researcher Carl Bereiter at the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children in Champaign, Illinois (1964-1966). In 1964, they formed the Bereiter-Engelmann preschool, where they would begin using and testing direct instruction techniques with disadvantaged children
Following the success of his preschool work, Engelmann took part in Project Follow Through, the largest and most expensive experiment in education when it was devised in the 1960s. The Direct Instruction model was shown to be superior to all other models examined in every category measured. Despite its proven success, the Direct Instruction model was not endorsed by the Office of Education. Results of Follow Through were not disseminated as originally planned for the most effective model.
Project Follow Through provided a wealth of data on the effectiveness of Direct Instruction programs with a variety of students, which Engelmann and colleagues analyzed in the following decades. He wrote new programs to serve for teaching reading, language, math, and science. He also authored corrective reading programs for teaching decoding and comprehension. He demonstrated that Direct Instruction was not only effective with disadvantaged students, but could also be used successfully with middle class students, above average students, and severely handicapped students. The expansion of Direct Instruction programs also involved the incorporation of new forms of technology (video discs) to teach math and science concepts.
Apart from the promotion of Direct Instruction programs and accompanying instructional theories, Engelmann addressed the problems of the school system, which consists of the teachers, the colleges that train them, administrators, the programs they select, and education researchers who do not support the most effective programs. Engelmann determined the root of failure in the education of children is the school system as a whole. Engelmann has written extensively on this problem beginning with proposals on how to restructure school systems and later on how the failure of the school system is a form of academic child abuse.
In 1997, Engelmann helped establish the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) and served as the Chairman of the Board until his death on February 15, 2019. NIFDI is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing continuous administrative and curricular support to schools and districts as they implement Direct Instruction programs. Additionally it conducts, promotes, and publicizes high-quality research on the effects of Direct Instruction implementations. After decades of writing on instruction and the educational system, Engelmann’s passion for helping students and perfecting the education system did not wane. He continued to develop new Direct Instruction programs and write about critical issues in education. In his spare time he enjoyed painting, nature hikes, planting trees, and spending time with family.