A genius. An education maverick. An innovator. A humanist. Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann was all of these things. And more.
Zig’s work in education didn’t transpire through a traditional route. Initially, while working for an advertising agency, Engelmann set out to determine how many exposures to a jingle a child must encounter before they remember it. What he found, instead of an answer to his research query, was a passion for teaching.
Over the course of more than 50 years in the field, Engelmann recognized the need for a systematic approach to teaching and learning and developed a model for teaching called Direct Instruction (DI) where lessons are carefully designed to introduce small learning increments through prescribed teaching tasks. His lessons are designed so that only 10% of the material presented in a lesson is new to the student. The balance of the lesson’s content is review of information previously taught. The concept being that 90% of a lesson is review, allowing students to master the skills and concepts before integrating those ideas into more sophisticated applications. Teaching finite portions of skills in isolation before integration minimizes the chance of misinterpretation by the student. Engelmann knew this was the key to a child mastering a concept.
Engelmann’s approach is much like an engineering feat and is what enables it to be incredibly effective with children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Engelmann could recognize when students were struggling to learn and would respond with a change in teacher behavior–not student behavior–because, in the words of Zig, “If a student has learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” Engelmann designed an elegant system to take knowledge and make it accessible; the cornerstone of which was how and when the teacher would present increments of information to the student.
This endeavor, however, did not come without its hurdles. In the late 1960s, the federal government sponsored a large-scale project to determine the best way to teach at-risk children. The study was known as Project Follow Through. Over the course of almost a decade, Direct Instruction was the only model to prove its ability to significantly improve the academic achievement, problem solving abilities and self-esteem of students in the project. This should have been good news and a catalyst for educators everywhere to implement the model. Instead, the US government did not disseminate the results, and DI was no closer to scaling up as a widely-recognized and proven approach.
When it came to road blocks, not much would change over the course of his career. Engelmann would be faced again and again by nay-sayers and a bureaucratic environment that stifled the message that all students had the ability and the right to learn, regardless of their race, economic status or location. These setbacks didn’t stop Zig. For decades to come, Engelmann would continue to write and publish more than 100 programs, author a plethora of associated books and articles and found institutions designed to further his cause. He believed that all children could learn and would stop at nothing to ensure the rightful equity of students.
“We’re not going to fail you. We’re not going to discriminate against you, or give up on you, regardless of how unready you may be according to traditional standards. We are not going to label you with a handle, such as dyslexic or brain-damaged, and feel that we have now exonerated ourselves from the responsibility of teaching you. We’re not going to punish you by requiring you to do things you can’t do. We’re not going to talk about your difficulties to learn. Rather, we will take you where you are, and we’ll teach you. And the extent to which you fail is our failure, not yours. We will not cop out by saying, ‘He can’t learn.’ Rather, we will say, ‘I failed to teach him. So I better take a good look at what I did and try to figure out a better way.’”
Zig was passionate about his work, and rightfully so. Engelmann engineered his programs to get remarkable results on behalf of his unwavering dedication to ensuring all children were given the opportunity to learn and excel. Dr. Rob Horner, a longtime colleague of Zig’s from the College of Education at the University of Oregon, is quoted as saying “Zig had these three big goals. One: define the rules by which knowledge is transmitted to all. Two: take those rules and demonstrate you can build programs people can use, and three, implement that approach at a scale that changes the world. Zig did the first two. He’s going to expect us to gear up and get the third done.” We believe Dr. Horner is right and invite you to join us in continuing Zig’s legacy.