What they don’t know

Comments are still coming in on the post on direct instruction (and the Direct Instruction curriculum). For those who want to know more about the curriclum, chapter 5 of The Outrage of Project Follow Through: 5 Million Failed Kids Later is now available online. DI creator Zig Engelmann argues that respected academics suppressed the results of Project Follow Through, a massive federal study, because Engelmann’s Direct Instruction was proven far superior to other programs to improve the achievement of low-income students.

D-Ed Reckoning also quotes from chapter 4, in which Engelmann writes about trying to build reading comprehension in students with very little knowledge or vocabulary. Engelmann gave at-risk high school students in four cities a test with questions like, “In what year did Columbus discover America?” and “How many days are in a year?”

Fewer than 25 percent of the students correctly answered the question about Columbus. (Several responded, “1942.”) About the same percentage didn’t know the number of days in a year. Their answers ranged from 360 to 12.

Engelmann read students the first paragraph in their 10th grade U.S. history book:

Today, few Americans think of their country as having been a part of a British Colonial empire, but America’s colonial history lasted over 150 years, and Britain’s influence upon America was fundamental.

A majority missed each of the following questions:

* The sentence starts with “Today.” Does that mean this day or something that would be true today, tomorrow, and yesterday? The consensus: only today.
* The sentence refers to few Americans. Is that a small number or quite a few? Quite a few.
* The sentence refers to their country. What’s the name of their country? Britain.
* The sentence says their country was part of a British Colonial Empire. Which country was part? Britain.
* The sentence says that few Americans think of their country. Whose country was that? Britain. Was a British Colonial empire something owned by England or America? America. (Most students didn’t know that Britain was England and that colonial referred to colonies, or exactly what colonies were.)

Engelmann drew students’ attention to the last part of the sentence, which describes Britain’s influence on America as “fundamental.”

“What does fundamental mean?” Long pause. One hand
goes up.
“What does fundamental mean?”
“Dumb, stupid.”
“Like what?”
“You know. Learning fundamental skills.”

Engelmann redesigned his program to teach skills and information to students, starting with first- and second-grade knowledge for those with the weakest comprehension. He was surprised to find that “a lot of high school students who are considered pretty good students place in the highest level of the decoding sequence and the lowest level of the comprehension sequence.”

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  1. “Most students didn’t know that Britain was England…”

    Britain is NOT England. England is a nation, while Britain an island that also includes Scotland and Wales.

  2. How does this bit of trivia vitiate the fact that there is substantial overlap between the two?

    The point is that the students thought that the two were completely separate countries.

  3. KDeRosa, check out these people if you think conflating England with Britain (or with the UK, which is a state that includes Northern Ireland as well) is a “bit of trivia.” I’m not disparaging the article itself, but I simply think it’s highly ironic that the author manage to demonstrate what is essentially some of the very same ignorance shown by the students.