Some assumptions about scripted lessons

“So long as we use a certain language, all questions that we can ask will have to be formulated in it and will thereby confirm the theory of the universe which is implied in the vocabulary and structure of the language.” Michael Polanyi

In this post I wrote about the fact that one of the tenets of Direct Instruction (note the capitals!) is scripted lessons which aim for ‘flawless communication’. Let me be clear at the outset: I am not advocating the use of scripted lessons, nor am I claiming DI is the best way to teach. What I am suggesting is that there is compelling evidence in support of DI (included scripted lessons) and that we should at least investigate the potential with as open a mind as possible.

As you might expect, some people weren’t keen on the idea. Obviously, that’s fine, but some of the reasons underpinning their objections were a bit odd. Here are a few:

  • Teachers need to ‘own’ their lessons – reading from a script would be either an insult to teachers, dangerous or deprofessionalising.
  • Using scripts would not allow teachers to respond to students’ questions.
  • Uncritically adopting someone else’s lesson plan never works for me.
  • What if the scripts were terrible?
  • Who would write the scripts? No doubt it would come from someone who has never taught!
  • Teaching is too complex to be reduced to a script.
  • Good teaching is all about relationships and scripts depersonalise teaching
  • You can’t replicate good teaching in a script.
  • DI (and by extension scripts) only help children do better in tests but don’t help with ‘real learning’.

There are probably others, but these were the main ones.

Let’s deal with them in turn.

Teachers need to ‘own’ their lessons

Why? This strikes me as received wisdom and not rooted in either logical argument or evidence. It might be true, but then no one bothered to offer any support beyond their own intuition and experience. I’ve argued before that, contrary to what we want to believe, teachers’ judgments about how to improve students’ learning don’t seem to improve with experience. Teaching is a ‘wicked domain‘ and as such, any argument which relies on opinion, intuition or experience is dubious at best. I’d be interested to read either a logically constructed piece of reasoning in support of this statement or, even better, some research evidence to support it.

As Richard Feynman famously said, “It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.” The evidence on DI suggests that scripted lessons improve outcomes, if your opinion is in conflict with this you need to subject it to a fair test. So, if you feel suggesting using scripts is dangerously unprofessional, I’d counter that your unsupported guesses are far more dangerous. If you’re insulted by that, get over it: education is for children. It is not a job creation scheme for teachers.

Using scripts would not allow teachers to respond to students’ questions

This conjures images of teachers reading in robotic monotones to serried ranks of soul dead children. It inspires horror and revulsion amongst all right-thinking human beings. But, hang on, what if the scripts allowed for children to ask questions? In fact, what if the script deliberately prompted questions? This is the reality of Direct Instruction, which relies on interactivity, high pace questioning, and continuous instant feedback with rapid correction of misconceptions. You still might not like the sound of this, but teachers ‘just’ reading from scripts it ain’t.

Uncritically adopting someone else’s lesson plan never works

Well, why not be critical? DI scripts are not like most of the guff that’s popped up on the TES resource site, they’re the result of collaborative planning, extensive field testing and iterative improvement and they should, if they’re any good, result in ‘flawless communication’. If you want a set of DI scripts, you have to buy them! I doubt whether many teachers have ever had the chance to trial a lesson plan billed as ‘flawless’, and so would not be in a position to say whether it worked. Speaking for myself, I doubt I’ve ever planned a flawless lesson. I tend to plan em, teach em and move on. You can, of course, have a go at making your own scripts but they’re unlikely to be anywhere near as good as something so carefully crafted.

What if the scripts were terrible?

Sheesh! Don’t use them then! Obviously, the quality of the script is of paramount importance and I would be dead against the idea of any Tom, Dick or Harry cobbling something awful together and then compelling teachers to follow it.

Who would write the scripts?

DI scripts are, as I understand it, written by specialists with many years of experience at creating flawless communication of concepts as well as considerable expertise within the subject area in question. They take many hours to write, hours most teachers just don’t have.

At Michaela School, teachers have had time to write and refine plans for their lessons which new teachers are given instead of being expected to plan their own. This appears to be a liberating rather than oppressive experience according to reports I’ve read and teachers are encouraged to offer critique and improve resources. Now, the staff at Michaela don’t talk about scripts or, as far as I know claim to be using DI, but this might be a model we could use to plan renewable resources which saved teachers time and maybe did a better job a job of teaching our students.

Teaching is too complex to be reduced to a script

There’s no doubt teaching is complex – probably too complex to be left to chance. So why then is it the norm for individual teachers to make it up as they go along? If field-testing and iterative improvement led to lessons with flawless communication, wouldn’t that be better that what most of us manage to whip up on a Sunday evening?

The word ‘reduced’ is pejorative – what if instead we saw scripted lessons as expansive, as providing a means for reducing the load on our working memories and allowing us to concentrate on individuals’ needs?

Good teaching is all about relationships

Is it? Surely good teaching is as much about what as how we teach? I’m not suggesting relationships are unimportant, but I certainly don’t believe they’re all important. What’s more, I can’t see any reason to think using a scripted lesson would prevent good teacher-student relationships being formed.

You can’t replicate good teaching in a script

Yes you can. Unless, perhaps, you believe ‘good teaching’ is all about relationships. (See above.)

DI only helps children do better in tests but don’t help with ‘real learning’

This is a common cop-out for anyone who wants to dismiss educational research. We create unfalsifiable positions which can’t be challenged because what ‘works for me’ is unassailable. I reject this. Carl Sagan said, “Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value the may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.” If your going to advocate something spooky like ‘real learning’ you have to specify what you mean and lay out how you would measure it.

Inconveniently for nay-sayers, Project Follow Through found that DI not only out-performed competing methodologies in tests of students’ basic skills, students also performed better in measures of problem solving and self-esteem. Anyone who claims DI only helps children pass tests (as if that’s a bad thing!) needs to have a rethink.

There you go. There might be other, better arguments against scripted lessons and, as ever, I remain open to persuasion. But the arguments above are poor.

There’s also this from Alex Quigley which suggests that because the system’s shitty and teachers are overworked advocating scripts obfuscates the deeper problems in education. Apparently we should worry about debating the efficacy of scripts because “this small, simple solution appears puny in the face of bigger, more complex problems.” Obviously that could be said of anything and is a manifesto for doing nothing. How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time. Things don’t get better until we make a start.

20 Responses to Some assumptions about scripted lessons

  1. Can I ask how much time you have actually physically spent in a classroom teaching in the last 10 years?

  2. Oh we can debate it David, but I don’t envisage it will transpire as a reality and if it did it wouldn’t have the support factors to prove a systematic tool to help improve teachers. A careful reading (!) of my blog would note that they could prove helpful in a small way, but we are better off pursuing different improvements that will likely work better. Create a structure where CPD is mandated for collaborative planning, with supports, and we might get somewhere.

    As for your scandalous suggestion that we should all eat elephants… ;0)

    • David Didau says:

      I can’t see why improving CPD is incompatible with looking into scripted lessons. But the main issue is that I’m not interested in creating something for all teachers. Such systematic attempts are often destructive. Instead, I’m into expanding our repertoire by thinking about alternatives we might, might think about adopting.

      • I didn’t say that it was incompatible, but the point I made in my blog is that the likes of scripted lessons will fall on stony ground if bigger structural supports are not enacted e.g. CPD; having enough teachers; having a stable curriculum. CPD and stable curriculum are the two I address in the blog. I don’t think you can have scripted lessons that will work (or be used with any faithful adoption) unless their is a CPD structure that supports their reception, development, adaptation etc.

        I did not say it ‘obfuscates the deeper problems’ anywhere in my post either, as you suggest above. I’m not sure where you got that from, but I am happy to be proved wrong.

        I didn’t say we shouldn’t think about alternatives either (I actually recognised more than once the potential value of scripted lessons, which is rather a different proposition to the list you present in your blog, but it is your prerogative to present it as you like), but instead proffered that we should think about the broader support factors for a profession that has workload, curriculum recruitment & retention issues. So, in fact, my blog is wholly compatible with thinking about using them, but I reflect in one sentence it is only a small item (the puny reference, which is obviously a little poetic license, to which we are all prone) when we should consider more systematic changes.

  3. gregashman says:

    I am not an advocate of scripted DI but when I see the arguments that are levelled against it I start to wonder why I am not.

  4. akgn44 says:

    I would argue that a range of strategies is best here. DI sounds interesting and I will be looking at it closely but I would suggest that, like all approaches it is something we should use in addition to other strategies in order to ensure that all students are challenged, engaged and make progress. However, a knee jerk negative reaction is not condusive to our own progress and, like most things in teaching, we never know until we actually try it.

  5. Rachel Gallagher says:

    Some years ago in Canada, all the primary schools in Ontario followed the same procedure. Each state had it’s own. There were scripted lessons for the teachers and workbooks for each pupil to complete within the same given time limit throughout the state, for each subject. Exams were taken at the end of the year. Pupils who did not “make the grade” did not move up but repeated the year – the grade system.
    I don’t know whether those pupils learned more successfully than their counterparts in Britain but it certainly engendered motivation for pace and learning and relieved the teachers of a great deal of work in planning.
    The scripted lessons and workbooks were written by teachers. Each year a team of teachers did not rewrite but rather renewed, modified and updated the scripts and workbooks. The team doing this work were experienced teachers nominated from their district by their colleagues and head teachers to have a year out from teaching, to do the work. At the year’s end, those teachers returned to their classrooms therefore having to deliver what had been planned by them, working among their fellow teachers back in their schools.
    Teachers were also encouraged to do training in evenings, at weekends and during school vacations by receiving points for courses completed. The more arduous the course, the more points were awarded. At the end of a year the total of points resulted in a pay increase in accord with the amount accumulated.
    I don’t know if the same systems happen today.

  6. akgn44 says:

    Oops, conducive……

  7. There was another argument I read against scripted/planned by HoD lessons and that was, “I may have more subject knowledge than my HoD so why should I use their scripts?” This is why I had asked you about HoDs and their knowledge compared to that of others

    • David Didau says:

      Ok – well, in answer to that, I don’t think a script written by an individual HoD is very likely to result in flawless communication. Probably better to buy the scripts in.

      But maybe this knowledgeable teacher ought to watch said HoD and see the quality of the scripted lessons for themselves?

  8. J.D. Fisher says:

    I wonder if a comparison to mental health and counseling treatments would be useful–it’s certainly something I think of every time this argument breaks out (my undergrad training was in clinical psychology and counseling).

    Across a wide range of counseling situations–marriage, family, addiction, etc.–one of the ‘shocks’ that patients go through over the course of treatment, and one which makes some of them leave without further treatment, is the enormous awkwardness of placing very personal, internal, ‘complex’ issues in front of themselves and others and then strategically analyzing them in an almost too-sterile way.

    For instance, in the course of marriage counseling, you may likely be asked to write down positive things about your spouse and read them to him/her aloud, or say or write ‘I love you’ a certain number of times each day. Needless to say, these are incredibly unnatural things to do, and they are fiercely resisted by the very people they are intended to help–at first. Yet, they can be extremely effective at changing behavior, as that initial unnatural slowly becomes the ‘natural.’

    What is not obvious about all of this is that the awkwardness is *part* of the treatment, because *the problem to begin with is, in a very real way, the patients’ erroneous belief that their relationships (with drugs or people) are so ‘complex’, private, insular, and ‘natural’ that they are not amenable to explicit, deliberate, scaffolded support.* Or, if they are, then this somehow means that the patient is deficient as a human being.

  9. Martin says:

    I’m very interested to see some of these scripts. Do such things exist for uk curriculum? Could anyone point me in the right direction?

  10. Fascinating stuff David. Two immediate thoughts:

    1) I want to hunt out some examples/writing on this in history and give it a go. I’m not one of these Twitter naysayers. I’m not able to change the edusphere but I can change and improve my own practice. I’ve always been one to say ‘I’ll give it a go and share my thoughts after that’ – so it is true here. I’ll see what I can conjure up but this will be quite a lengthy endeavour I suspect. If you happened to know of anything specifically within the realms of history, then that would be mighty interesting!

    2) I genuinely do worry about the de-professionalising element, as I did when I heard about the planning structures at Michaela. It is a bit like why we ask all students to complete GCSE Maths yet most of the students lose the skills and the knowledge quite quickly in the following years (that sets Maths apart from the basics of numeracy at GCSE level, might I qualify). We need people to practice, and we need them to get better and do we not need them to learn from their errors. Whilst taking lesson planning out of the hands of new, novice and nervous teachers might not cause a problem at an individual school level, who replaces the HoD at lesson planning when they move on? I fear there would be a ‘talent-gap’ there which would be quite problematic if on a bigger scale?

  11. My personal concern would be that the next logical step in using scripts would be that they don’t need a qualified teacher to deliver them. Ever since the introduction of film in the 20’s there have been people who think that teaching can be reduced to a format that can be delivered to a class remotely either by television programs, computer programs or the vast waste of money that was Virtual Learning Platforms.

    In this case it would be through the person that delivers the script. For me the best teaching is totally about the combination of subject and pedagogical knowledge and the relationship that you have with your class. Better qualified teachers would be a direction I’d rather go down rather than less qualified using scripts. Mind you I work in Primary.

  12. […] 31st January – Some assumptions about scripted lessons […]

  13. […] scripts, instigated most recently by David Didau here and responding to some superficial responses here. I also noted this post by Alex Quigley, who seemed to think that the scripts he developed as a […]

  14. […] scripted – lesson plans and had all the usual objections (as outlined, but not championed, by David Didau here.)   The name is seriously naff too. Can’t we just call it ‘deep maths’. However, […]

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