Scripts: whose lesson is it anyway?

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When I was 16, Whose Line Is It Anyway? first aired on UK television. The show, hosted by Clive Anderson, asked four comedians to ad lib responses to various prompts and scenarios, much of it shouted out by audience members. The whole thing was completely unscripted with the comedians having to make everything up on the spot. The results were anarchic; always daft and often hilarious. I’d never seen anything quite like it and I was in awe of the quickness of their brains and the way the could conjure a laugh out of almost anything.

Here’s a taste:

As you can see, it’s quite funny, but a little bit embarrassing and self-indulgent. You probably wouldn’t want to watch a whole episode and definitely wouldn’t want this format to replace more traditional scripted forms of entertainment.

Why is it that teaching is ad libbed rather than scripted? As teachers, we’re given a scenario and a couple of prompts and asked to make it up on the spot. This is pretty hard to do. When I first began teaching I would so overwhelmed with the complexity of classroom interactions that I would spend hours planning my interactions. I would write out in exhaustive detail what students should be doing at any moment during the lesson. I would time the length of activities and, if it was clear from the plan that the lesson would run over, I’d shave a few minutes off some of the activities in order to make them fit.

Lessons seldom ran to plan. I would routinely have underestimated how long activities would take and sometimes we’d just miss off the last half of the lesson, sometimes – especially if I was being observed –  I’d stop students midway into an activity and get them to move on. Getting a lesson to run to time was my overriding concern; failure to do so was a constant source of shame. I had very little mental energy left over to even consider what my students might have learned. When I got round to marking their books I was often amazed at how little work they had done.

Gradually, as I became more experienced, things became easier. When teaching a lesson I’d taught previously I had a rough idea how things would go. I had a narrative in my head of how the lesson should look and feel and therefore more energy to be attentive to what students were actually doing. Planning and teaching both became more intuitive and I started to relax into my role. I reckon the comedians involved in Whose Line… might have had a similar experience.

Now when I teach a lesson the structures as well as most of the content is so familiar it’s like I have a script in my head. The performance is stored in long-term memory and my working memory is free to unobtrusively managed behaviour and respond to feedback from students. There’s little doubt that I am a far more effective practitioner than I used to be.

It’s so obviously that giving me a script to read would deprofessionalise me. This sort of response to the idea that scripting lesson might have some value is common:

As teacher – especially experienced teachers – we know best. And “authentic relationships” – whatever they are – trump everything else. 

But do they? This blog from Joe Kirby does a good job of summing up Siegfried Engelmann’s method of Direct Instruction (DI). Now, as someone who considers myself fairly proficient at teaching, my immediate response is to feel a little repulsed by the idea of teaching from a script. I’ve had plenty of experience of using other teachers’ resources and finding them wanting. What makes DI different?

First, it’s important to not that Engelmann’s DI is completely different to anything usually referred to as direct, or explicit, instruction, which tends just to be a stand in for teacher led lessons. Engelmann’s method is described thus:

The teacher is in face to face contact with the students, often in small groups in a semi-circle. The teacher is in control of the interaction, telling, showing, modeling, demonstrating and prompting rapid active responding of the learners. Teachers follow carefully constructed scripts that have been designed to maximize learning and minimize confusion through faultless instruction. Implementation involves frequent systematic assessment. For example, a teacher is required to ask 300 or more questions each day, and to check to ensure that children are at 100 percent mastery in reading every five or ten lessons (American Federation of Teachers, 1998).

Engelmann recognised that “the cause of educational failure is the curriculum“:

Instructional sequences have the capacity to make children smart of not. If children learn from their interactions with the content that (a) they are expected to dabble (b) there is no requirement to retain what is learned today and to use it, and (c) there is no requirement to follow the teacher’s directions, the children will perform at a level that permits them to be labelled as specific learning difficulties by the time they reach the 8th grade…

The solution, as Engelmann saw it, is to take lesson planning away from teachers. As he pointed out, “there’s a great difference between teaching and designing effective instruction.” Instead, lessons were planned by genuine experts who would script lessons that produced ‘faultless communication’, defined as:

A sequence of instruction, frequently involving examples and non-examples in a well-crafted order, which logically leads to an accurate communication of the concept and eliminates the possibility of confusion. The determination of “faultless” is structural rather than behavioral. That is, it is possible to analyze a communication to assess if it is faultless without reference to the behavior of the learner.

See here for an example of what this might look like. And here’s an example of a DI script shared by Heather Fearn:

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Through a process of field testing with actual students, these scripts would go through many iterations until they were deemed faultless. Like an actor performing a script, delivery of this sort of instruction sequence and still relies to some extent on our relationships with students, but the end result is not left to chance. 

Does it work? Well, according to the evidence we have, yes. Project Follow Through made Direct Instruction the clear winner in its extensive, longitudinal field study.

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Here’s an 1966 clip of Engelmann teaching using one his scripts:

Some people consider it a scandal that the conclusions of Follow Through, the largest, most expensive education study which has ever taken place, have been routinely ignored. Obviously, you could try to argue that since this study took place over 40 years ago its conclusions are no longer valid, but for this to make logically sense you’d have to show that children learn in a qualitatively different way today. For thos who’d prefer to see more recent research, this is a good start.

I have to admit, I’ve never used a DI script – they’re very rare in the UK – and have no first hand experience of their effectiveness but everyone I’ve met who has used them swears by them. None of the critics – as far as I’ve been able to find out – have any direct experience either. What they do have is their intuition that they know ‘what works’ for them and their students. As I argued here, this is the flimsiest, most tenuous of evidence. If the best objection you have to offer is based on your intuition then your opinion is, in the words of Carl Sagan, “veridically worthless”. On reflection it seems almost criminally negligent that as a new qualified teacher I was left alone to develop ‘naturally’. I’m sure my students and I would have benefitted from a little less autonomy.

In summary, if scripted lessons could produce faultless communication which resulted in improved basic skills, problem solving and self-esteem, then maybe we should give it a go? At the very least, maybe we should probably be a little less dismissive.

27 Responses to Scripts: whose lesson is it anyway?

  1. Mark Miller says:

    I think the Whose Line analogy is a good one. I would add that some of those on Whose Line would probably have practised improvisation and would have performed so many times that they knew what is funny and what is not. Except for Tony Slattery who doesn’t know what is funny.
    If there was a scripted lesson or sequence recommended to me, I would try it. I am not sure how I’d feel about delivering it. We have some shared language which could be categorised as a script for when we use mini-whiteboards. The consistency means that we don’t all have different routines and students use them with no fuss at all.
    I think it is also worth scripting ideas in advance for all sorts of situations. While we can’t predict everything, we do know that some students will shout out, we know that they will say ‘why do I need Shakespeare?’ and we know that we have to explain what irony is. Being armed with a planned response is useful.

  2. fish64 says:

    I admit, I have never used a DI script either, or any scripted lesson for that matter. Yet once you get into the idea that ” a body of experts” should dictate exactly what and how teachers are supposed to teach on a lesson by lesson basis, you risk having all kinds of fads suddenly becoming mandatory. They already have in some schools, where all staff are required to write the aims and objectives on the board at the beginning of every lesson and pupils are obliged to spend the first 5 minutes of every lesson writing them down, despite the fact that Dylan Wiliam never intended assessment for learning to be like this. Imagine compulsory Brain Gym for the first five minutes of every lesson. Imagine compulsory learning styles. In my own subject, MFL, there was once a fad, supposedly backed up by evidence, that children should never write anything in their first year of learning a foreign language. I once met a head of department who had made this compulsory for all teachers in her department in her school. I think it lasted 5 years. This is not to say that teachers should have complete freedom – there was a clear need for synthetic phonics in primary for example – but not a lesson by lesson script.

    What would not bother me, although I know some would object, is that textbooks to be used in schools have some kind of check, from the DfE, College of Teaching or whatever, to ensure sufficient reliability. And I have no problem with the government telling me the standards they think should be achieved, as long as I can decide how I get there.

  3. You’re right, David – it’s the design of the teaching sequence that makes DI so powerful. The teacher’s focus is the students and adjusting to their responses (or lack of responses). To say that DI depersonalises instruction is the opposite of how it works.

    One minor point that needs clarification: the video clip is deliberately titled ‘Kindergarteners Showing Off Their Math Skills’ because it is not a scripted DI teaching sequence. It was filmed, unrehearsed, to demonstrate to college students what the children had already learnt after taking part in 1-2 hours of daily instruction in language, reading and maths. Most of the students in the video had attended for the previous two years; two had attended for only one year. All of their older siblings were in special education programmes. None of the children in the video clip went into special education.

  4. An interesting post David. I used to abhor the notion of scripts, but then I realised that I pretty much made my own when I was a new teacher – which was of course exhausting, but for me, my way of getting through that novice phase. With expert scripts my early practice may have been better and less inefficient with regard to workload.

    I worry that citing the ‘Project Follow Through’ in a mere paragraph as an evidence that ‘it’ works is problematic. I think we need more to go on than just the fact that it was a huge longitudinal study. No doubt this study is helpful in understanding how DI was effective, but we should recognise just some of the context to make a better interpretation. I read about it in more depth a couple of years ago, so forgive my skimming on this. This is useful reading: http://pages.uoregon.edu/adiep/ft/adams.htm. The fact that the study was in the most economically disadvantaged districts, in an American public school system that is very different to our current context should make us question whether ‘it’ works in our context. Parents representatives choosing to participate should make ask us whether the sample is randomized enough (apparently, the non-Follow Through control group schools had fewer children who were less economically disadvantaged). The extra $750 per child (in the 1960s and 70s!) beyond normal funding should give us pause – seeing as it increased small group instruction, additional teacher support and the like.

    Whether it is scripts or textbooks, I fear we are finding simple solutions to incredibly complex problems. I am certainly in no way dismissive though. As one strand of support for teachers, perhaps scripts could help. It would be good to have a trial as well funded as Project Follow Through to help us find out!

    • David Didau says:

      A careful reading of my post should show that I’m not claiming Follow Through is evidence that DI works, just evidence that it ought to investigated more seriously. As I said in the final paragraph, if scripted lessons *could *produce faultless communication which resulted in improved basic skills, problem solving and self-esteem, then maybe we should give it a go? At the very least, maybe we should probably be a little less dismissive.

  5. I read this bit:

    “Does it work? Well, according to the evidence we have, yes. Project Follow Through made Direct Instruction the clear winner in its extensive, longitudinal field study.”

    Project FT does show that DI beat other approaches in that study, I agree. I recognise your post makes no claim that everyone should be doing DI. My point is only that having more information about PFT would be helpful along with your statement above.

  6. I recognise that you’re not obliged to supply it – otherwise every blog would read like a novella! Just posing that point. If people think it is scandalously ignored, then they should write about it and try and bridge it to our current educational context. I think we would all gain from the debate.

  7. dodiscimus says:

    The Cognitive Acceleration projects (CASE, CAME, Let’s Think!) are not scripted in the detail of DI but are pretty directive about how the lessons should be delivered. The evidence has been very positive but has been largely internal evaluations so the EEF evaluation https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects/cognitive-acceleration-through-science-education-case-lets-think-forum/ will be useful.

    I’m very aware of the difference a detailed SoW makes to both the effectiveness and progress of my trainee teachers. This corresponds to your personal experience, David (and mine).

    There have been a lot of attempts over many years to produce expertly designed curricula but they do tend to get screwed up by regular changes in the statutory curriculum, assessment and accountability arrangements. It’s a good argument for not messing around with the curriculum at all, and then putting all the effort that goes into quickly bodging together something workable, into careful design and robust evaluation. It would make sense for various groups to develop detailed teaching schemes and then get people like EEF, NFER, etc to gradually select the best ones. If there is a variety, if there is evidence on their effectiveness, and if teachers are ultimately free to do their own thing if they can show that it works well too, then we might make some serious headway.

  8. olivercaviglioli says:

    I am one of the few teachers in the UK who has taught using scripts. In the 1980s I used taught using both Distar and SRA reading programs (USA spelling) in a special school (MLD).
    I must say I rather enjoyed the experience. Encountering some American grammar was interesting (“…in back of room”).
    The pupils were engaged and participated eagerly. Whether it was entirely down to Englemann’s design, or my attempts to emulate the accents and gestures of comics, ironically, such as those on Whose Line, I can’t tell.
    What I’m finding very interesting here is the reference to the Project Follow Through results. I seem to remember being told by UK education leaders (LEA officers) the very opposite conclusion. That it was the Ypsilanti constructivist Plan-Do-Review (sorry can’t recall its title, only its famous procedure) that proved the more successful approach when measured in long-term social metrics (employment, teenage pregnancy, petty crime).

  9. Bill says:

    Thank you, David. Fascinating, as always. You may be interested to know that in the Teacher’s Manual of the French text book I wrote for CUP (published in 1996), we included a description of the activity in English in the left hand column and a script in French – a model of the teacher-pupil dialogue – on the right.

    I’d send you a picture, but am not technologically advanced enough to work out how! You can contact me at bill.watkin@ssatuk.co.uk if you are interested. Bill

  10. I am really interested in the ideas and techniques of DI, although I have had only limited access to relevant resources and haven’t managed to get hold of a DI script as of yet — I would be very interested in seeing a science teaching example. Some negative reactions to the idea of scripting seem unduly reductive to me: after all, a talented actor can make even a pedestrian script fly. Of course, we’re not talking the same type of script, but I think the analogy holds.

  11. […] this post I wrote about the fact that one of the tenets of Direct Instruction (note the capitals!) is […]

  12. Bec Tulloch says:

    I teach drama – its much easier to teach from existing play texts than it is to teach devising or improvising. As an actor this is equally true.

    I think this feeling sort of frames my thinking on this as does Alex Quigley’s first NRocks talk, where he focused on a year spent explaining better: the act of explaining is so very difficult that being given scripts or rather learning fragments of clear explanations MUST be of help to all teachers. Surely this would be what the ‘script’ was – it couldn’t prescribe the whole lesson but rather clearly focus moments so that you would be sharing a language with all teachers all over the country – huge implications there.

    It reminds me of the feeling you get when you hear another teacher frame in explanation something you have been failing to master – you informally nick their script. This just formalizes that process.

    Teachers are reacting to prescription and not seeing this. It’s natural to doubt high level prescription, especially in light of the last few years, I guess.

    More help in ensuring that EVERYONE gets the basic and that we minimize those left with lower basic skills seems positive to me in all respects – let’s try it.

    • debrakidd says:

      It IS easier to teach from a play script, this is true. But it depends what you want them to learn. If you want them to generate ideas, be original, draw on a range of theoretical and stimulus materials to shape something new, then a script isn’t the best way forward at all. The actor analogy is interesting, because what every actor and director tries to do is stamp uniqueness onto the script – to reinterpret and reinvent something dry. And this moves teaching/acting/learning from the functional to the artistic. Which is why, for me, scripted lessons will always be the lowest common denominator of teaching. That’s not to say that for some they can’t be useful. But they’re crutches. Runners don’t need them.

      • Bec Tulloch says:

        I find that there are two modes of drama practice and that one informs the other – that they are interdependent. This can be built out into how we see teaching – theatre is a metaphor of life –

        The first mode is deconstruction: you deconstruct a well crafted play, exploring and expanding on your own knowledge of what a play is and how this particular one functions. You learn parts of it and this informs your own practice as a playwright.

        The second is construction: far more challenging here you are the creator, the play is in your hands but all the more sound for your knowledge of the former play. The experience and expertise within.

        Now change play to lesson and read again… I can see this idea working on many levels. As a high school teaching mum of primary children I can really see how a shared language of the instruction of basics would have helped my children year on year. No teacher will ever submit to a script for everything but for key concepts and key ideas I can see it working.

        Most runners return to ‘crutches’ or at least support bandages every now and then because everyone is human. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone needs help and support.

        I think some of our profession’s greatest weaknesses are rooted in a lack of support. We’ve grown hard and this is our greatest survival method, but can be a weakness if we never allow ourselves to be supported.

  13. reclaimschools says:

    Nothing works in the abstract – all depends on what you’re aiming for. Engelmann’s book boasts “The basic skills consisted of those things that could be taught by rote—
    spelling, word identification, math facts and computation, punctuation,
    capitalization, and word usage” so his scripted lessons seem efficient for that maybe? and all in comparison with the other methods he allowed to compete with his.
    So much teacher effectiveness research in the US depends on very narrow outcome measures, also the context is many unqualified teachers

  14. This is interesting. I am not a teacher, although my job role does involve training others and supporting them in scientific projects. If a communication event is very important, then I will effectively write a script for it, and if it is very, very important (or time is very short – say, delivering a 15 minute presentation to a large group in a lecture hall) then I will definitely read the script word for word; otherwise I might read parts of the script and use the rest as a tight guide as to how the sequencing of the communication should go. If the event is supposed to be entertaining, then this might present as a bit stilted, but I’m rarely called upon to be entertaining; my role is to be erudite and clear.

    I don’t have the opportunity to use other people’s scripts. When someone with less experience and less responsibility has an important communication event then I will be asked to check this; does the sequencing make sense? Is the message clear? Will the timing be appropriate? (I will not write the script myself because these are one-offs, and the person concerned needs to learn how to do it, but the checking is important).

    But teaching? Must teachers always write their own lesson plans, medium term plans, long term plans? Constantly re-invent material? I don’t think so. I guess the issue collapses into trust in the material, and exactly how it has to be used?

  15. […] When I was 16, Whose Line Is It Anyway? first aired on UK television. The show, hosted by Clive Anderson, asked four comedians to ad lib responses to various prompts and scenarios, much of it shouted out by audience members. The whole thing was completely unscripted with the comedians having to make everything up on the  […]

  16. mrbenney says:

    The whose line is it anyway analogy (though funny) doesn’t really hold up to close scrutiny because it’s not like a teacher walks into a classroom and is then told they’re teaching photosynthesis and they have to adlib from there.
    I’m fairly open minded about scripts because I do prefer working from schemes of work which include detailed plans, a range of questions to check for understanding as well as links to resources. My main concern about standing and reading from a script is that it would possibly undermine my standing with the students because they would (potentially) doubt my expertise and question why I hadn’t planned for the lesson. In addition, when explaining a concept I want to be scanning the room and picking up signals from facial expressions etc which I’d struggle to do effectively if reading.

    And I though Tony Slattery was funny.
    Damian

  17. […] have been interested in the debate around using DI scripts, instigated most recently by David Didau here and responding to some superficial responses here. I also noted this post by Alex Quigley, who […]

  18. […] 31st January – Scripts: whose lesson is it anyway? […]

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