The origins of Direct Instruction lie in the genius of Siegfried Engelmann who chose to study the process of learning and instruction from a new vantage point. In the early 1960s, Engelmann worked in advertising, 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. While conducting this research, Engelmann developed the central philosophy of Direct Instruction, which is if a student fails to learn it is not the fault of the student, but rather the instruction.
Throughout the 1960s, Engelmann conducted research on the effectiveness of his instructional techniques and programs in order to better understand how children of different backgrounds and varying skill levels learned. His experiments were designed to understand how to instruct children as efficiently and effectively as possible and how appropriate instruction differs for children of different backgrounds and skills. Engelmann utilized a scientific approach to analyze each variable of instruction to determine the most efficient and effective instructional approach. Through his experiments, Engelmann determined disadvantaged students had a deficit in language skills in comparison to their more affluent peers, which hindered their learning rate. This lack of language skills made the acquisition of reading skills more difficult, so Engelmann began focusing on developing language and reading skills in tandem. This research solidified Engelmann’s theory that students’ acquisition of knowledge and development of skills is dependent on the teacher’s appropriate instruction, which needs to be adjusted based on the child’s skill level. A teacher must recognize and understand the students’ skills as well as what type of instruction they need to progress and acquire new skills so they become confident and successful students.
Direct Instruction was designed to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of instruction, while simultaneously recognizing students’ skill levels in order for them to receive the appropriate instruction to prevent them from being overwhelmed and falling behind the achievement of their peers. Engelmann determined students must establish mastery of skills in order to progress in their studies and therefore students should be instructed in small groups based off of skill level opposed to grade level. By establishing mastery, students can more easily progress to more complex areas of studies because they will not need as much review of the fundamentals the new material is based off of. Additionally by establishing mastery students gain confidence in their skills and ability to succeed. Engelmann initially intended Direct Instruction to be used with at-risk students to allow them to learn more in less time so they could attain the same skills of their more affluent peers by the end of elementary school. By catching up with their peers by the end of elementary school, the at-risk students would have the confidence and ability to compete on a level playing field as they progress in school. The success of Direct Instruction is dependent on the proper placement of students into classrooms based on their skill level, the use of appropriate academic curriculum, and adequate instruction from teachers. Engelmann’s philosophy of instruction and early research with young children would lead to the development of DISTAR in the 1960s as well as all subsequent Direct Instruction programs.