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Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on October 31, 2017
This book makes the point that good teaching is all about examples, not verbal explanations. So, in that spirit, here is an example to let you see just how good this book really is:
What’s a definition? A definition is defined on Google as “a statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.” So a definition is a statement that gives us the “exact meaning” of a word. What does “exact” mean? According to Google, it means “not approximated in any way; precise.” So if I give you a definition of a word, it must not be approximated in any way, otherwise it’s not a definition, right? The rest of Google’s definition says a definition is found in a dictionary.
Ok, so what’s the definition of “definition” found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary? They say that a definition is “a statement expressing the essential nature of something.” So according to the dictionary, a definition doesn’t have to be the “exact meaning” of a word, it just has to “express the essential nature” of it.
So Google’s definition differs from the dictionary's definition, even though Google uses the dictionary to support its definition. Weird, huh? That’s the problem you get into when you start using definitions to try to nail down exactly what a word means. You can’t do it. If you could, the proof would be in the fact that every student who heard your definition would be able to immediately tell you what word that definition represents.
As an example, please point out a “domestic fowl kept for its eggs or meat, especially a young one.” If you and everyone around you can’t immediately tell me what word that definition represents then that definition is not “a statement of the exact meaning of a word.” If it were the exact meaning, you all could tell me precisely what word I am defining.
Definitions are made up of nothing but words, but words don’t have “exact meanings.” Disagree? Please give me one example of a word that has an exact meaning. Got one? Ok, before you tell me the word and it’s exact meaning, please tell me what your definition of “exact” is. Remember, we’re only using words to define other words here and the definition you use must be “exact”, whatever that means.
The point is, words are never specific. It’s only once you learn what a word means that you can use other words to kind of explain what it means specifically. In other words, a definition is only meaningful once you know what a word means. Meaning comes before definition and you can’t get to a definition until you know what a word means.
Then how the heck do we learn the meaning of words in the first place?
I’m glad you asked.
The only way to really get specific, or exact, or precise (or whatever its called) is to stop being so abstract. You have to get concrete.
If I show a toddler a picture and say “chicken,” they don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. They may think all pictures are “chicken”s. Or the color white is called “chicken.” Or something with two legs is “chicken.” Or a duck, which kinda looks like this thing is also a “chicken.” But, if I keep showing that toddler more examples of chickens and saying “chicken” and show other examples of similar things and saying “not chicken,” then eventually the toddler will figure out what I mean when I say the word “chicken.” The toddler may not even have other words to define what a “chicken” is, but they may still know exactly what that word means.
It takes concrete examples to teach the meaning of words, not definitions. Once you figure that out, you realize that you can teach concepts more quickly if you can figure out how to group the examples in a certain way and then test the student properly to make sure they understand what you mean.
That’s just what this book is all about: how to carefully choreograph examples to teach concepts as quickly as possible.
Admittedly, this book doesn’t do a great job of leading by example since it is filled with obscure words that are never given proper meaning by example. However, once you spend time with it and see how it applies to the real world curriculum that Engelmann designed, such as the readily available “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” book, you’ll probably start to appreciate just how much depth there is to this teaching methodology.
Sadly, once you begin to appreciate this approach to education, you’ll likely find yourself looking for other Engelmann writings and you'll end up reading Engelmann’s autobiography called “Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System.” That book paints a dismal picture of the likelihood this teaching methodology ever has of being accepted in the mainstream. I don't say that lightly. Engelmann’s approach beat out every other teaching methodology in every area studied in a nearly decade-long nationwide US Federal Government-run educational study conducted in the late 1960s and early 70s called Project Follow Through (designed to “follow through” on the perceived gains of lower-income American preschool students who participated in the Head Start program but eventually lost any gains in the early grades). The US Federal Government swept the final report under the rug and called the whole thing a failure, meaning no public school system has ever used Engelmann's approach, called Direct Instruction. (Side note: If I knew how to get in touch with a Hollywood director, I would tell him about this book. Unbelievable heroics, drama, an unconquerable enemy, and the depressing reality that Education wasn’t changed dramatically by the incredible success of this approach would make for one heck of a movie.)
So, that’s my best shot at explaining this book using examples. Now it’s time for you to take the blue pill or the red pill. Go back to normal life and act like you've never heard of Siegfried Engelmann, or start to learn about the unbelievable true story of Direct Instruction. (Don't say I didn't warn you ;-) )
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