It's a shame that he sent me links to the scans of the preface to the book (also in the thread), because it was actually massively off-putting. The whole thing is just too passionately enthusiastic, with the air of having been written by a cult disciple rather than a rational intellectual. So I read it, and didn't read anything more.
Fortunately, when I saw the thread on HTLAL, I decided this time to read the online module on Direct Instruction from Athabasca University. It's a third party item, so it's pretty neutral. It doesn't therefore tell us how great and wonderful it is, but dispassionately tells us that it was empirically more successful than other methods in independently monitored trials. And it even makes clear that this was a study of complete methods, so wasn't tracking independent variables. So the conclusion of the study was that Direct Instruction was the best of the tested methods, not "the best method ever". Having read that, I was more open to reading further on the subject.
However, it did remind me why I hadn't looked into Direct Instruction further after reading about it in Jonathan Solity's book on the Michel Thomas Method -- because it's really fundamentally rather different. Solity's book diverged far too far from the actual Thomas method when he started talking about exemplars and non-exemplars in the DI manner. The example he gave was of "over" vs "not over" with a ball or a table. Thomas rarely, if ever, used examplars and non-exemplars.
To use examplars and non-exemplars in a language course would be far too abstract, and you would be back to learning about the language rather than learning the language.
Many professional Spanish teachers, on first hearing the MT Spanish course, would probably be horrified that he taught "es" as "it is", with no explanation of the difference between "ser" (to be for permanent characteristics; I am Scottish) and "estar"(to be for temporary conditions; I am tired). He taught purely by exemplar, and not by non-exemplar.
How would we teach "ser" and "not ser"? Would it be like this?
- I am a teacher. Ser or not ser?
- I am tired. Ser or not ser?
- I am hungry. Ser or not ser?
Solity's justification for claiming Thomas's taught by examplar and non-exemplar was weak, because after introducing one thing, several hours later he would teach a different (but related) concept by exemplar, and then contrast the two. That isn't a non-exemplar, as we are never asked to define it by what it's not, only by what it is. What Thomas does here is far better defined as "integrative reconciliation", a term defined by the late David Ausubel, a pivotal figure in the development educational psychology and cognitive science after the behaviorist* years. (I've written a bit about him before on several different occasions.)
Ausubel talked about what he call "reception learning", where the information was given, as opposed the better-known "discovery learning" proposed by one of his contemporaries, Jerome Bruner. He argued that given information was not necessarily rote, and that discovered information was not necessarily meaningful, and I would personally agree with that.
Two of the key items in meaningful learning, he suggested, were "progressive differentiation" (the studying of a concept initially at a simple level then increasingly breaking down the concept into more and more complex subdivisions) and "integrative reconciliation", by which he means constantly comparing and contrasting new concepts to previously-learned ones to remove any ambiguity or confusion.
So when Thomas eventually does compare ser and estar, he's reconciling two potentially conflicting pieces of information with each other -- ie "es is he is" and "está is he is". That's integrative reconciliation, not exemplars and non-exemplars.
Perhaps language teaching could be done better if it follow the principles of DI, but I can't see how. After all, Thomas's teaching-by-exemplar-only works extremely well, because the prompts he uses are (mostly) individually unambiguous. Notice that he doesn't constantly ask what "it is" is in Spanish (that's not unambiguous) but keeps asking for "it's possible", "it's improbable" etc. The exemplars and exercises don't seem to provide much opportunity for overgeneralisation (as long as you complete the course, that is!), so he doesn't actually need to use any non-exemplars.
So rather than DI being able to improve on Thomas's techniques, I'd really say it's more likely that Thomas's techniques can be used to improve on DI.
That said, I've found a lot that I like in DI. In particular, Engelmann wrote an interesting polemic against the guys that dismiss him out of hand, called Socrates on reading mastery (another of Owen's links), where he has an imagined debate between the philosopher and an educational guru who refuses to see the value in DI. While he does seem a bit bitter at times, he demolishes the complaints against him fairly resoundingly. In truth, a lot of education isn't methodology, but ideology. We convince ourselves that something is best without any evidence, and then we dismiss empirical evidence on the grounds that our unproven principles aren't followed. You'll hear the same thing in criticism of Thomas -- "it can't work because you have to translate," "there's too much English," "you can't 'learn' a language, you have to 'assimilate' it," etc etc ad nauseum.
And Engelmann is an ardent supporter of "basic skills"/"bottom-up" teaching, which is something I think is only logical. Starting from large-scale problem solving increases task complexity significantly. In algebra or in science, you have to control for one variable at a time, and in bottom-up teaching you control for one variable at a time. But when you are trying to manage multiple variables, you need a lot more information before you have full control of even one variable, and in the meantime, you risk drawing false conclusions and making overgeneralisations about the data/formula/language features.
This is a point that Engelmann makes in the Socrates story. He points out that an evil person could make a bad course that follows Rosenthal's principles of what makes a good course, and Rosenthal agrees. He then extends that to it's logical conclusion:
If it is possible to design a failed program on purpose, isn’t it possible for some program designers to create a failed program because of bad judgement...?
This is a point that I often try to make myself, and it's something that a lot of people find hard to accept. Just because something works for one person doesn't mean it's good -- the goal in all teaching is to eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation. This is true on the level of materials themselves just as much as on the level of guidelines for producing materials.
Another interesting difference between Thomas and DI is that DI relies on chorusing, but Thomas instead makes everyone take the time to think about it, but then he lets only one student answer. Would chorusing be possible in an MT-style course? Would it be desirable? My gut reaction is "no", because it would take some of the life out of the language. Rationally, I could back that up by pointing out that the responses from the students are often slightly halting, so they're not going to be able to do it simultaneously.
Which leads to a question: are Thomas's students on the CD struggling because he went too quickly? Does DI say we should slow it down? Maybe. Is absolute mastery of these at full speed required before moving on? Maybe. But regardless of how well we know Thomas's material, it's only an introduction to the language, and there's a lot still to be learned after, so you've still got a fair learning path to get fully up-to-speed before you're going to be able to really use the language anyway, so there's going to be plenty of opportunity for ongoing practice as you continue. Also, it may not really be desirable to have complete mastery of the grammar with virtually zero vocabulary.
But that's all conjecture.
But the most troubling conclusion that Engelmann reaches is that a script is better than an independent teacher. Troubling, because it's likely true. When I did my CELTA course, it's amazing how many of my questions about methodology and task selection were answered with "Use your judgement as a teacher." Well, sorry, but I couldn't have that judgement until somebody taught me how to be a teacher, and that is why I was on a teacher training course in the first place. Teacher judgement does indeed open up the possibility of making errors of judgement.
And I have to ask myself whether there is any point in me teaching Spanish MT-style, or if I should just tell everyone to buy the CDs, which already exist and probably teach the language a bit more effectively than I do. (Which is just one of the reasons I'm not currently teaching Spanish to English speakers, but English to French speakers.)
That isn't to say that Engelmann's scripts, or Thomas's recordings, are universally optimal -- I sincerely doubt they are (and, in fact, I know that Thomas's are not) -- just that they are better than most teaching, and applying judgement risks introducing errors of judgement. Perhaps many teachers would do better teaching from a script initially and trying to internalise the logic and the process of teaching before ever being forced to operate independently.
But I don't believe DI is the be-all-and-end-all of education, and I don't believe the MT method can be improved by the blind application of DI principles.
The MT method is not well-enough understood, and I think not even MT himself knew what it was -- there are pretty fundamental differences between some of his courses, and despite "telling" his method to two people, there is no document that adequately describes it, and the courses claiming to follow his principles have surprisingly little in common with his teaching. DI may give us an extra frame of reference within which to view and discuss Thomas's teaching, but no more than that.
*Yes, I distance myself so far from behaviorism that I even spell it in US English. ;-)