EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — A mentor. An innovator. A longtime influencer of education worldwide, and a colossus of breakthrough, tendentious teaching methods whose roots began right here in Eugene.
If you ask around, these are just a few descriptions of the late Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann that you’ll hear.
On Feb. 15, Zig died peacefully of heart failure in his home at the age of 87, The Register-Guard reported .
But in life, he was known by friends as a daredevil in both the education field and at home.
Zig was born Nov. 26, 1931 in south Chicago the son of a German immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1865. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in philosophy. There he met his future wife, Therese Piorkowski, in 1953, had four children and moved to Oregon in 1970. They were divorced in 1984.
After developing a new teaching method he coined “direct instruction,” Zig taught classes at the University of Oregon in the College of Education and helped schools to adopt and understand it with the goal to educate every child and bring them to their full learning potential, no matter the roadblocks.
In his off hours away from work (which, according to his family, were very few after 60 to 90 hours devoted to it) he loved painting — though only with watercolors because it was more challenging — and being in nature. He owned 120 acres (49 hectares) of land where he planted a number of exotic trees with his sons.
“He loved exotic trees,” said his son Kurt Engelmann, 59. Many of the trees he planted with his father are now 100 feet (30 meters) or taller, he said.
In stark contrast to the quiet Zig found in nature, he also loved ripping around town on one of his nine motorcycles at speeds as high as 100 mph (161 kilometers).
“The Suzuki 1000 he loved so much, he went out and bought three of them,” Kurt said. “It was quite the experience to be on the back of that with him, let me tell you.”
Because Zig didn’t slow for anything.
“When my dad started working with kids, he was not bound by the education dogma,” said son Owen Engelmann, 59. “He just knew what he wanted to achieve: to just make sure all the kids learned what they needed to learn.”
Kurt and Owen are two of Zig’s four children. They have been devoted to supporting their father’s work for years — Kurt as president and Owen as a board member and director of curricular resources for the National Institute for Direct Instruction, a company Zig founded.
Challenging the curriculum
Zig developed the idea for direct instruction in the late 1960s, and it works like this: The student is placed for instruction based on their skill level, so they start where their current skill is. Each day’s the lesson only includes 10% to 15% new material and the rest of the lesson is review and application of what students learned before, instead of all new material each class. This, Zig believed, would lead to mastery of the skill.
And the instruction is completely scripted for teachers to avoid teaching in a way that confuses kids or creates a “misrule.”
Kurt said while developing this method, his father watched a class that was learning to count. Every time, the teacher would tell the students to count to three the same way: by saying “one, two, three.”
“But then when they were asked to count to five, you know what they said? One, two, five,” Kurt said. “And it was perfectly consistent with what the teacher presented. So early on, my father realized, if you’re going to teach counting, you don’t always teach it starting from one and counting just two numbers.”
Zig was, to many who worked with him, someone able to truly interpret the material through the eyes of a child who is learning it for the first time. Because of that, Kurt said, Zig was able to find a clear and uniform path to get children to the end goal of mastering material by working backward, spotting the moment it could be misinterpreted and adjusting it.
And through this systematic instruction, Zig found a way to close learning gaps before they began.
“It was the philosophy: that the adults are responsible for the children’s education,” Kurt said. “It’s not the responsibility of the adults to put labels on kids and call them as disabled — it’s to develop instruction that works.”
Nancy Woolfson was an educator in Eugene School District for 30 years and studied with Zig for 45 years after first seeing him speak at a conference about new teaching methods.
“Zig’s method blew everyone out of the water, because of how effective direct instruction was compared to all these methods,” she said.
She said he was a “genius” and always pursued the way to teach students others deemed “unteachable.”
“He had very high expectations for students,” Woolfson said. “He believed that all students could learn. He wasn’t patronizing to them. He expected them to achieve their potential and presented things in a way where they could achieve their potential.”
She recalled having a third grade student who came to her once only knowing how to read the words “the” and “it.” Woolfson said by the time he was in fifth grade after using Zig’s method, he read at a fourth grade level. Zig’s impact, she said, was not only on that student, but also on her as a teacher who felt proud she had succeeded in helping a child learn.
“He had internal fortitude to accept that if it didn’t work right, it was something that he needed to fix, not something wrong with the learner,” said Owen. “And I think that whole orientation is just absolutely unheard of, especially in academia.”
A friend lost
At the end of his life, Zig had left a lasting impact on a significant amount of people. A public memorial will be held for him at 1 p.m. Saturday at Venue 252, 252 Lawrence St., and will feature 13 speakers.
Geoff Colvin is one of them. He was also Zig’s best friend.
?’He had great feeling for people,” Colvin said. “He was very compassionate.”
He loved Zig’s sense of humor and thought he was brilliant for finding a method for children to learn everything from math to the fiddle. He misses him both for the impact he had on teaching and in his life as a friend.
“The sadness? For me personally, he’s just a really good friend,” Colvin said. “I’m here (in his office) this afternoon and got here early just to walk around and sort of get a feel of him.”
Through those who remember him and the national institute he founded, Zig’s method of direct instruction lives on and continues to influence the way children learn in places like Texas, the East Coast and even Australia. But to those he impacted personally, the hole losing Zig left is gaping.
“There’s a void, it’s just a loss of a friendship,” Colvin said. “That void will always be there. I know that about the way things work … Just a good man and a big loss, for me.”
He had 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He is survived by them, along with his brothers, Manfred and Gerhardt, four children Eric, Kurt, Owen and Joyce, and his life partner of 35 years Lou Bradley and her son Devin.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com