The Importance of Following Directions

As a kid, I never really liked playing with Lego blocks.  I found the directions and instructions to be so restrictive and limiting.  I’m not a fan of following directions and I find doing so to be quite a challenge.  I liked toys that were more open-ended and creative.  As a dad, I had to learn to like Legos as my son was enthralled by them.  However, he, like me, didn’t like following the directions to build the sets, and so, I needed to work with him to assemble these large contraptions made of tiny blocks.  While I tried to hide my frustrations, this activity was the bane of my existence.  I hated it.  I didn’t like following the directions, but my least favorite part of the whole experience were the decals and stickers.  Just because you had a sticker on something doesn’t mean it suddenly became more realistic.  It’s just a sticker.  I never saw the need for them.  Luckily, I was able to convince my son to see the right side of this debate.  Despite all of this though, I still helped him construct his Lego sets and forced myself to follow directions, gritting my teeth the entire time.  To this day, the sight of a Lego set makes me wince and cringe a bit.

While I don’t personally enjoy following directions, I do understand the value of directions, which is why, as a teacher, I help students see that reading and appropriately following directions when working is a crucial life skill.  They need to be able to meet expectations and do what is asked of them, and this usually comes in the form of directions, whether they are written or oral.  To help students acquire and practice this skill, when introducing or discussing any new activity, project, or assignment I always spend time explaining the directions and modelling how to follow them.  This time allows for students to ask questions regarding the expectations or guidelines.  This purposeful teaching of the skill of following directions helps the students see how to complete a task and why they are being asked to complete it.  Despite this time spent reviewing the directions though, there are always a couple of boys who fail to effectively follow or read the directions for an assignment, and thus, turn in work which doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  What can be done then?  How can I help all of my students see the value in following directions and be able to apply the skill when working?

Today in STEM class, I witnessed this same strange phenomena at play.  The students, in pairs, worked on designing and building a bridge from balsa wood.  All of the students began the work period working on their bridge blueprint.  They needed to draw, to scale, their bridge design using drawing tools available in the classroom.  They needed to have both the side and bottom views on their blueprint.  They also needed to label and name each of the angles in their design.  While all of these instructions were carefully and specifically explained in the project outline available on our class Haiku website, many of the students failed to effectively review these directions prior to turning in their work.  The first group done with their blueprint hadn’t made their bridge large enough according to the required dimensions.  They also were using too much balsa wood.  Another group hadn’t included both views in their blueprint.  One student had gotten so frustrated that his blueprint hadn’t been approved that he started to argue with my co-teacher and I.  “I’ve done everything you asked.”  He didn’t fully review the directions before having his work checked.  Had these students more carefully looked at the directions and checked their work against them before turning their blueprint into be assessed, they may not have had to revise their diagram so many times.

Is there anything I could have done to prevent these issues from happening?  I had the assignment directions projected on the whiteboard and reviewed them prior to the boys beginning to work in class today.  I even asked for questions to be sure they understood what was being asked of them.  Still, they attempted to hand in work that did not properly follow the directions.  Why?  Do they not care?  Did they just do the work to be done with it?  Were they just jumping through the hoops to get to the engaging engineering and building aspect of the project?  The students coexisted effectively with their partners and were properly using the drawing tools to create their bridge blueprints.  They were even completing complex math problems to determine the amount of balsa wood needed to build their bridge.  It was quite awesome to see them applying the math skills learned this year in sixth grade to this project.  Hopefully, they were seeing the relevance in our math curriculum through completing this phase of the project.  So, if they were so focused and engaged in the task at hand, why did they struggle with following directions so much?  Everything was spelled out for them, step-by-step.  Perhaps if I had put the specific requirements regarding their blueprint diagram into a bulleted list using concise and simplistic language, they would have been more apt to follow the instructions.  Maybe I could try that next time.  Is there anything else I could have done to help my students be more successful?

To hopefully remind my students of the importance of following directions, I closed class with a short discussion regarding the feedback I’ve received from seventh grade teachers.  “They tell me that many of the seventh graders turn in work that doesn’t meet the requirements.  The students seem confused when the teachers hand back work for the boys to redo.  Following directions is a vital life skill that we are trying to help you learn this year so that you can be successful in seventh grade next year.”  Maybe these clarifying words helped the students see the value in checking over their work against the directions before turning it into be graded or assessed.  Hopefully this discussion had an impact on them.  I guess we’ll find out when we begin our next activity or project.


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