How Do You Teach Students to Follow Directions?

In high school, I recall that one of my history teachers tried to trick my class by giving us a lengthy assessment with numerous questions and lots of directions.  If you read the directions carefully, you only had to answer the final question of the test in order to demonstrate your learning.  The other questions were there to trick you.  While I did read the instructions carefully like I was taught and successfully completed the exam, the tricky test did stump a few of my friends who usually just rushed through their work to get it done.  The teacher was trying to help us understand the importance of reading and following directions.  While this particular activity did not necessarily help me, I think it was a wake up call for some of my peers.  Despite the emphasis placed on reading and understanding directions in the elementary grades, some students still struggled with this skill due to their lack of patience or focus.  Back then though, the percentage of students who didn’t follow directions was very small in comparison to today.  Due to the various technologies facing our students in the past several years, many students are unable to stay focused or pay close attention to details.  Video games, applications, television shows, and movies are all about the big picture.  Therefore, students usually tend to miss the minute details in life and school.  Teachers often wonder why students turn in work without a name or date written on it despite having provided the students with lines on which to write both.  The students are only focused on completing the work and generally miss everything else.  Of course, this data accounts for the average student only.  We all have or had students who go above and beyond in everything they do, including their school work.  But, for a large percentage of our students, the details usually go unseen and directions tend not be be followed completely.

Such was the case in my STEM class today.  The students began working on the Physics Partner Project, which entails learning about the physics behind catapults or pinball machines before building their own working prototype of the one they research.  Today, they chose partners, chose a project, and began learning about the physics behind the project they chose.  When I handed the worksheet packet to each partnership, I made sure to tell them that everything they would need to do and answer, was in their packet.  All they needed to do was read and follow the directions.  I also made it very clear that no laptops were needed in completing the first part of the worksheet.  After I met with each group and handed out worksheets, I glanced around the room and saw several open laptops.  I calmly approached each of the groups and asked why a laptop was open.  The response from every group was the same, “We are researching answers to the questions on the worksheet.”  My response was also the same across the board, “What does step one tell you to do?”  This question lead them to read over step one and realize that they actually had a handout with all of the pertinent information needed to answer the questions on it in their packet.  I then heard lots of, “Ohhs and ahhs,” as they realized the error of their ways.  Had they read and followed the directions, they would have known that they did not need to open their laptops to complete this part of the project.

Aside from what I did, which was remind the students to read and follow directions, highlight, or in this case underline the directions on the worksheet, is there anything else I could have done to help the students read and follow the directions for the assignment?  At the close of class when I had the students reflect on what went well and what struggles they faced when working with their partner, I shared my challenge of being frustrated that my students did not read and follow directions.  While I shared my story in a whimsical and fun way, I managed to make my point.  I wanted the students to see the value in reading and following directions.  Perhaps creating an assessment or activity like the one my former history teacher made might help.  I do think that current society has turned our students into reactionary rushers.  Students rush through work to get it done in order to move onto what’s next.  They struggle to live in the moment.  I remember watching a high school basketball competition on television with my son a few years ago.   It was a slam dunk competition.  The other participants and players stood on the sidelines, not watching or supporting their teammates, but digitally recording them on their mobile devices.  They would then watch the video they made again and again.  Instead of enjoying the moment, many students and people today try to multitask as a way of being able to do and experience more.  In the end, I wonder how effective this strategy and approach truly is.  It seems that youngins today are so caught up in everybody else’s lives and experiences, that they can’t truly participate in their own, which then prevents them from being well focused in the classroom.  I worry that as technology continues to advance and grow, will the attention spans of our students grow even smaller?  Will our students complete less focused work than they are able to do now in the near future?  Maybe we should just omit directions from all assignments and see what happens as we know that most of our students are not reading and following them anyway.  Perhaps I’ll try that next time and see what happens.  Maybe I won’t find any difference between that and today’s result or maybe I will.  I’m up for anything.  I love collecting data as a way to learn how to best support and help my students.

When Students Understand Why We Do What We Do as Teachers

I remember, as a child, cartoon-esque drawings of characters or people having A-Ha moments: A lightbulb appeared over someone’s head as they worked or did something.  The simplicity of the pictures always amazed me.  The idea of a light being turned on when neurons fire and bridge mental connections is a great metaphor.  While it very much simplifies the process, the concept and idea behind what is going on in the brain is conveyed to the viewer.  A-Ha moments are actually very complex, neurological happenings that involve many different chemical reactions.  Genuine learning comes about through these type of grand realizations as connections are being made in one’s brain.  It’s almost like the idea of working through one’s frustration.  Perseverance and resiliency are two great concepts that, for me, lead to these A-Ha moments.  While for some people, new ideas or answers to problems seem to make sense and happen seamlessly, without much thought or struggling, some people need much processing time and practice to come to a conclusion or answer.  I am one of those people.  I need to really ponder something before I’m able to figure it out.  Usually, after much time playing or wrestling with the question or new concept, a solution or realization seems to just sort of pop into my mind.  Those are great experiences.  An easy way to see this process happen is by looking at one’s facial expressions.  The person might start out with a frown or upset face that slowly or quickly changes to a smile as the A-Ha moment occurs.  Learning makes people smile.  How great is that?

As a teacher, I love witnessing these A-Ha moments happen for my students.  After much time spent working with them or watching them struggle and attempt to solve a problem, it is quite rewarding and fulfilling to see them understand what they’ve been working towards.  It’s like finding that missing puzzle piece after minutes of searching for it.  I see it most frequently happen for our ELL students when learning new, to them, concepts in English.  Although they seem confused at first and can’t wrap their heads around what is expected of them or the concept being covered, after asking questions and processing the information, they just get it.  Those are fun moments.  “I get it now!” they usually exclaim with a smile on their face.  Persevering through challenging times is not an easy skill to teach.  It takes lots of practice and reminders.  Rather than jumping in and telling students how to solve problems, I find it much more beneficial to let them struggle through it and ask them probing questions to inspire neurological connections to be made when assistance is required.  For many students, this is all it takes for them to figure things out.

To help prepare our students for the increased level of critical thinking that will be required of them as well as the larger work load they will face next year, we have been working on challenging our students to rise above where they are, mentally, to be better able to solve problems on their own by utilizing the Habits of Learning practiced in the classroom all year.  During the past month, we have been asking students to challenge themselves to do more than just complete an assignment.  At this point in the year, many of the boys are capable of exceeding the requirements and graded objectives.  Rather than just write about their reading, we expect that most of our students will be able to analyze what they read and make inferences using examples from the text.  While we have been using this type of language with them for weeks now, a few of the boys are still struggling to realize why we are asking them to step up and challenge themselves.  They usually get frustrated and start over instead of adding to or altering the nucleus of their work.  While that is certainly one way to approach what we’re asking of them, it is generally not the most productive way to go about challenging themselves.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on crafting an original poem utilizing the poetic device of personification.  While a few of the students got right to work and crafted brilliant stanzas filled with metaphors and alliteration, a few of the students struggled to begin their poem or choose an object.  One student had his idea right away and wrote his first two lines with ease.  He was so excited about his work that he shared his poem with me.  While he was on the precipice of critical thinking, he was using vague words and simplistic lines to craft his poem.  So, I said, “I see what you are trying to do, but I challenge you to use more specific and carefully chosen words in a more complex manner.  I challenge you to create lines of poetry that don’t begin in the exact same manner.  I challenge you to think more critically about your object as you write your poem.”  While I could easily tell that he was a bit deflated after hearing my feedback, he didn’t give up.  He began erasing his lines as I conferenced with another student.  My co-teacher then approached him in the act of erasing and asked him what he was doing.  His response, “Mr. Holt is challenging me to think more critically about my object.  So, I’m going to start over and see if I can use more specific words to describe light in a personified way.”  I stopped working with the other student with whom I was conferencing and stood up for a brief moment when I heard him utter those words.  I almost began to weep.  Wow, I thought, he gets it.  He totally understood what I asked him to do.  He was challenging himself to grow and develop as a student and critical thinker.  Amazing!  So all of these weeks of reminding the students to put forth more effort into thinking critically and creatively about problems and the world around them totally paid off.  They now realize why we have been doing what we’ve been doing in the classroom as their teachers.  They too want to grow and learn more.  They want to be better able to solve problems and think about new topics or concepts.  I was blown away.

While it can be very easy to get caught up in the routine of teaching and not see the bright lighthouses littering the coasts of our classroom, they are there.  Our students are listening and growing and applying the skills we’ve been teaching them all year.  They are not solid bricks but moldable pieces of clay.  It can be frustrating at times when they come across as chunks of solid granite when in fact they are very soft shale sitting at the bottom of the pond that is our classroom waiting for knowledge to build up and push them closer to Earth’s mantle where they can metamorphize into slate or what we might see as able-bodied seventh graders.  It’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to reflect on the great work we and our students have done all year and celebrate it.  All is not for nothing.  They are learning and growing and changing.  Mission accomplished, for now, but our work as their teachers is far from done.

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.

Regression is Part of the Learning Process

I clearly remember returning to school after a long summer vacation.  I was beginning the fifth grade and slightly excited for school to begin.  Things were going great until I received my first assignment: Write about your summer vacation for 25 minutes.  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, I thought.  I can totally do that.  My summer vacation was pretty sweet.  I hung out with my friend Tyler and went to an amusement park.  Then came the hard part: Writing.  I had completely forgotten how to spell simple words like “the” and “and.”  In retrospect, that seems so silly.  How could I have forgotten how to spell one of the easiest words in the English language?  However, as neuroscience research tells us, regression is part of the learning process.  For me, summer vacation caused me to regress even further back as I did no sort of academic work over the long break.  My mind was back in fourth or even third grade.  I couldn’t spell simple sight words.  My ability to spell and write had regressed.  I hadn’t lost the ability to spell or write, I just needed to reconnect those neurons in my brain again.  After a few days of being completely absorbed in school, all was well as my brain had worked out the kinks of regression and I was back on the learning track.

Much like the fifth grade version of me, my students periodically regress throughout the year.  While the timing can vary for each student, I find that it generally happens during the spring term.  After months of building neural pathways, making connections, and adding to their short-term and hopefully their long-term memory, the students tend to stumble a bit when we begin a new unit that requires them to apply similar skills from previous units.  It’s as if they never learned the skill to begin with, despite the fact that they actually had and showcased their learning via an assessment.  Although this does happen on a yearly basis for most students, I often forget about this bump in the road.  And then I was reminded of it today in STEM class.

To begin today’s class, I wanted to informally assess the students on the big ideas introduced and discussed in class on Friday.  Instead of reviewing the concepts in a banal manner, I wanted to spice things up a little bit.  My wife recently introduced me to this cool new technology tool called Kahoot.  Not only is it interactive, but it’s also easy to use and a lot of fun.  Minus one small snafu, the boys loved it and want to use it again.  I was surprised at how well it worked and how much the students seemed to be engaged with it.  Point for me.  Things were off to a glorious start so far.

Following this bell ringer activity, I then moved into the main portion of the lesson, which involved the students working on their Geology Timeline or redoing their Geology Assessment.  As I met with students individually regarding their performance on the assessment, the others worked on their timeline.  All seemed to be going well, for a while.  Then, my co-teacher noticed that the students seemed to have forgotten everything they learned about problem solving and persevering from earlier in the year.  While I was conducting mini-lessons with students regarding the geology concepts they struggled with on the assessment, my amazing co-teacher was bombarded with questions such as, “How do I do this?  I don’t understand how to use this program?  Where do I go to find the answer?”  Despite spending months introducing problem-solving strategies and having the students practice how to solve problems on their own, it was as if the students had stepped into the wayback machine and returned to September of 2015.

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What was going on?  Why were they not able to solve their own, easy, problems?  The activity outline explained everything they needed to do and know.  So, then why did they seem to struggle so much?  What caused their confusion?  They couldn’t navigate through a very simple website that I introduced and explained to them in class last week.  Although the website resource contained all of the information they needed to include in their timeline, they still didn’t understand where to find some of the information.  It was like they were in a dark room without a flashlight, looking for a speck of dust that might be in the room.  They reached at nothing and seemed to get very frustrated quickly.  Why?  They know how to navigate websites and think critically about problems encountered.  We’ve practiced these skills on numerous occasions and they’ve even all been assessed on their ability to meet the two learning objectives.  So, then what on Earth was going on in class today?  Was it the strange weather?  Was it because I was meeting with students regarding the geology assessment and so couldn’t help my co-teacher address all of the students?  Or were they hungry?  It was very close to lunch time?  Maybe that was it?

All good guesses, but my hypothesis is that what we saw in the classroom today is a bit of learning regression.  It’s part of the process of learning.  When old skills are applied to new activities, sometimes, the students struggle making the neurological connections between the previously learned skill and the new, different task.  After a few days of digging into this project, I’m sure they will have very little difficulty solving problems they encounter.  Having learned about this concept of learning regression, I was still baffled by what had happened in the classroom today.  It now makes so much sense to me.  They were supposed to struggle in order to continue to grow and develop as students, critical thinkers, and problem solvers.

Assessing Students’ Ability to Follow Directions

I find directions to be tedious and unnecessary.  When crafting furniture purchased from IKEA, I can’t understand the limited directions provided and so I usually figure out how to construct the piece on my own.  This of course generally results in me incorrectly assembling it.  Sometimes, the directions are too specific or confusing and so I end up choosing one step to start with instead of trying to problem solve and critically analyze the instructions.  I almost never follow all of the steps for instructions when building something as step one seems like a waste of time: Inspect all parts to be sure you have all necessary materials.  While this is clearly a critical step, I always skip it.  This of course has lead me to build something and then find that I’m missing a part.  That’s very frustrating.  You think that I would have learned by now the importance of following directions.  But no, I haven’t.  I still skip steps, ignore directions, and generally do my own thing when building something store bought.  I should really practice what I preach in the classroom.

In the sixth grade, we emphasize the importance of following directions.  However, we don’t grade or assess our students on this objective.  After today’s quick Exit Ticket activity in STEM Class, I’m beginning to rethink my stance on that.  I purposely crafted an assessment regarding inequalities with one specific instruction: When finished, turn into the teacher and use the app Sumdog on your iPad.  Simple enough directions.  I did not explain how to complete the assessment, but instead reminded the boys of the importance of following directions.  I said, “Be sure to closely read and follow the directions.”  Three quarters of the students did not read the instructions and didn’t know what to do when they finished.  I had to remind them all to read the directions.  This was very frustrating.

I’ve also found that the students are not reading and following directions regarding their assigned math unit either.  Instead of just reading and discussing with a partner the practice questions in each lesson, they are completing all of the sample questions in their Math Notebook.  This is wasting their time and preventing them from progressing through the unit.  This too is very frustrating as I remind them every day to read and follow the directions on their Haiku page.

I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of reading and following directions to no avail.  I modelled the process once in class.  This didn’t seem to help.  So, I feel as though I have only one option remaining to hit home the purpose of directions: I will add the objective of effectively following directions to the next assessment or project and see what happens.  Will they more carefully complete the work because they know they are being graded on following the directions?  Or will grading them on this new objective not make any difference in the outcome?  At this point, I’m willing to try anything.