Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Directions

The Shanghai Metro website is terrific: you can look up stops, fares from point to point, in nearly-flawless English.  But while doing some browsing I came across the instructions you see at right.  In case you're having trouble reading the image, they are:

Take the Metro

  1. get into the station
  2. buy the tickets
  3. move to the platform through turnstile with ticket
  4. wait for the train
  5. get on the train
  6. get off the train
  7. move out of the platform through turnstile with ticket
  8. get out of the station
What struck me as funny about these instructions was that I couldn't figure out who they might be for.  I mean, if you can't figure out that after going through the turnstile, you have to wait for the train, what use is that instruction going to be?  I could imagine one of our students with autism using these kinds of instructions ... but also with lots of practice and review.  What I can't imagine is someone who really needs these instructions being able to go on the web, download them, and then use them to actually successfully navigate the subway.  Anyone who can do all that can probably figure out the subway.

To be fair, another page on the Shanghai Metro website gives really helpful, step-by-step directions with warnings and pictures.  It's still a little funny to me to think of someone needing to be told things like:


but I can imagine saying them, so I guess it's worthwhile.  (And the instructions for using the ticket machines are actually excellent.)

But I was left wondering how often we as teachers make this exact same mistake, namely, give directions that would only be useful for people who don't really need them.  For example, when we "teach" kids to write research papers ("teach" being a term I use loosely in this context), we often say things like:
Step 1: Identify a topic.  Pick something that interests you that you can write about.
Step 2: Research the topic.  Keep track of your sources so that you can footnote them in your text.
I'm being a little facetious here, but not very.  Instruction about selecting a topic might include some platitudes about not being too broad or too narrow, but how often do teachers actually sit with each kid and talk about the topic for 3-5 minutes to help the kid learn what is too broad or too narrow, and how to widen, narrow, or pivot the scope?  We teach the mechanics of how to research ("This is how you use the online database" "This is the card catalog") but do we actually model the process of finding a source and using it to find others, or to supply background knowledge, or questions for further inquiry?   Do we model the process of constructing a paragraph in which information from two different sources is combined in a synthetic way, so that students can actually see the difference between copy-paste and genuine research?

The same is true about other kinds of products.  I've never yet seen an elementary school teacher workshop students' written fiction.  Neither of my children has actually designed an experiment in science class.  These challenging processes require actual instruction--not just assessment--as much as any other.  We need to be sure that the directions we give are useful to the students receiving them.