394. Directions

We ask children to read the directions at the top of a worksheet before doing the worksheet. We stress how important it is to read those directions. I remember teachers telling us again and again about a worksheet that didn’t even have to be done if you followed directions closely; the beginning said, “Read this entire worksheet before you begin,” and the last sentence said, “Only do problem #1.” Teachers who told us about that seemed to think it was clever, but I thought it was just plain mean.
Teachers and other people who write directions often forget that communicating directions is a two-way street – that the person who writes directions also has a responsibility. If directions are written in a way that takes readers into account, they’re much more likely to yield the desired effect. That’s why instructions for putting items together are often written in several languages; the people who sell the items want satisfied customers. It’s good for business.
As a teacher, I often wrote directions too quickly. I had other things to do, and I didn’t have time to think about how different children would interpret my directions. Most of them spoke English, so I thought they could figure out what I meant if they took the time. I gradually learned that it wasn’t enough to be able to speak English – that even English-speaking people who read my directions sometimes had difficulty understanding them.
Some teachers and some producers of educational materials explain directions well, but many, like me, don’t do so consistently. And there’s a strong tendency for us to think we do; after all, we know what we mean, so why shouldn’t everyone else? And so we often prematurely decide that the people we teach just have to do a better job reading and following our directions. We’re not at fault, we think; they’re just lazy and careless. In effect, we pass the buck.
I once bought a computer desk from a company that routinely offered to send someone to put the desk together for an extra charge. I wondered why. I knew how to read. I supposed that they made the offer to help people who couldn’t read, or didn’t want to. But when I got the unassembled desk home, I read the directions, and they made no sense to me. I gave the task my best effort, then, in frustration, called the company and agreed to pay someone to assemble the desk for me.
Maybe I’m not as good at reading and following directions as I think I am; maybe I ought to take responsibility for my problem. But it’s also possible that the people who wrote the directions could have written them more clearly. And so can we producers of educational materials. Good communication requires skill at both ends.

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