The post where I remind myself that written instructions for computer tasks stink.

It’s not so much that I can’t follow written instructions. I’m human and I miss steps occasionally, but with everything written down, it’s easy to retrace steps and figure out where I went wrong if I did miss something. The big issue is that written instructions are not the best way to show someone how to do something. Text is good for some specific things, but defining steps for completing a task on a computer is not one of them.

Today I showed my students the following video at the start of class.

I also gave them this image on the handout, which I wrote last year, but students only marginally followed:
Screen Shot 2013-02-27 at 5.53.31 PM

It was remarkable how this simple change to delivery made the whole class really fun to manage today.

  • Students saw exactly what I wanted them to produce, and how to produce it.
  • The arrows in the video identified one of the vocabulary words from previous lessons as it appeared on screen.
  • My ESOL students were keeping up (if not outpacing) the rest of the class.
  • The black boxes introduced both the ideas of what I wanted them to investigate using Geogebra, and simultaneously teased them to make their own guesses about what was hidden. They had theories immediately, and they knew that I wanted them to figure out what was hidden through the activity described in the video. Compare this to the awkwardness of doing so through text, where they have to guess both what I am looking for, but what it might look like. You could easily argue this is on the wrong side of abstraction.
  • I spent the class going around monitoring progress and having conversations. Not a word of whole-class direct instruction for the fifty minutes of class that followed showing the video. Some students I directed to algebraic exercises to apply their observations. Others I encouraged to start proofs of their theorems. Easy differentiation for the different levels of students in the room.

Considering how long I sometimes spend writing unambiguous instructions for an exploration, and then the heartbreak involved when I inevitably leave out a crucial element, I could easily be convinced not to try anymore.

One student on a survey last year critiqued my use of Geogebra explorations saying that it wasn’t always clear what the goal was, even when I wrote it on the paper. These exploratory tasks are different enough and more demanding than sitting and watching example problems, and require a bit more selling for students to buy into them being productive and useful. These tasks need to quickly define themselves, and as Dan Meyer suggests, get out of the way so that discovery and learning happens as soon as possible.

Today was a perfect example of how much I have repeatedly shot myself in the foot during previous lessons trying to establish a valid context for these tasks through written instructions. The gimmick of hiding information from students is not the point – yes there was some novelty factor here that may have led to them getting straight to work as they did today. This was all about clear communication of objectives and process, and that was the real power of what transpired today.


Filed under geogebra, geometry, reflection

4 responses to “The post where I remind myself that written instructions for computer tasks stink.

  1. this is great and something i can use in my own classes. how did you make the video of geogebra? i am only just embarking on using more tech in my lessons since our school is relatively tech-poor.

  2. Or maybe written instructions of visual objects are hard for anyone to follow? Whenever I print out the instructions for Google Maps for directions to somewhere (when I know I’m not going to have Internet access for some reason), I make sure to print both the map and the instructions and ideally, the little mini-maps for each step of the way. I find it awfully hard to navigate by just steps written in text alone…

    • It’s true that there is some additional processing involved switching from written instructions and the visual inputs and outputs they describe – maybe it is always difficult. I know in the case you described, I don’t want written instructions – I need to see it in order to visualize which way I am turning. I prefer, however, to have a person (if I am lucky enough to have a navigator) tell me which way to go rather than show me the map.

      The biggest piece to focus on when deciding what medium to use is where (if anywhere) you want the maximum processing power to be spent. Text instructions require that a substantial portion be devoted to reading and processing the text, and then reacting to the information it contains. That often leaves little remaining processing power to figuring things out. Easiest way to shift the load is to reduce the words and do things visually.

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