Hey Kids – Follow the Directions!


by Aaron Vanderwerff -

Four years ago at a Young Makers meeting, a parent-mentor told the group, “Following directions is not making.” When I recently saw the same sentiment on a post or tweet, it made me think about our practice at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab and when following directions is making.

We can place most making projects & activities on a spectrum from step-by-step to completely open-ended (similar to a spectrum of inquiry) and we choose where the learning activity falls based on what we want students to learn and student prior understanding and experience. My instinct is to always push towards open-ended student driven projects, but there are times when following directions can be powerful.

In that first year of our maker program, I knew that many of my student groups would be following directions from tutorials or magazines because they had never been asked to create a project of their own vision before. They had trouble even conceptualizing what was possible.

When my daughter first started playing with Legos around age 2, I purposefully didn’t give her any directions. I wanted to hold off on directions so that she wouldn’t come to rely on them, thinking that the more I could encourage her to free build, the more likely she would apply this mentality to the world around her. And, so far, the plan seems to be working. Then and now she builds towers, vehicles, spaceships, sculptures, and buildings all while telling intricate stories about what was happening (and using minifig heads as structural components).

Lego treehouse

Then at about three-and-a-half she received a kit and wanted to build the mining truck on the front of the box. I tried to stay out of it; only helping her align what she was building to the picture in the instructions when she got stuck. What did she get out of this experience? First of all – pride. She was extremely proud to have built the mining truck just like the one in the picture. Second, watching her work through the directions, she was clearly developing her precision and spatial thinking.

How does this apply at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab? We try to make the project’s place on the continuum from step-to-step to complete autonomy match its educational purpose. 

Building a wind turbine

Our Physics students build wind turbines  based on a specific design – meaning all students work from the same directions.  One of our goals is that five years from now students remember magnet, coil of wire, motion = electricity.  Just building the turbine helps with that. But we also want them to experience a more open-ended, process-based aspect, so we ask them to make it better.  But even if they were just building the turbine itself, they are still learning core Physics content, building skills, learning the importance of precision, and developing persistence.

In our high school making elective, students start the year with skill builders that involve following a lot of directions: they make a chair (woodworking), a pillow (sewing), a circuit board (soldering), and play around with Arduino (programming and circuits).  The core goal in all of these projects is to build student confidence and comfort in each of these areas so that when they undertake their independent project, they will venture outside of their initial comfort zone.

Working on chair

The circuit board is a step-by-step process students follow exactly, but after only a few class sessions, they are decent solderers and much more knowledgeable and comfortable with electronic components.  Working with Arduino is a move away from this step-by-step.  We ask students to move through the existing Arduino example code and tutorials so they learn how to find references. Then they engage in an Instructables Arduino project to experience all the issues that come with following someone else’s directions to do something new, because it turns out that following directions is not always easy.

Ideally students should be able to move fluidly between referencing directions and moving forward with their own vision. Like in the Arduino projects, I want students to know how to find a tutorial, video, or other reference to get started and then take the project in their own direction.

So is following directions making?  It can be.  When students use directions to get started, they build confidence and learn perseverance and precision that will take them beyond the directions. When we find that students are afraid to leave the directions, it’s our job to nudge them into their own creating.



Heather Pang's picture

Aaron, this is a very important post. While I love big open ended projects, following the directions can be just the right thing, especially when teaching skills and building confidence. And, I hate to say it, but following directions is a skill. When we think about preparing students for life, learning how and when to follow the instructions (filling out your tax form, taking your driver test, cooking a souffle) is a great skill to have.

Tracy Rudzitis's picture

My students have just started working on their circuits/electricity projects. I deliberatively framed the project in a way where students first responded to a broad prompt "I want to make something that.." so they can make a connection to something that is interesting to them. After reviewing project ideas I point the student to a shared folder that contains different sets of instructions they can look through and figure out what they can use. Some students will use these instructions as an inspiration, some will "mod" the instructions to fit their needs, while others with less experience or confidence in making will follow through step by step. 

I have found typically in school many students don't follow instructions carefully, much to the frustration of their teachers! It will be interesting to me me to observe what happens as students work through their ideas. Is there a "kind of instruction" that is easier for students to follow? There are at least 5 or 6 students who are working from ideas in Super Awesome Sylvia's book, some are following handouts I have created, and some from more complex sources. Instructables is a fantastic resource for many ideas.

Of course, I am there to help and to guide through any questions. It isn't as if the students are working in a vacuum and have to tough it out. There are often other students doing similar projects or with some experience. One of the products I hope to have from this assignment are some instructions and directions from the students on how to make their projects! I teach 300 students, this should be interesting!

Keith Ostfeld's picture

Cannot agree more. We created an exhibit called Instructables: Made in Your Mind. The idea is to provide our visitors with step-by-step instructions to complete projects in order to help kids build essential skills and material knowledge that they can then apply to other projects in the future. We had several people claim that we weren't "making" since 1) we had instructions and 2) we weren't doing much with electronics. Glad to see that I'm not the only person that feels that these sorts of projects are an essential part of building our future makers!

Matthew Dillon's picture

Great points Aaron. Our Lab is new this year and so for a lot of our kids, it's the first "maker" experience. One of the biggest hits...cardboard. They love to make things from scratch...they cut, tape, glue, draw, color, and something is made without any directions. On the other side, our laser cutter gets a lot of work too. But althought they might be have their own idea, they have to follow "directions" for the software and cutter. 

Just because you follow directions, doen't mean your aren't making.