May 18, 2011

Fewer instructions, better structures


In schools and in 'educational' media created for young people, the adults always give too many instructions rather than investing in better structures for thinking.

Gever and I ran a session together today at INPlay where we wanted to take educators, games designers and media producers through the experience of being a learner again, learning how, not what, and hopefully gaining more empathy for the five year olds for whom they design media products.

We kicked off with some structured constrained activity, but with no knowledge of what the final result looks like, using John Davitt's LEG to find loosely structured activity for our delegates. The picture above shows one group doing "A 12 Bar Blues as a Mind Map", but harnessing filled glasses of water, laid out to create a blues tune when struck in sequence with a spoon.

We then asked the producers to conceive of a new experience, rather than an educational product, concentrating for 8 out of 10 minutes on experience, and only at the last moment working with the idea on what it might teach a youngster. It was hard for teams not to slip into the habit of tying things to curriculum-filling exercises, but there were some genius kernels of ideas generated after teams concentrated on empathising with what it feels like to be a four/five year old wanting a great engaging experience, first and foremost.

Our goals?

  • Encourage people to design experiences, not lessons.
  • Encourage people to speak less. Poorly reviewed games on the app store invariably have too much speaking in them, too many instructions and hints. Poor classrooms feature too much teacher-talk.
  • Producers and educators could experiment with concentrating first and foremost on quality of engagement and experience, only second of all on what content is being sought to be learned.
  • Producers and educators should invest more their time empathising, observing and asking young people what makes them tick, what experiences engage them and then co-design learning solutions to that, rather than pulling young people in to 'test' games or experiences after they have been designed by the adults (or co-designing lesson plans rather than being subjected to the planned lesson after the fact).
  • There is a difference between instruction and structure. Kids do not need instructions - games like Sesame Street's A-to-Zoo have so much instruction it turns kids off sharp: try it for yourself, below:

What works better for young people and creative designers alike, is not instruction from on high (with a degree of tacit pre-task knowledge of the outcome already in the teacher's mind - and quite possibly the learners') but structures within which the learning journey, or game, can play itself out.

Structures for learning include formative assessment tools, good questioning, the use of learning logs to chart learning and what learning direction the student thinks they need next, design thinking structures, or Gever's Brightworks learning arc structure.

With these last two structures the name of the game is divergence of thought and investigation. It's only having explored a large amount of content that the learner creates their plan for what they will construct from it. This doesn't work if the teacher feels the need to organise it, to direct, to instruct. It only works if the youngster is free within the confines of a structure.

Is there a difference between instruction and structure? I think so, but am amazed that until now I hadn't discovered much appetite for exploring the difference between these terms, and these approaches, in the world of game design, media production and, vitally, teaching and learning/instruction/schooling/education.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi Ewan,
I enjoyed reading this, especially the goals. I like the connections that you have made between educators, game designers and media producers. I think as educators it is important to create/design engaging experiences for our students that allow them to discover, investigate and problem solve. I'll be thinking about this while I reflect on creating a more engaging atmosphere in my classroom. Thanks!

I think you hit on something particularly important that so many people seem to miss. We all know that engagement increases learning, but research shows that engagement is first developed as an emotional response - a connection.

You said it brilliantly, "Producers and educators should invest more of their time empathising..."

This is going to sound funny, but going to film school made me a better educator. Watch your favorite movie and see how the first act unfolds. They:
1) Introduce the environment
2) Connect the audience to the characters
3) Introduce the rules of the world

It's the same in the classroom. You don't explain the rules until after the connection.

(Also, so sad I didn't make it to INPlay and to your talk, word on the street is that it was fantastic.)

This is really interesting Ewan. When I first started teaching I was quite critical of structures. I was introduced to Kagan Co-operative learning structures, and at first really didn't like them as they seemed very rigid. However, I have found that embedding structures in activities actually underpins them, and then all of the effort can be put into exploring the actual learning rather than giving instructions. Taking the time to explicitly discuss and embed these structures can take a while, but saves so much time and thinking later on.

I love the concept of designing learning experience rather than 'lessons', and just as we decide in our planning when it is appropriate to deploy resources such as ICT, I wonder if we should look at when it is appropriate to deploy adult intervention rather than assuming this is always needed in the form of giving instructions and keeping learners 'on track'.

Thanks for the food for thought, sounds like a great session!

Great post. Makes me think of the Maya Angelou quote, "people will forget what you said, forget what you did, but will never forget how you make them feel."

I try and have this in mind in my teaching and my daily life, but it could be so much more powerful to embed it in the learning process, not just in the classroom environment.

Thanks all for your comments and quotes. It's reassuring to see that people I admire also find it challenging to work this way. Not easy, but worth it. What we have to do is find a way to pave that path more clearly for people who want to walk down it.

I like the goals behind the educative sessions.It is often a great value that designers put themselves in the shoes of their market consumers and see how their creations work to their benefit.
Great work Ewan
African Holidays

Ewan, thanks for the great post. I like your goals. "Encourage people to design experiences, not lessons" - the learning I remember most from childhood always involves experiencing rather than what came out of the mouths of the instructors. Talking is not always the best way to teach, especially with the younger ones. Get them started learning on the right foot by encouraging them to think for themselves, to come up with solutions or creations that we could maybe even learn from ourselves if we but listen and watch. Thank you.

Hi Ewan,

Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check for comments.

Please feel free to post there when you have anything you'd like to share that you think is relevant for ESL/EFL teachers.



The comments to this entry are closed.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

Recent Posts