Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is It More Than Just Not Following Directions?

Consider these two scenarios:

1) You instruct your students on a graphing assignment. Find the number of times each selected letter is used in the word, and graph the chart accordingly. You hand out the worksheets and tell them to get started. As you walk around the room, you see one student doing the graph incorrectly. You walk by, remind him of the assignment, and continue to monitor the classroom as a whole. You walk by again. His graph still looks wrong. You ask him if he heard the assignment. He says, "Yes, we need to graph the letters in this word." She walks along. This is repeated three times. When time is up, you collect the worksheets for grading. His paper is completely incorrect.

2) You instruct your students on a letter assignment. Look at the picture, and write the beginning letter sound on the paper. When you review the children's work, you see the same student continuously writing the wrong letter sound, yet you know that child knows his alphabet. He can review them orally with you and identify them just fine. His paper is completely incorrect.

Why do these two students appear to never follow directions? You explained the assignments. You reminded them of the instructions. The first student even repeated the instructions back to you! You know they understand the concepts of the work. Clearly they just don't follow directions. Right? Wrong.

Look closely at the "incorrect" work. Study the graph that the first student completed. Instead of charting vertically, he charted horizontally. Now look at the second student. This student also happens to be in ESL. The picture was a dog. Dog starts with D. But Perro (the Spanish word for dog) starts with a P. He wrote P.

The issue was not a matter of NOT following directions. The issue becomes what the child interprets in correlation with what you are trying to teach.

In today's current standards of testing, large curriculum, and time constraints on top of it all, it's not just a black and white, right or wrong answer. Do we figure out the cause of their answers, or do we assume they didn't listen to what we instructed them to do? By figuring out how their minds work, we can successfully teach them the concepts that they need to progress.  It's a great reminder to take a step back, assess each student individually, and ensure those general instructions are being comprehended by everyone in that classroom. It will only make you a better teacher.


  1. This story is a great example of how people bring something of themselves to the conversation. Just like when we read. We first extract the meaning then reconstruct it for our own purposes. The other thing that struck me about your post is how it illustrates the importance of teachers being sensitive to cultural differences. Many students today bring culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds with them to our classrooms. We have to appreciate and build on those skills to have them succeed.

  2. I have done some neuroscience research in relation to my career as an educator. Some students can perform well in all areas and still have some trouble seemingly with directions. It really is important to understand how the mind works in order to be best able to help our students.
    It is actually a matter of brain multi-tasking and overload. Humans are born with their language-centers in the left hemisphere of the brain. Shortly after birth, the language center moves to the left hemisphere where it remains. In some cases, this does not happen and the brain remains in the right hemisphere. This creates a larger distance between where we hear, where we process what we hear, and how we interpret and react to what we hear. This small addition of distance is all it takes to create "brain overload" and can manifest itself in a number of ways. One of the most common ways is ADD- a child appearing not to listen or follow directions. What is actually happening is that there is so much information or "traffic" that the brain cannot process all of it- immediate memory runs out before the information has been processed. The child never had a chance to convert it into working or long-term memory.
    There is program at Harvard that is run by our friend, the Great Howard Gardner, called Mind-Brain Education. It encompasses special education, neuroscience, and psychology. The better we can understand our students developmentally, neurologically and psychologically, the more equipped we are teach them as individuals.