How do you write really good instructions? Lego versus Meccano


If you’ve read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, you’ll know that one of the questions that Sophie receives during her mysterious philosophical journey is this:

  • “Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?”

The writer didn’t ask why Meccano was the most ingenious toy.

And clearly, the answer has to do with the creativity that Lego inspires. But I also think part of the ingenuity of lego is to do with the instructions.

I should declare my biases up front. I’m 45 and I’ve been playing with Lego for a long time.

This includes for the last 17 years with three kids. Two girls and a boy. In this time I’ve tried a handful of Meccano projects compared with countless lego kits including Duplo.

Meccano, if you don’t know, predates Lego. My Dad grew up with Meccano before they invented Lego.

Think nuts and bolts and metal struts. Except now it’s plastic.

Meccano used to be the bomb. At least in 1950. Or something. But man… now Lego is the bomb. Lego rules over Meccano.

And not just in terms of versatility. I’m talking about how they write instructions.

Giving clear instructions is really hard. You’ll know this if you’ve ever had to follow anyone else’s.

First off though, you have to pitch your instructions at the right level. And that means you need to know who you’re writing to. The audience in other words.

Lego totally nails this. I have total confidence that if I buy a Lego kit that says for age 8 to 10 it will absolutely work for this age group.

The Meccano set my wife came home with the other day was for my son.

He’s just turned eight. Which seemed perfect because that’s what the kit said on the packet. For 8 years old.

Normally, he can concentrate for hours on stuff like Lego. And to give him credit, he persisted for a decent amount of time.

But eventually, he gave up in frustration. There were tears… there were raised voices… Crying etc.

So I gave it a go the other day. The outcome was basically the same.

Not only would I need four hands to complete the task, it was like I couldn’t understand the instructions and there seemed to be pieces missing or that didn’t match.

Comparatively speaking, there is no comparison. Granted, it’s not all about the instructions.

But if you want to learn how to write instructions, you need to go no further than the Lego best practice playbook which must read something like this:

  1. Understand the audience.
  2. Pitch the instructions at their level.
  3. Use colour, diagrams, images.
  4. Include all the resources the audience needs.
  5. Use words only when necessary.
  6. Love the product.

How do you develop embedded numeracy learning outcomes that are relevant to trades tutors?

painting area

Recently, we did some work around developing learning outcomes with group that had a lot of painters and plasterers in it. This is a summary of my notes relating to how, as a group, we developed a draft learning outcome for an embedded approach to some very specific numeracy skills around measurement and area.

We also looked at what sample diagnostic questions might look like as well as ideas for a short teaching sequence.

I’ve written about embedded learning outcomes before here if this interests you or you need more detail on how we suggest that you write them.

Write the embedded numeracy learning outcome

Based on the needs of the group and their learners (who were working towards trades qualifications in painting and plastering) we came up with this:

  • Estimate and calculate the area of a rectangle in the context of working out the amount of paint needed for a wall.

Unpack the calculation

In order to unpack a calculation we asked the following question as part of a group discussion:

  • What do I need to know in order to do this?

Here’s a summary of what we brainstormed. Learners would need to know how to:

  1. Estimate and measure length in metres.
  2. Understand that area is measured in square metres.
  3. Know how to estimate the area of a wall in square metres.
  4. Understand and apply the knowledge that to find the area of a rectangle you multiply the length of one side by the other.
  5. Multiply numbers with decimals.

Develop some diagnostic questions

Once we determined what the outcome was that we wanted to achieve and what some of the key underpinning knowledge was, we needed to develop some brief diagnostic questions and activities to figure out what the learners actually knew.

The idea was that the tutors and trainers would use these as their pre and post assessments around the actual teaching component. These aren’t necessarily perfect, but here’s what we came up with and feel free to adapt or modify:

  1. Estimate the length of a wall.
  2. Measure the length of a wall.
  3. Draw a square metre on the wall or workshop floor.
  4. Estimate the area of the wall.
  5. Answer these questions
    1. 2 x 4 =
    2. 2.4 x 3 =
    3. 24 x 30 =
  6. Find the area of this rectangle:

3mx2m rect.001


Develop some teaching activities

Here’s a teaching sequence below that we came up with based on the needs of the painters and plasterers in the group. You could also adapt this to many other contexts where area is important, for example carpentry, joinery, engineering, horticulture, and farming.

  1. Start with an interactive discussion designed to activate learners’ prior knowledge about measurement and area and why it’s important to the job of painting and plastering.
    • The point here is to get people talking about what they already know and what, if any experience, they might have estimating, measuring, or calculating area.
    • It could be useful to formulate a discussion question (or a series of questions) prior to the teaching. For example, “Who has had to try and work out the amount paint needed for a job? Did you get it right? What happened? Why is it important to check your estimates? What happens when you get it wrong? Why would your boss care about this?”
  2. Do some teaching around estimating and measuring length.
    • This could start with some work around common benchmarks for length, then move on to checking that learners know the correct way to use a tape measure for measuring length in metres, and conclude with learners practising estimating then measuring accessible objects, shapes, and spaces in the workshop, classroom, or training space.
  3. Do some teaching around estimating, measuring, and calculating area using decimals including with a calculator.
    • This could start with some work around using square units of any kind, e.g. on paper grids so that they have to count and then calculate the number of square units need to cover different shapes and areas. Then learners could estimate the area of a large door or table in square metres and share their estimations. You could follow this up by measuring with tape measure, doing the area calculations, and discussion relevant fractions you need to cover the shape.

Feel free to improve on this… Let me know in the comments. Hat tip to Janet Hogan for leading this workshop activity.

Calling all Literacy Numeracy Professionals…


I’ve been turning this over in my mind for a while… I’m not sure whether there are so many opportunities for this, but having worked in such a narrow area of education since 2007 I feel that I’ve now got a fairly sharp lens through which to analyse certain kinds of training.

This is particularly for programmes that have (or are supposed to have) an embedded literacy and numeracy component. I was lucky enough to experiment with some of these ideas this week with one of my clients. 

I think that I’ve got the basics of a framework that I could apply in a whole range of situations and parts of this draw from the specific NCALNE (Voc) work that I’ve been doing over the years (and will continue to do).

There are several dimensions to this framework and they go something like this:

Evaluative Questions

This is the same idea behind the NZQA’s external evaluation and review (EER) approach, but my questions are much more specific to embedded literacy and numeracy. For example:

  1. Context: How are you contextualising this training to the needs of your learners? And how well are you contextualising it?
  2. Principles: What is the approach to embedded literacy and numeracy that underpins your design and delivery? What principles of adult teaching and learning underpin your training?
  3. Process: How are you embedding literacy and numeracy into all aspects of your design and delivery? What about with regards to needs analysis, diagnostic assessment, learning design, materials and resource design, training, assessment, and evaluation?
  4. Practices: What are the embedded literacy and numeracy practices that your trainers and tutors use and model? How explicit or visible are they? What are the embedded literacy and numeracy practices and observable behaviours that you expect to see in your learners? And what do you actually see and observe? 
  5. Product: How do you measure the success of the final output? For example, when the programme is complete what are the critical success factors that allow you to compare this programme against another? This includes business related factors (e.g. was this repeat business with a previously satisfied customer) or educational factors (e.g. learners scores improved significantly on the assessments.

I think that an organisation could use this framework to benchmark programmes internally. Currently, the tertiary environment doesn’t support or reward organisations for benchmarking externally. However, this kind of framework could be a start, and at least companies could customise the different dimensions to suit their own culture and context.

There’s one other part to this though…

A register of credentialed embedded literacy and numeracy trainers

Here I’m thinking of an external quality mark which has nothing to do with NZQA. I’ve written about this idea before. Basically, my idea would be as follows:

  • It’s voluntary.
  • It’s free or cheap to join.
  • You join as a trainer or tutor.
  • You have to meet some minimum criteria including NCALNE (Voc) credentials.
  • You have to be actively working to embed literacy and numeracy into some context.
  • You could join on a number of different tiers (working towards meeting the criteria, attaining the minimum criteria to register, and then exceeding the criteria because of extra work or study that relates).
  • You have to renew your membership yearly.
  • Organisations could join too, but only on the basis that they have tutors or trainers who have met the criteria. For example, a company or organisation with a full cohort of staff that meets the ALEC “Good Tutor” profile could then apply to join under this criteria. Or if not a whole organisation, then perhaps a particular department within an organisation.

This would allow tutors and trainers to benchmark themselves against others and some kind of recognised standard. And it would allow organisations to benchmark themselves against others. E.g. Organisation A has 10 tutors who all meet the Good Tutor profile in a particular academic year versus Organisation B who have 5 tutors who are working towards this as a goal.

Having data on which tutors and trainers see themselves as active in the field of embedded literacy and numeracy could also help us drive more effective and ongoing professional development as we’d have a database of engaged users to survey in terms of what they need to stay engaged and keep developing.

Would you join?


Designing embedded literacy project work for independent learning – the rough idea


I’ve got this idea for integrating the assessment requirements for the 10 credits worth of literacy unit standards together with highly focused topics or content in an inquiry project that learners can complete (mostly) independently.

The three unit standards are:

  • Unit Standard 26622: Write to communicate ideas for a purpose and audience (Level 1, Credits 4)
  • Unit Standard 26624: Read texts with understanding (Level 1, Credits 3)
  • Unit Standard 26625: Actively participate in spoken interactions (Level 1, Credits 3)

These unit standards are not the same as the literacy achievement standards. However, they count for credit just the same and are designed for embedding into other content areas.

There are four phases to work through… This isn’t fully formed yet, and this probably sounds more complicated than what I mean, but the basic outline is below:

Kicking off the project

  1. The tutor and learner negotiate an area of interest, or alternatively the tutor assigns a specific topic or narrowly defined content area relevant to their general course of study. If required the tutor could formalise this into an embedded literacy learning outcome.
  2. The tutor then assigns a couple of key readings texts that relate to this area. Highly motivated learners may be able to negotiate this content as well. However, the tutor will need to ensure that the reading texts are at or above step 4 in the literacy progressions.
  3. If necessary, the tutor administers some kind of vocabulary pre-assessment. This is to pick up on any key words that the learner might not know (but need) to comprehend the text. For more advanced learners, the focus here would be on the specialised or technical language that the text might be using. A simple pre-assessment might just require the learner to identify unknown words. A more sophisticated pre-assessment could require the tutor to develop something like a 2- item cloze test or similar. I’ll probably have a list of ideas or guidelines for vocabulary pre-assessment.
  4. To lead into to the project work, the learner and tutor may need to have some kind of interactive discussion to draw out or establish prior knowledge about the content area and to front-load any relevant new vocabulary and concepts. This lead in could also involve other literacy activities as required to get things rolling. I’ll probably have a list of ideas here as well for front-loading vocabulary that people can select from if its needed.

Clarifying the output

  1. Before the learner starts the independent project. The tutor will need to clarify the end products or output for assessment or portfolio purposes
  2. The output is going to be something like this for the learner:
    • Read and make notes on at least two key texts according to the checklists and templates supplied.
    • Write at least 200 words to summarise the learning according to some kind of writing frame and checklists, e.g. mini research report, opinion piece, book or film review
    • One of the issues in moderation is going to be the authenticity of the writing. So, if required, I think we can give this a boost by publishing the writing to a learner blog.

First reading

  1. First, there will be some details for the learner to complete in a digital coversheet to record the text name, author, source, and purposes for reading and writing. This is necessary for the unit standard evidence, even though it feels a little contrived.
  2. Then they’ll need to make a written prediction on what they think the text is going to contain. This will also be another opportunity for the tutor or learner to make notes on any other information that they might need to comprehend the text.
  3. As they read the first time they’ll need to complete the following tasks:
    • Identify any other new or unknown words.
    • Find or highlight important ideas or items from a list including things like dates, time, places, people, etc.
    • The intention here is that the learner will identify a range of things that are explicit in the text and then make notes on a few of them.

Second reading

  1. On the second pass, the learner will need to start looking for and thinking some of the more implicit ideas that the text contains.
  2. This is where it gets tricky. I want to create a generic template that anyone can adapt to their own specific content areas. What I don’t want to do is get into lots of materials development that is specific to the actual content. So here I’ll probably have a list of prompts for the learner to get started from, e.g. “Why do you think…? What’s your opinion of…” Still thinking that part through.
  3. Following on from that the learner will need to discuss the author’s purpose, e.g. “Why do you think the writer wrote this…? or something similar.
  4. The final part here will require the learner to evaluate the text in terms of their own purpose for at least one of usefulness, interest, validity, or credibility. Again, these are evidence requirements for the respective standards.
  5. The learner will repeat this reading and note taking process for a second text.
  6. The learner’s notes and cover sheet are (scanned if handwritten and) uploaded to an electronic portfolio accessible by learner and tutor.

Writing up

  1. The tutor then supplies a text frame that suits the writing purpose, perhaps together with a model answer, e.g. a mini-research report with a section on reporting back key facts and an opinion section (or other content based on the implicit ideas found in the text).
  2. The learner then works through and produces evidence for the different steps in the writing process (plan, compose, revise, edit, produce final version) for their own report or written text. This evidence can be handwritten using the templates supplied, but the final version will need to be digital – either a digital document of some kind (e.g. Google Doc) and/or something like a blog post.
  3. I’ll probably produce an editing guide for learners to use as a checklist when self editing the drafts.
  4. All of the planning and composing evidence along with the final digital version is uploaded to the electronic portfolio.
  5. If required, the final digital version can be uploaded to a blog or other online media and published.


  1. Finally, if it’s required, regular assessment procedures can kick in.
  2. Because the goal is to develop an extensive portfolio of reading and writing evidence, not every piece of evidence necessarily needs formal assessment.

The idea is that a generic template along these lines could be adapted to almost any topic or subject area where embedded literacy is required. Once learners got the hang of it, it would get easier with each repetition of the cycle.

This is just a rough outline… any comments or feedback welcome as always.





How to not suck at powerpoint, keynote or any slideshow? Follow this 1 rule

How not to suck at powerpoint


Fight against documents pretending to be powerpoint slides

This is a personal peeve of mine… And I know I’m guilty of breaking this rule. However, I see such badly put together slideshows sometimes that I feel I have to take a public stand.

And this is especially the case because I work in education, and more specifically in a field where the so-called experts should know better.

The 1 rule

Here it is in a nutshell [climbs up on soapbox]…

If you are delivering a presentation using powerpoint or keynote or some kind of slideshow software, your presentation is likely to suck unless you follow this one rule:

  • If you want to refer to something that requires more than 8 words on a slide, then supply a handout instead.

This rule applies to your boss as well. And your colleagues… Their presentations suck big time too.


To summarise this rule, I’ve supplied a single image slide show. It’s the picture above. Feel free to forward this blog post and accompanying message to anyone who insists on producing what I call slide-uments or docu-slides.

You know what I’m talking about right? A Slide-ument is any of the following:

  • When you have one slide with a 500 word essay written on in 12 point font
  • When you produce graphs and charts in MS Excel and screenshot them for your audience.
  • When you use more than 3 bullet points.

The solution to crappy slideshows (and presentations)

Why do people make crappy slideshows? The answer is simple… it’s a crutch. Unless you’re Tony Robbin’s you are probably like the rest of us and live in fear of public speaking of any kind.

A crappy slideshow is a crutch to make up for this insecurity and lack of confidence. Here’s the solution (but you won’t like it):

  1. Do more public speaking.
  2. Practice before hand.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2

Here’s a summary of my own slideshow preparation mantras to live or die by:

  • Don’t use words.
  • If words are necessary, aim for no more than 8 words on a slide.
  • Use high quality images.
  • Use a simple clear diagram.
  • Draw a picture.
  • Don’t be tempted by those crappy animations and slide transitions.
  • Don’t expect the venue’s wifi to work when you link to that Youtube clip.
  • Avoid using that crappy corporate template.
  • Supply a handout if you think people really need one.
  • Always pack a spare Thunderbolt to VGA adapter (if you’re on a Mac).

And regarding handouts

If it’s really necessary to supply a handout:

  • You’d better to make it a 1 pager. This is true for conferences. Your detailed 10 pages of notes are just going to get thrown out or filed in a folder and never looked at again. Save the trees.
  • Print it in colour. Yes, it’s 100x more expensive, but you want people to read it right?
  • Print it on A3 paper. Now this is just plain annoying… but it’s got to be big enough, colourful enough, and annoying enough that it totally dominates all of the crappy handouts produced by everyone else swilling around in your conference bag. And you’ll increase the chance that someone will actually look at it again.
  • Put your real notes online. Anyone who cares about what you’ve got to say will go and find it. Provided that you’ve made it easy to find… So:
  • Blog your notes. Or create them in Google Docs and share the link by email. Or do both. It’s not hard, and if you’ve never done either of these before it’s a really great learning curve.

Breaking the rules

Are there times that you can break these rules for slideshows and presentations? Yes… of course, and I do it all the time.

However, if you are a serial slide-ument offender (or you know someone who is), you need to stick to the rules above.

And you probably need a 12-step programme of some kind to break your addiction. As a former addict and offender, I’m setting up a support group…

[climbs down off soapbox]



Changing the world with literacy and numeracy: This guy’s $25 education start up is now building a new school every 90 hours


This is literacy and numeracy literally changing the world… the developing world. They are now building a new school every 90 hours.The reason: 250 million primary-aged children lack basic reading writing, and maths skills and these guys intend to do something about it.

It takes US$25 to educate a child and US$25,000 to build an entire school. Watch and be inspired by Pencils of Promise. The founder, Adam Braun, started this not-for-profit, for-purpose business with $25.

Now, Adam’s award-winning nonprofit organization has broken ground on more than 150 schools around the world and has delivered over 5 million educational hours to children in poverty. Wow…!

Great podcast interview here with James Altucher interviewing Adam.