How do you write really good instructions? Lego versus Meccano


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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.

Strategies: What are some examples of numeracy strategies?


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Here are some more examples of numeracy strategies developed by tutors for embedding numeracy into their programmes.

These are the kind of concise summaries that you’ll also need to write for your assessment.

Don’t forget, for assessment purposes for this course, you only need to write two – one for each of literacy and numeracy.

Below are some examples of numeracy strategies:

  • Teach my learners how to use number to solve problems with a focus on additive strategies and place value in the context of my Introduction to Farming course for highschool students.
  • Teach my learners how to measure with a focus on estimation and using a tape for metric measurement in my New Zealand Certificate in Building and Construction programme.
  • Teach my learners how to measure with a focus on calculating the area of rectangles from measurements of length in the module I’m planning this semester for the course I teach on Level 3 Horticulture and sustainable development.

Strategies: How to write your own strategy for embedding measurement into your programme


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If you are going to focus on measurement, it makes sense to combine this with a focus on number as well.

For example, many learners need to strengthen their knowledge of our number system and how place value works if they have to use metric measurement and related calculations in their trade.

In other words, if you want them to use the tools for measuring, they have to understand how the number system works to use the tools effectively. 

You can download our worksheet for this, or just follow along as you like.

  1. Choose items from the boxes and then add your own context below.
  2. Write out a final draft summarising your strategy.
  3. If you need to, make any changes to ensure your strategy addresses the measurement or other skills you want to concentrate on.

Teach my learners to measure and interpret shape and space with a focus on…

how to apply their knowledge of shapes

how to apply their knowledge of shapes and location

how to use units, tools, estimates, and formulas to measure objects

and how to use additive strategies

how to use multiplicative strategies

how to use proportional reasoning strategies

strengthening number sequence knowledge

strengthening place value knowledge

strengthening number facts knowledge

in the context of…  (add your own programme here)

Here’s an example. I will:

  • Teach my learners to measure and interpret shape and space with a focus on how to use units, tools, and estimates to measure objects; and strengthening number facts knowledge in the context of an introduction to farming.

There are some more examples to follow. Feel free to use or adapt these if you like. Or create your own according to the guidelines we’ve discussed.

 

Strategies: How to write your own strategy for embedding number skills into your programme


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Time to do some work

It’s your turn again. Design your own numeracy strategy by choosing from the options below. Download the worksheet to record your ideas. As always, you can skip ahead to the Assessment template and get started on this part right away.

For your assessment, you only need to focus on one numeracy strategy. We suggest that you use the tools below to create a broad numeracy strategy for your teaching programme for developing either number or measurement skills.

How to write your own strategy for number

  1. Choose one or two items from the box and then add your own context below.
  2. Write out a final draft summarising your strategy.
  3. If you need to, make any changes to ensure your strategy addresses the number skills you want to concentrate on.

I will: Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on…

how to use additive strategies

how to use multiplicative strategies

how to use proportional reasoning strategies

strengthening number sequence knowledge

strengthening place value knowledge

strengthening number facts knowledge

and
in the context of… (add your own programme here)

Here’s an example. I will:

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on how to use multiplicative strategies and strengthening number fact knowledge in the context of the New Zealand Certificate in Employment Skills.

There are more examples coming shortly. But we’ll have a look at how to write a strategy for measurement strategy next.

And don’t forget: for your assessment task you only need to write one strategy for literacy and one strategy for numeracy.

Strategies: How do you write a numeracy strategy?


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If you know what you’re going to write for your numeracy strategy, feel free to skip ahead to the assessment template and get started. If you want to walk through the process again for numeracy, please read on.

As with your literacy strategy, there should be three parts. The process is the same as before. The content is now focused on broad numeracy skills.

1. Identify the numeracy skill area that you want to concentrate on

Again, make it both broad and practical. We’ll zoom in on the specifics in the next module. For now, we suggest that you use the strands of the Learning Progressions for Adult Numeracy that you already identified as important in the last assessment. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems.

2. Say what the numeracy focus is going to be within the skill area.

Now you are starting to narrow things down. Include one or two specific numeracy skills or progressions that you want to develop or practice.

Use the progressions that you identified as important from the last assessment. Choose at least one that you know is critical. Add this to your statement. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on how to use additive strategies.

As before, you may want to focus on more than one progression. It often makes sense to combine two related numeracy skills or progressions at the same time. Add both to your statement if it makes sense to work with two. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on how to use additive strategies and number facts knowledge.

Here’s another example with a combined focus on two skills.

  • Teach my learners to measure and interpret shape and space with a focus on how to use units, tools, estimates, and formulas to measure objects and place value knowledge.

3. Say what your broad teaching context is

Your broader teaching context should be the same as what you wrote for your literacy strategy. For example, a formal qualification or informal programme. Here’s the whole strategy. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on additive strategies and number facts knowledge in the context of short course on warehousing.

Here’s another:

Teach my learners to measure and interpret shape and space with a focus on how to use units, tools, estimates, and formulas to measure objects and place value knowledge in the context of the New Zealand Certificate in Horticulture.

Up next: How to write your own strategy for number and measurement

Strategy: Thinking more deeply about your literacy strategy


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In order for your literacy strategy to be effective, you need to consider your answers to the following questions. These are all on the worksheets and are the same as what you’ll find in your assessment template.

Here’s a list of the questions below. Then we’ll work through each one. If you know what to do here, just skip ahead to the assessment template”

  • Can you provide a breakdown of the specific literacy skill areas?
  • What kinds of specific literacy competencies or practices do you expect to see?

Can you provide a breakdown of the specific literacy skill areas?

In your strategy, you should have picked one or two literacy progressions to focus on. These are the literacy skill areas that you want to develop. These should be based on what you identified when you did the mapping exercise as part of Assessment 3.

For example, you might say something like this:

  • One area I want to focus on is learning technical vocabulary and jargon relating to health and safety in the workshop. This includes things like the correct names for the equipment and relevant parts.
  • Another area I intend to include is how to use reading comprehension strategies. This covers how to read technical instructions, operating procedures, and plans. Many of my learners struggle with reading, including how to identify key information on a page.

What kinds of specific literacy competencies or practices do you expect to see?

As your learners gain stronger literacy skills you should see some of their behaviours change in positive ways. Sometimes we refer to these behaviours as “competencies” or “practices”.

  • A competency is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.

An example would be if a learner can use a reading comprehension strategy like scanning to successfully locate key pieces of information on a page from a workbook so that they can find the answers to questions in a workbook.

  • Practices are the actual application of a literacy or numeracy skill.

If you see learners doing things it doesn’t always mean that learners can do things successfully or effectively. But we should be looking for positive changes in their behaviour.

If we take the same example above, just because you see a learner using a scanning technique doesn’t mean that the will get the correct answers to the comprehension questions that you set them. However, practising scanning is going to help them develop the skill.

Here’s something important to think about:

  • Sometimes it takes a long time to see gains in competencies. But, you can see changes in practices almost immediately if you’re looking.

Here’s an example of what you might write:

  • What I hope to see is some gains in the students reading comprehension over time. We measure this using the TEC assessment tool at the beginning and end of the programme. However, sometimes the timeframe is too short. What I’m hoping will happen is that I’ll see students using one or two good reading comprehension strategies.
  • Also, I’d like to see more deliberate vocabulary learning. There’s a lot of specialised language in my programme and much of it will be new to most of these students. I’m probably going to try encouraging them to use some different strategies for learning new words like keeping a vocabulary journal and making giant word-bank posters to put up on the walls.