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.

The Pragmatist’s Guide to Essay Writing, AKA The Underground English Manual


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This is a picture of my hand holding a picture of my hand. How’s that for meta?

When I went to university, I was a slow learner. I had to write essays. I was a poor BA student.

And I mean metaphorically and literally.

No multichoice for me. Things may have changed, but I doubt it. C’est la vie…

I didn’t even take film studies. Close though. English literature major.

Nothing wrong with BA students, mind you.

Bob Jones always liked BAs because they could write. That meant that they could think. And that meant he could train them to run his businesses.

That was back in the days when he used to fly in commercial airlines, but after he punched the journalist in the face who disturbed him trout fishing in Turangi.

And long before he was called out for racist comments in a national newspaper.

Anyway.

It took me three years to learn how to write. I was totally unprepared. This is mainly due to the fact that I thought I was above average at English at High School and I thought I had above average teachers.

I got a scholarship in English in 7th form, you see. It was worth an extra $150 towards my studies at the time I think. IKR…?

So I declined. I grew my hair long and joined a rock and roll band. Actual about 5 different bands. It’s a blur now.

And after three years of selling guitar strings in Taupo, I realised that my best years were probably behind me now.

That international tour to Norfolk Island with the Wairakei Country Music Club.

Those cassette tape recordings of the original music my friend in the goth band wrote and we performed.

Coming second in a talent contest with another mate who sounded exactly like Dave Dobbyn but was never gonna win because the winner and the judges were all family members.

Those drunken 21sts.

The biker club in the industrial area with the spiked corrugated iron fence (whose idea was the whipped cream…?).

Good times, but my best years were behind me and I needed to move on, find another life, settle down.

Get a haircut, eventually. Regrow those brain cells.

So I had to learn to write essays about 21st-century literature.

And I could read but I couldn’t write.

It turns out that my scholarship in English was suspect as well. Possibly fraudulent.

I blame the NZQA. And my high school. It was their fault.

My test results for English had been scaled as part of rather dodgy norm-referenced testing.

In other words, my score was almost above average. But not exceptional.

It was just that everyone else in my cohort was crap and I was the least crap. Plus they had already allocated a scholarship to the school from the year before that had to be used.

Ka pai me…!

But back to the writing. I got Bs. I got the occasional B+. It was hard to rise above this level of mediocracy.

In the end, I got help. Professional help. From someone who KNEW.

Her name with Judith. She was very old. And she had her own office. I think the university had forgotten about her, because it was in a really obscure location.

I’m not sure what she was supposed to do. And I can’t remember how I met her. Or if she was paid.

But she would interpret the scratching on the bottom of my essays and tell me what they meant. It was like reading tea leaves. She was my medium.

And it worked like magic. Judith was my saviour.

One of my lecturers would write something like “This is Ok, but lacks cohesion”… I was always “Whuh…?

But even when you go and talk to these pillocks in their office hours they just say more of the same thing. Meaningless drivel.

That’s when I began to develop a deep-seated suspicion of academics. I mean, as a species they are kind of cute. But we should be sceptical of them. Just sayin’.

Thanks to Judith, though, I started to learn how to write. She showed me the basics.

Like how to understand the topic or question. How to plan. And then how to write.

And then… Dulce decorum est…! I started getting As and then A+s. It was a freaking miracle.

To be honest, it was a little mindless after a while.

To start with I was so jazzed, I’d print out every A+ on a sheet of golden A4 paper on my new Cannon Bubble Jet printer that I’d paid ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS for.

And I’d put them up on my wall.

Soon the whole wall was covered. And by soon I mean relatively speaking.

But it got embarrassing so I took them down and wrote a book about how to write essays instead.

And this book, I got designed and commercially printed. And I even sold a bunch at the unofficial student bookshop where they always had all the second-hand books that no one really wanted.

That’s the cover in the picture up above. I kinda feel that I started to find my voice when I wrote this book.

Unfortunately, that was the voice of a snarky arrogant git. Funny though.

Here is one pearl:

Always give a monkey a banana

…your tutor, teacher, lecture – whoever set the assignment – is a monkey. What you have to do is give them a banana – that’s your essay. What’s important is that you give them the right kind of banana. Probably, this person is an academic. An academic is just a monkey with a degree and it’s the job of these monkeys to make difficult things more complicated. He or she won’t just come out and tell you what kind of banana they want. However, as you work through our method, you can increase your chance of dishing out the right kind of banana.

It’s a bit cringy now.

But I wanted to share it because it illustrates a point. And this is… that this is what is wrong with our education system.

The current situation with NCEA comes to mind. This kind of strategy still works. You can try it out.

The skills you need to get through are not the same as learning the content that you’re learning to navigate.

But don’t let that stop you from getting those A+s… Download link below for the full unexpurgated version.

What do learning outcomes for embedded literacy and numeracy look like?


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Here are some examples of learning outcomes written by trades and vocational tutors.

Embedded literacy learning outcomes

  • Explain technical words in the context of an introduction to arc welding.
  • Explain specialised language used in the context of a tailgate meeting.
  • Use reading comprehension strategies in the context of following instructions on how to mix agricultural sprays

Embedded numeracy learning outcomes

  • Carry out a GST calculation in the context of room rates required for a catering job
  • Demonstrate how to measure and calculate area for squares and rectangles in the context of building industry expectations using a steel or folding rule.
  • Record 12 and 24 hour time in the context of job and timesheets.

Strategies: How to write your own strategy for embedding reading


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Time to do some work

It’s your turn. Design your own literacy strategy by choosing from the options below. Download our worksheet to record your ideas if you want to.

Alternatively, you can skip ahead to the Assessment template and get started on this part right away.

Have a play with the ideas here, but keep in mind that for your assessment, you only need to focus on one literacy strategy.

We suggest that you use the tools below to create a broad literacy strategy for your teaching programme for strengthening either reading or writing.

How to write your own strategy for reading

  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 reading skills you want to concentrate on.

I will: Teach my learners to read with understanding with a focus on…

how to use decoding strategies

everyday vocabulary

academic vocabulary

technical vocabulary

how to recognise language and text features

how to use comprehension strategies

how to read critically

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

Download our worksheet to record your ideas and get started now.