The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Follow the Directions!

A lot has changed in public education over the centuries. Who is taught, how they are taught, when they are taught, and why they are taught are all issues that have been the frequent topic of heated debate and most likely will continue to do so. What was considered best practices 25, 15, even 5 years ago are not always thought of as such nowadays. And our current best practices will almost certainly change over the years as new research is done, new ideas proposed, and new strategies implemented.

And yet.

And yet the old proverb is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There are some things that some teachers do just because that is the way they have always done it. I have long believed that, as valuable as traditions are to our society, our families, and our individual lives, we should have a better reason for doing something than just “that’s the way it’s always been done.” But there are other things that we do that teachers have been doing for years, even centuries, and the reason is that they work. There are such things and “tried and true” methods. And there are statements, phrases, commands that we give that teachers have been using for a very long time and will probably continue to use forever and ever. (Or at least pretty close to it!)

One of these phrases is something that I recall hearing throughout my formal education and even now in more informal learning settings. And it is a phrase that I use nearly every day with my students. It is this: follow the directions!

Any time I give my students a task, no matter what it is, I make sure they have been given directions. I say them aloud, I write them on the board, and, if there is a worksheet or some kind of organiser, the directions are written there, too. Sometimes I even model what should be done to make it as clear as possible. Then, when a student comes to me with a question about how to start a task, I will first ask: did you read the directions? what are you supposed to do? what questions do you still have?

Even independent tasks require guidance from the teacher. I know this, and my students know this, and we all know that we all know this. But one of my many goals as a teacher is to foster the ability within each student to act on his or her without being told every step. As I often put it, my job as a teacher is to help my students learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn. Put another way, as American educator and essayist Elbert Hubbard said, “the object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.” This is not just my goal, though. It is the goal of the countless teachers who have come before me and the countless more who will come after.

With this as the goal, I hope that each of my students will develop the habit of naturally determining what the directions are and then following them. Then, when they have a problem, I hope that they will have the problem-solving skills necessary to find a solution on their own, rather than relying on others to do it for them. And yes, this is a long-term goal. I believe in creating life-long learners; that means that my hopes and goals for my students need to extend far, far beyond the end of the school year! Learning to follow the directions is the first step. Learning how to critically analyse the value of the directions and determine if they are what should really be done is a step much further down the road, with being able to create directions for themselves on their own as the ultimate goal.

I will never stop expecting my students to follow the directions. I will never stop uttering this simple phrase. With all of the changes in teaching that are currently taking place and all of the changes that are already visible on the horizon, this is just one of those things that will stay in place, not just because it is what we do but because it is so critical to becoming an independent person!

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