Friday, September 10, 2010

IKEA & Instruction

My daughter turned two yesterday, which was lots of fun. But it also meant that I spent my labor day putting together her birthday present -- a dresser and night stand for her new room. As an aside, it occurred to me while searching for screw #14554, that I will probably spend the next 8 or 10 labor days assembling some sort of gift because of the fact that my daughter's birthday will always fall just a few days after labor day. The good news is that things seem to get better each year (this year's furniture project went much better than did last year's swing set debacle, but that's another post).

All in all, the furniture was pretty easy to assemble, mostly because the folks at IKEA know a thing or two about design and how to help people like me put together their products. In the four hours or so I spent trying to follow the instructions I had some insights about teaching and learning.

1. Every once in a while force yourself to try to teach & learn visually. IKEA's instructions were made up exclusively of images. That meant that their visual descriptions had to be incredibly clear because there was no written description to fall back onto. It also meant that the design of the furniture had to be very simple and intuitive. Too much of instruction relies solely upon written or oral pedagogies. Written or verbal methods are not inherently evil, but because we're so accustomed to communicating in these ways, it's easy to do it badly without really knowing it. Representing ideas visually requires teachers and learners to think in new ways--recognizing patterns, making associations between ideas, and making sense of the parts of an idea and how they come together to form a meaningful whole (see Dan Roam's ideas in The Back of the Napkin). Chances are that if a teacher can teach a concept visually (pictures, symbols, flow charts, etc.) they (1) understand it deeply and (2) have developed a clear way of communicating those ideas to a learner. The same is also true of a student learning a new concept. If they can "draw" it, chances are they understand it more deeply than someone who cannot (in some ways this is the same premise behind concept mapping and other similar learning aids, but even concept mapping can rely too much on text at times).

2. Identify pitfalls and help learners avoid them. One critique I had of the instructions I used was that there were a couple of places where I made stupid mistakes (mistakes that, in my pride, I feel like most inexperienced furniture assemblers would make) that could have been prevented with simple reminders or warnings. Most were minor, but one added about an hour onto the project (this is one of the few cases where IKEA might be wise to break it's rule of no text. In fact, because text is so out of place within the overall landscape of IKEA instructions, the very limited use of well placed text could draw attention to critical instructions or reminders). When designing instruction, we need to pay close attention to any pitfalls--meaning those things that could be significant setbacks for a learner--and help them avoid them.

3. Minor mistakes, early in the process can be a good thing. This seems a bit contradictory to my comments in #2 above, but let me explain. There is a Japanese proverb that teaches "You will become clever through your mistakes." I believe that is true, particularly of minor mistakes that occur early in the learning process. Mistakes focus attention, can increase engagement, and when caught, can prevent more major mistakes from occurring later on. Good instruction provides opportunities for minor mistakes to be made early. The very best instructional experiences are designed so that mistakes become clearly apparent to the learner (as opposed to being pointed out externally by a teacher or coach) and then force them to figure out what went wrong. That process of asking "why didn't this work?" yields learning that becomes valuable later on and helps the learner better understand the whole (e.g. How the entire dresser will need to come together. There is a fascinating case study on how this happens among West African apprentice tailors in Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger's book, Situated Learning.

4. Provide a real person when things get unmanageable. Luckily I didn't get to this point with my IKEA assemblies (but last year's swing set nightmare was a different story). But, I knew that if I did reach an impasse, I could call the number on the instructions and a real person would answer. Whether it's faculty office hours, a teaching assistant, a help lab, or a peer mentor, learners need a human that can help with things get tough.

5. Humor is a good thing. Although I dreaded the thought of putting together the furniture all weekend, I started off the project laughing because of images like this one. Just the fact that I smiled a bit at the outset, made me a lot more willing to dig into the project. It's important that we find ways to do that sort of thing with learners, because the honest truth is that the best learning is hard and takes effort. The more we can do to prime the pump and make learning an appropriately enjoyable experience, the better.

I still refuse to enter the front doors of IKEA, despite my wife's efforts to convince me that I'll "love it once I try it." And, I'm still not really looking forward to next Labor Day and putting together another birthday present (I'm banking on a bike with training wheels). But, at least I learned something in the process.

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