Simple Instructions Are Deceptive

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Simple instructions for drawing an elephant

Teaching is hard work. It’s not necessarily hard work in the physical sense, but the mental gymnastics required to teach something complex involves more understanding and effort than most human beings are willing to put in. Which is why there are so few truly good teachers in the World.

Part of the problem is students demanding and teachers attempting to “make it simple”. This one folly has created more clueless teachers and students than anything else in human history. The fact of the matter is, most things just aren’t very simple; they can be easy, but rarely simple.

There’s a lot of material out there that masquerades as simple instruction, any number of ready-reckoner resources, and entire series of books for dummies come to mind. Like the vintage drawing instruction card shown above, they are certainly instructional, and perhaps even simple, but the important question to ask is, do you learn how to draw an elephant by looking at that card? If the aim is to truly understand a thing, simple instructions are often deceptive.

Three Blind Men

To explain why they’re deceptive, let me tell you an old story about some blind men. Three blind men came across an obstacle on the road as they were tapping themselves along with their walking sticks, near their village. They decided to investigate, and spread out exploring the perimeter of the large object in their way. One held out his hand to feel a fibrous strand of something hanging down towards the ground and reported to the others that he had found a length of rope. The second was faced with what felt like immovable columns of stone, so he shouted out to his friends that he had found some pillars on the road which he was quite sure had never been there before. The two were now curious as to what their third comrade had found. The man held out his arm and was startled to feel a fleshy, muscular form coiling around his arm. “Snake!”, he screamed. Spooked by the noise, the rope lashed, the pillars rumbled, and the the three men scrambled back down the path imagining the horrific amalgam beast that they had just encountered along their village road. The elephant they had been groping before they darted off screaming, was quite taken aback by their behaviour too.

The Perils of Simplification

That story shows many of the inherent mistakes we make when trying to teach someone, but the blind men’s major shortcoming was in not being able to see how the various separate pieces fit together. If they could see the relationship between the simple pieces, they would have understood that it was an elephant; They were blind, not stupid.

The same can be said of anyone learning something new. Simple instructions break complex concepts and processes down into convenient, but artificial pieces for easy digestion. Unfortunately, important bits are often lost in translation. A student might be blind to the facts, but they aren’t stupid. Show them the big picture, and they can begin to grasp even the most complex of things, because nothing can be reduced to discrete simplified nuggets without losing an understanding of how these nuggets relate to each other and everything else. That in between, that thinking between the steps is what true understanding is all about.

Teachers of every kind, from someone standing in front of hundreds in a lecture hall, to someone answering a question on the internet, all sometimes forget that the process of instruction is not about them. Instruction is actually about the student. It’s about the teacher walking in the student’s shoes and answering those questions which the student doesn’t even know to ask yet.

Instruction is about anticipating the issues facing someone who doesn’t know what you know. It isn’t about breaking things down into the simple, but rather about building things up into the complex.


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