Monday, February 24, 2014
I used to teach a course in technical writing. I had to drill into my students that technical writers can’t make assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of a topic. Writers must provide clear definitions of terms, create uncomplicated processes and provide volumes of information as they deliver instructions for projects from setting up a computer, to building a grill, to operating a voting machine, or to playing a game. In order to impress upon my students the importance of thinking ahead and creating clear technical instruction I had them do an interesting exercise. I divided the class into groups of three and provided each group with a relatively simple graphic design. The group’s job was to develop instructions whereby another group could recreate the design on the blackboard simply using the instructions. Let’s say the design was a circle with a line bisecting it parallel to the floor and a triangle under the circle with the apex of the triangle touching the circle. Students dove in, snickered at the simplicity of the task, wrote their brief instructions, and then traded them with another group. Here’s where the fun began. The students wrote, “Draw a circle.” The group creating the design on the blackboard froze up immediately. They had no idea how big the circle was. The next instruction was “Bisect the circle with a line parallel to the ground.” But the group had no idea how long the line should be and if it bisected evenly with the ends all inside the circle, outside the circle, and or uneven in length through the circle. There were even students who had no idea what “bisect” meant. The next instruction was “place a triangle under the circle with the top of the triangle touching the edge of the circle.” Yet again, the students were confused. Was it an equilateral triangle, obtuse, right or isosceles? How big was the triangle? How far down should the triangle be drawn? What the groups glibly thought would be a piece of cake turned out to be complex and confusing.
Parents make assumptions all the time about what our kids should understand, and we get frustrated when they don’t seem to be leaping to accomplish a task. Just this weekend I was out of town watching two of my grandsons in Columbus. There was a horrible snowstorm in Milwaukee, and Bryce was watching the house. He called me in a panic because he couldn’t get the snow blower to work. I said it was probably out of fuel, and he informed me he had filled it up and it still wouldn’t start. With a sinking heart I asked if he used the gas tank by the lawn mower, which contains pure gas, and the answer was yes. Unfortunately, the snow blower requires an oil and gas mixture and that can was set in front of the machine. Bryce was embarrassed, but I told him that unless he had bought the blower and read the instructions, he would have no idea that it needed a different fuel. It was an important lesson to me that I couldn’t just assume that he would know how to run the snow blower. Do our kids intuitively know how to run the washing machine, the vacuum or the dishwasher? Did we? Yet even our kids think they should be able to do it automatically. They see us approach these tasks with ease, and so they expect to do the same. When we try to explain how to do something, we run the risk of wounding our children’s pride. It’s a thin line between being helpful to them and demeaning their abilities.
We face this challenge daily. I did a blog several years ago about the humorous aspects of these misunderstandings, but there are more serious outcomes that can affect how we interact with our kids, their friends and teammates, coaches and other parents. I was watching my grandson’s 9-year-old basketball team’s practice where they scrimmaged a girls’ team. The game was lively and funny. I was sitting next to a mom who had played basketball in high school, and she was getting increasingly frustrated that her daughter didn’t know how to set up a pick. She felt it was intuitive because she herself had done them over and over for 10 years. She expected her daughter to launch right into the skill. During a break in the action, the mom called her daughter over and began quizzing her, “Why don’t you set up a screen? Why do you act so timid? Why aren’t you taking more shots?” I saw two distinct expressions on the child’s face: First, total disgust at her mother’s instructions and second, befuddlement over what she was supposed to be doing. Using pick interchangeably with screen was a matter of using synonyms for the mom, but to a child completely clueless as to how the two activities are actually one in the same, it was confusing. The mother’s expectations ran in direct opposition to her daughter’s understanding and ability. Skills, that for adults come easily and logically, only do so because we have had years to develop the context in which to understand them. A slide tackle for a child contains words that she understands, but the intent of those words get muddled. We shouldn’t expect any player to automatically know what a slide tackle means and how to execute one, but we do it all the time. We show our frustration at their misunderstanding which only makes the situation worse. Kids become disappointed in themselves for not intuitively grasping a skill because the adults seem to believe that those skills should spring innately from their children.
We can develop a great deal of impatience when we rely on someone to have the same understanding of a situation or a skill as we do. We forget that learning requires time, context and maturity to result in the abilities we consider intuitive. Take the offside rule for instance. Those of us with years of experience in soccer usually understand the rule. But that is not necessarily the case for most young players and for many adults. Add to the mix the misunderstanding of “over and back” for offside and you can have parents completely apoplectic when the offside flag goes up. Those of us who get it have little tolerance for those who don’t get it, and we tend to judge them for their inability to understand the rule naturally. Coaches can assume their young players know certain skills when in fact they have no idea what the coach is talking about. Wanting to please they will struggle to fake their understanding as best they can, feeling inadequate and foolish in the process. A coach can aggravate the situation if he continues expecting that players should intuitively understand his commands. Telling a goalkeeper to keep her feet doesn’t translate into staying upright as long as possible to watch the play develop then dropping to save a ball. It translates into staying upright even once the ball is kicked to the lower left post. When reprimanded for not going down to save the ball, the confusion on how to “keep your feet” versus diving for a save simply deepens. Until the process is completely explained, players will continue to misunderstand the skill. “Clearing the ball” seems absolutely intuitive, when in fact few youth players have any idea that to clear a ball means to boot it from the defensive end to the offensive end. Continually shouting “clear it!” won’t make the term anymore obvious. Clear has synonyms which mean pure, distinct, unobstructed, transparent, and obvious. The synonym which most embodies what “clear it” means is to free the ball, but even that is ambiguous. Clearing the ball can only be completely understood when fully explained.
Our capacity to convey ideas to our children and others cannot count on their ability to understand those ideas with the same intuitive awareness we possess. Our intuitiveness comes from experience and repetition, not from some sudden innate epiphany. Expecting others to have the same context isn’t fair. But we forget how our knowledge developed over time. We only have our present understanding against which we measure what others should understand. At my daughter’s house, I had to do the laundry. I have been washing clothes for more than 40 years, so washing them on this particular day should have been easy. In a distinctly humble moment, I realized I had no idea which detergent to use, how to add the detergent to the laundry, how to even turn the washer on given the complex combination of time, temperature, agitation, fabric type and weight of the load. There were literally bells and whistles the likes of which I had never encountered. Only after doing one load did I discover a secret compartment where detergent, bleach, and fabric softener could be dispensed. It was all so confusing and did not fit at all into that intuitive style of washing I had carefully developed over the years. I felt the same as I’m sure I did the first time I ever tried to do a load of wash, which was on a much simpler machine. It gave me a much needed perspective on how we all assume that because we know and understand something, everyone will know and understand it, when in fact the only intuitive knowledge should be that intuition has no standards or expectations.