16 April 2012

Shut up! - encouraging learner autonomy through minimal instructions

Last week when I asked my Twitter PLN for tips on giving instructions, the eternally useful Kevin Stein (@kevchanwow) quickly replied:

‘Not to sound glib, but no instructions often works best.’

Interesting prospect. The reason I’d sought advice was that one of my mentees – I mentor ten primary English teachers in Malaysian Borneo – had mentioned after an observation that she was struggling to give clear instructions. We’d discussed the issue for a while and come up with the following ideas:

  • KISS (a mnemonic from a previous workshop: Keep It Short & Simple!)
  • break complex activities into stages and only give one instruction at a time
  • draw simple pictures on the board
  • use gesture or mime to accompany instructions
  • provide a model of what you want the children to do
  • choose the most common classroom instructions (e.g. Work in pairs), display them around the room and use them regularly and consistently
  • write down and rehearse what you’re going to say if necessary

A mini-tambourine says more than you ever can
…but it hadn’t occurred to either of us that giving no instructions at all might be the way to go. When I first put Kevin’s suggestion to my mentee (who I will just call N), she looked completely confused. But as we discussed it more she realised that for certain activities, such as matching words and picture cards in groups, teacher instructions were unnecessary: the format was familiar and the task self-evident, provided that at least some of the words had been seen before.

To put this in a little more context: the fact that her class would not be fazed by a pile of picture and word cards is already a remarkable thing. The purpose of primary education in Malaysia seems to be for children to learn exactly what’s required to pass the horrific Year 6 UPSR examination and absolutely no more, and if you dropped into a random classroom you’d be likely to encounter one of two scenarios:

(1) children chorally repeating such everyday utterances as The tin is in the pit! ad nauseum; or

(2) children completing workbook exercises in silence while the teacher sits at the front desk marking or texting.

Games: not so much. Learner autonomy: NAUGHTY CHILDREN. That’s where we started from fourteen months ago. So to return to the point, N had agreed not to give instructions for part of her Year 3* class but when I arrived in school this morning she said she’d decided, as an experiment, not to speak at all. I must admit I was sceptical, but very intrigued to see what would happen.

The aim of the lesson was for the children to follow simple written instructions to make a bookmark. The class went like this:

  • N maintained her normal routine of eliciting the day and date by writing a capital M on the board and looking expectantly at the children, who responded, ‘Today is Monday…[pause, more expectant looking]…the sixteenth of April’.

  • As a quick warmer she prompted them to sing a song she’d taught them last week by doing the action that accompanied the first line of the song.

  • She picked up her textbook, turned to the page with the instructions for making a bookmark and held it up for the children to see. They opened their books to the same page. At this point some of them stopped looking at N and started trying to read the book, and she got their attention again by waving a mini-tambourine.

  • She called them to the front and showed them some word cards. Put together, the words formed five sentences explaining how to make a bookmark. They were very similar to the textbook instructions, but slightly simplified and with sequence words added. N spread out the words, picked out the card which said First and pretended to search for the next word. The pupils helped. After they had completed the first sentence together, she sent them back to their tables with a set of words each, and they built up all five sentences.

  • She monitored the activity table by table, pointing to completed sentences and asking the children to read aloud what they had just constructed.

  • When they had finished, N again got their attention with the tambourine. She mimed clearing up the word cards and closing the textbook, which the children did, then gave each group a worksheet. On it were pictures representing the five stages of making the bookmark, and the completed sentences they’d just made (in a jumbled order). Without being told what to do, the children started to write the sentences next to the correct diagrams.

  • N monitored for spelling and punctuation, a nod to the requirements of the UPSR (in which marks are deducted for capital Ms written with rounded rather than pointed peaks. This is the kind of madness we’re dealing with). As each group finished the worksheet, they got one star on the reward board.

  • N handed out card, scissors and ribbon to each pupil. She held up one group’s worksheet, pointed to the first instruction (First, draw a rectangle on the card) and then pointed at the card. When one or two children reached for their pencils and rulers, she gave them encouraging nods and smiles and withdrew. The other pupils quickly followed their lead.

  • The vast majority of the students were able to follow the instructions to make their bookmarks. When there was doubt (punch a hole for example was not universally understood), the quicker kids explained to their friends what they had to do.

  • Some of the pupils finished and brought their work to show N. She pointed at two children, pointed to a blank space on the back wall, and handed them a roll of double-sided tape. They immediately understood that they should display the work there, and other kids noticed what they were doing and started to take their work to the wall too.

  • At the end of the class, groups whose members had all completed the task received another star on the reward chart.

  • To elicit the routine lesson closer (in which the teacher thanks the class and they thank the teacher), N shook the tambourine, pointed at her watch and cupped her hand to her ear. The children dutifully replied, ‘Thank you, teacher! Thank you, Miss Laura!' :)

Standing on tables to display the finished bookmarks
(take that, Health and Safety!)
I was beaming and N was too. The children had worked together to complete the tasks without a single word from either of us.

The thing that impressed me the most was how willing my mentee had been to take a risk and relinquish control of the lesson. Here in Borneo there seems to be a belief that teachers whose classes are ‘noisy’ cannot control their pupils – that is to say, the noise of drilling, drilling and more drilling is fine, but the noise of children actually conversing is not – so to hear only the students’ voices during the lesson was quite thrilling. Drilling, thrilling: there’s a poem in there somewhere.

It wasn’t perfect. Although the children followed the instructions some of them drew rectangles pushing A5 size, which made me wonder whether they had understood what a bookmark was; we talked about maybe showing a bookmark at the start of the class and eliciting the word. We talked about possible activities for early finishers and about ways to indicate time limits for activities (I’d suggested drawing clocks with finishing times on them, but it didn’t really work). But mostly we talked about how exciting it was to take a leap of faith and for it to work so well. N is planning her next experiment.

* Year 3 pupils are nine years old. They’ve had five hours of ESL per week since Year 1, plus potentially some exposure to the language during one year of kindergarten.


  1. What fantastic ideas and thanks for taking the time to share!


    1. Many thanks for visiting, reading and leaving a comment :)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I get to leave the second comment. Can you please give the amazing silent N. a big hug and thank you from me? It's one of my basic teaching premises that if you can get away with no instructions, then don't use them. But I'm the director of my school's program, implemented the curriculum, have frightened all the administrators, and happily found myself in the position of trying out anything I want without experiencing much risk. But N. heard a strange idea, felt a pull, and let her curiosity drive her class. All with her mentor watching the whole time (although I can't imagine a better mentor to watch than you Laura). That to me is what it means to be an educator, to not only teach, but to be a role model for how to learn.

    And Laura, I can only imagine the kind of nurturing environment you must provide for your teachers to be willing to do what N. did in that class.

    Not only did I leave this post with a handy new trick (watch out mini-tambourine haters, I'm gonna get ya), I got some serious confirmation that I'm part of a community of teachers doing much more together than we could ever do alone. Thank you.


    1. Thanks so much Kevin - for inspiring us and for leaving this lovely comment. I think N will have seen my post by now, but I'll make sure she sees this comment as well tomorrow :)

  4. Thanks to you and K and N. Will add this post to my "Teach Yourself to be a YL Teacher" folder.

    1. Thanks Alan. Just to be nosy: what else is in the folder? :)