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No to Assumptions. Yes to Meaningfulness.

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

"Don't blame the follower not following; blame the leader not leading."

This does not apply to all situations, but parents should ask themselves "What am I doing wrong?" when their children are not following instructions.

We are adults and children do not know more than us. Children learn from us and are led by us. We get frustrated when our instruction is not being followed by children. But, perhaps we should get frustrated because our instruction is not being comprehended by children?

As educators and parents, we need to apprehend the capacity of children's understanding. At work, we spend many hours to convey our ideas to intelligent co-workers, managers and investors. At home, if we expect that 10 minutes is enough time for our children to understand our reasoning, that is nonsense.

No to assumption. Yes to meaningfulness. We often assume that children should have knowledge of something from what they should have learned in the past, or sometimes even expect them to know things that we had not learned until adulthood. Children do not care as we do, nor do they have the knowledge, so we have to educate and teach them the skills and knowledge to survive.

From my teaching experience, I have learned to give clear instruction with a definite purpose. This way, my students can follow and learn faster and more effectively as time progresses. I truly believe there are no bad students, only bad teachers.

No to Assumption

If you want to encourage people to do something, make it easy, according to Richard H. Thaler, Professor of Behavior Science in Nudge in TED Radio
Specific instructions will speed up the learning process for individual who understand them (Ziegler, 1987).

Clear instruction means to be understandable and easy to execute. Catering our instruction to each child’s capacity and knowledge toward the task, we want to make sure that they understand and feel fine to put some effort to achieve the goal of the instruction. For example: Our boss assigns a project that usually takes 6 months, but wants us to finish it in 3 weeks; and provides little instruction. Most likely, people will give up because walking in the dark is hard and running in the dark is impractical.

Then, just as we confront our boss, children confront their parents when the tasks are too difficult for them to accomplish. When this happens, parents sometime blame-“How come you do not know this?!” Not understanding that their children may even be trying to impress them by doing something out of their capacity, parents can be quick in asking: “How come you did such a bad job?!”...and the parent-child relationship worsens. Remember, regardless, children always try to impress their parents.

Do not assume children know or understand the instruction until they say so. Do not blame them for not knowing, instead, encourage questioning.

Yes to Meaningfulness

Instruction is meant to encourage learning and growth. We want our instruction to engage students in using their minds. Five Standards of Authentic Instruction by Newmann and Wehlage states the five needs (standards) for a good instruction.

Higher Order Thinking

Instruction requires student to manipulate information and ideas in ways that transform their meaning and implications,...allows students to solve problems and discover new meanings and understandings.

Depth of Knowledge

Knowledge is deep or thick when it concerns the central ideas of a topic or discipline. For students.. make clear distinctions, develop arguments, solve problems, construct explanations and otherwise work with relatively complex understanding.

Connectedness to the World Beyond

The class [instruction] has value and meaning beyond the instructional context.

Substantive Conversation

  1. Considerable interaction about the ideas of a topic.

  2. Sharing of ideas is evident in exchanges that are not completely scripted or control.

  3. The dialogue builds coherently on participants' ideas to promote improved collective understanding of a them or topic

Social Support for Student Achievement

The teacher [or parent or educator] conveys high expectations for all students, including that it is necessary to take risks and try hard to master challenging academic work that all members ... can learn important knowledge and skill and that a climate of mutual respect among all members ... contributes to achievement by all.

How to construct a meaningful instruction?

  1. Fully understand the purpose and direction of the instruction without the assumption of children having any prior knowledge.

  2. Provide adequate information for the execution; make sure the instruction is easy to follow and comprehend.

  3. Use the chart below to evaluate the instruction on the five standards(figure 1)


Martin, Garry, and Joseph Pear. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Ziegler, Susan G. "Effects of Stimulus Cueing on the Acquisition of Groundstrokes by Beginning Tennis Players." Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 20.4 (1987)

Newmann, Fred M, and Gary G. Wehlage. "Five Standards of Authentic Instruction." Educational Leadership. 50.7 (1993): 8-12. Print.

Richard H. Thaler is the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business where he director of the Center for Decision Research.


Michael is an independent college counselor, counseling 8th- through 12th-grade and California Community College students. He assists students to identify strengths and weaknesses, design education paths, teach study skills, plan class selection and extra-curriculum, prepare for SAT/ACT, and college admission. Michael earned a bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in Psychology from Pepperdine University.

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