How to tie a shoe, draw a cat, or use a microscope, in three or five or eight easy steps

In ninth grade biology class, Ms. Loomis gave us an assignment to prepare us for writing the methods section of a lab report. We paired up, and then each of us wrote down detailed instructions for tying a shoe. Then, we had to switch papers and tie our own shoe using nothing but what was on the paper, not our own knowledge. I remember that my lab partner and I used slightly different bows for our shoelaces, and also that I called them laces but she called them strings. After we finished the exercise, we looked at each others’ shoes and noticed that mine had flat, wide laces, while hers had round ones, which I could definitely see calling shoe strings.

I haven’t written a lab report since high school, but I do write instructions for how use various tools and do various activities in creating hands-on exhibit components at the museum where I work. The goal is to give clear instructions that work even if the visitor’s English isn’t fluent and whether or not we have a similar background -- for example, I remember how to use a basic microscope from Ms. Loomis’s class, but not everyone gets to use microscopes in school. The tricky part is that at the same time, I don’t want to overload the visitors with detail, because we want the instructions to be approachable. Some of the best activities need minimal explanation, and teach you how to do them as you go, but some activities need instructions no matter what. I thought that trying the “describe an activity” exercise would be a good exercise for me.

A friend who’s a computer science teacher and has written some CS curriculum offered to do this with me. She does two similar activities with her students. In one, she stands at the front of the class and says, “tell me how to walk.” Much like the shoe tying lab, she won’t do any component unless she’s explicitly instructed to. A computer needs that specificity. In the other one, students have under a minute to draw something simple. Then, they pair up and have a couple of minutes to instruct their partner how to draw what they drew, without seeing what the first drawing looked like. We decided to try the drawing activity together -- extra fun for me, because I don’t consider myself good at drawing, an di don’t get much practice.

We each drew something, and I went first describing. Thinking about the challenge of not knowing what common frames of reference we have, I gave painstaking detail -- after all, this “visitor” wasn’t going to get bored and walk away. My drawing, (well, more of a doodle) doodle was supposed to be a hastily-drawn version of a mummy next to its sarcophagus in an exhibit case on a pedestal. Neither of us told the other what our sketch was supposed to portray. The exhibit case and pedestal were two rectangular boxes (technically rectangular prisms) stacked on each other, but I tried not to assume that my friend knew enough perspective drawing to do this without articulated steps. In the spirit of the exercise, I didn’t check with her. That part took a long time. However, because we were so methodical, my friend’s sketch of the case and pedestal ended up looking better than mine -- I told her which lines should be vertical and horizontal, and how far apart they should be, whereas mine had been a little messy and tilted. The part I had trouble with was explaining how far up the page the mummy should be. She ran out of room for the sarcophagus next to it.

Two very bad doodles of a mummy-shaped object in a museum case, the one on the right tidier than the one on the left.
My version is on the left, Sarah's on the right.

Figuring out how to communicate relative locations ended up being our downfall again as my friend described the doodle she did, of a cat. As we worked, she came up with some guidelines, like a couple of imaginary columns dividing the width of the drawing, and those helped. I really wished I had been working in pencil, though, because when I misunderstood which way some semicircles should be facing, trying to correct it was a mess -- it turned out I misunderstood the second time, too. Afterwards, looking back on the drawing, my friend noticed a couple of times when she explained something wrong, saying a quarter inch when she meant an eighth of an inch, or “this line goes to the top of the circle” instead of towards the top of the circle. Comparing to hers, I noticed a couple of times where the explanation was probably good and I just misinterpreted.

Two very bad doodles of a cat; the one on the left is recognizable and the one on the left is a bit... off. The head is in the center of the body rather than at the end opposite the tail, for example.
Sarah's version is on the left, and mine on the right.

By the end, it was clear to me I was drawing a cat or dog, which made me want to go back and fix some now-obvious errors, but I didn’t in the spirit of the exercise. Not knowing what the drawing was supposed to look like until I was done was fun, and I think it did help both of us avoid jumping to conclusions and staying on the step we were supposed to be on. (If I could make a Faustian bargain to keep visitors from jumping ahead on three-sentence activity instructions, or better yet, to keep them from getting frustrated when jumping ahead means they don’t get the results they expect…) On the other hand, knowing what it was supposed to look like would have really have helped with area’s like the cat’s nose, by giving me a frame of reference for which way to orient the semicircles. I think that in the case of explaining concepts to museum visitors, if you can’t show the real thing, this is where analogies come into play. I’ve seen that work in food recipes, too, like “simmer until it’s the consistency of applesauce.”

This exercise was worthwhile, fun, and not groundbreaking. It gave me some angles to think about for when I write activity instructions. I think the important thing in writing activity instructions is to try them out on as many people as possible, and to practice, practice, practice. I also found that I learned more about how to give instructions from being on the receiving end of the instructions than on the giving end. I always like to try out interactive elements when I visit other museums, but now I’m going to start focusing more on how well the instructions are working for me.