Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

The Age of Digital Liberation! (But, oh, there’s this thing…)


“Read the directions to yourself as I read them aloud.”

“Open your test booklets to Section Three, read the directions, and begin work.”

In my day job I am a college counselor, but what I am increasingly finding is that what I do for a living is ask people to follow directions. To signing up for standardized tests, to taking the tests, to filling out the Common Application, to figuring out what a college’s standardized testing requirements are and then meeting them, to finding deadlines and sending the right materials in on time, applying to college is all about following directions. Even the writing, the 1000-character maximum (which means 1000 characters, maximum) activity piece and the 250–500 word essay (which means at least get it close to 500 words, maximum) has directions.

But for some reason, following these directions is just becoming harder and harder for kids and their families.

Now, this has never been an easy process. For most of us of a certain age a college application, to be completed in pen, was our first encounter with high-stakes bureaucracy, a process even less forgiving than getting a driver’s license. But not opening our test booklets until we were told to do so was just an extension of taking school examinations proctored by formerly genial teachers who turned stony-faced during exam week and made us hand in our work with bluebooks nested just so; we knew that there were times we had to sit in silence in great study halls and keep our mouths shut and our eyes to ourselves for a couple of hours on pain of, well, maybe even expulsion—life ruined, future blotted out, draft status catapulted to a new level of meaning.

A few weeks back we gave a group of youngish high school students here a test that required them first to go through a complicated process of signing into an online test site and then to follow online directions through about a hundred minutes of testing. Many handled the task reasonably well, but an astounding number were flummoxed by such things as filling in a date of birth box with the label “mm/dd/yyyy” beneath it. For adults who have ever ordered a pair of slippers from L. L. Bean, no big deal, but for some students: Mount Everest. I was born on the 4th of July in ’95—why isn’t this 7/4/95 working??? I have noted the same issue with seniors doing the Common Application.

What I think is, that were aren’t asking students to read directions as we once did, and even when we do, our multi-modal differentiating classroom practice encourages us not only to read aloud printed directions on assignments and tests but then to interpret these instructions in several ways and then answer questions until everything is crystal, crystal clear. We work around the problem of kids who then don’t follow the directions by rewarding original ideas or approaches—we want them to think outside the box, don’t we? And we feel guilty when we know we’re providing the box—so 19th-century of us. Bad!

So when kids encounter situations in which they really need not just to read but to then follow directions, some of them just cannot do it well. I think this accounts for the students I encounter who don’t know their College Board or Common App usernames and passwords because a parent is doing all the detail work on those. Those parents aren’t doing their kids any favors, obviously, and I don’t know how to help.

We can jump up and down and proclaim that old-fashioned skills like following written directions are irrelevant in 2011, but they are not, even if we might think they should be in The Age of Digital Liberation. We can praise our digital natives for their abilities as gamers to work through complex processes by trial and error in the glorious feedback loop that is World of Warcraft, but sometimes time is really limited and the stakes are high—and they should be able to figure out how to represent their nativity digitally by following a simple template.

I don’t have a solution to propose other than to suggest that we remind ourselves of the importance of being able to follow directions and therefore, when direction-laden tasks loom, make sure that our students pay close attention to them in ways to which we have all become unused. I find myself wondering how many points are lost on tests and how many students miss out on some kind of dream opportunity because they simply didn’t bother, or know how to, or know why it is important to, follow directions.

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is a constant battle in high school. We discuss it and do not come up with any solution.