Hey Kids – Follow the Directions!

Four years ago at a Young Makers meeting, a parent-mentor told the group, “Following directions is not making.” When I recently saw the same sentiment on a post or tweet, it made me think about our practice at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab and when following directions is making.

We can place most making projects & activities on a spectrum from step-by-step to completely open-ended (similar to a spectrum of inquiry) and we choose where the learning activity falls based on what we want students to learn and student prior understanding and experience. My instinct is to always push towards open-ended student driven projects, but there are times when following directions can be powerful.

In that first year of our maker program, I knew that many of my student groups would be following directions from tutorials or magazines because they had never been asked to create a project of their own vision before. They had trouble even conceptualizing what was possible.

When my daughter first started playing with Legos around age 2, I purposefully didn’t give her any directions. I wanted to hold off on directions so that she wouldn’t come to rely on them, thinking that the more I could encourage her to free build, the more likely she would apply this mentality to the world around her. And, so far, the plan seems to be working. Then and now she builds towers, vehicles, spaceships, sculptures, and buildings all while telling intricate stories about what was happening (and using minifig heads as structural components).


Then at about three-and-a-half she received a kit and wanted to build the mining truck on the front of the box. I tried to stay out of it; only helping her align what she was building to the picture in the instructions when she got stuck. What did she get out of this experience? First of all – pride. She was extremely proud to have built the mining truck just like the one in the picture. Second, watching her work through the directions, she was clearly developing her precision and spatial thinking.

How does this apply at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab? We try to make the project’s place on the continuum from step-to-step to complete autonomy match its educational purpose.


Our Physics students build wind turbines  based on a specific design – meaning all students work from the same directions.  One of our goals is that five years from now students remember magnet, coil of wire, motion = electricity.  Just building the turbine helps with that. But we also want them to experience a more open-ended, process-based aspect, so we ask them to make it better.  But even if they were just building the turbine itself, they are still learning core Physics content, building skills, learning the importance of precision, and developing persistence.

In our high school making elective, students start the year with skill builders that involve following a lot of directions: they make a chair (woodworking), a pillow (sewing), a circuit board (soldering), and play around with Arduino (programming and circuits).  The core goal in all of these projects is to build student confidence and comfort in each of these areas so that when they undertake their independent project, they will venture outside of their initial comfort zone.


The circuit board is a step-by-step process students follow exactly, but after only a few class sessions, they are decent solderers and much more knowledgeable and comfortable with electronic components.  Working with Arduino is a move away from this step-by-step.  We ask students to move through the existing Arduino example code and tutorials so they learn how to find references. Then they engage in an Instructables Arduino project to experience all the issues that come with following someone else’s directions to do something new, because it turns out that following directions is not always easy.

Ideally students should be able to move fluidly between referencing directions and moving forward with their own vision. Like in the Arduino projects, I want students to know how to find a tutorial, video, or other reference to get started and then take the project in their own direction.

So is following directions making?  It can be.  When students use directions to get started, they build confidence and learn perseverance and precision that will take them beyond the directions. When we find that students are afraid to leave the directions, it’s our job to nudge them into their own creating.