Why can’t we follow a recipe?

Chances are you know someone who can’t follow a recipe. When they try your favourite recipe, it comes out as a disaster. Why is that? Why is it that someone following step by step instructions can mess it up so badly?

I don’t know the answer for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with lack of familiarity. It seems perhaps ironic that in order to follow a set of step by step instructions you need to know what you are doing already, but I think that is what is required, and here’s why: If you don’t know what you are doing, you won’t know if you made a mistake, whereas if you have an idea what you are doing, you can recognize mistakes and correct them along the way.

The same is true for lab activities. Many of them are cookbook style, with step-by-step instructions. And foolishly we think, well, how can they possibly screw up? And the answer, I’m afraid, is very easily. Step by step instructions instil a false sense of confidence. Students, like cooks who can’t follow a recipe, assume that they have done each step correctly, because they don’t necessarily have the experience to recognize missteps.

The other day in Biology class we were using the popular pop-beads to simulate mitosis and meiosis. They are good in that they give students a tactile, visual representation that they can manipulate and see the process as dynamic, as opposed to series of discrete steps. But it was a disaster. The set comes with very explicit, step-by-step instructions. But either they could not follow the directions, or they were so focussed on the directions they virtually ignored the beads, or they simply skipped the beads altogether and drew the results from memory, rather than observation.

Next time I try this lab, I will do it very differently. I will introduce them to the beads one day, have them plan out exactly how they would represent the steps, and then on lab day have them make a stop-motion animation of the sequence of events in Meiosis. That way they are responsible for planning it out, and will have an idea what it should look like, so they can recognize mistakes when they arise, and then the videos can be critiqued afterwords to see if there are any glaring (or subtle) errors or omissions.

Now I just have to keep this in mind going forward, and plan ahead knowing that cookbook activities (not just labs) have a built-in human flaw.

One thought on “Why can’t we follow a recipe?

  1. Michael Gabay

    I have the same issue in chemistry. I think a lot of the issue is that it’s REALLY hard to make clear instructions PERIOD. Every time my kids do a lab I’m like “oh….yeah I could see how that would be confusing” and end up editing it. I’ve gotten to the point where I just make them a video showing them what they’ll do and then verbally quizzing them about it. Of course, most of my kids wouldn’t bother to read the steps anyway. Plus it’s more engaging – they like seeing me be a bit goofy on camera. Every time I play video they want to know, “Did YOU make it??”

    As far as them using memory instead of beads, if that’s a possibility on an activity that I want them to try – I’ll have us all do an example or start it out together with no worksheets out. Then, once they have an idea of how to use the manipulatives, I’ll pass the handouts out. At that point, if they can do the activity without using the hands-on stuff, I don’t really care, personally. 🙂


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