Peeb Sammy

Here’s a fun experiment, either as a learning exercise for your kids or as a team-builder for adults: have the participants write down the instructions for how to make a Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich (or as my kids call them, a “peeb sammy”). Then, perform those instructions exactly as written, interpreting them as literally as you can.

If the instructions say “put peanut butter on the bread,” then put the jar of peanut butter on top of the loaf of bread. After all, the instructions didn’t say to open the jar and use a knife to scoop a little bit out, right? Did the instructions say “open the package that contains the bread and remove two slices, placing them on the table, flat and side-by-side?” Or did they just say “get bread?”

Often your literal, exact performance of the instructions written will be hilarious (to kids) or maybe a little frustrating (to adults). But they’ll illustrate an important point: when we give instructions, we’re usually making a huge number of assumptions!

I often see directions or instructions that contain a half-dozen (or more) assumptions per step. Some of them are cultural assumptions about the shared definitions of terms. Some of them are assumptions about prior expertise or foundational knowledge. Some of them are even assumptions about modes of thinking.

In each case, the assumption will be invisible to you. The instructions will seem crystal-clear from your point of view. You marked the path you took to the solution and turned that path into instructions for others, but that only works for people who started from the same position as you did. Someone approaching the problem from somewhere else might be very confused!

For a more concrete example, write down the directions from your house to the nearest movie theater. Now give those directions to someone else who lives in a different part of town – if they followed those directions, they wouldn’t get to the theater, would they?

Always keep this in mind when you’re teaching others. You can know in advance where you want your audience to end up, but you can’t control where they start. So the further out from your solution you go, the more broadly applicable you have to be. You do have to assume some foundational knowledge! For instance, it would be absurd to write out directions for making a peeb sammy that included instructions on how to identify peanut butter or how to grow your own grapes for the jelly. (Carl Sagan once quipped, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” But if you want to tell someone how to make apple pie, you’re allowed to skip a few steps.) You’re allowed to make assumptions – you should just always be aware that you’re doing it, and make sure that you’re not assuming so much that the directions are only useful to your own clones.

Sometimes that means that the best way to go about it is just to clearly define the end goal, and leave the rest up to them. I showed my kids a peeb sammy and how I made it, and then said “do you think you can make one?” Sure enough, they did just fine.

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