WHAT CAN CLASSROOM LEARNING TASKS TEACH US ABOUT STUDENT LEARNING?

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

Recently, a teacher told me that a couple of years ago when she implemented a series of new, task-based learning stations in her classroom, she pressured herself to work with each student group to ensure no group encountered difficulties or obstacles to success in solving the problems she had designed for them. She explained that over the last couple of school years, she has come to realize that she cannot be involved in every student group at the same time. In fact, her involvement was taking over student thinking and imposing her own preconceived solutions onto student work. She said that she had noticed that the students who struggled without her, who leaned on one another as resources first, who had been inadvertently given the freedom to struggle, had walked away with a deeper understanding of the concepts she knew they needed to know and be able to do in that course.


Teaching from a task-based perspective means implementing targeted task cycles that provide students with opportunities to learn by completing an activity or solving a problem. Tasks can have a lot of value for student learning when they are targeted toward a specific learning outcome (goal-oriented) and when they are strategically designed to meet students at a difficulty level appropriate to their academic and developmental needs (differentiated).


The best aspect of well-designed learning tasks is the opportunity to learn about how our students think, how they solve problems, and how they consolidate their thinking to conceptualize and develop connections. During a well-designed learning task, student thinking and learning becomes visible as students grapple with big questions, create models or visual representations of concepts, and engage in discourse with teachers and classmates.


All learning tasks should have three attributes if they are to be effective learning opportunities for children: task structure, opportunity for task maintenance, and student task perseverance. Each of these items is a research topic of its own. For now, for more immediate use, below are three entry points for reflecting on learning task design or for consideration if you are working toward deepening the learning present in your task-based classroom.

1. Task Structure: each learning task should be considered one phase of a learning task cycle. A task cycle includes a pre-task activity, the task itself, and a post-task activity.


Pre-task activities are more than task instructions. They are an opportunity to notice, or even collect data on, student learning and thinking. Pre-task activities are also an opportunity to build background knowledge and level the playing field for children. For example, some teachers launch into a task from an element of close reading such as a vocabulary categorization, or a prediction pre-task, or a quick interactive quiz and discussion to provide a mental setup for the task to come. The pre-task is important to the task cycle because in task-based classrooms, it's important for students to persevere in a task. A task must be able to be completed, with some productive struggle, and to complete a task, children must be equipped with enough foundational background knowledge to be able to attempt multiple pathways to full completion.


The task itself, at the heart of the learning experience, should always be student-driven, student-centered, designed for student struggle and student completion. Learning tasks that present an opportunity for students to solve a problem, explain their thinking, and explain a solution, can be a powerful classroom strategy for learning.


Post-task activities typically allow for a task wrap-up and a student reflection. For example, some teachers may capture a brief written response, or a visual model of a concept, from students as they exit the classroom. Some teachers use the post-task to ask students which strategies on a checklist they used to solve their task or work through the task and conquer obstacles. The post-task phase of the learning task cycle is an opportunity for the teacher to notice how student conceptualization of a learning topic changed after completing a learning task. Useful information about student learning or student shifts in thinking are made visible when an entire task cycle is completed.


2. Task Maintenance: when student learning becomes visible through task cycles, teacher questions need to be strategic. Consider scripting questions in advance. Questions play a major role in a task-based classroom. This is because the right question at the right moment can support students in moving their thinking forward within a task, essentially providing scaffolding (supports) to keep the task moving toward completion.


Consider questions carefully and strategically.


Informational questions have their place in a learning sequence, but they are likely not the most powerful questions to use when supporting students during a learning task because they do not teach the teacher about student learning. Examples of informational questions include: "What is...?" "What does...mean?" If a fact or a meaning can be recalled or looked up in a resource, it is likely informational and does not require deep thinking.


You may already use some of these question starters: "Explain it another way." "What decisions were you making when you...?" These are examples of questions that probe thinking. During a learning task, these questions can teach us about student entry points to working through a task. They can also teach us about students' processes for making decisions about task completion.


Higher order thinking questions make learning visible and require students to explain and justify their reasoning. For example, asking questions such as "What is the connection between...?" and asking "How...?" can teach the teacher about how students conceptualize a topic and what connections students may be making to prior knowledge. Using questions such as "How do you know?" or "Explain your reasoning." or "How can you prove...?" will require students to explain and justify their reasoning. These types of questions will teach a teacher about student misconceptions, student visualization of a concept, and student reasoning.


Allow students to think and respond to questions. Be patient and comfortable with seconds of silence as learners consider for the first time something that the teacher has had time to think about prior to the lesson. Be careful not to take over students' thinking, not to over-scaffold (provide too much support, causing student thinking to become unnecessary), or complete the task for the student. Student voice must play an integral role in a task-based classroom. Asking strategic questions brings student voice to the forefront of the learning space and facilitates opportunities for teachers to learn about student learning.


3. Task perseverance: tasks should have a difficulty level that allows students to engage in productive struggle. Learning tasks, when well-designed, take time. And, as teachers, we must invest our limited instructional minutes in opportunities for deep learning - think quality over quantity. Give your students the gift of a challenge. When students struggle, allow them to do so, remembering that no task should be so difficult that it cannot be completed. Tasks are about thinking through the task process and solutions, not about task rigor that is so difficult that students become frustrated.


Teach students strategies for cooperative learning and collaboration (think of thinking-driven group roles - more on this in a coming blog) in their groups so they can serve as a support network for each other. Often it is the words spoken by others that allows a new idea to spark in our own mind. Students need their teacher and they need each other for task completion. Observation, and even side-by-side participation, in productive struggle can teach us much about student thinking, student perseverance, and student use of learning strategies.


Remember that the concept of productive struggle is underpinned by the word "productive". If the struggle of task completion is so frustrating that students shut down, it is also futile to the deep learning that it is designed to support. A task that cannot be completed will not make student learning visible to the teacher, making movement forward to future learning difficult to design.

What do you learn about your students' learning when you observe your students during a well-designed learning task? By contrast, what do you learn about your students' learning if you trudge through a textbook page-by-page or complete a series of worksheets? While instructional minutes are precious, we should bank those minutes in deep learning opportunities, even if those opportunities slow the learning down and throw off our idealistic concept of perfect pacing.


If you have questions or comments on this article, I welcome your feedback. Follow me on Twitter @emilybetz.


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