Once students are hooked by your invitation to a great topic, it’s time to focus on what they can build and create. The tasks you design will be worth their full attention – and be open-ended enough that every student can find a way of making the work their own. This cannot be accomplished if tasks are reduced to mere assignments (write a report, complete this quiz).
In a classroom focused on building knowledge, keep the following in mind:
- The task should be recognizable to someone who has expertise in the field. The point of access you create in the task doesn’t ‘dumb down’ the subject or discipline. Great tasks create opportunities to encounter the real dilemmas, struggles and problems that characterize the subject.
- In a great task, students are designers and builders who confront and try to resolve big issues or essential questions. They don’t just think about concepts; they dig in and make something that requires them to encounter and understand fundamental issues of the subject.
- A strong task is one that allows students to have a genuine voice in what the next steps will be. In a weak task, the next steps are predetermined either by teachers (workbooks), or by a computer program (computer assisted instruction). In a great task the discoveries each student makes individually and as part of a team actually determine what they have to do next.
- Great tasks develop strong habits of mind that promote questions of evidence (asking how we know what we know), searching for connections and patterns, supposition, and finally, determining why the topic of study matters.
- Through technology, great tasks permit learners to explore complex and changing relationships between variables, bring multiple perspectives to bear, and publish their work to contribute to the knowledge of the world.
- A good task is hard fun: Enjoyable to tackle, and meaningful. It’s easy to assume a task should be easy enough for students to complete without struggle along the way. In a good task, encountering difficulties is part of the learning – they mark genuine encounters with the heart of the subject. The point is not to avoid those places, but to guide students as they proceed. Their struggles will give a strong idea of where teaching needs to come, just in time for it to be meaningful and useful.
Think of your task as an umbrella…
This lets you think of the smaller activities, or sub-tasks that cluster underneath. In an inquiry, each activity must build the necessary understanding to accomplish the task. For example, a task for senior high English students might be to create their own documentaries. Rather than simply letting them loose with a video camera, you can create sub-tasks that will, for example, build their understanding of what documentary filmmakers are up to these days. Other ideas include developing interview skills, and learning storyboarding, editing and camera techniques.
Don’t collect a bunch of activities in hopes they will add up to something meaningful – remember, in learning environments in which inquiry flourishes, sub-tasks and activities are always intentional and strategic in relation to the task and overall topic they support. Be strategic about your activities:
- Identify what students need to do so they can fully explore fundamental concepts.
- Use technology at any stage of the inquiry, in a wide range of activities. This allows you and your students to think about the task in new ways.
- Develop ways of debriefing activities individually, and with the whole class. This helps identify any frustrations and difficulties, and turns them into learning events.
You can build the background knowledge to activities in the following ways:
- When you talked to your students about the topic, what questions did they have? What did they want to know more about? What misconceptions did they have about the topic? The answers can guide your decision about where to start.
- On the basis of your own experience with students and this topic, where are they most likely to encounter difficulties? What activities would help solve these problems really quickly?
- What resources do you have at your disposal? Are there local speakers, field trips (including virtual field trips), Internet sites, stories, or videos?