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?
Is it a good task?
If students are writing a book review, would this be a good task?
Yes : You’d be right – but only if the book review went somewhere other than to your briefcase for marking. People write reviews to tell others what’s good, and what deserves rotten tomatoes. If nobody reads a book review except the teacher, then it isn’t a real review; it’s mainly a writing assignment.
Maybe: You’re right – it all depends on the reason you’re asking student to write reviews. If nobody reads a book review except the teacher, then it isn’t a real book review, it’s merely a writing assignment.
No: Book reviews are a classic assignment – and it’s tempting to dismiss them as an old, worn-out idea. Rethink this in a way that promotes the principles of inquiry.
If students are solving a probability problem in mathematics, would this be a good task?
Yes: The rights tasks can immerse students in both theoretical and very practical applications of probability. For example, children as young as six, working with engineers from the oil and gas industry, can plan the development of offshore facilities using the same mathematical thinking. This is a great task because students can enter the fields of probability and statistics, simulation, mathematical processes, numerical computation and visualization at a very basic level – or explore them in great depth.
Maybe: You can assign lots of homework questions about probability without actually moving into the space where students have to design, solve and defend their thinking. And you can miss the opportunity for real learning if you think that you have to “cover” probability before you can let students play around with the idea. Remember, the task itself opens up the whole area of probability. It’s not an extension activity you might get around to if you have enough time. It actually forms the basis of your teaching.
No: Are you concerned that probability sounds too much like math homework and not enough like an inquiry? A common misconception about inquiry based teaching and learning is that you have to give students big, abstract questions about the meaning of life, or you are not doing an inquiry. Students can enter the fields of probability and statistics, simulation, mathematical processes, numerical computation and visualization at a very basic level – or explore them in great depth.
If students are making a film, is that a good task?
Yes: Films are a classic example of a performance-based task. If the film bombs, the audience lets you know! And if you have done a great job, the audience is enchanted. When the task is effectively tied to an inquiry, even the youngest filmmakers can work to have their films shown at local IMAX theatres. One group even had their film accepted to the 2005 New York International Film and Video Festival.
Maybe: There’s no magic bullet when it comes to making sure a task with real potential doesn’t turn back into a lack luster assignment. If you decide in advance that everyone will make a film; that students will do the work entirely outside class time; or that the only people who get to see the finished product are other people in the class, your students will soon get the message: this isn’t a task the teacher takes really seriously. When the task is effectively tied to an inquiry, even the youngest filmmakers can work to have their films shown at local IMAX theatres. One group even had their film accepted to the 2005 New York International Film and Video Festival.
No: It’s certainly possible to treat the task of film making in a weak way. If you just turn students loose with a camera and check back with them three weeks later to see what they came up with, that’s almost certainly a recipe for disaster. Filmmaking demands a wide range of skills and technical expertise. If you build in opportunities for students to acquire the knowledge they need in order to be truly creative with the medium—then the task is really great. The magic isn’t in the filmmaking itself. It’s in how you use the task as a vehicle for real learning.