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Principles of designing powerful learning tasks- Part 1

“Never work harder than your students”- Title of Book by Robyn Jackson

Role of the teacher and the student

It is obvious that learning involves work and unless children work at it, they will not learn. It often appears that students are indeed working- listening to the teacher speak, answering a question, conducting an experiment, taking down notes etc. If we look closely though, we find that a lot of the listening is passive, the questions being answered are ones they already know the answer to, the procedure for the experiment is already defined, and if this is the work students are expected to do, what can we really hope they will learn? Perhaps they will be able to give the right answers on a test, replicate an experiment; they may even be able to apply what they have learned in a slightly different context.

But what if they were required to understand a problem, design a solution to it, or develop a point of view on an issue- in short, what if they were required to really think on their own? It then becomes clear that the kind of work students typically do in a classroom is woefully inadequate in equipping them to meet these demands.

Even worse, when students have spent countless hours in classrooms without being challenged, or much being expected of them, they can start believing that learning is the responsibility of the teacher and not theirs! They are then in a zone of comfort, where it is easier to ‘go along with things’ than go through the excitement of taking up and working on challenges. Having rarely experienced the rewards of working on challenges, the risks of doing so appear too huge, not to speak of the lack of confidence to take on challenges.

Does this mean that the teacher should now become a ‘facilitator’ while children ‘learn on their own’? Not really- students need teachers to provide good explanations, pose appropriate challenges, ask them the right questions to aid learning, provide feedback and so on. On the other hand, students must think through things on their own without teachers giving away the answer, attempt challenges they have not encountered earlier and persist with tasks in spite of difficulties. To sum up,

"teachers must do teachers’ work, while students must do students’ work."

Many teachers face ‘reluctant’ and ‘unwilling’ students on a daily basis, and may feel that the idea of getting them to think on their own and persist through challenges is impractical, given that they are barely motivated to learn the subject, even when things have been made ‘easier’ or ‘fun’ for them. The paradox here is that meaningful work and challenge are motivating and when students do not get such academic work, they switch off. In our experience, we have found that most students respond positively to developmentally appropriate challenging tasks, remaining engaged for long periods of time, though it may take 3-4 days to break past habits of being passive.

In this piece, we suggest 5 principles of designing great learning tasks that we have gathered from our experience. Great learning tasks take time and effort to design and refine, but are hugely worthwhile in terms of the impact on student learning, motivation and overall classroom culture.

To illustrate the principles, we will take the example of the ‘paper column challenge’ that we have used with children on multiple occasions. This challenge requires the student to make a paper column that can take the maximum load without collapsing (the variable is the cross-sectional shape of the paper). This short video explains the challenge in greater detail.

The SCORE Principles

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”- Harrington Emerson, Twelve Principles of Efficiency

We want to emphasize that the below are higher level principles and not specific methods. Specific methods depend on the composition of children in the classroom, the topic, the specific activity, the teacher’s style and so on; the teacher is in the best position to choose specific methods. For example, there could be many different ways of motivating and challenging children (Stimulating them) and many different ways of guiding reflection.

We use the mnemonic ‘SCORE’ to represent the 5 principles. The next post elaborates on each principle and shares concluding thoughts.

  • S for Stimulating

  • C for Constrained

  • O for Open

  • R for Reflective

  • E for Extensible