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Principles of designing powerful learning tasks- Part 2

Part 1 of this post spoke about the importance of designing learning tasks that put the onus of the 'work of learning' on the student. This second and concluding part proposes 5 principles of designing powerful learning tasks and elaborates on them.
Stimulating

‘Stimulating’ is a subjective word- what some find interesting, others may not. Yet, most students find developmentally appropriate challenges stimulating, when they have to produce something, solve a puzzle or engage in some activity that has room for their ideas and creativity. We have not found any student disengaged in our paper column challenge activity- seeing a paper column collapse is ‘fun’ for most students, but more importantly, they start getting hooked when they see the column bearing much more load than they expected and enjoy having the freedom to build different kinds of shapes.

We want to stress that the objective is not to make the activity ‘fun’, though at some point the hard work starts becoming enjoyable. As Caroline Sherwood says in her article on desirable difficulties,

“In a classroom where learning is the most important thing that happens day-in, day-out, fun is perhaps a little too temporary, too flimsy and transient for me – an enduring, more ingrained love of learning driven by intrinsic motivation fuels my lesson planning. Learning itself is fun. The fun is in the learning. It is not a bolt-on and they are not mutually exclusive, but for me – the learning must come first.”

Having said this, there is no harm in having a ‘fun hook’ at the start for the first couple of minutes to get students engaged in the activity. The learning (and a new kind of excitement/ fun associated with it) will however be sustained only through the opportunity for students to work on challenges that are part of the activity.

Constrained

While learning tasks need to allow space for open exploration (the next principle on our list) to boost creativity, placing constraints too are equally important in encouraging creativity. Perhaps nobody knows this better than school teachers- generally short of resources and time, teachers come up with the most creative and innovative ways to use materials and organize time to provide children the learning environment they need.

Constraints don’t allow one to fall back on easy or expensive solutions and force one to think harder and more clearly. In our paper column challenge, we specify that the joined edges of the column cannot have an overlap of more than 5 mm. This constraint rules out the possibility of making stronger columns by ‘doubling the paper thickness’ and forces the students to get more creative with the column shapes to find a shape that is strongest. Sometimes, we do not provide students with standard weights that forces them to look for other ways to conduct their investigation.

Open

Space for open exploration is crucial for the learner to bring forth ideas and discover his or her resourcefulness. Following a ‘defined recipe’ in a project is thus limited in providing learning value. At the same time, open exploration that is not channeled may lead to chaos; the greatest works of creativity are a balance between possibilities that are open and constraints or rules that must be respected. Think of the accomplished classical musician who creates a beautiful melody while respecting the strict rules of the raga. Designing a great learning task requires achieving a similar balance.

In our paper column challenge, students can experiment with all kinds of shapes within the specified constraints. This sometimes leads to students coming up with shapes that the teacher has not thought of- leading to a genuine ‘joint learning’ with the student, which also enhances the student’s confidence and boldness in thinking.

Reflective

Reflecting on what has worked, and what has not, why something has worked, what we are still confused about, what we would like to try next to get clear about that, and so on, is crucial to internalize learning. In fact, without assessing what we have learnt and reflecting on it, we cannot hope to ‘transfer the learning’ to another context, and the ability for such transfer is the larger goal of education.

Take the paper column challenge for example. A student may make a column that bears more load than the other students in the class, but has not recorded his observations with columns of different shapes or attempted to make inferences about the relationship between geometry and strength. Another student’s strongest column was not as strong as the other student’s, but he has made careful observations and has understood that a triangular profile seems to offer greater rigidity; he also has recorded the data that he can revisit to refine his hypotheses and inferences. Clearly the second student has a deeper understanding of shapes and strength and is more likely to build a stronger column in the future, building on what he has learnt.

Even more important is the learning of how to go about investigating something. No student in the class may finally become an engineer who is required to design and build structures, but many of them will be required to investigate something. In order to enable the internalization and transfer of learning, the designer of the learning task should design how reflection and assessment should be built in (this includes self-assessment).

In the paper column challenge, students are made to capture their observations and reflections during the activity, capturing these in a journal. Some examples of what they are required to do are-

  1. List the different designs you tried out (sketches/ pictures of the different cross-sections)

  2. Describe the weights you used and your loading procedure (use sketches/ pictures in your description)

  3. Share your learning through the exercise (example- I realized this was happening, so I tried that)

  4. What advice would you give to somebody else to make a strong column (for example- which shapes would work best)

Extensible

There are learners at different levels in a classroom- some may finish the activity quickly and get bored, while some need more time to explore the activity and internalize it. It also takes time for learners to appreciate and internalize a given context (for example, shapes of columns and their strength). If a new activity requires them to learn about a new context, they need time to familiarize themselves with the new context. If learning tasks are ‘extensible’ in the sense of being designed to offer graded activities, this could address both the challenges of engaging learners moving at a different pace, as well as the context-switching issue.

The paper column challenge can be extended to predicting the load different shapes can take, experimenting with different cross-sectional shapes at the top and bottom of the column, the effect of varying the column height and so on. This principle has also been referred to as ‘Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks’ by designers of math tasks. The advantages of providing such varied and graded tasks are-

  • All students can be engaged, even if working at different levels

  • Allows students to demonstrate what they can do and build confidence

  • Allows the teacher to assess what the student is able to understand and where he’s struggling

  • Discussions about the activity are richer because everybody has spent time on it, making for better peer learning

Final Thoughts

It is neither necessary nor practical for all lessons to be conducted in the form of such learning tasks. However, when even a couple of learning tasks like this are conducted every month (this could mean 10 such learning tasks across subjects), a big change in the culture of learning is possible. Students will start taking a greater responsibility for learning, and over a period of time, many of these principles will become second nature to teachers and this will influence all their lessons. For example, teachers will learn to ask better questions that stimulate learning, wait for students to answer before giving away the answer, get students to reflect on their learning and so on.

All the 5 principles of SCORE need not be applied to every learning task, though a stimulating challenge and reflection are always relevant. For some purposes, it may not be necessary to have an open-ended exploration, while some purposes may not need constraints. Teachers should consider the purpose of the session in deciding which principles to apply.

Over a period of time, teachers working together to build a repository of great learning tasks may be the most powerful way of building school quality. When teachers share their learning tasks with others and help each other refine these (observing each other’s sessions), they are at the acme of their profession.

And when so much preparation has gone into designing learning tasks, it looks as though students are really working harder than the teacher in the classroom.