Monday, January 2, 2017

Students Going Further: Tasks and Task Ceilings

| Post by Susan Perkins Weston |

Kentucky students can do powerful work given opportunity, but opportunity matters. They can’t learn to apply geometry to major design projects by cranking out answers to thousands of small equations. They can’t learn to evaluate and synthesize research by filling in worksheet blanks. They can’t learn to design experiments, implement them, and analyze the resulting data by reading about experiments in books. They can’t learn to communicate and collaborate by keeping their eyes on their own separate papers.

In many education circles, this problem is tied to a great Richard Elmore claim: task predicts performance. Around that phrase, Elmore rallies many different classroom observations and the work of many research projects to show that powerful tasks matter and yet remain rare.

Huge numbers of school assignments continue to operate at the level of small, disconnected activities, giving students little chance to grow the big skills.

I know powerful exceptions, including the Literacy Design Collaborative and Mathematics Design Collaborative work that Kentucky teachers have helped lead. Project-Based Learning and Deeper Learning efforts also show promise by offering students much larger and more authentic challenges to take on.

I also know that the teachers who do the work report steady struggle to convince colleagues that the big efforts are the right next steps.

There are reasons that schools ask too little from students. There’s habit and tradition, since so many teachers were mostly taught by worksheet and lecture themselves. There’s the ready availability of handouts that implement the small-scale efforts. There’s the shortage of time to develop the better tasks and think through teaching plans that empower students to work with growing insight and independence. Especially, there’s the shortage of collaborative time to work though those approaches with colleagues, share student results, and think together about what else to improve for future learning.

There’s also testing. The assessments Kentucky uses for accountability are heavy on quick-answer questions. If we base accountability on 30 questions in an hour, it stands to reason that teachers will hesitate before spending three hours on a single, much richer challenge. Even a decade ago, students had to respond to open-response items that required them to build their own explanations, but that’s nearly gone in our current assessments, and especially lacking at the high school level.

Kentucky students can go much further: my case for that is based in part what students do when given big opportunities in the form of substantial tasks. Today’s students do not often fly that high: my explanation for that starts with the fact that they do not often get the opportunity. Together, those two points show how potential can both exist and go unfulfilled.

Opening the big doors to big student tasks will require deep changes in school culture and practice,  changes that I think will only be fully secured when a large majority of teachers come into the profession having spent many years learning from that kind of assignment. It will be hard work, but it will be work very much worthy of our energy.

Source note: Elmore makes his task claim in many places, including his work with collaborators in Instructional Rounds, and also regularly attributes the claim to Walter Doyle and his 1983 piece on “Academic Work.” 1998 work by Fred Newmann and his colleagues on “The Quality of Intellectual Work in Chicago Schools” and 2009 work by Kim Koh and Allan Luke on “Authentic and conventional assessment in Singapore schools” add depth to the analysis, and I’m specifically grateful to Barb Smith at the Literacy Design Collaborative for putting those works in my path.

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