Friends, I hope you are doing well. I cannot believe that it is the beginning of September; this summer has gone by incredibly quickly. It has been a while since the last Coaching Letter, not because I haven’t had anything to write about, but because so few people read the last one. And it was a really good one, too, on Perceived Self-Efficacy, so here it is if you missed it. And in case the anticipation has been driving you crazy, the article I mentioned was indeed rejected by Ed Leadership, but this time I got a really nice rejection notice.
This Coaching Letter is nerdier than most—I know they’re all pretty nerdy, but this one is just about one aspect of instructional design that I’ve been puzzling over lately: task design.

I and my colleagues have spent a goodly chunk of the last few months working on Acceleration with a number of client districts, plus the NIC (in case this is an unfamiliar term to you, NIC stands for networked improvement community; the idea is that several organizations work together on a shared problem of practice; because they are all working on the same problem and trying many of the same solutions, the number of experiments being run is multiplied; therefore, there is more data available to study, and organizational learning moves more quickly than it might have otherwise).

Working with the NIC has been a glorious challenge, not least because there are several things going on at once: the content of the Accelerating Learning Framework (which includes Challenging Task), the workings of a NIC (which I wrote about in this Coaching Letter—it’s #2 on the list), facilitating adult learning (which I wrote about in this Coaching Letter—this time about work in Milford), and more.

As part of the work of the NIC, each district team identified a problem statement to further investigate, and most of them focused on task—to generalize: “not all of our students spend enough of their time on appropriately challenging tasks”. My co-facilitator, David, saw the implications of this faster than I did; “we better get really good at task,” he said. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And—coincidentally or not, I’m not sure—several other districts I work with are also focused on some element of task design, including the work of John Antonetti, or Project-Based Learning, or Deeper Learning.

Sometimes when we need a framework or a resource to support the work of partner districts, we find something that is exactly what we need: a book that is comprehensive, research-based, practical, and reliable. For example, for all things formative assessment, I turn to the work of Dylan Wiliam; his book Embedded Formative Assessment is based on his decades of work in the field, and is also rich in practical techniques for teachers. (Also, his website is fantastic – he makes a ton of resources free to the user, including publications, PowerPoints, interviews and videos. And he has also always been very kind to me – I occasionally email him questions and he writes detailed replies, and he provided one of the blurbs for my book.)

However, when it comes to task, not so easy. My colleagues and I have looked at over a dozen books so far, plus a bunch of articles and websites, and there is not one resource that I think captures what we need. I would like to thank my Twitter buddies for many of the suggestions of books to consult—I’m not done reading all of them yet. Here is an interim report.

One of the most useful articles we looked at is actually about task design for college teaching: Roberson, B., & Franchini, B. (2014). Effective task design for the TBL classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25. One of the many things that struck me reading this article was the use of the term Critical Thinking as being about testing what we know (“are we sure of these facts? Are we sure we understand?” p. 279), and I was just as struck, and a little embarrassed, that I had never really thought much about the meaning of the expression, even though it is one that we toss around all the time, and appears in innumerable Portrait of the Graduate statements that I have read over the last few years. This led to a long conversation with my good friend and colleague Sarah Birkeland, about how critical thinking can become a kind of intellectual one-upmanship, when it becomes about criticizing the logic or veracity of someone else’s ideas, thereby creating an ethos of academic snobbery rather than a safe learning environment. So I had to think about that for a while, and was helped by a couple of other resources, including The learning challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding, by James Nottingham, which I know well from working with Milford.

The Learning Challenge is an extremely useful book, because it touches on so many aspects of the cognitive psychology of learning and puts it in practical terms. It is not about task design per se, but it uses the metaphor of a pit (I know, doesn’t sound too enticing, but it works) to represent the productive struggle that we ask students to engage in order to resolve the contradictions, lack of schema, and misconceptions that they hold about a subject. In addition, it describes the classroom learning environment that has to be created in order to make the risk of jumping into the pit safe for students. It is conceptually dense, but it also has many practical examples.

Leslie Maniotes, a good friend of mine from my time in Colorado, is the founder of Guided Inquiry Design, an organization that supports districts, schools and teachers in transforming “old-school” research projects into inquiry projects. One of the coolest things about her work is that she is building on research by her mother, Carol Kuhlthau, who is professor emerita of Library and Information Science at Rutgers University. I had a long conversation with her about task design, and she helped me get my head around a couple of things that I had been stuck on.

First, one of the things I noticed in reading about task design is the tension between what I’ll call the “assessment-forward” approach, and the “thinking-forward” approach. In the former, the emphasis is on outcomes, product, assessment, and rubric—also known as backwards design—and then you are supposed to design learning experiences to get students to the outcomes, but that design work gets short shrift, and the books are very heavy on the summative assessment. Leslie pointed out to me that if the presentation of a project to students leads with a list of requirements and a rubric, this is overwhelming for students, and is really more for the teacher’s record-keeping benefit.

In the latter, the emphasis is much more on the thinking that students are being asked to do, making that thinking visible, which is formative assessment that can be used to provide feedback to students to further their understanding and to provide feedback to the teacher to adapt their instruction based on student need. Just to be clear, this is not to say that student work shouldn’t be assessed, just that the primary emphasis on assessment has implications for the way that students perceive the work. (And rubrics have other issues, but that’s for another time…)

The other thing that Leslie challenged me on is the issue of time. I was thinking of task design as lesson planning, but Leslie pointed out the risk in that—because learning is a process that takes time to unfold, and so thinking in terms of individual lessons is not helpful. But I don’t think there is anything magic about large projects that take weeks or months to complete. Somewhere in there we have to be able to give guidance about how to conceptualize time in planning for student learning.

If you are working with us on some aspect of Acceleration or task design then you may have already seen the tools we have developed—and continue to refine—on task. They definitely favor the “thinking-forward” approach, drawing on the work of many of the resources mentioned above, including Dylan Wiliam, James Nottingham, Kolb’s Learning Styles and Experiential Learning Cycle and Harvard Project Zero Thinking Routines Toolbox. Still more to do, but I really like the direction we are heading…

The next few weeks are going to be busy for everyone. Best of luck—we are going to need it. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Sincerely, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC

Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter

Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge

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