Saturday, May 4, 2013

Do Your Tasks REQUIRE Learning?

This week, I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent my school district and attend Harvard University to take part in the Instructional Rounds Program presented by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  And now, as I sit on the plane on the way home (via Chicago and Calgary…groan) reflecting on the week, my mind is in a state of both mental exhaustion and tremendous intellectual stimulation in every recollection.  The program was incredibly intense:  there was no figurative dipping of the toe in the IR pool, but rather an intellectual shove off of a rocky cliff into a frothing ocean with your individual educational values feeling like a set of water wings there to save you.  The Harvard professors and facilitators pushed the thinking, challenged your statements, thrust you into interdependent collaboration, and demanded commitments from the 104 teachers, administrators and district staff from places ranging from Boston, Texas, Ontario, British Columbia, Germany, and Australia, Brazil and many other places.  And they did it through a simple lens:

The way to learn the work is to do the work.  And the performance on that work and accountability to that work is predicted by the tasks you are required to do.


When tasks were put before us, there were supports, but they weren’t supports in the form of answers:  there were more and deeper questions.  There weren’t supports in the form of constructs or manuals or formalized structures, instead, there were scenarios presented which made us think of the nature of the questions we might ask people we are working with in the future to help THEM clarify the work they were doing.  There were not pontificating lectures telling us to change our thinking.  We were challenged to provide the evidence for our thoughts, and if that evidence didn’t support that train of thought, then we needed to look critically at what the evidence did in fact support to shape our further thinking.
We worked in groups with teams comprised of members from all over the world.  We worked with our own teams.  We spent entire days in schools practicing.  We then spent evenings working with our teams again.  We worked with our professors who were very quick to ask why we thought certain things and why we made the statements that we did.  At almost every break, we had to write reflections, and share those reflections with someone who would ask questions of clarity.  We went back to schools and practiced some more. We listened to and critiqued the commitments from other groups knowing that they would be doing the same for us. We had to open up our thoughts and values to the larger group. 
We had no choice.  We were DOING the work.  The task didn't just make us accountable to our facilitators, it made us accountable to ourselves AND our peers. And we LEARNED.

I will tell you, it was exhausting.  And just when you thought you couldn’t push your thinking any farther, another question came that scaffolded us to the next task.  Just enough scaffolding to keep us in that zone of proximal development.  Groan.  More learning.

It was messy.

Learning is messy.

At the end of the first day, I felt like my brain just went 15 rounds with a heavyweight boxer and I got KO’d in the ninth round but kept going.  But because the task was within that zone of challenge, and because I received just enough scaffolding to move on, and because I was working interdependently with my teams, the next morning I was absolutely excited to step into the ring again.  And each day I lasted longer in the fight.  I started to fight back.

You might be thinking “Ummm…NO KIDDING.”  The whole notion of learning by doing the work seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?  And of course the task predicts performance right?  Hmmm.  Not so fast.

When I reflect upon my own practice, I wonder if the tasks that I asked students to do in my classroom were structured in a way that gave them no other option to be engaged.  I wonder if the supports that I gave to my students were clarifying questions so they could make their own meaning, or whether the students were learning through MY filter and mine alone.  I wonder if the great and the not-so-great performance that I got out of my students was because of the task I assigned to them, not because of their own capabilities.  I wonder whether I spent enough time having them learn by doing the work rather than watching me do the work.

I wonder if the staff and professional development activities that I do and have done with my staff have engaged them like I was engaged.  If it had them doing the real work that needed to be done to learn and augment our knowledge about new tasks. Because this week, I was not professionally developed, my capacity was increased in a way that is difficult to describe.  

And as a side note, we did not touch a piece of technology.  Not once.  And I love technology.  But I was too way too engaged to notice we weren’t using it.  The only time I noticed that we didn’t use technology or web tools was when I was walking back to the hotel—my bag felt so heavy with my laptop and tablet that after the second day I finally left them in the hotel and didn’t miss them a bit.  I was engaged by doing the work.  Doing higher order tasks that elicited higher order work from the entire group.

As a point of reflection, if you examine the tasks that you ask other adults or students to do, do the tasks require the participants to do the desired work?  Or is doing the work optional?  As an example, are you upset that students are not demonstrating higher order learning skills in your classes, but demanding them to work independently, answer fill in the blank questions, do vocabulary crosswords, or copy definitions out of the textbook? Have you ever asked yourself the simple question “What will the student know and have been required to demonstrate after doing this work?”

The way to learn the work is to do the work.  And the performance on that work and accountability to that work is predicted by the tasks you are required to do.

Over the next few weeks and months, I am going to continue to reflect and blog about my experiences with Instructional Rounds.  There is too much to write in a single post, and I feel this sense of responsibility to my colleagues who were and were not a part of IR to do rounds justice.

Create the task that makes them do the work.  A seemingly simple concept, but have we really looked at the tasks we have created to see what students will have been required to learn and demonstrate to us and their peers? 



  1. Thanks for this post Cale! It reminds me of Biggs and Tang's 'Teaching for quality learning at university', while obviously directed at higher ed, the principle remains identical. There must be what the authors call 'constructive alignment' between learning intentions and learning activities, and ultimately, it is not what the teacher does that is important, it is what the student does.


  2. It's amazing isn't it... we've always known that intended outcomes, tasks, assessment, performance are linked, but it is easy to let some of these steps fall to chance in the story that unfolds in the classroom (or staff meeting). It takes time, it comes at a cost to the comfortable narratives we have becomes very good at "working through" with our students and each other. This is one of the biggest challenges for prep time and professional development -- to habitualize coherent design, especially when it is not second nature -- and then to practice it. Rob and I (and others in our PLN) have been wrestling with this for the last few years... designing critical thinking tasks in Social Studies to effect two particular outcomes: use of primary sources to develop decoding and interpretation skills, and use of this process to awaken curiousity as to larger narratives and causal relationships, hopefully as a gateway to synthesis and other "benchmarks" of thinking (like seeing patterns, inquiry into ethical dimensions of history, etc.). Something for everybody, really -- from dinner table conversations about current events to the personal connections students are willing to make between what they are learning and values at play in their lives, heritage context (family), and culture. Rob has been very sharp about getting these "habits" into almost every lesson -- I've got a way to go there, my energy has been on the use of heritage inquiry and major research projects in SS10 & SS11 and "enbodied" research in Geog 12. Both of us are slowly shifting our F/S assessment tools to reflect the change in tasks. Less answering questions and more about prompts that allow students to perform the skills they have been practicing. Anyways, your blog post is encouraging -- there are so many contexts in which this grand "coherence" needs to occupy more and more time. I'm especially looking forward to seeing how you interpret it within the sphere of staff development.

  3. Because I participated in Harvard's High School Restructuring institute a few years back, I completely relate to that paradoxical feeling of mental exhaustion and intellectual stimulation. I heard both Richard Elmore and Amy City speak about their Instructional Rounds concept and the focus on task--I found it inspiring. This paradigm shift requires some deep reflection on our classroom decision and practice, so I am slightly jealous of your "rocky cliff" jump! Thanks though for sharing through your blog as I feel a renewed engagement with reviewing my classroom tasks and reflecting on the learning environment I am creating.

    Now looking back on your experience, could you see where technology incorporation would have made sense even though you didn't miss it in the moment? This omission of technology surprised me, even though I absolutely recognize it is inconsequential to inspiring creative or critical thinking.

  4. Totally jealous of your learning experience, Cale!

    Thanks for sharing it with us here.

    I wish I had been there to learn alongside you. I need some professional reinvigoration.

    Rock on,

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