Take it from the task-master: easy ways to get pupils thinking

Teachers know hard thinking leads to better learning. Here, Peter Mattock explains how to set up knowledge-boosting activities without burning the midnight oil
21st July 2017, 12:00am
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Take it from the task-master: easy ways to get pupils thinking


Deciding what you want your pupils to do in a lesson so that they can consolidate knowledge, develop understanding or just generally explore a theme is one of the most important judgements that teachers make each day. Get it right, students thrive; get it wrong, learning stalls - or it can even go backwards.

Fortunately, task design is becoming an ever-more-informed process. The majority of teachers understand that engagement is a poor proxy for learning. Classrooms of pupils busy working on a task that they find “fun” does not necessarily mean the children will emerge having made any sort of significant progress.

And teachers now have a better understanding of the links between thinking, attention and memory development than ever before. This should be informing how we create, adapt or review the tasks we use in the classroom.

The trouble is that all this knowledge requires teachers to spend more time thinking about and then honing classroom tasks. Time, as we all know, is in short supply. So how can we make the whole process quicker?

Well, I believe there are five Cs of informed task design. And they look like this:

1. Competition

Competitions that require pupils to produce “more” than other pupils/groups or to complete tasks “quicker” do not generally lead to pupils having to think more. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for quick practice competitions, or “who can do most” competitions. Used too often, they can be very demotivating for pupils who struggle.

A better alternative is to set competitions that require pupils to create responses that are “better”, “more interesting” and so on. This requires students to devote real attention to the crucial aspects of an idea to try and understand how it can be improved.

The great thing about these competitions is that they don’t have to be against others; competitions against your own prior performance are some of the best. These sorts of competitions are also much more motivating for the lower-attaining pupils in a class, as they can still win; indeed, athletes who are never going to win any medals still compete hard to produce their personal best performance.

2. Collaboration

Many teachers will set individual work and allow pupils to talk about it, perhaps in a particular order so that higher-attaining students can help “weaker” members of the class. This sort of activity definitely has a place in lessons at times, but I wouldn’t count it as true collaboration.

A truly collaborative process is one where each person collaborating has a different skill set and different ideas, and each is able to blend these together into a finished product. This is the sort of activity that can prompt really in-depth thinking from pupils in lessons, as the different skills and understanding promote discussion, as well as debate.

Setting up truly collaborative tasks is very hard, and requires a great deal of understanding from the teachers as to the different strengths of the pupils whom they are going to ask to collaborate. But, done right, these tasks can be some of the most powerful learning activities in a teacher’s arsenal.

Group investigations in which each member has to research a certain aspect of the situation, collective memory tasks and group mind-mapping are all ways to promote true collaboration among pupils.

3. Creativity

This one is pretty self-explanatory; find a way to get the creative juices flowing and pupils will likely to be engaged in a meaningful way that requires hard thinking, and thus learning.

Creative tasks can involve practical work, with pupils designing or creating, which focuses attention on design choices and how they impact the outcome.

Equally, creative tasks can prompt pupils to argue an opinion that is not their own or is in some way controversial.

Alternatively, creative tasks can require pupils to come up with inventive uses of objects or techniques already studied, or to change something already understood so it works in a new situation.

Each of these can prompt pupils to consider aspects of a situation, approach or techniques that they may not have previously considered, which should lead to deeper understanding of what is being studied.

4. Choice

Choice is always a difficult one for a teacher. Providing choice of activity automatically implies more work in terms of designing or sourcing different suitable tasks. Clearly, this has implications for workload, both in terms of the time taken to design and also the assessment of a variation of different activities. In addition, choice is generally effective only if pupils are well guided as to suitable choices.

That said, it is possible to provide choice in a productive way. For example, you can provide choice in outputs all based off the same stimulus or input. Provide pupils with a quote, map, image, sentence, poem, etc, to work with, and give them a choice as to how they are going to fulfil the task.

This can be particularly effective if you are prompting pupils to think not just about how they would like to present their output, but also to think about and justify why their choice of output is the most suitable for the given stimulus.

5. Change of focus

Probably the easiest of the five Cs to design and use, change of focus is ultimately about shifting the focus of a task from repetitive question/answering to thinking about patterns or differences in the questions or responses. Activities such as “Odd one out”, “What’s the same, what’s different?”, and “Find the hidden message” all prompt pupils to look at the questions they are answering or the answers they are giving with a different perspective and, hopefully, a little more deeply.

In my own subject (mathematics), activities like “What’s the same, what’s different?” are fantastic to get pupils thinking deeply about related concepts, such as perimeter and area or the properties of different quadrilaterals. “Odd one out”, meanwhile, can be used either in a similar way to this - particularly if you ask pupils to justify why each could be the odd one out - or simply to draw attention to special cases in situations, such as quadratic equations that don’t have solutions.

Peter Mattock is director of maths and numeracy at Brocklington College in Leicestershire. He tweets @MrMattock

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