5 (Plus 7) Ways to Transform Student Task

On February 2nd, I had the chance to talk with about 350 educators from our alternative education campuses in Jeffco. For those of you who haven’t had the chance to visit an alternative education classroom and see these professionals at work, alternative educators are veritable edu-ninjas when it comes to making learning engaging and meaningful to students. And they have to – students often come into these settings seeking learning that has a deeper level of direct connection to life outside of school.

One thing we talked about was the district-wide efforts to transform what we call student task. Task refers to the point in any lesson where the teacher hands things over to the students and asks them to practice something, to solve a problem, or to complete an assignment. This is the moment where the student really engages in the learning by doing something themselves.

There are all sorts of tasks educators can assign to students – some quite good, and others not so much. A common stumbling block I often hear from educators when we talk about the importance of transforming student task is that they “get it” and understand the importance of the shift, but they don’t necessarily know how to do that, or how to even start doing it regularly.

At the meeting with alternative educators, we talked about ways to transform student task. I provided the first 5 ideas in my presentation, and then we had a brief discussion. The group also came up with some great ideas on changing student task, which I am posting here also. Thanks Sobesky art teacher Pam MacLennan for taking notes!

  1. Give Students Choices. As some ideas, choices in how they respond to an assignment, choices in how they demonstrate their learning, and choices in how (and if) they will collaborate with others. By intentionally designing opportunities for students to make choices, we engage them more in learning, teach them to have a voice, and teach them about choices and consequences.
  2. Design in the Chance to Practice Skills. The Generations document outlines a set of well-established skills students need to be successful in this fast-moving global economy. Consider designing student tasks that intentionally require students to do things like adapt to changing conditions, create something, mastering content, or practicing their responsibilities as an engaged citizen.
  3. Connect it to Life (Authentic). Redesign tasks that have direct meaning and connection to life outside of school. Find problems and projects in the community that align to the concepts and content in a subject area or course, and use those as opportunities to bring learning to life.
  4. Solve Problems for Which There is No “Right” Answer. Create tasks that require students to weigh costs and benefits, pros and cons, and to understand that there are multiple perspectives from which we can see problems and potential solutions. In the most interesting problems, there are no necessarily “correct” answers – there are a set of opportunities and choices that we have to work and design from.
  5. Share the Outcomes of the Work. Provide students opportunities to share their work with each other, with other students, with their parents, and with the larger community (or even the world). There is no greater accountability than public critique.

Plus 7 more from the Alternative Educators

  1. Combine tasks and include cross curricular experiences. Surf across content areas and courses, designing creative combinations where students get to use knowledge from different areas.
  2. Be willing to allow students more control in the classroom. This can be scary for educators, but occasionally put the students in charge (with some supports and supervision) and see what they come up with.
  3. Use workstations that students can move through. Elementary teachers do this frequently, but what about secondary. Most interesting problems have multiple facets or parts. Can we create a set of structured experiences students move through to learn different elements, and then put it all together.
  4. Use simulations to raise engagement. Simulations are a very powerful way of putting knowledge of content into practice to understand it at a much deeper level. It is one thing to learn about the powers that the three branches of government possess in order to properly maintain the checks and balances of our government, but it an entirely different level of understanding that can result when students are split into three groups, representing each branch, to simulate how each branch can check the other two based upon laws and executive orders.
  5. Create environments that are safe for risk-taking. Create a safe environment so students are comfortable taking academic risks, and being self-directed.
  6. Offer opportunities for students to work in our communities and solve real community problems.
  7. Let students fail. Incorporate intentional opportunities for student failure in learning to build skills in stamina, grit and working with feedback. This helps students learn to adapt, get up, and try again.

One thought on “5 (Plus 7) Ways to Transform Student Task

  1. Excellent output and very thought provoking.

    Really like the first #3 – Connect it to Life (Authentic). As a father, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately with my own 4th grade son and how it’s been really the top key factor that helped myself to really ENJOY learning new things with a passion. On another topic, I’ve been researching how very different male and female students learn – would be great to see this integrated above somehow.

    #2 – Design in the Chance to Practice Skills. For me, there is a lot to this that is so important and, from my perspective, a critical concept and practice is learning how to ‘iterate’. Which then ties closely into many of the other items above such as 1A, 4A, 5A, 1B, 2B, 4B and 7B.

    I’d also add we need to be careful with the word ‘fail’ since we hold so much accountability on test scores. I don’t like the word ‘pivot’ all that much either but like it better than ‘fail’. To ingrain testing in our lives is the secrete sauce and as we get the ‘results’, we learn to process the results and iterate next steps, for seeing how we can make small improvements for then testing again, measuring the improvements and moving forward again and again (keeping the theme in mind but allow it to change and evolve). The results may be binary (right or wrong, pass or fail) but they might not be. Regardless, once the student finds their own cycle of testing that works for them the passion for learning, improving the results and iterating are magical. And, the ultimate outcome may be very different than what was presumably what was originally envisioned (Theme).

    Liked by 1 person

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