Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part One

This blog is part of a series on task design. The previous blogs can be found here.

It seems obvious that to design tasks effectively, we need to know what can make tasks ineffective. By knowing these pitfalls, we can circumvent them and consequently design more effective tasks.

I defined Constructivism in a previous blog, as believing that a learner ‘constructs’ their own understanding. Constructivism therefore supposes that tasks should facilitate the opportunity to generate such an understanding for the learner. This has led to exploratory learning in the classroom, such as through inquiry-based learning. The belief being that the learner should build the knowledge themselves and therefore need to discover the knowledge in order to do so.

In critique of this theory, Mayer (2004) offers up the ‘Constructivist Teaching Fallacy’, whereby teachers may believe that a learner being ‘cognitively active’ “translates into a constructivist theory of teaching in which the learner is behaviourally active” also.  

Mayer has depicted this through a 2×2 grid below:

This grid outlines that a Constructivist view of teaching believes learning only occurs, or is at the very least most effective, when the bottom right quadrant is satisfied. Learners have to be behaviourally (interpreted to mean physically) active for pupils to be able to construct knowledge within their minds. We of course know this to be untrue from our daily practice, where learners sit at desks for lengthy periods and still learn quite effectively.

Poor Proxies

When learners are engaging independently with the learning task, we can observe certain behaviours that lead us to believe the task is working effectively. Here we can refer to Rob Coe’s (2014) ‘Poor Proxies for Learning’:

  • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
  • Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  • Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  • Classroom is ordered, calm, under control (or noisy)
  • Curriculum has been ‘covered’
  • Students have supplied correct answers (even if they have not really understood them, cannot reproduce them independently, will have forgotten them soon, already knew it)
  • Task completion (especially quickly)

*The emboldened parts are my own thinking around poor proxies.

The poor proxies above create an illusion for us as teachers – they lead us to believe learning is happening, when of course we know that learning is invisible (Didau, 2015) and can take place across a series of lessons, and not necessarily in just a single lesson. We must be conscious of these proxies as teachers, and as leaders observing tasks in lessons, as it can mislead our assessment of pupils’ learning. If we believe in these poor proxies, then ineffective tasks mask themselves as effective.

Part two will look at the twin sins of curriculum design and mathemathantic effects.


Coe (2014) – What Makes Great Teaching?

Didau (2015) – Slides from London Festival of Education.

Mayer (2004) – Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?


Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

3 thoughts on “Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part One

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