Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part Two

This is a blog in a series on task design. The others can be found here.

Part one looked at the constructivist teaching fallacy and poor proxies for learning. This part will look at the twin sins of curriculum design and mathemathantic effects.

The Twin Sins of Curriculum Design

Wiggins and McTighe posit that curriculum design (and therefore indirectly task design) often falls victim to these twin sins:

  1. Activity-focused teaching

“Here, teachers plan and conduct various activities, worrying only about whether they are engaging and kid-friendly.” – Wiggins and McTighe

Activity-focused teaching results in tasks that have been designed to secure engagement, often at the expense of linking appropriately to what has been taught or, more generally, curriculum goals. Consequently, these tasks are often designed in isolation, separate from the necessary sequencing of learning throughout a unit or curriculum. Tasks designed within an activity-focused framework struggle to meet the intended instructional purpose and are therefore redundant in any assessment of learning the teacher seeks to pursue. A common example recognised from English primary schools would be ‘Biscuit Stonehenge’. After learning about Stonehenge, pupils are provided biscuits to create a model of Stonehenge. The task has been designed to secure pupil engagement, but holds little-to-no educational value past that.

Example of Biscuit Stonehenge. Source.

NB: There is absolutely nothing wrong with designing tasks that are fun. Learners, especially young children, should build an enthusiasm towards learning through fun tasks when appropriate. Such fun tasks are very common at the end of learning units and understandably so. However, when fun tasks do not align with curriculum intentions, they are unlikely to build memory and should not be used *if* this is the primary aim. As Wiggins and McTighe dictate, “such activities are like cotton candy – pleasant enough in the moment, but lacking long-term substance”. As alluded to in part one with both Coe and Mayer’s thinking, we must not misconstrue engagement with learning.

  • Coverage-based teaching

Coverage-based teaching refers to covering large amounts of curriculum content at speed and at the expense of any depth of understanding for the learner.

It therefore results in tasks that only allow the learner to create a shallow understanding of knowledge and prevents the building of automaticity or fluency, as not enough time is devoted to building this up through tasks of regular practice. Coverage-based teaching flies in the face of everything we know about how memory is established and maintained over time (e.g. spacing effect, retrieval practice). By rushing through content with superficial and shallow tasks, we operate under the illusion that pupils have learnt it simply because it has been ‘covered’.

Mathemathantic Effects

Clark (1989) argues that poorly designed tasks can exacerbate ‘mathemathantic effects’ (manthanein = learning + Thanatos = death).

Clarke states that, “Whenever an instructional treatment encourages students to replace an existing, effective learning strategy with a dissimilar alternative, learning is depressed.”

Mathemathantic effects can occur when certain areas of learning go through a substitution: learning strategies, motivational goals and student control.

I have taken the examples Clarke produces and made them specific to task design below:

Examples of mathemathantic effects on learning strategies:

  • Learners have little prior knowledge but task assumes the learner has automated strategies, knowledge and skills available
  • Learners have much prior knowledge but task requires them to use strategies which interfere with their automated strategies, knowledge and skills

Examples of mathemathantic effects on motivational goals:

  • Learners are afraid of failing but tasks provide minimal guidance or structure
  • Learners want to achieve success but are given a task that is highly structured and provides too much support and guidance

Example of mathemathantic effects on student control:

  • Learners need a lot of support and guidance but are made to do tasks that are open-ended and ask a lot of them
  • Learners need little support and guidance but are made to do tasks that are highly structured and controlled

The third part will look at challenge-by-choice, anachronistic tasks and when tasks fail to match instructional intentions.


Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

2 thoughts on “Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part Two

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