Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part Three

Part one looked at the constructivist teaching fallacy and poor proxies for learning.

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

Part three will look at challenge-by-choice, anachronistic tasks and tasks that do not match their instructional intentions.


For those unfamiliar, challenge-by-choice refers to task-based differentiation, whereby the learner chooses which task they do from a selection (usually of three or more tasks). Seemingly, the most popular version of this is referred to as a ‘chilli challenge’, whereby the learner picks the difficulty of their task based on how ‘spicy’ it is.

Akin to fun tasks, this method may be utilised by teachers to secure the engagement of learners. However, challenge-by-choice presents issues. It often leads to learners not being challenged appropriately because they are not self-aware enough of their current level of understanding, resulting in them picking a task that is either too easy or too difficult. Notwithstanding, creating three or more different tasks creates a formative assessment nightmare for us as the teacher, making it increasingly difficult for us to provide instant feedback to the learner.

Anachronistic Tasks

Perhaps most commonly seen in history lessons, anachronistic tasks present another area where classroom tasks can fail. Throughout the design of a task, we must ask ourselves what it is that we want the learner to think about when they attempt it. Anachronistic tasks contradict this, presenting the opportunity for the learner to be distracted from what should be the focus. Inevitably, this can result in an ineffective tasks and learners’ knowledge not being secure.

In history, we are concerned with contemporaneous accounts from the time and this has led to tasks such as writing newspaper reports about the Roman invasion of Britain. The issue here is twofold:

  • First, that if the learner is focusing on the features of a newspaper report and how to write in a journalistic style, they are not thinking as deeply as we would like about the historical content itself. This was something OFSTED noticed in their inspection of history in outstanding primary schools, stating that there were often tasks which “distracted from the history content pupils needed to learn”.
  • Second, such anachronistic tasks could embed misconceptions that things existed outside of the time periods in which they were created (the first newspaper was believed to have been written in 1605 – well after the Romans conquered Britain).

NB: This is not to say anachronism is useless in the study of history. It can be used effectively. For example, the presence of an anachronistic object in a historical photo could tell us a source is not reliable.

Tasks not matching the instructional intention

This links to my first guiding principle of task design, which will be the topic of a future blog. I have also hinted at this issue in a recent blog on KWL grids as an assessment tool, but indulge me as I make a similar point using another common task.

‘Look, say, cover, write, check’ is a common task used to promote spelling in primary schools. It is done in a table format like the one displayed below:

The instructional intention is for pupils to remember the common grapheme (letters representing a sound) used to represent a phoneme (the sound) in a group of spellings – e.g. /ā(r)/ made by air in fair, hair, chair etc.

However, ‘look, say, cover, write, check’ does not get pupils to think about the common graphemes that can be used to make a phoneme. Instead, it gets the learner to focus on the word as an entire unit, rather than breaking it down into parts. It does not get the learner to consider the grapheme-phoneme correspondence. It also gets them to store a word in working memory while it is hidden from view and then write the word onto a piece of paper in front of them. This presents us as teachers with the illusion that a learner is able to spell all the words correctly, but doesn’t tell us if they have understood the learning behind the spellings themselves. In other words, it demonstrates to us that they can store something in short-term memory, but not that they have retrieved knowledge from long-term memory (unless, of course, the child does already know how to spell the word).

This is just one of many tasks that fail to match our instructional intention. This idea will be explored further in the next blog in this series.


Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

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