Task design in lessons: A framework for analysis

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In this two-part article, Robbie Burns looks how to design effective tasks in your lessons. After looking at task planning and delivery, in part two he turns his attention to how we can evaluate the impact of our learning tasks

In the first part of this article (Burns, 2023), I addressed the question of how teachers can maximise engagement in tasks for student learning by developing five key habits.

An area of enquiry we did not address, and to which I will now turn in this second part, is how we can analyse task quality. If we are to understand the impact of our curriculum design, we must be able to accurately evaluate the way in which the intent of our curriculum has been implemented through the tasks that teachers design.

As I said in my last article, however well-developed the curriculum is by teachers, it only comes to be known and understood by the learner through the tasks they engage in during lessons.

Types of knowledge and their relation to tasks

Tasks can never be understood fully until we are clear about the categories of knowledge to be learned. Counsell (2018) provided a helpful distinction between two types of knowledge – substantive and disciplinary – that are worth briefly explaining.

Substantive knowledge is primarily factual in nature. In the classroom, teachers teach these as established truths students should know. These might be key dates in history or map features in geography; they might be the water cycle in science or the definition of a verb in English. Each piece of substantive knowledge should build on the next, which will then later produce understanding.

Substantive knowledge, then, could be seen as a core place to start in a planning progression model but also in task design. However, if we finish our curriculum development with substantive knowledge, and in turn the tasks we develop, we will miss the richness of learning in each subject. This is where disciplinary knowledge forms an essential aspect to both curriculum and task design.

Although more difficult to define, disciplinary knowledge is a term attempting to describe what students learn about the overarching development and narrative of a subject and how knowledge has been established within it. As Counsell (2018) states: “It is that part of a subject where students understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth.”

In addition, it is the concepts that help the subject as a whole fit together. These sorts of aspects of a subject contribute to students understanding how reliable claims can be made within each subject, asking excellent questions that open-up more learning, and understanding what it means to be a “historian”, a “geographer” or a “scientist”. Through disciplinary knowledge, students begin to grasp the essence of the subject they are learning (Burns, 2019).

This distinction helps us clarify the knowledge that students ought to remember and recall. It also aids us in our consideration of the sorts of ideas and concepts that our students should be spending their time thinking about if they are to have truly mastered the subject, the unit of study, or in our case, the task we want them to engage in.

Understanding the difference between disciplinary and substantive knowledge aids task design because it enables us to first and foremost ask ourselves what sort of knowledge we want our students to be developing through the tasks that we choose.

What actually is a task? Defining the elements

Doyle and Carter (1984) argue convincingly that regardless of subject or age group, tasks have three elements.

  • First, they have a goal or a product that is expected to be achieved by the end of it. There should never be tasks in lessons without purpose.
  • Next, and quite obviously, tasks have a set of resources or “givens” available in the situation, such as pens, pencils, rulers, thesaurus, or dictionaries.
  • Finally, tasks always have a set of operations that can be used with the resources to generate the goal or create the product, whether these are explicitly shared by the teacher, already known by the student or emerge through a collaborative process between teacher and student through engagement in a task.

For example, in a year 3 maths lesson, where the objective is to use a column method to subtract two digit numbers, a task a teacher might set could be a set of eight questions that get progressively more challenging.

  • The goal for students is to get as many of them right as possible, ideally all of them.
  • The resources available will be paper, pencils, rulers and scaffolds of some kind presented on the whiteboard or on paper in front of them.
  • The task will have several set operations that students need to follow to be able to complete the work required of them. (This of course is not withstanding considerations about the environment of the classroom and where students sit and whether they are working in silence or not and so on.)

Another example from an entirely different subject could be pottery in art in year 5.

  • Students are given a goal of designing and creating a mug (a product of the unit) over a series of lessons. The goal in the create lesson of the sequence is just that: to create a clay mug using the design.
  • There are lots of resources needed for this task, not to mention a specialist room with equipment such as aprons, fettling knives, loop, and ribbon tools.
  • Finally, there are a few set operation steps for this task but there is an open-endedness which is ultimately needed for the learning to be authentic. If all students produced identical mugs in an identical way students are not being provided with the chance to draw on their wider learning in this area of art and use the ideas they have generated themselves.

Regardless of subject, age group or position in the wider curriculum, there are at least three aims that each task ought to fulfil. Each task should support learning of content (substantive knowledge), learning of process or procedure or disposition (disciplinary knowledge), and should fulfil wider curriculum goals of the unit and wider sequence.

As hopefully has been seen through these two examples, the aim of each task, of course, should go well beyond simple task completion. There is danger in this being the only focus.

A framework for understanding classroom tasks

As described, each school subject has a body of substantive and disciplinary knowledge and each task has three key elements. Neither of the above discussions though, support teachers in how they can decide on the types of tasks they design for their students and what it will achieve.

What often happens is that teachers jump from the whole-school curriculum map directly to their peers, colleagues, or websites to consider new and creative tasks to keep students engaged and support them to learn key content. This represents a huge gap in teacher understanding and expertise.

There is no doubt that more expert teachers will already have clear heuristics to draw on so that they can decide on the right tasks at the right moment in the curriculum and in their planning. However, to my knowledge, there is a lack of commonality in the way we talk about this aspect of teaching or in the way we prepare our resources as teachers.

Anne Edwards, noticing this problem through her work with trainee teachers, used the quadrant model below for years to discuss the types of tasks that teachers can develop in their lesson planning to ensure that students know and remember more over time.

Brought to task: Edwards’ (2014) model of task sequencing to promote learning

Quadrants 1 and 4 are primarily focused on external explaining, describing, and showcasing learning whereas quadrants 2 and 3 are focused on internal assimilation, understanding and application.

Another way of looking at this is that quadrants 1 and 2 are primarily focused on substantive knowledge, whereas quadrants 3 and 4 are focused on application to wider concepts within the subject, aimed at making sense of disciplinary knowledge.

It is important to note that the expectation of using a quadrant like this as a framework is not that teachers will always move through each quadrant in numerical order. There are times when teachers may choose to begin at quadrant 1 and then move directly to quadrant 3 to engage students in a whole task, then pull it back and break it down into smaller chunks as part of a quadrant 2 type task.

This is commonly seen in maths, where teachers might explain a key concept, knowledge or procedure and then launch straight into a problem. This can then enable them to draw out misconceptions that they can go back and teach before moving students into a more structures quadrant 2 type task.

There might even be occasions where students begin with a quadrant 4 or quadrant 3 task, such as in science, where students begin by discussing a concept cartoon. Through this sort of task, teachers can draw out the understanding that students already have before they adapt their teaching using this data and go back to quadrant 1 instruction and task types.

However, although there is a variation of sequences, it is highly unlikely that teachers would and should ever move from quadrant 1 to 4 straight away for numerous reasons which are obvious.

In one lesson, it is unlikely that students will have enough knowledge to be able to externalise their learning (quadrant 4), applying it to wider subject concepts, after only just being presented with the information or the process by their teacher. More than this, it is likely that, if this is done, students will fail, which in turn will lead to less motivation to learn, leading to less engagement over time. So, how might we use this framework?

Curriculum leadership: A common language for task design

The first place this framework can be used is in the leadership of the curriculum. As we move from robust, progressively sequenced curriculum maps to unit and lesson planning, it is important to have clear descriptions of how we implement our intent through the tasks we design.

First, Doyle and Carter’s (1984) clear outline of three elements of tasks helps leaders to evaluate each aspect of a task with precision and then ask pertinent questions about goals, resourcing, and processes in a systematic way.

The quadrant model enables leaders and teachers to have a shared common language about tasks and task design that can be used in collaborative planning and development. With this sort of framework, leaders can have much better conversations alongside teachers about the types of tasks they are choosing for their students across a unit of work, rather than just in individual lessons.

Teacher development: Better heuristics and task coaching

The quadrant model is particularly helpful in supporting teachers to build strong mental models of task design and how they can take the curriculum from the page to the classroom as effectively as possible. Despite well-written curriculum documents being used in schools all over the country, it is not always clear to teachers how they can take coherent progression models and design tasks with these in mind. More than this, it is not always clear to teachers how they can move from substantive to disciplinary knowledge over time through the tasks that they develop. The quadrant model helps teachers and leaders to do this well.

Over time, teachers can develop strong heuristics that aid decisions about sequencing not only the curriculum but the tasks that they develop for their lessons. If the quadrant model were to become common language for teachers and leaders, it would aid everyone’s discussion about how they can best implement the curriculum for students so that every moment in every lesson can be used to maximum impact and effect.

Furthermore, the elements and quadrant model described here can also help teachers in coaching pairs to help each other consider their tasks and the intention of them more carefully. It can help diagnose potential issues with the lesson and consider alternative tasks to match the goals of the lesson or unit of work more broadly.

Further information & resources

  • Burns: What might a knowledge-rich humanities curriculum look like in the primary school? Impact 6, 2019.
  • Counsell: Taking curriculum seriously, Impact 4, 2018.
  • Doyle & Carter: Academic tasks in classrooms, Curriculum Inquiry 14, 1984.
  • Edward: Designing tasks which engage learners with knowledge. In Designing Tasks in Secondary Education, Thompson (ed), Routledge, 2014.

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