"First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject, and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense."~Richard Feynman
For a long time, planning has been a rather dry matter of identifying outcomes from curriculum and planning activities to address them.
What has been missing is heart. It is possible to target desired skills and knowledge outcomes with relative ease without getting at the truly important issue: how do we get students to fall in love with ideas? How do we open up the mystery and enchantment of a topic in such a way that they find learning irresistible?
Creating the Invitation
An essential part of good teaching is to cultivate an attitude of wonder--both for the teacher, and for the students. When teachers focus your topic and identify key understandings, they open up their own sense of excitement and commitment. Now they have to think about how to charm the students so that they will come along, too.
Sometimes students are part of the invitation from the outset, suggesting topics for study that really intrigue them. They might be the ones to say, "Why do people die?" or "We want to do something with robotics this year. Can we?" The teacher might decide to take up the students' topic. They look for the ways in which students’ strong interest ties into the curriculum you are required to address. Depending on teachers’ purposes and the time they have to devote to the study, they can start to design a study that lets students explore what they, themselves, have requested.
Misconception: There are very weak ways of following student interests. One is to walk into class on the first day and say, "Well, what do you feel like studying this year?" Such requests seem generous and open-ended, but too often projects generated in this way end up in confusion. They lack focus and direction, and there is little to guide either teacher or student in deciding what is worth doing. Pokemon might have as many votes as rocketry or The Hobbit. Then how will you decide, and where will it fit?
The second is to assign an independent study to each student on any topic of their choice. While many students appreciate the opportunity to choose things they will learn about, such "free choices" generally begin in the wrong place. If everyone in the class is learning about totally different things in their independent study, there is nothing that holds the community together. When students have a wide range of choice within a bounded inquiry, they experience both the joy of following their own path through a complex and fascinating landscape and the power of learning different things together.
The Invitation for students takes two fundamental forms. First, it should be a written statement that can appear on your class web site. When teachers design a study for students, they can make all of it available for them to see on line: the topic, its importance in the world, its mysteries and intrigues. Working at school or at home, students and their parents can read what has prepared for students, and discover in the links and crannies teachers have created, places of personal interest and meaning that they can begin to explore on their own and with others.
But the invitation is also a matter of direct instruction. For the moment, it is enough to say that you can offer the invitation to students by bringing in films and speakers, reading stories, or asking questions that start to prime the pump. Take your time. Lay out the territory for students and listen for their responses as you charm them into the new world you have designed. They will tell you what they find most intriguing. They will bring in books from home and questions from their own experience. They will issue challenges, speculate and demand some more time to explore this rather than that. They will tell you in obvious and in subtle ways what you need to do next. And thus, while you have drawn clear and interesting boundaries that shape the whole study, students will begin to find their own paths and their own voices right from the start.
Misconception: A common misunderstanding about project or inquiry-based learning is that there is no role for direct instruction. In fact, the opposite is the case. While, indeed, students must build their own understandings through active investigation and construction, it is a mistake to abandon them by feeling anxious about giving powerful lessons. At the start of any study, your ability to "snake charm" is absolutely vital. Your level of interest, excitement and knowledge opens up the world for your students. What you offer and how you do it will shape your students' engagement throughout the whole study.
Designing Great Tasks/Activities
Once students are hooked by the invitation into a great topic, they need also to be hooked by an exciting task or activity. You will design something for them to do that is worth their full attention, that is exciting, and that is sufficiently open-ended that every student in the class can find a way of making the task/activity their own.
Too often, school work is narrow and restricted: write a report on your favorite animal; complete unit tests on all the major concepts; assemble a triboard display of your learnings. And it would be possible to make the same mistake with digital technologies: word process your report on your favorite animal; submit the on-line quiz at the end of your unit; make a Power Point presentation of your findings.
It is worth spending just a moment to think about the implications of the word "task", and why we have called this section Creating Great Tasks, not Creating Great Assignments. The focus must be on what students do, what they create, what they build. And for that focus, the word task serves as a powerful reminder that building takes time, and that "learning is an active process, in which people actively construct knowledge from their experiences in the world. People don't get ideas; they make them…People construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally-meaningful products. They might be constructing sand castles, poems, LEGO machines (Resnick, 1994), or computer programs (Harel, 1991; Kafai, 1995). What's important is that they are actively engaged in creating something that is meaningful to themselves or to others around them.
Teachers have the opportunity to start thinking in quite different ways about how to create and organize compelling tasks rather than school assignments. Are digital technologies needed to do this? Of course not.
But should teachers use digital technologies? Of course. We live in a world in which the new technologies have opened windows on the world. Digital technologies are already a vibrant a part of children's lives outside school. The real question for schools is not whether we should allow them to explore the world with technology. It is how we do this in powerful and compelling ways.
Here are some principles to keep in mind as you start to design intriguing tasks/activites for students:
- If you were to show a great task/activity to someone who has strong expertise in the subject, they would recognize it. They would see an issue or problem that is actually important in their field, or a way of working that is true to the thinking of the subject. The point of access you create in a great task doesn't "dumb down" the life of a subject or discipline. Instead, it lets students into these big areas in enchanting ways.
- In a great task, students are designers and builders who confront and try to resolve complex problems. They don't just think about concepts; they dig in and make something that requires them to encounter and understand fundamental issues in the subject.
- Great tasks create spaces in which students have a genuine voice in what the next steps will be. Weak tasks have next steps entirely predetermined either by the teachers (think about workbooks here) or by a computer program (think about computer assisted instruction). In a great task, the discoveries each student is making individually and as part of a team actually determine what they have to do next.
- Great tasks create opportunities for students to encounter the real dilemmas, struggles and problems that characterize the subject.
Misconception: Too often, teachers assume that a task should be easy enough for students to complete without struggle, frustration or failures along the way. In a great task, the difficulties are part of the learning. The struggles usually mark genuine encounters with matters at the heart of the subject. The teaching point is not to avoid those places, but to support students to learn from, and through, them. Students' struggles will give you strong indicators of where teaching and coaching need to come--just in time to be meaningful and useful.
- Great tasks encourage students to develop strong "habits of mind" that promote the cultivation of
- Questions of evidence, or 'How do we know what we know?'
- The question of viewpoint in all its multiplicity, or 'Who's speaking?'
- The search for connections and patterns, or 'What causes what?'
- Supposition, or 'How might things have been different?'
- And finally, why any of it matters, or 'Who cares?'
- Great tasks allow students to do things at a level of complexity and sophistication impossible without digital technologies. They permit learners to explore complex and changing relationships between variables; bring multiple perspectives to bear on the same problem; open communication and information channels to peers and to experts; draw upon dynamic and rich data sets; publish their own work to contribute to the knowledge of the world.
- Great tasks let students play seriously with digital technologies at all stages of an investigation.
Misconception: Because technologies are thinking and building tools, their use should pervade all stages of a project or investigation, not just in the final presentation. It is easy to get sidetracked into "old thinking" that assumes that students do the "real work" of research and learning in traditional ways by handwriting jot notes and rough copies first then transforming them into polished presentations later. Writing "good copies" of stories becomes mainly a matter of keyboarding, not a way of moving ideas and words around. Fonts, backgrounds, graphics and sound become frills rather than essential parts of the message--and traditional assumptions about "beginning, middle and end" go largely unchallenged.
Approached from this older way of thinking, spreadsheets become mainly fancy tools for producing attractive graphs rather than ways of manipulating variables and filtering and sorting information. Pages from data bases get run off in color and stapled to triboards where their power to respond to queries is dead. Power Point slides are deposited into teacher drop-boxes as finished assignments rather than forming the base of an oral presentation, well-argued.
Resist the temptation to think that effective technology integration is only about the polished presentation of final products!
Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you create great learning tasks:
- What will I ask the students to do in order to develop and demonstrate strong understanding and habits of mind?
- What will they build, construct, create?
- How will they use digital technologies to think with? Will they use
- Spreadsheets for: creating simulations, exploring relationships between variables and properties, forecasting, reckoning probabilities, sharing data on line
- Data bases for: organizing and searching for information; sharing text, still and video images and sound; exploring relationships
- Multimedia for: visualizing meaning; imagining and creating texts in relation to one another; composing in non-linear ways
- Semantic mapping for: concept formation; creating knowledge webs and graphical organizers
- Simulations, microworlds and games for: posing new problems, creating rules, and analyzing the consequences
- Synchronous and asynchronous communications for: working with others, including experts, in real time; videoconferencing, email, threaded discussions
- Internet for: conducting research, communicating with others, publishing findings, contributing to global data banks
- Is the task open-ended enough?
- Does it create opportunities for every student to find something meaningful and interesting to do? Will it accommodate a wide range of interests, questions and wonderings?
- Does it address a range of abilities? Is it challenging enough for each student to find interesting, and accessible enough so that each can find a meaningful place for hard and significant work?
- Does it allow students to create their own approach to the task?
- It would be a mistake to assume that since the whole class is investigating a single topic, they must also end up doing the same things. A closed task gives little choice, and makes little room for the individual to say, "I want to find out this about the topic, and here is how I want to do it." An open task makes room for each student to find something about the topic that is most meaningful and personally engaging to them.
- It would also be a mistake to assume that everybody has to be doing a different project or creating an individual task for it to be personally meaningful and engaging. If it is good, the same task can be approached in very different ways; or students can come together around a task of their mutual choosing in order to collaborate in creating new knowledge.
- It would be a mistake to try and define high, medium and low levels for a task. When students are free to find their own best way into an intriguing question, they will often surprise you with what they are able to do. If you try and sort them out by ability in advance, they may simply conform to your pre-judgments.
- Is the task real?
- Does it allow students to create knowledge and products in the way that people outside school create them? Would anyone outside of school ever do such a task, learn from it, and enjoy it in the process?
- Does the role you have created for technology "feel to a kid like it is connected with the kinds of things kids do, and in particular with the kinds of things that kids do with computers?"
Misconception: Often, people assume that students must learn "the basics" before they can "advance" to the use of actual applications. This argument is often used to support spending a lot of time doing keyboard drill and practice exercises, or for direct instruction in all aspects of the use of an application before students are permitted to use it. It is an argument that favors "just in case" learning: "I need to teach you this just in case you need it later on." In fact, everyone learns to use technology best within the context of use. It is a kind of "just in time" learning that lets students get started at once with powerful applications and interesting tasks. They will learn best when teachers and peers provide scaffolds when they are needed most.
 Richard Feynman, (1995). Six easy pieces. Helix Books: Reading, Mass. xx
 Mitchel Resnick, (1996). Distributed constructionism. Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Northwestern University.
 Deborah Meier, (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Beacon Press: Boston, Mass. 50
 Seymour Papert, (1996). The connected family: Bridging the digital generation gap. Longstreet Press, Inc.: Marietta, Ga. 114