Category Archives: Higher Order Thinking

Complex reasoning, upper level Blooms, projects, creation and creativity

Teaching with Engaging Tasks

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement, real world learning strategy that, when implemented well, many students find very motivating.  An Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work.

Getting Better at Engaging Tasks Through Revision.

A great way to get better at Engaging Tasks is to use the criteria for great Engaging Tasks to critique and revise other Tasks. (I’m not sure that I would say that all Tasks are Engaging Tasks! – or, at least, they don’t all start out that way.)

For example, look at this Task:

Imagine that you are living during the Great Depression and that your classmates have decided to put together a time capsule for students of the future to use to learn and understand what life was like during the Great Depression.

Lets start by looking at this critically with an eye to the criteria for Engaging Tasks.

  • Standards-based: Yes.
  • All 3 pieces – Scenario, Role, & Task: Task, yes: put together a time capsule. Role: sort of: you are someone living during the Great Depression. Compelling scenario, not really: the Task doesn’t really provide much more of a context for doing this than you and your classmates have decided to do it…
  • In the form of a “story”- no “teacher talk”: Not written like a little story. Reads like a teacher’s assignment. “Imagine that you are…” “your classmates” are teacher talk, and clues that the Task needs to be revised.
  • HOTS – Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create: Could be, depending on how it is framed.
  • Students: authentic or believable: Yes, people do leave time capsules for others to open in the future.
  • Students: interesting or of significance: Mostly: some would clearly enjoy working on this, but there are others who would not. This could be because the Task doesn’t have all three pieces. Often the compelling scenario helps with this.

So if we were to revise this task, we would likely work on the following:

  • Make sure the Task has a compelling scenario and a stronger role
  • Rewrite it as a story, and remove the teacher talk
  • Make sure the Higher Order Thinking focus is more clearly articulated in the activity the students need to complete
  • Double check that the new version would seem significant and interesting to students (or at least more so than the current version)

A new version of the Task might look like this:

It is 1936 and as part of the New Deal, your town is building a new Town Hall. The mayor has issued a challenge to all the school children to help create a time capsule that will be put in the corner stone of the Town Hall then opened far in the future. Your teacher has broken your class into teams of 4 and 5 students and each team needs to help identify the best items to include in the time capsule. The best ideas will be included in the actual time capsule.

How does this version of the Task fare against the criteria? I’ll let you decide, but here are a couple of my thoughts. I’m hesitant to write tasks where the student is a student (I tend to find more engaging the ones where students can imagine themselves in a different role), but this Task already had them as students; whereas I didn’t mind revising this Task, I didn’t want to totally rewrite it. There is now a compelling scenario (new Town Hall and the Mayor’s challenge). The whole thing is written as a story (ok, there is a little teacher talk here, but not the author telling the reader, rather the teacher is a character in this story – see my comments above about students in the role of students…). And “Which is best?” is a short-cut question for getting to higher order thinking (analysis and evaluation).

How might you now get practice getting better with Engaging Tasks through revision?

Maybe you and a group of colleagues are working to write your own Engaging Tasks. You could swap drafts and critique each other’s, offering suggestions for revisions.

This Engaging Tasks Feedback Form might be helpful.

Or you could look for WebQuests with Tasks in need of critiquing and revising, and practice your skills on them.

Or you could use these sample elementary Engaging Tasks or these sample high school and middle school Engaging Tasks to practice critique and revision.



What Makes for a Great Engaging Task?

Here’s another example of an Engaging Task:

You have been hired by Paramount’s King’s Island to research the roller coasters of Ohio, and then to come up with an idea for a new coaster. King’s Island wants to build a new roller coaster, but needs to know what its competition is. It also wants you to examine its existing coasters to see what types of coasters it does not have. After you examine the competition, you will come up with an idea for a new coaster. You will submit this idea in writing and also with a drawing.

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement, real world learning strategy. Instead of simply assigning a task or assignment to the students, an Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work.

If this is a good one, what makes it good?

I think there are 6 criteria for a really good Engaging Task:

  1. Does it relate to your curriculum? Is it Standards-based?
  2. Do you have the 3 pieces? (Scenario, Role, & Task)
  3. Is it in the form of a “story”? (no procedural steps, or “teacher talk”)
  4. Does it focus on Higher Order Thinking? (Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create)
  5. Will students find it authentic or believable?
  6. Would students find it interesting or of significance?

Lets look at this example through the lense of these six criteria.

Standards-based: Like many Engaging Tasks, this one comes from a WebQuest. In the Teacher Section of this WebQuest, the teacher/author explains that it is an upper elementary assignment to apply learnings from physics. But looking at the Process Page and Resources Page will show you that the content could also be data collection and data analysis. If you were teaching Complex Reasoning, it could also be an exercise for a student to demonstrate prowess in analysis or design.

All 3 pieces – Scenario, Role, & Task: An amusement park wants to build a new roll coaster. The students are roller coaster designers. They have to analyze the competition and design a new roller coaster. Yes, all three pieces.

In the form of a “story”- no “teacher talk”: Yes, this Task just tells the story. All the specifics, directions, and resources are saved for the Process Page and Resources Page.

HOTS – Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create: Yes, students have to analyze data that they collect, and create (design) a new roller coaster.

Students: authentic or believable: These students will be using real data from real amusement parks. If this was produced for students who live near these Ohio amusement parks, the Task is even more authentic!

Students: interesting or of significance: Students love roller coasters (or at least watching others on roller coasters)! It’s not unusual for a class to have a field trip to an amusement park as part of working on a project like this.

So it looks like this Engaging Task does a pretty good job of meeting the criteria!

The 3 parts of an Engaging Task

Here is an example of an Engaging Task.

It is modern day, and you are on the jury for the trial of Macbeth. Macbeth is being tried for the murder of the King. You will be deciding whether or not Lord Macbeth is guilty or innocent, and how he should be held responsible for his actions. Be prepared to defend your decision to the other jury members.

Engaging Tasks are a really versatile and powerful instructional strategy with their roots in WebQuests. An Engaging Task is essentially a brief story that provides context and a reason for the students to learn what they are about to learn and do what they are about to do. (Don't you think this is way more interesting to a student than just asking her to write an essay about if they think Macbeth should be found guilty or not?)

There are three key pieces to an Engaging Task:

  • The compelling scenario
  • A role for the student
  • The thing for the students to do

Take a second and look at the example above.

What's the compelling scenario? What's the context for the student's work?

What's the role of the student? Who is the student in the story?

What is the thing that the student has to do? What is the student expected to produce?


Go ahead. Take a little time and decide on your answers to these three questions. I'll wait for you…


So what did you decide? What did you say the scenario was? The trial of Macbeth? Who is the student? Did you say juror? And what does the student have to do? Did you say decide on guilt or innocence?

Notice a couple other things, too. Our little story is just a story and the student is just a character in that story (there is no reference to the class, or to the student being a student – they are just other jury members). And there are no directions in our little story (put step by step directions in a separate document). Part of what makes Engaging Tasks engaging is the fact that the student's imagination is turned loose in the task. Just like you don't want to go to a Civil War reenactment where the soldiers are wearing sneakers, you don't want your class or assignment sneaking back into your Task.

You can explore tasks by browsing through Webquests. See if you can identify the scenario, student role, and thing to do in each.

What’s an Engaging Task

Are you looking for a teaching strategy that can hook and engage your students? One that can work with almost any content area? Then you're looking to use an Engaging Task.

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement real world learning strategy.

Engaging Tasks are the part of a WebQuest that make them so engaging to students. But they are such a strong pedagogical strategy that they can be applied to nearly any subject or topic, don't need to be part of a WebQuest, and don't even have to be used for an activity that requires technology (although technology can be it's own motivator!) – THE place for everything about WebQuests – defines a WebQuest as an inquiry-oriented lesson format in wich most or all of the information that learners work with comes from the web. Some educators mis-identify a WebQuest as a series of low-level questions that students use the web to track down answers to, but this is far from a WebQuest. WebQuests require that students apply higher order thinking strategies.

The idea of WebQuests was developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March.

WebQuests follow a specific format and include these 6 components (although sometimes one or two of them might be combined):

  • Introduction
  • Task
  • Procedure
  • Resources
  • Evaluation
  • Conclusion

In my opinion, the part of a (good) WebQuest that makes it so engaging is the task. What makes a task so engaging?

Instead of simply charging students with an assignment, an Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work. The engaging task is made up of three parts:

  • The compelling scenario
  • A role for the student
  • The thing for the students to do


Engaging Task Resources:


Complex Reasoning: Curriculum for Customized Learning

The second domain of curriculum for Customized Learning is complex reasoning.

Lesson planning and unit development happens at the intersection of content knowledge, complex reasoning, and life-long habits of mind. We want learners to be – doing these reasoning processes – with this content knowledge – to practice getting better at these life-long learning habits.

Not only is the focus on complex reasoning a key component of Customized Learning, but represents the higher order thinking that is one of the Focus 5 strategies for motivating students.

We are using Marzano's framework for higher order thinking. The Complex reasoning curriculum includes the following:

Complex Reasoning Curriculum

Comprehending Knowledge

  • Symbolizing
  • Integrating

Analyzing Knowledge

  • Comparison
  • Classification
  • Error Analysis
  • Deduction & Induction
  • Perspective Analysis
  • Constructing Support

Using Knowledge

  • Decision Making
  • Problem Solving
  • Experimental Inquiry
  • Investigation
  • Invention

The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning has partnered with Debra Pickering and Bea McGarvey of Marzano Associates and are using the curriculum outlined in the Dimensions of Learning: Teacher's Manual as the foundation for our Complex Reasoning curriculum.

The plan is to organize it into the Marzano curriculum framework of measurement topics, learning targets, scopes, and scales, just as the content knowledge curriculum has been. Teachers will be trained to explicitly teach students the strategies. The instruction in each strategy would happen when students might logically apply the strategy (not in an out-of-context separate class), and includes helping students develop an understanding of the process through examples, providing students with written guidelines and graphic organizers, and modeling, modeling, and modeling.



Making Lessons Interesting 2

It may not be possible to always tie curriculum into the students’ interests, even when teachers know their students well. I do believe, however, that we can make things interesting.

Take, for example, adjectives.

This is typically a topic that many students are less than enthusiastic to study (was that an understatement?). Even so, one of the university practicum students I was supervising (teacher candidates doing their sophomore student teaching) had planned a different kind of lesson designed to make adjectives interesting to students.

When the students came into the room, each pair of students had a little brown paper lunch bag. On the brown paper lunch bag was written one of the five senses. The practicum student began, “There is a mystery object in your brown paper lunch bag and what you are going to do is try and help us figure our what your mystery object is. What you and your partner are going to do is write down as many descriptive words as you can about your mystery object. Don’t take your mystery object out of the bag, because you don’t want anybody to see it, but write down as many descriptive words as you can. Each descriptive word should only relate to the sense written on your bag.”

For example, if the bag was labeled “sight,” the students could only write about what it looked like. If it said “taste” the students could only write about what it tasted like. If it said “hearing,” the students could only write about what it sounded like, etc.

So students generated their words and then the class regrouped and each pair read off their lists. When the other students could figure out what the mystery object was, just from the list of descriptive words, the whole class applauded! When the students could not figure out what the object was, my student teacher would say, “Wow, those were great descriptive words, but we didn’t figure out what it is yet. Why don’t you show us what it is and the rest of you now think of descriptive words for that sense that would have helped you figure it out!” And the students could often think of a couple words that would have helped the class.

When they were all done deducing the objects in the bags, the practicum student asked, “Do you know what we’ve been working with all day today? We’ve been working with adjectives. Adjectives are just descriptive words.” Then she would instruct the students to open their grammar books and do a series of exercises related to identifying and applying adjectives.

And the students did the assignment!

Have you ever seen kids willingly do assignments in the grammar book?!

It was because they were hooked; because she made it interesting to them first.


How do you try to hook students on a topic you are teaching?