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:
- Does it relate to your curriculum? Is it Standards-based?
- Do you have the 3 pieces? (Scenario, Role, & Task)
- Is it in the form of a “story”? (no procedural steps, or “teacher talk”)
- Does it focus on Higher Order Thinking? (Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create)
- Will students find it authentic or believable?
- 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.
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!
I was especially dissatisfied with my own teaching when I started.
Early in my teaching career, I was presented with a paradox that continues to shape my interests in education. When I was teaching high school computer application courses, my students would learn to use a word processor (in the day when stuents were likely to only have access to computers at school). I was very thorough and made sure they learned how to use nearly every feature (although word processors then had many fewer features than they do today!). We spent a lot of time on it, and together we worked hard so that nearly everyone would be successful on the challenging word processing test.
What surprised me, however, was that a few weeks later, students would return to me, announce that they had a paper to write, and ask me to show them how to use “that word processor thing” again!
I couldn't understand why these students didn't remember how to use the program. These were bright students who had had no problems during class, and who had done well on the test. Very little time had gone by since we had last used the word processor. There was no reason that they should not know how to use it.
There was obviously something I didn't understand about learning. It was the first time I started to question how learning took place, and prompted my inquiry into how people learn.
I fear that during my first few years of my teaching, all I had really taught most of my students was that I was knowledgeable within my field. I tried to convey my knowledge to my students but I was simply trying to “fill their vessels.”
The way I organized the curriculum wasn't even oriented toward learning; it was organized for teaching. I was mostly concerned with questions like when were the standardized tests and what would be on them, when would other teachers be teaching related ideas, what would kids need to know for the next course? All my content was organized the way an expert might look at it. It was neatly categorized and sequenced like it might be done by someone who was already familiar with the information.
I never asked myself how people might learn the same information. I never asked how experts had acquired their vast knowledge; was it through a logical sequence or some other order?
Some of my kids seemed to do okay, but not enough of my students to make me feel like I had done a satisfactory job. I knew I was teaching the way all my teachers had taught me, so I knew I was teaching correctly. But somehow contradictions, like with the word processor, kept happening, and I started to doubt if it really were the right way to teach…
Those contradictions and doubts led me to question my assumptions about teaching and learning. Eventually, I found tidbits that helped shape my work, such as the quote from the classical Greek philosopher, Plutarch, “A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.“
My job wasn't to give students information but to inspire and nurture them. And like Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don't need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”
“A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” (Plutarch)
I am a Mainer who has lived in several homes heated by wood stoves, and have done living history, and have gone camping, so I am no stranger to trying to build fires.
Therefore, it won’t surprise you that my connection to this metaphor is deep.
Most folks know you can’t start a fire just by simply piling up logs and holding a match to them. What a lot of people don’t know is that that method doesn’t even work all that well when lighter fluid is applied (there is usually a short-lived flame that goes out without creating a sustainable fire – and you never want to use accelerant in an enclosed wood stove!)
Fire starters know that building fires is a two stage process: first you have to get the fire going, then you can feed the fire. Both have their own set of strategies. I think when most folks think of having a fire, they think mostly of the second phase and a lot less of the first. Further, I think most folks can feed a fire; it’s just a matter of not adding too much wood too soon (or things get too hot), not letting the coals burn too low (or there arent enough coals to keep the fire going), and adding wood in a way that allows a little air to circulate (or, again, the fresh logs won’t ignite). Even with these caveats, the strategies are fairly forgiving and it isn’t too hard to keep the fire going.
On the other hand, starting a fire isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take a little more strategy. And if you aren’t experienced with fire, these strategies may not be as obvious as those for keeping the fire going.
A good fire starts with some kindling (a variety of small sticks and pieces of dry wood that catch relatively quickly, but will burn long enough to catch the larger sticks and logs that will be added soon) and some tinder (such as newspaper, shavings, twigs, or dry grass) that will catch easily with a match and burn long enough to ignite the kindling.
Even with these components, you aren’t guaranteed a fire; they need to be used properly. The kindling should be stacked in one of a couple of ways: often with smaller kindling and newspaper organized in the center of larger kindling in a “log cabin” or “teepee” configuration. When you light the newspaper, it catches the small kindling, which in turn helps the larger pieces catch. Then, once those get going, you can (carefully) put on the first logs.
You don’t have to use much more strategy than that if the fire catches quickly and cleanly. But what if it doesn’t? Have you ever been camping and tried to light a campfire with damp wood? Or maybe you got the small kindling going, but the larger sticks weren’t catching well? What do you do? How do you get that fire going?
Do you take another match and hold it under the part of the log that isn’t burning?
Of course not! (And, yet, how often do we try that!?)
Instead, you blow where the wood is already burning. Or you add a little more kindling where it is burning. You can’t get your fire lit by attending to the part that isn’t burning. You get it burning by nurturing the fire that is already started and let it spread to the rest. In fact, paying attention to the part not burning will often let what little fire there is go out, leaving you with no fire at all…
Ok. Ok. I feel some of you getting noodgy, wanting to talk about the “logs.” (and yes, at this point, we’re starting to mix metaphors…) Are the logs seasoned (dry?) or are they still moist with sap or wet from a drenching? Sure, most folks can make a fire with well seasoned logs without really trying, but talking about unseasoned logs sounds a little like an argument about why you shouldn’t have to make a fire because some of the wood isn’t dry. I’ll even concede that there are probably some logs that can’t burn, no matter what. But those are few and far between, and should never be used as an excuse to avoid making a fire with less than perfect logs.
In truth, experienced fire builders can start a fire with the wood they have.
The fire building strategies above work well with both dry and damp logs. Whether you get a good fire raging or not probably has more to do with your kindling and tender, or how you nurture the fire, than it does with the logs themselves.
So perhaps, we just need to understand how fires ignite, catch, and burn :
- Have we thought about what kindling and tinder we will use?
- Which technique will we apply to the kindling and tinder?
- How will we nurture the fire as we add the first logs?
- How will we attend to damp and unseasoned wood to get it burning well?
- How will we blow on the flames that are already burning, rather than hold a match under the unlit portion?
- How will we monitor the fire and know just the right time to add to it so it doesn’t burn too hot or burn down and go out?
If teachers are fire builders, perhaps their primary job isn’t to give students information, but rather to inspire and nurture them as they work on their own learning. Sometimes when we are teaching hard to teach students we forget about their interests (don’t blow on the flames) or about making it interesting (adding a little more kindling to the flames) and instead keep plowing along through the curriculum (holding a match to an unlit log). Perhaps, we need to focus on how to use kindling and care to make them burn brightly.
In fact, Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don’t need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”
Personal aside: This saying has spoken to me since early in my teaching career, and has certainly shaped my growth as an educator and my work with schools to reach all children. It probably even played some direct role in focusing my dissertation research on motivating underachieving students and in starting the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning.
At the very least, it has said something to me about changing my assumptions about what it was to teach. And when I think about schools serving all the children of all the people, and about easy-to-teach students and hard-to-teach students, and about students at various levels of engagement, I think we probably need to challenge our assumptions.
How might the fire building metaphor help you think about reaching your students or having conversations with your colleagues about reaching students?
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?
Intrinsic motivation (things that we're interested in) is probably our most powerful motivator. Interest as a motivator is not just building on what students are already interested in. It is also about making things interesting.
- Can you use novelty?
- Can you make it a mystery?
- Can you make it fun?
- Can you make it interesting?
My doctorate focused on what motivates underachieving middle school students (article; dissertation). In the Underachievers Study, even though students thought that much of their work did not tie in with their interests, they did find some of the work interesting. This varied by the individual. Doris liked teachers sharing stories from their past. Cathy liked lessons related to government and books such as The Outsiders and Huck Finn, which related to the South, where she had lived as a young child. Ben thought his fourth grade teacher, who dressed up as story characters, was interesting.
There is a special category that motivates middle school students: “blood and guts.” Why do you think those “Grossology” books that we all love to hate sell so well? Because middle school kids love belching and farting, body parts and bodily fluids. They love anything disgusting! So anything, we can tie productively into belching and farting will capture their imaginations! Mrs. Edwards, a teacher in the study, reported that Ben also liked blood and guts and anything gory, “Ben loves books that have gory stuff things in them. He loved Edgar Allan Poe.”
When I was a university Practicum Supervisor (supervising sophomore student teachers during their first field experience), I was in a sixth grade science teacher’s classroom and they were introducing students to the microscope. A common introductory activity for working with microscopes is to look at the difference between plant cells and animal cells. Often the activity uses onions because they have large cells. The activity also often calls for using cells from inside their mouths. The students have to take a cotton swab, dab the inside of their cheeks, and put it on a slide.
What do all the sixth grade girls say at this point in the activity? “Ewwwww, gross!” But they almost always follow that immediately with, “Let me do it!”
What do you do to make your lessons interesting?