A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.
In this post I want to suggest that open-ended tasks can play an important role in creating opportunities for students to explore their ideas; they can be a great source of top-end differentiation and lead to lovely, unexpected outcomes. But, they can also fall flat if the expectations aren’t clear. It’s no good just to hit and hope – because if one option is to produce something mediocre to complete a task, then that is what you’ll get from some students. At the same time, if you prescribe every detail, you may deter students from exploring things in ways you hadn’t considered possible; you may actually limit them. As ever, it’s about getting the balance right.
To illustrate this, here a few of my son’s pieces of work from the last year. (He gave me permission to include them!)
RE Creation Myth Year 7
In studying religions, creation stories emerge as a recurring feature. Asking students to devise their own creation story is a good way for them to explore the concept, using symbolism and narrative devices to communicate the story. My son was set this for homework and immediately saw it as an exciting project. The brief was simple – to write a creation story accounting for the formation of the Earth and to annotate it explaining each part. They were given a rough guide – it should be about a page long – and were shown an exemplar from previous year. He loved doing it, spending ages coming up with ideas, then writing it and organising the annotations on the bigger sheet to produce something he felt really pleased with. It’s a lovely piece of work, full of imagination.
Here, a combination of factors made it work. There was enough structure and guidance given for him to know what to aim at; there had been an element of standard-setting with the exemplar but, beyond that, he had a high degree of freedom to make it his own and he got a great thrill from it. I quizzed him about what he learned from it and I was satisfied that it had also done the job of illustrating the value given to creation stories in religious teaching.
English Dialogue Year 7
My son has always enjoyed putting on voices when he tells a story. He’s got a whole range of characters he can adopt for comic effect when the opportunity arises. This English homework was a fabulous opportunity to put something he is quite good at to good use. They were asked to produce a play script that illustrated different modes of speech. This is packed with challenge in terms of writing. There were a few rules including the need for at least three characters. The image above shows what my son came up with – the excerpt is about a third of the whole thing. He loved it so much, he spent a whole evening writing it from planning it to typing out the dialogue.
This task worked because it sparked his imagination. It’s so open – he could write about any situation, with any characters, in any voice, for any length. It was set in a light-touch ‘see what you can come up with’ manner so he wasn’t under any pressure to deliver. That gave him the confidence to be playful and experimental with his writing; he didn’t have to be correct or overly formal. However, the teacher is one who is a natural standard-setter; he knew he couldn’t turn in any old rubbish and expect her to be particularly impressed. That combination of freedom and high expectations delivered a great outcome.
Maths Hat Year 6
Here’s an example of an open-ended task that didn’t work out for my son. For World Maths Day – or something like that – they were asked to make a ‘Maths Hat’. That’s it. It was meant to be a fun activity to celebrate maths but my son didn’t relate to that. He saw it has a task that was required but one that he didn’t value. For him, maths could be fun anyway – or not, depending on the nature of the work. He’d have happily done some actual maths of an interesting nature to celebrate Maths Day – but a Maths Hat? He found this woolly hat in his room and saw his chance; three minutes later with some scissors and a stapler – job done! Maths Hat finished.
No doubt you could conjure up all kinds of creative ways to make a maths hat – and certainly his classmates went in with top hats of various shapes and sizes covered in geometry and algebra. But here, for my son, some ingredients were missing. There were no clear expectations or minimum standards; there was no link to the associated learning and no challenge. It might have worked at some level as an optional task explicitly for a bit of fun – but in this case the option to produce something rubbish was there and my son took it. (To be clear, his teacher was fantastic and he got Level 6 in Maths – she knew her stuff. The Maths Hat was an aberration as far as my son was concerned, not a symptom of any deeper issue.)
Y10 Physics videos and other products
Another example of the issues with open-ended tasks is with my own lessons in recent years where I’ve asked 10 Physics GCSE students to undertake a number of open-ended tasks. Usually these are when I feel that students can benefit from trying to synthesise information from research with the material covered in class into a format that they can share with each other. This could be a video, a publication of some kind or a presentation in some form. In order to give them a choice and get variety in the lesson, I often offer a free choice of the presentation format. I might get a couple of websites, a couple of Powerpoints, a few written reports and a video.
Where I am happy with the outcomes, it is normally because of a few factors:
- I have worked harder up-front to set out the parameters in terms of the standards expected. I’ve established the success criteria in advance with students and spelt out the things I don’t want as much as the possible options I might want.
- I’ve encouraged them to use media devices and tools that they know, that they don’t see as too much of a novelty and have the skill to use properly. There’s nothing worse than sitting through a badly made video with dodgy sound quality that was meant to be saying something about science – if only they had kept the camera kept steady or the website links worked. (If students can’t do these things well, they need to be shown how before they use them in a new context.)
- I’ve been very clear that the science content has to dominate over all else. The purpose of the activity is to give them the opportunity to use their knowledge and imagination to convey the scientific concepts in an interesting manner in order to develop their understanding – not to have a laugh making a hilarious video that will have their mates in stitches.
With those things in place I have had some real gems including a great set of ‘Eco House’ sales videos and websites that packed in tons of science about energy conservation and heat transfer with a fair degree of polish. Where I have been less happy, I’ve let some of the criteria slip and been subjected to bad Powerpoints, ‘funny’ (tedious) videos, lame leaflets, low quality websites with lots of animation but no physics – and so on. It can feel like a horrible waste of everyone’s time unless the set up is done such that the outcomes are excellent.
Two final thoughts:
- If everyone in the class has slightly different subject matter, then there is a good reason for students to pay attention to each other’s work. If they’ve all done the same thing, it’s hard to get a class motivated to sit through presentations about things that they already know.
- Sometimes students respond to a challenge to go beyond your expectations. A KEGS history teacher colleague asked her class to undertake a major piece of work researching aspects of the Renaissance and presenting their findings, within a week. She said ‘I bet you can’t do all of that in a week’. They said ‘I bet we can’. She said ‘Ok, then, get your ideas together and make something that will dazzle me’. And they did. Spectacular, breath-taking Year 8 work followed.