From “I’ve done it” to “I’ve learned it”. Terminate the tyranny of the task.

If you go into lessons as an observer, it’s pretty standard to sit alongside a student and to engage in a short discussion about their work.  I might say ‘hello, tell me what you’re doing this lesson’.  The normal response is ‘I’m doing this sheet’ – as the student points to the worksheet task in hand.  I kick myself.  What was I expecting them to say?  I try again with a better question: ‘what are you learning about?’  I get a better response but even here, I might get ‘we’re learning the stuff on this sheet’.

My experience as a lesson observer is that a great many lessons are excessively task focused rather than learning focused.  The language in the lesson, reinforced by the teacher, is dominated by task completion cues:

  • What I’d like you all to do is…;  what we’re doing today is…
  • Make sure you finish; you’ve got five more minutes
  • Try to write something in every box
  • When you’ve done Section B, move onto Section C
  • Who has finished? Well-done.
  • Make sure you write down the objectives, stick in the sheet, write the date, underline the title, draw the margin.

Ironically, very often, most of the time teachers talk about learning objectives is spent on the task of writing them down rather than the meaning of the objective.  Very often book scrutiny focuses on books looking complete – the horror of gaps and the loose worksheet! – without any triangulation to students’ assessment outcomes.

What’s the problem? It’s that task completion is not a good proxy for learning.  This is reinforced by lots of notable people in the field:

Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners; Robert Coe’s ‘poor proxies for learning’; the work of Dylan Wiliam, Dan Willingham, Shimamura – and more –  all indicate that, as humans, we are  extraordinarily capable of doing things in the short-term without learning how to do them in the longer term.  We can perform all manner of tasks and not retain the knowledge of how to do them again later, even if we remember that we did them.  We forget things – in some cases incredibly quickly – in the absence of repeated generative, conscious rehearsal, or retrieval practice with time having passed.

Mark McCourt is superb on this in his work on mastery. (His talk at the Festival of Education last week was fabulous.)  He explains this in terms of ‘recency’ and ‘cue’.  If you are taught how to apply Pythagoras’ equation, it’s relatively easy to then do multiple problems immediately afterwards just like the ones you were just shown how to do (recency); later you might still be able to do this if you are told again – ‘in this question, use Pythagoras’ (cue).  Mark’s argument is that we cannot say real learning has taken place unless students can solve a problem using Pythagoras’ equation in the absence of recency and cue. (Especially recency).

What I have observed, is that it is possible for students to go through school lesson to lesson, day to day, week to week, year to year, completing task after task after task – doing the questions, filling in the grid, completing the sheet,  doing the task, even giving the impression of being engaged, conscientious and motivated – whilst only ever achieving a surface level of understanding and recall of the material in hand.   How do I know this?  Because all too obviously they do not ace their tests when left to their own devices and, in discussion, they find it so very hard to talk about the material in any extended fashion when they’re on their own with their books are closed and the crib sheets are removed.

The shift that teachers, leaders and students need to make is obvious – and hugely significant:  We need to switch our thinking, our emphasis, our language, our mindset away from tasks and towards learning.

This means the following:

Lesson objectives should focus on learning goals – that may span 15 minutes or three weeks.  Students should be able to articulate what learning goals are – writing them down is neither here nor there.

We should check students’ progress against the learning goals:  Has everyone learned it yet?  Can everyone explain it, understand it, express it, apply it, remember it?  This may or may not correlate to having neatly completed tasks in books.

The shift from tasks to learning requires bringing checking processes to the forefront of lesson structures:  activities that enable all students to check their learning against the learning goals, both at the point of instruction and later on in the learning sequence.   As I outline in this post , I think there are some key principles that should apply:

  • Involve everyone:
  • Make checking accurate and easy:
  • Specify the knowledge:
  • Keep it generative:
  • Make it time efficient:
  • Make it workload efficient:

It should be a much stronger routine feature of lessons and of teachers’ thinking that, as an embedded element of engaging with any task, we stop to establish and explore what has been learned:

  • Can you now hold a short dialogue using the new French phrases without looking at the sheet?
  • Can you explain the five key points of the ‘John Snow in 1854’ story without your book?
  • Can you explain the significance of ‘Space is a salvo’ from Storm on the Island – without looking at your annotated anthology?
  • Can you explain how the perfume smell travels across the room (diffusion)- in words and pictures – with your books shut, using your own recall and understanding?
  • Can you work out what needs to be done to work out the angles and lengths in the shape?

Students should experience this so routinely that it forms a habit that they then can pursue when studying in their own time.  They should see ‘completion’ as meaning the point at which they have learned the material, books closed,  – not merely completed the sheet using all manner of supports.  A pretty major leap for some students I would say – but not impossible to make.

In order for this to work, we need to enact the Generate-Evaluate cycle that Shimamura describes so well. (Introducing MARGE: A superb ebook about learning by Arthur Shimamura.). In my view, the ‘evaluate’ aspect – where every student checks their own learning – needs thought.  It’s not feasible for teachers to check every student’s understanding in a responsive manner at the frequency needed.  Teachers need to teach students how to self-assess and to deploy students as resources for one another – checking each other’s work – as Dylan Wiliam stresses in the five Wiliam/Thompson strategies for formative assessment:   Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies.

It’s worth doing a bit of self-review.   Do you inadvertently undermine your own learning goals by over-stressing task completion at the expense of the learning? Do you close the books and check for learning enough?  Is it systematic? Does it involve all students?

I for one am going to try harder to avoid the trap.  I’m going to remember to ask ‘what have you learned about X?’ and take time probing for understanding and recall – instead of repeating the lame  ‘what are you doing, what have you done?’ which lulls us all into the delusion that all is well.


  1. It’s explicitly about understanding – you can’t deepen your understanding of things unless you’re given time to evaluate your existing models – that’s a generative process. You need the scaffolding to come down. Understanding is remembering in disquise – as Willingham explains so well. I’ll go with him on that.


  2. Tom, I read your article on learning versus task and I have to say I am heartened that you are of course promoting ‘ looking for learning ‘ as opposed to asking students ‘what are you doing?’, but at the same time I am surprised this issue still needs debating or inculcating into schools in 2019 . Having worked as a headteacher/principal internationally for the last 30 years, ‘looking for learning’ has been ingrained in many good schools forI have led or visited on the international circuit for quite sometime , specifically IEYC/IPC/IMYC schools, which have ‘ looking for learning’ as their ‘ bread and butter’. I hope your message is picked up ‘loud and clear ‘ by those schools in the UK who still might not quite understand the subtle difference between ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘learning’ in their everyday practice. David Lowder Principal


  3. This is exactly how we work in Music at Huntington. I’m right in the middle of writing a lesson that does exactly this. I was just taking a short break before filming, and came across your post on Twitter. In the lesson I’m asking students to apply their newly found knowledge of functional harmony to different contexts. The listening exercises I’m giving them are simply the beginning of what will become a useful long term skill. It’s not a one-off task with no purpose, it’s a starting point in the development of a skill that can be applied to real situations to solve real musical problems. The next time a vocalist says to the pianist or the band ‘can we take that down a 3rd, it’s a bit too high for my vocal range’, the instrumentalists will know what to do. They will know that there is a method for working all of this out, and that it’s not just musical alchemy. So the notion of the ‘learning goal’ (in this case understanding the relationship between chords, keys and how to transpose) is an incredibly useful one which students will find themselves using time and time again. We ask students to show us that they understand ‘in sound’. To begin with, students stumble through the process working it out as they go, correcting by ear and applying what they’ve learned – ’live’ – in the moment. Through application and experience students gets better and better at it. The lesson is just the starting point, and it’s one of hundreds of lessons in the journey towards understanding how music works. If students have made a few fundamental connections and understand how to apply what they’ve learnt, then it’s been worthwhile. That’s a lesson, not an occupying activity of ‘doing the sheet’, as you say…… I’m off to film that lesson now.

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