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Teaching and Learning, Uncategorized

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 https://teacherhead.com/2019/03/03/10-techniques-for-retrieval-practice/ , 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.


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

  1. This article successfully addresses the learning of facts and knowledge but misses the central issue, which is how to get pupils/students to acquire deep understand difficult concepts. See



    Posted by rogertitcombe | June 23, 2019, 1:17 pm
    • 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.


      Posted by Tom Sherrington | June 23, 2019, 1:23 pm
  2. I am with Piaget and Vygotsky

    “As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level”

    In order to understanding ‘hard stuff” is first necessary to become a ‘formal operational thinker’ (Piaget), which is that ability that Kahneman identifies that is required for his ‘System 2 thinking’ See


    A student that has not passed from the concrete to the formal thinking state can never understand algebra regardless of how well it is explained by the teacher, ir however hard he/she tries

    “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”

    You are right that ‘task completion’ is not an indication of understanding.

    In Learning Intelligence (2002), Shayer and Adey set out six principles on which their Cognitive Acceleration pedagogy is based. The following has much in common with what Tom is advocating, but expressed differently.

    Schema (plural Schemata) Theory

    Schemata are general ways of thinking that apply in many parallel contexts. For example, Inhelder and Piaget (1958) famously identified the schemata of ‘Formal Operations’ (e.g. control of variables and formal mental modelling) that differed from the schemata characterising the previous stage of ‘Concrete Operations’ (e.g. simple classification and various conservations). In maths the schemata of ‘Formal Operations’ might be transposed to include ratio and proportion, and ability to think in terms of variables rather than just whole numbers’. Recognition of schemata is necessary in order to construct appropriate learning and assessment scenarios.

    Concrete Preparation

    Like buildings, learning needs concrete foundations. Given that the objective is to facilitate progression to formal thinking it must be expected that individual pupils are likely to be at different cognitive stages. If the ground is to be successfully prepared for what is later to be presented then this must be founded on common language and examples from the concrete stage, that all can share and understand.

    Cognitive Conflict

    Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner then a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs. If the cognitive conflict is too great then the learner might ‘close down’ and withdraw co-operation with the lesson. This could be at a conscious or subconscious level. Hostility to the whole subject area is therefore a possible consequence so highly skilled teaching and managing of learning is essential to avoid such an outcome. If there is insufficient cognitive conflict then the learner will just assimilate experiences at a shallow level and there will be no conceptual or cognitive gain. The work of the Russian learning theorist Vygotsky can provide a structure to help the teacher plan learning, through his ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) (1978). The ZPD is the level of cognitive challenge beyond which the learner cannot manage unaided, but not beyond what can be understood with the assistance of a teacher or more able peers. The teacher and peer group members can assist in a variety of ways that involve discussion (peers) and skillfully constructed leading questions (teacher). This is a key role of the teacher. It is only by experiencing this type of teaching and subsequently discussing it in departmental teams that the necessary teaching expertise can be built.

    Social Construction

    Vygotsky (1978) asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. Piaget shares this view but expresses it differently. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in an individual learner is normally a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the cognitive conflict. This requires a certain quality in the social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a school where such quality relationships existed, and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Pupils have to trust and not fear the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstanding! University Challenge question master Jeremy Paxman famously might need some practice in this. Peer relationships have to be good enough for all group members to be comfortable with revealing their lack of understanding to each other as well as both collectively and individually to the teacher. This is a big ask, not to be underestimated. A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Once again great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the true hallmark of a good teacher. There are regrettably a growing number of schools, many judged as successful in league table terms, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning is likely to be impossible.


    This means being aware of your own thinking process. It implies that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. The idea is that as learners experience cognitive development they also develop a metacognitive ability that can be characterised as a higher level thinking skill in itself.


    This is applying new understanding to other contexts. It could be called ‘lateral thinking’. Pupils need to be encouraged to see links with other subjects and disciplines.

    Much of this is consistent with the approaches that Tom advocates.


    Posted by rogertitcombe | June 23, 2019, 3:47 pm
  3. 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


    Posted by David Lowder | June 26, 2019, 11:45 pm


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