Principles For Designing Better Tasks (with Dave Weller)

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Excited students, lots of talking, creative craft activities equals a successful lesson, right? Maybe not. We speak with Dave Weller about how to design tasks that result in language learning.

Principles of Task Design (With Dave Weller) - Transcription

Ross Thorburn:  Welcome back to the podcast, everyone. Today, our favorite guest is with us, Dave Weller.

Dave Weller:  Hurrah!

Ross:  [laughs] Today, Dave and I are going to talk a bit about Task Design. Before we jump into that, why is Task Design useful or important, or worth thinking about?

Dave:  Good question. Mainly because when we first become teachers or, at least, I know when I did, I just ran with whatever activities were suggested to me, or games that other teachers have worked very well to get the students engaged and motivated.

It was only later [laughs] that I started to question, "Hang on, are my students actually learning anything?" Then shamefully, I didn't think about that soon enough.

Dave:  That's when you start to realize that, is what I'm doing actually helping the learners, or is it just using time. That's where Task Design pops up, and I think, "OK, the way I run my activity, the way I've structured my activity, it can make a huge difference to what students think about, the language they use, and the practice they get."

Ross:  There's also maybe something about evaluating what you're already doing there, isn't there? That first step that you mentioned maybe is looking at, "What am I doing now? How good is it?" Maybe before I start designing anything else.

Today, we're going to run through Dave's six top tips for ways to design tasks. We're going to look at aims, gaps, load, materials, thinking, and rehearsal. Tell us the first tip tasks should support aims.

Dave:  When you think about the task, think about what language is it likely to get students to produce. Is that the same as your target language? Often, especially if you're just looking for an activity or a game to fill time, you start running that activity, and the language that comes out of the student's mouth is very different.

I'm using different grammar, different lexis, different from maybe that you were expecting. Sure, that is practice, but it might be something they already know really well. They default to something that they are confident using. It's not pushing to use things they're not comfortable with. Therefore, growing or getting better at the language doesn't really happen.

Ross:  I think as well this, it's maybe when you're lesson planning, it can also be worth thinking about changing your aim to reflect the task as opposed to just changing the task to reflect the aim. A lot of people maybe tend to start off with the aim and work forward from that. It's like forward planning, whereas, something I sometimes encourage people to do is reverse planning.

Starting at the end of the class, what's a great task that you think is going to be useful for the students, and then trying to make sure that your aim, and everything you teach matches the task.

Dave:  If you have the luxury of doing that, that's almost the best way to do, but it depends where you're working and the context you're in. Some schools are quite strict about the syllabus they're using, or the course book you have to follow. You have to tick off certain grammar points or sets of vocabulary.

If you would just let me free a context where maybe a class works, just like an English corner, then, sure, coming up with an activity you know will work well for that group and working backwards from that is freer.

Ross:  Again, maybe as well with that aim, it's easier practically to add things to it than to take things away from it. You're probably less likely to get a complaint if you've taught an extra few things that have gone beyond what's in the syllabus. The issue is usually when you cut things from it.

Dave:  Yes, totally.

Ross:  The next step is tasks need a gap. What's a gap, for those unfamiliar?

Dave:  [laughs] It doesn't mean you just stop half‑way through, and you freeze.


Dave:  If there's no input for five minutes at all, you just have to take your little nap.


Ross:  It's the same as a break.

Dave:  Yeah, I wish. Now, surprisingly, I don't see much written about this. There's an author, Prabhu, and he mentioned that in any type of communication, there are gaps. The three are the information gaps, where perhaps you and I have different information about subjects.

Maybe, I want to get to the train station, and you know the way, and I don't. Then, there might be a reasoning gap. Perhaps we all have the same information, but we're trying how to use that information to achieve an objective.

For example, planning a night out or choosing where to go on holiday. We're using our logic and our reason to pick the best option, and we can do that collaboratively.

The last gap is an opinion gap, where students would agree or disagree with each other based on their personal preferences. Debates are a good example.

Ross:  I choose a new picture for the classroom or something like that, and here's a choice, which ones do you like, and justify it, why, that kind of thing.

Dave:  Yes. Exactly.

Ross:  I've also seen people add to this experience gaps or getting people to talk about what they personally have experienced in their own lives, and how that might be different between students and [inaudible 4:39] to that.

Dave:  For me, a lot of that could fall under the information gap because you're just talking about life experience, and I have that, and you don't. That's really good in more adult classes if you have a nice mix of students with different experience in the classroom.

Ross:  Do you want to talk about this for young learners for a second? Because I think with these, it's easier to think of examples for adults than for kids. For kids, we're talking about, for example, what might be a reasoning gap for young learners that would work?

Dave:  Sure. I'll start with the information gap. That could be, you give pairs different pictures. Student A has a picture of a toy or a character, and person B has a blank piece of paper. They're taking turns to describe that character to them, and then they got to draw it. Then I'll [inaudible 5:26] get, "Sky" and they've got a big head, they've got small eyes, or whatever it might be.

Ross:  [inaudible 5:31].


Dave:  Yes. No hair.


Ross:  It is something that is worth talking about is this classroom management aspect. When I see this going wrong, a lot of the time, someone's had this idea that student A will have this information, student B will not, and they have to talk, but what just ends up happening...

Say, if it's a running dictation that the student whose gone outside to look at the picture, we detect just ends up writing the answer, or are going to find someone who activity...I've got my sheet with...Find someone who can speak more than two languages, and then I just give you the pen. Tell you to write your name in there.

I've also seen one where students have to find a way from A to B on a map, but these students show each other the map, so there's no gap there. With that, it's really worth thinking about how it's actually going to play out in the reality of the classroom. How, as a teacher, are you going to make sure that students don't just take the short‑cut of showing the other person the information?

Dave:  Oh, absolutely. An example, just stay with the A and B describing pictures to each other, I might line mapping roads. We'll have them get one road to [inaudible 6:36] and face the other road, and fixed seats somewhere. They will have to visibly hold up their paper in front of them.

As a teacher, you can immediately see if someone's not doing what you've asked them to do, and it's a point of frown on them, whatever your behavior management system is.

Ross:  Sure.

Dave:  Or even making a favorite toy, or you're going to have to design a new character when you've watched a very short clip of a monster movie, a cartoon monster, and they have to make you a monster. You give them a certain set of features.

Like, you can choose from these body parts. There's a selection of ears and eyes, your legs and arms, and body types, and then they have to put them together to create the scariest monster they can.

Ross:  I love those. One of the problems you often get with that is that teachers assume that, because I've taught, say, body parts, that that type of task is going to work really well. What I think the actual language you get in a task like that is like, "No, I disagree. I want this one. This is better. I don't like that."

I think often with those, that's something that's really worth thinking about. Like what is the language that's going to come up? Because, really probably a lot of time what you're doing is just pointing to something and say, "I want this one," or "I like that one."

Dave:  Sure. The trick is, again, that's just shouldn't be the main task. That should be the pre‑task almost. Actually, it's really nice. It's another one of the criteria for task design, which is, think about or consider what students are going to think about.

Cognitive psychology does show us that what students think about, they will remember. There's a really nice quote that memories erases your thought. You probably heard that on here before.

Ross:  No, actually I think that will be the first time, but Daniel Willingham, right?

Dave:  Yes, from his book, "Why Don't Students Like School?" If students are over‑excited, if the task is too stimulating, I always revert to the first language, especially young learners, and start using first language to complete the task.

Ross:  Because almost with kids there's this maybe lack of being able to self‑regulate in both your own behavior, but I guess, also in what language you're going to use. If you've got them dialed up to 11 on the excitements scale, then the chance that you're going to be able to decide to use your second language to do this thing is pretty unlikely.

Dave:  Exactly. Yes.

Ross:  Taking that also links back to what you're saying at the very beginning, that, as a new teacher or as new teachers, I think a lot of us assume that if the students are smiling and having fun and they're excited, then it's a great class, but maybe sometimes dialing that back a bit is actually beneficial.

Dave:  Absolutely. The opposite is entirely true, as well. If they're bored, I'll be talking in the first language but probably off topic.

Ross:  It's some sweet spot in the middle [laughs] between utter boredom and complete excitement.

Dave:  Yeah, exactly. That thing, that example you gave of, if they are making or creating something, maybe drawing or making something out of Play‑Doh, or whatever they're doing, they won't be using the language to do that. They'd taken a product of that task and then using it to use the language that you want to. That's where the learning's going to happen.

Ross:  Sorry to start jumping around there, but I think this relates to your last point of mentally rehearsing the tasks and thinking about like, what is actually physically going to happen here? I think that's one example.

Another one is maybe, we took the farm animals and then for the last hour people are going to make their own farm, but, of course, what language are you using there? You're probably saying things like, "Can I have a red pencil, please?" Or, "Please, pass me the scissors," which is completely unrelated to the farm animals. The students won't be thinking about that at all.

Dave:  Exactly. It's so simple to avoid that by very quickly putting yourself in the student's shoes and thinking, what language do I need to use to complete this task?

Ross:  To take us back maybe to a minute if we're teaching adults. I think if it's a very high stakes class, if you're being observed for something that's really, really important, and you've got a task. You can always just find maybe two or three students wandering around the school and trying to do the task within 15 minutes.

Not the students that will be in your class later, but just to see how actually it pans out, or just turn around to the person next to you in the teacher's room and go, "Can you do this with me for two minutes?"

Dave:  Jump out from behind and photocopy it.


Dave:  I need your help with a task.

Ross:  Yes, covering this farm.


Ross:  How about going back to number three then, cognitive load? That's a term that certainly I was not familiar with until relatively recently. What's cognitive load?

Dave:  Cognitive load is the challenge of the task itself. How difficult will learners find it? If you are expecting to use language that is far above what they can do, they'll look at the task or start to think about, realize it's well beyond what they can do, and you'll see engagement just drop like a stone.

Again, the idea of picking a sweet spot between something that they're able to do with help, and this is almost like scaffolding of all the idea of what they can do. [inaudible 11:20] what I can do with help today, they'll be able to do without help tomorrow.

Ross:  I guess, here, as well, we're not just talking about necessarily how difficult the language is, but we might be thinking about how cognitively tough the task is. Earlier, for example, we were talking about information gaps, reasoning gaps, and opinion gaps.

Maybe a reasoning gap where you've got this much money, these are some different options, these are some different preferences of people in the groups. That sounds like there's going to be a lot more thinking going on there from the students than an information gap where you described...


Ross:  Right. When that happens, maybe it's worth thinking about how the processing power and the student's brain is going to be used to be maybe more thinking about the problem rather than for producing language.

You might get less accuracy and less fluency. Just like me on this podcast, I stumble over words when I'm trying to explain a difficult concept.


Dave:  That happens to all of us, right? You can see when someone's very familiar with the topic because they're fluent, they're calm, they're confident. They're not using discourse markers like, "um," "uh," and so on. When we're trying to think about how best to explain it, we slow down, we stumble over our words.

Another thing that is very worth mentioning is that this level of challenge can also apply to the incidental language in class, like teachers giving instructions. I've observed classes where the students are frazzled by the time they get to the task, because the teacher speaks very quickly, they're not creating their language appropriately for the level.

The students are leaning forward, trying to follow the thread of the teacher, and then they finish, they have to clarify with their friends next to them. "Did she say this?" "Did she say that?" Then by the time they get to the task, "I've just spent five minutes of intensive listening practice," and now you can get a listening to do that.

Ross:  It's almost like what students will think about. It sounds like in your example there they were thinking about what on earth could the instructions be rather than what was in the lesson.


Ross:  Well, Dave, thanks for joining us. All of those tips were from just one tiny part of one chapter in "Lesson Planning for Language Teachers ‑‑ Evidence‑Based Techniques for Busy Teachers" by our very own, Dave Weller. Dave, where can people get a hold of it?

Dave:  Thanks to the plug, Ross. This is a brand new book for me. You can find it on Amazon as an e‑book or a paperback. Planning should support learning. It should use evidence‑based best practices, and it shouldn't take long.


Dave:  Yeah. I think that's the key point. With those principles in mind, I've created 9 or 10 chapters in the book using current research, tested techniques so teachers can end up planning better, faster, and with less stress.

Ross:  Great. All right. Dave, thanks for joining us.

Dave:  It's been a pleasure.