Task design and why Bob Dylan was wrong

In my book, Mathematical Tasks: The Bridge from Teaching to Learning, written with Mark McCourt, I argued that tasks are absolutely fundamental in planning learning and teaching in the mathematics classroom.  Since I worked on that book I’ve been back in the classroom (when not in lockdown!) and working with pupils on a day to day basis, encountering all the difficulties, struggles, joys and successes that pupils experience when learning mathematics.   Likewise, as a teacher, I’ve encountered the same range of emotions.   At the centre of all of these experiences have been tasks.  Sometimes the tasks have ‘gone well’ and other times, they’ve not played out as I’d have anticipated or hoped.  

This experience encapsulates the constant struggle of teachers as we select and modify tasks created by others or write our own tasks.  Writing the book took me 18 months, in which  I learned a lot through the reading, research and discussions with world class task designers.   However, taking all of the theory and making it work in practice is difficult.  In returning to the classroom I’ve been conscious that I know about task design frameworks and strategies for task design, but often felt that my theoretical understanding was ahead of my practical ability.  In this regard I’ve learned a lot more by writing tasks on an almost daily basis and setting my classes loose on them, than I would have had I continued to read literature on task design.  That was one of the key messages of my book:  write tasks, discuss them with colleagues, try them out on a class, iterate and refine.  

We don’t improve without taking risks.  There is always the chance that a task or lesson may not go as intended.  It’s relatively easy to make a conventional textbook exercise “work”.  But a task which simultaneously helps to develop conceptual understanding, improve procedural fluency and helps pupils develop a sense of themselves as a mathematician?  That’s hard!  

Bob Dylan once said the world didn’t need any more songs, that all of the good ones had already been written.  How wrong he was!  There are parallels with Tasks – lots of excellent tasks exist, but not all of the great ones exist, yet.  Trends and styles in music change over time.  Imagine a world without Euphoric early 2000s Trance?*** It would be a much poorer world if all of those great producers had listened to Dylan’s argument.  An old textbook, or one of the many excellent resource websites might have what we are looking for.  But like in music, which is always from a unique time and place, where new songs capture moments in history, culture, a life or a relationship, new tasks can capture exactly what your class need.  Only you know what that is.  From the needs of one class, new tasks arise and can gain traction.  I’ve seen this on my website, startingpointsmaths.com, where tasks I, and others, have written have struck a chord with other teachers.  These tasks stem from me trying to help pupils learn some idea more effectively, or to address some misconception.  The world needs lots more great tasks, and lots more great music.  In music there is a lot of bland commercial music which adds little to the cannon that hasn’t already been addressed in a similar manner.  Likewise, new commercial publications often include tasks which tackle topics in the same way as textbooks have been doing for decades, without any particularly new insight.  Sting wrote Fields of Gold as he’d bought a house surrounded by fields of barley, with his wife.  That love song came from his unique situation.  Nobody else had a song that captured his surroundings or feelings in such a way.  In our own  classrooms we frequently encounter situations where we can’t find the task that we need.  It’s then up to us to create. 

The purpose of this website is two-fold: first, it is a bank of tasks which have “worked” in some way in my classroom and may do so to in your classroom.  Second, the commentary I often write at the bottom of tasks is a reflection of task design process and suggestions for possible modifications of each of these tasks. This is to help those interested in task design. I’m also not the most organised in my filing, so find myself using the website as a folder of ideas.  I’m sure we all experience ‘I used to do that years ago’ moments.  I try to capture these moments when I recall them.  Sometimes tasks arise spontaneously on my whiteboard as I work with pupils.  Sometimes I write them up, and other times they are discarded.  The ones I write up are shared here.

I’ll keep writing, and learning about task design. Not because I want to be a great task designer, but because I want to be a great teacher.  I believe task design can help me in that journey.  As I said to the student teacher in the department this week, I’ve been doing this for 16 years in and I’ve got a lot still to learn.  We all do.

If you have written any tasks you feel would fit on the site I’m always delighted to share them here and give them a platform.

***If you disagree you are clearly wrong 🙂 


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