In the Science classroom, task design is a necessary skill, particularly when it comes to designing Science practicals. In the spirit of Science, a key emphasis of our Science syllabus is that of inquiry-based learning. How can teachers become better content providers, task designers and assessors?
The Science classroom is envisioned as a site of student-centred inquiry. A key goal, therefore, is to impart the skills of inquiry. Therein also lies the draw of the scientific process – the joy of discovery! To achieve this end, the tasks that teachers design are key.
Designing Learning Tasks
How do Science teachers in Singapore typically go about selecting learning tasks for the classroom? Here is what one Biology teacher from a local secondary school said:
“When we choose an assessment task, we make sure that it is in line with what we have already taught and that generally it is not too difficult for the students to do. Because it’s really for pragmatic reasons: if one task is more difficult than the other…it’s only natural that I will choose the one that is easier for my students so they will get a better score.” (in Towndrow & Tan, 2009, p. 17)
A good definition of a “task” is important in helping teachers identify and assess their roles, notes Assistant Professor Phillip Towndrow (2005). It should not, he says, be a “proxy” or substitute for a desired learning outcome. That is, a task should not be designed solely with the learning outcome in mind.
Towndrow suggests that “a learning task is understood as involving teachers and/or learners working to complete an activity or sequence of activities that have both desirable and measurable outcomes” (2005, p. 511). Moreover, “the ability of learners to complete a learning task successfully is a function of the way that task is planned and presented” (p. 511).
When Learning Tasks Limit Learning
What can teachers do to create a more conducive learning environment in Science classrooms? This was one of the things Towndrow and his research team from the National Institute of Education were interested in finding out.
Working with a group of Biology teachers in a secondary school, the research team helped them to refine their existing pedagogy and practice. One of the issues the teachers struggled with was how to ensure that the tasks they set were more inquiry-centred.
Most times, the teachers relied heavily on supplied or existing instructional materials for experiment ideas. Most of these experiments were designed to arrive at a single solution. The teachers could then assess their students’ performance based on whether they had attained the prescribed outcome.
Because the outcome of these experiments is predictable, more often than not, teachers do not even try out the experiment for themselves. As one teacher described it,
“For Biology, most of the tasks are pretty standard. We’ve done them many times in secondary school and college. So, sometimes we don’t even try them. We will just run things through in our mind, first, because we roughly know what’s going to happen and what to expect.” (in Towndrow & Tan, 2009, p. 17)
While inquiry-based, open-ended tasks are more difficult to design and to assess, they are a necessary part of the current Science syllabus. So, how can Science teachers encourage learning through the tasks they choose?
Two Heads Are Better than One
Towndrow and team asked the Biology teachers to design and carry out an experiment that they had never attempted before.
While the task seemed simple to begin with, they soon encountered several problems. But with help from the researchers, and after several attempts, much discussion and online research, they finally got the desired result. Throughout this exercise, the teachers had to think about how they would assess their students on the same task.
Next, the Biology teachers then shared what they had learnt with two other groups of colleagues – the Physics teachers and Chemistry teachers. The Physics and Chemistry teachers were then asked to do the same – select an unfamiliar experiment in their area of specialization and carry it out. This time, the Biology teachers were on hand to advise their colleagues and provide suggestions.
Through this exercise, the teachers realized that they had much to learn from each other although they were from different specializations. Through working together, they could share their experience and leverage on each other’s expertise to solve problems. One of the teachers commented that this process made her “enlightened and more confident”.
This study helped both teachers and researchers to realize the value of collaboration in designing tasks or planning lessons. There was a sense of shared practice as they interacted with each other to build a repertoire of classroom practices. Such a community of practice also enhances one’s own growth as a teacher.
Popham, W. J. (2009). Assessment literacy for teachers: Faddish or fundamental? Theory into Practice, 48(1), 4-11.
Towndrow, P. A. (2005). Teachers as digital task designers: An agenda for research and professional development. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(5), 507-524.
Towndrow, P. A., & Tan, A. L. (with Soo, P. L.) (2009). Transforming Science practical pedagogy and practice through innovative departmental planning (Final Research Rep. for Project No. CRP 1/06 PT). Singapore: National Institute of Education, Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice.
Towndrow, P. A., Tan, A. L., Venthan, A. M., & Dorairaju, G. (2006). Designing tasks to teach SPA skills at lower secondary level in Singapore (Final Research Rep. for Project No. CRP 28/04 PT). Singapore: National Institute of Education, Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice.