Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Makes a Task Meaningful?

(Note: this is work I will be doing with administrators, lead teaches/coaches in Morristown, NJ this week).

What Makes a Task Meaningful?

We know what meaningful tasks are in our everyday lives.  We aren't apt to confuse meaningful from meaningless.  For example, Rick and Dick Hoyt participate together in marathons.  Their work is meaningful.  Take a look at this video and as you watch think about what are some of the conditions that give rise to meaningful tasks. (BTW, you may need a tissue or two as you watch.)

In classrooms though, identifying meaningful learning tasks may be less obvious, less heart felt. So what makes a learning task meaningful? What might we borrow from Rick and Dick Hoyt that can inform our own practice?

The North Central Regional Educational Library (NCREL) offers this criteria:
In order to have engaged learning, tasks need to be challenging, authentic, and multidisciplinary. Such tasks are typically complex and involve sustained amounts of time. They are authentic in that they correspond to the tasks in the home and workplaces of today and tomorrow. Collaboration around authentic tasks often takes place with peers and mentors within school as well as with family members and others in the real world outside of school. These tasks often require integrated instruction that incorporates problem-based learning and curriculum by project. from NCREL
PCF4  (Fourth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning) offers this:

  1. Learners are active partners in the process, rather than passive recipients of information and data;
  2. Learners are engaged in learning by doing;
  3. Learners are engaged in problem-solving tasks and activities;
  4. Learners are engaged in critical reflection during and after their activities;
  5. Learning is situated within the context of real-world or authentic problems;
  6. Learning scaffolds support and promote cognitive apprenticeships;
  7. Assessment of learning outcomes is closely aligned with the learning context and the learning activities.
Using the NCREL description and PCF4's 7 points as a framework for viewing, take a look at these videos of Dr. Jay Vavra, science teacher at High Tech High and his students as they explain the learning tasks they are composing. What do you notice?

African Bushmeat site

Vavra Video II 

Improving Student Products through Critique

An example of a meaningful task can be critique. Interestingly, Lissa Soep notes four conditions necessary for critique:
  1. intense stakes attached to the work
  2. standards used to critique the work need to be collaboratively negotiated
  3. accountability for the quality of the work needs to be distributed across the group
  4. the work being critiques is interdisciplinary
Take a look at these two brief videos of Ron Berger as he explains that one important condition of critique is offering specifics that if enacted will help to make the work better.

Part I: Ron Berger

Part II. Ron Berger

Part III. Read interview using 4As Text Protocol to guide the group's reading and discussion.

An interview with Elizabeth 'Lissa" Soep.  Learning as Production, Critique as Assessment

Please note this is a fuller work on the topic by Soep, Critique: Assessment and the Production of Learning which was published in TC Record.


  1. A task is meaningful when you personally choose the goal/challenge, it is challenging but you believe it is achievable, and you get support from others (cooperate with others with a similar goal).

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