Whole task-based

Learning is promoted when subject matter is taught in the context of an authentic task

  • How does your learning objective become a question for learners?
  • How do you ensure that your teaching is perceived as relevant?
  • How do you challenge all learners?
  • How do you activate and connect relevant prior knowledge and skills?
  • Also, how do they immediately practice what they need to be able to do?

… by starting teaching with the introduction of an authentic task.

What does it mean and why is it important?

In much regular teaching and in the context of teacher professionalization, we recognize the following pattern. First, subject matter is explained and then practiced using simple assignments (subtasks), sometimes followed by a more complex authentic task, in which all the subject matter has to be applied (hence the term whole task).

For example, a biology teacher first explains how the ear works, after which students work on the book with assignments. On the test, students are asked to predict and explain whether Vincent van Gogh’s hearing got better or worse after he cut off his auricle. Many students score badly on this question. The teacher is disappointed because students cannot apply the subject matter in more complex situations. Students are indignant because they never learnt this in class.

A second example is in a lesson on the theme of weather, an English teacher first briefly covers the relevant grammar and then has students do assignments such as filling in missing words in a script for a weather report and some vocabulary exercises. The challenging project task given in method inviting students to prepare and present a weather report is skipped because there is no time for it.

Almost all proposals for educational innovation advocate starting education precisely with whole tasks. Think of problem-based education, inquiry-based learning, the master-apprentice approach, task-based education and competence-based education. Indeed, teaching knowledge and skills in the context of a whole task has a host of advantages. The whole task provides:

  • Content motivation: your learning objective becomes, as it were, a question for the learner;
  • Activation of relevant prior knowledge and skills;
  • A mental organizer that gives meaning to the learning material;
  • That learners know exactly what they need to know and be able to do at the end of the teaching;
  • That what is ultimately expected of them is also practiced in class;
  • That learners discover relatively early what they do not yet know and can do and therefore what they still need to learn.

In the first example above (Biology), the biology teacher now starts his lesson by asking students to predict whether Vincent hears better or worse after cutting off his auricle (a shift of this task to the start of the lesson – reverse heuristic). Then students can choose (selective omission). They can either immediately continue to figure out this question (using certain concepts selected by the teacher) using the diagram of the ear from the method as an aid. Or they can also listen to the teacher’s brief explanation of the ear first. When all students have completed the Vincent question, it is discussed in class and students who still have difficulty with it make two other smaller assignments from the book (subtasks).

In the second example above (English weather), the English teacher now starts the lesson by introducing the weather presentation assignment that is normally skipped (reverse heuristic). Students work in groups of four to prepare a presentation that must meet a number of criteria. The assignments from the workbook, such as the fill-in script and vocabulary exercises, are tailor-made help during this task. Pupils may use these but do not have to (selective omission). Some groups start preparing the weather presentation right away, looking up words, for example, if they don’t know them. Other groups first go through the script, for example, to get ideas.

Practical implications

We have developed practical tools for designing and delivering teaching in which subject matter is addressed in the context of a whole task. These include both task-based teaching to pupils and students and in the context of initial and ongoing teacher professionalization. These tools are suitable for multiple teaching units ranging from lessons to curricula.

Supporting and developing learners

Scholarly publications

Learning to design and enact context-based biology education – making an educational reform practical for teachers
In many cases, the primary aim of an educational reform is to improve learning outcomes. Teachers, however, do not seem to judge a reform proposal on the influence on learning outcomes, but on the practical merits for their classrooms. In this article, we propose and test three design principles for effective teacher professionalization with a focus on increased practicality. We performed a professional development program for secondary school biology teachers (n=8) in which teachers designed and performed lessons in line with a national reform, that is, the introduction of a context-based curriculum. In the professional development program, teachers worked rather independently within their own working environment and built upon evident successes to change their classroom practice step-by-step towards the ideas underlying the curriculum reform. The results show that teachers formulate new and strong intentions for each step in their development. Further results show several shared consecutive steps for teacher change, starting from regular practices towards the context based renewal.

Contact person for this principle
Fred Janssen