What is the purpose of a learning task?

This is the second blog in this task design series. The first defined task design and discussed why it is an important part of practice – find it here. 

From a functionalist perspective, the purpose of a task is the application of knowledge learnt. Following instruction from a more knowledgeable other, a learner undertakes a task to demonstrate what they have understood, and indeed, not understood.  

The teacher has communicated knowledge to the learner; the task provides the opportunity for the learner to communicate their understanding of that same knowledge. Task design should therefore be predicated on ensuring that taught knowledge can be applied. 

Tasks are the means through which a shared notion of knowledge can be built. Although this shared notion is also developed during the instructional phase, tasks are arguably more effective in establishing it. This is because a task always includes the same result for a learner to work towards – an understanding of the taught content through application. 

If the learner arrives at this desired result, it is assumed that they have correctly understood the knowledge that was imparted (of course, as experience tells us, we know this is not necessarily the case). However, in arriving at the correct result, we can determine that the shared notion of knowledge has been successfully built. 

Above, I posited that the purpose of tasks is to apply what has been learnt. While this may sound straightforward, this can be influenced quite drastically by a teacher’s view of learning.  

For example, this could be affected by whether a teacher views knowledge as something that needs to be constructed or as something that is simply transmitted or interpreted (I appreciate this may be a false dichotomy but please indulge me for the sake of the argument).  

A teacher’s view could dictate not only the design of their tasks and their instruction, but also how they implement tasks in the classroom. To exemplify this point, let’s consider two famous theories of learning: Behaviourism and Constructivism.  

Behaviourism outlines that learning must focus on observable behaviour and actively discounts activity centred around the mind or mental state. In this theory, there must be observable change in behaviour for learning to have occurred.  

The task purpose from a behaviourist standpoint would therefore be centred on how the task can reinforce desired behaviours, while avoiding undesirable behavioural responses. Thus, tasks that promote memorisation and repetition of knowledge (rote learning) could be prevalent in a classroom with a behaviourist approach. The learner would be undertaking tasks that demonstrate knowledge is transmitted. 

The constructivist theory of learning would promote an entirely different type of task. Constructivism believes that the learner ‘constructs’ their own understanding of the world and therefore that the purpose of a task is for the learner to generate knowledge through their experiences.  

As this theory believes learning is a search for meaning and understanding, the constructivist classroom would more likely include tasks of a discovery or inquiry-based nature. The learner would be undertaking tasks that demonstrate that knowledge is constructed. 

Of course, it is not as black and white as that. But, while there are many theories of learning we can discuss, this shows how task design, and the purpose of tasks, are contingent on a teacher’s view of learning and their pedagogy that arises from that view.  

The next blog in this task design series looks at how a teacher’s view of learning can influence their task design.

Published by mrmorgsthoughts

AHT for Teaching and Learning, and Assessment

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