Teachers as digital task designers: an agenda for research and professional development
Phillip A. Towndrow
Phillip A. Towndrow is an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University Singapore, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore, 637616. His research interests include information and communication technology in (language) education, learning-task design, and literacy issues in the digital age.
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Information technology (IT) is a pervasive and permanent feature of life, especially in postmodern, globalizing contexts. As a result, the debate over whether IT is valid from an educational perspective is futile, and should be terminated; there are more urgent matters to consider. For example, two changes can no longer be resisted by participants in classroom interactions. The first relates to the mass of information in a multiplicity of modes that technology makes available to teachers and learners both in and outside the classroom. Where information in digital format and new technology exist, individuals are increasingly able to manipulate and control aspects of life in new ways (Shapiro 1999). Furthermore, access to new technology results in a 'restructuring of power' (Kress 2003: 17). These phenomena are potent factors that define and recast educational landscapes.
The second issue also affects classrooms dramatically: the convictions held by economists, politicians, and educational policy-makers on IT's power to promote, through education, the improvement of the social and economic fabric of nations. The drive to use IT is raising vexing questions about implementing educational policies at the classroom level. Although IT-based policy statements are ambitious in terms of their intended impact on individuals and society as a whole, they often lack essential details about how, or indeed why, they should be implemented. The direct result is misunderstanding and underuse.
Taken together, the existence of new technology and the desire to exploit it place teachers and learners in a labyrinth of opportunities, challenges, imperatives, and expectations. What is required to negotiate ways out of this maze are meaningful and productive practices that help teachers to monitor, reflect, and prepare for their classroom-specific experiences. Towards this end, I propose a generic programme structure for teacher professional development with IT that would be informed by what Kirk and MacDonald (2001: 552) identify as the 'teacher's authoritative voice', that is, the special knowledge teachers have of their students, colleagues, and school environment. The method employed involves deriving some general principles of classroom practice with IT from the examination of events in a specific context. In this instance, the case of Singapore is used because it illustrates well the societal effects of mass and rapid change brought about by educational reforms designed to ensure political and economic survival.
The Singapore context: crafting the 'intelligent island'
Since August 1965, when the small, multi-racial Republic of Singapore was conceived, the government has striven to develop a 'more just and equal society' (Lee 1998: 13) against a backdrop of problems associated with economic and social survival (Sharpe and Gopinathan 1997). A strategic feature of Singapore's response to the difficulties it faced (and continues to face, in certain respects) was to form a robust bureaucracy that directed national education and its training systems towards economic viability, moral fortitude, and a sense of national identity and purpose (Watson 1994, Morris 1996, Ashton and Sung 1997, Chiang 1998).
Today, the Singapore government's aims and objectives for education are best characterized as ambitious, challenging, and pragmatic. Given the scarcity of natural resources, a major strand of the government's raft of solutions (Teo 1999: paragraph 12) is fostering the belief that every Singaporean has some talent and ability, and that these attributes should be developed to their fullest. Concomitantly, massive investment in technology and technical training is intended to transform the nation into an 'intelligent island' (Neo and Soh 1993). Considered together, these factors produce what might be termed a 'human-technological capital' vision of nation-building that holds out great promise and expectations.
To assist in the preparation of school-aged children as potential members of an IT-literate workforce, the Singapore government has undertaken two major educational policy initiatives (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 1997: paragraphs 2--4; Tharman 2002). The realization of these plans of action provides unique examples of IT implementation in education insofar as they attempt to integrate educational policy statements with resource delivery. In 1997, the first Masterplan for integrating IT into curricula (Ministry of Education 1997) consisted of a phased multi-billion-dollar package designed to equip schools to a pupil-to-computer ratio of 2:1, and at the same time to improve links between schools and other institutions around the world, promote autonomy in the use of IT resources, stimulate critical and creative thinking, and work towards greater efficiency in educational administration and communication.
With the technological infrastructure in place, the second IT Masterplan, outlined in 2002, provided the framework for schools to think about how they could best use the technology to support learning in other ways than simply delivering subject matter (Tharman 2002). Consequently, in several key areas attempts were made to activate learning through experimentation and independence, find connections between curriculum, instruction, and assessment methods, and promote school-based research and programmes for teacher professional development.
The preceding sketch provides the basis for two critiques of the degree of fit between the Singaporean government's IT-based educational policies and the potential to achieve their desired outcomes. The first critique1 examines the risks involved in pursuing educational policies that rely heavily on technology-based solutions to problems; the second assesses the achievements to date of the IT Masterplans in education.
Singapore is not in crisis, but its emphasis on creating human-technological capital for the economy gives the educational system, at times, an industrial look and feel. Furthermore, when combined with a traditionalist pedagogy that has historically measured teaching and learning performance on examination results and other achievement-based criteria, the conditions are set for a delivery approach to be adopted in classrooms. Under these circumstances, it is possible for the work of busy teachers to be restricted to the technical enterprise of transferring rule-based knowledge based on the textbook and worksheet materials at the expense of deeper and wider intellectual objectives.
The second critique relates to the achievements, to date, of the IT Masterplans, given the dearth of published comment and research. One of the few studies available is Lim et al. (2003), in which quantitative findings from a larger study of the first Masterplan are listed at length and then briefly discussed. The purpose of study of Lim et al. was to examine critical aspects of IT integration in Singapore schools, and the researchers' methodology included a questionnaire completed by the IT co-ordinators or Heads of IT Departments in 328 schools (82.2% of target population). The principal findings of this study can be summarized in three statements:
those schools that received funding and equipment in the initial development of the Masterplan (i.e. those that began working with IT in 1997) used IT more extensively than their counterparts that joined the programme in the later phases;
teachers and students in 'independent-autonomous schools' (a category created by Lim et al. that covers schools that have greater autonomy and flexibility than regular government schools to introduce innovations and educational programmes that challenge pupils) were doing better with IT than their opposite numbers; and
higher pupil use of IT is correlated positively with greater staff-development opportunities, a conducive IT school culture, and increased teacher use of IT.
These findings, although preliminary, are not particularly surprising; they provide little or no real indication of substantive issues relating to how exactly IT is integrated in the Singapore curriculum as a whole, and how it transforms subject-specific practice in particular. These weaknesses can perhaps be traced back to the failure of the Masterplan itself to convey any clear sense of what reformed teaching practices would look like or what teachers would need to do or believe to implement its ambitious intentions (Deng and Gopinathan 1999).
Thus, disparities can occur between policy intent and practice when IT is used as a major lever of change within an educational system to secure rapid economic and social advantage. Although questioning the claims of technologists and the wisdom of educational policy-makers is not popular, it is relatively straightforward to identify in IT practice an 'implementation gap', measured and assessed in terms of what policy-makers say and what actually occurs in classrooms. The first part of my proposal establishes an exemplary baseline from which to build a bridge between policy and practice.
Baseline: a biology class in Singapore
The following vignette draws on initial classroom observation data collected in Singapore in 2004 as part of ongoing studies investigating the nature of Digital Curricular Literacies (Freebody et al. 2003). These literacies can be thought of simply as the skills (including elements of IT) that students use (or can use) to transform their ideas into extended learning activities such as projects. The account is based on coded observational records, field notes, and a high-quality digital audio-recording that capture details of the teacher's interactions with her learners.
Ms Koh,2 a biology specialist, works at a distingished government-aided, single-gender secondary school in Singapore. She is assigned to teach a unit of work on models and systems with a first-year top-stream class of 40 students. The class is orderly, polite, and diligent. The topic of the first session (55 minutes), cell theory, involves a comparison of plant and animal cells.
After some introductory remarks, Ms Koh instructs the learners to open their textbook (Tho et al. 2001a) to page 280, and in a lecture style proceeds with some concept-checking through short question-and-answer exchanges to draw and label a diagram on the whiteboard of a typical animal cell as shown in a double-page spread in the learners' book. Some explanation of the properties and functions of the main parts of the cell are given. Next, the class is told to turn the page, and typical plant cells are dealt with in much the same way. After these presentations, which take about 20 minutes, the whole class compares, through teacher-initiated exchanges with individual learners, the two different kinds of cell. This phase of the lesson lasts about 10 minutes and requires Ms Koh to prompt individuals in the class to reproduce orally a limited number of statements from their books. With some difficulty in composing complete sentences, the students eventually mention that both kinds of cell have cytoplasm and a cell membrane; animal cells do not have chloroplasts; only plant cells have a cell wall; and finally animal cells contain vacuoles which are small and numerous whereas in plant cells there is either one large vacuole or a limited number. Next, the learners are instructed to work individually for 10 minutes to complete a short-answer comprehension exercise from the companion workbook to the main text on plant and animal cells. In the closing 10 minutes, Ms Koh reviews the answers to the workbook exercise and provides corrective feedback where needed. Finally, two other exercises from the workbook (multiple-choice and free response/structured questions) are set for homework. The class ends with the learners doing private revision.
Of the many comments that could be made about Ms Koh's lesson, I will focus on the structure and the implementation of the activities. To do so, I preface my remarks with some general points about learning-task design.
Defining learning tasks
Opinions differ on what a task is and how specific one needs to be in delimiting tasks. For example, in language learning and teaching, Ellis (2003: 16) defines a task as:
a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically in order to achieve an outcome that can be evaluated in terms of whether the correct or appropriate propositional content has been conveyed. To this end, it requires them to give primary attention to meaning and to make use of their own linguistic resources, although the design of the task may predispose them to choose particular forms.
Although this definition is useful, it is narrow and confined to a particular domain of pedagogic practice. The alternative is to produce a broader classification based on the analysis of tasks in a variety of instructional situations. But, as Jonassen et al. (1989) warn, this approach is imprecise because there is no single way of analysing tasks, given the variety of situations in which tasks are performed and the multiplicity of purposes for which they are done. Under these circumstances, one might consider that a task is whatever it takes to get a job done, or worse still, a proxy for a desired (learning) outcome.
Teachers need a characterization of tasks that helps them to identify and assess their roles. Thus, for the purposes of this paper, 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. Usually a task involves pre-, during-, and post-stages that could be framed in terms of a problem identification-solution routine, the negotiation of meaning(s) or the application of knowledge/instruction in a specific context or contexts. In task planning and implementation, teachers and/or students are required to make decisions that regulate the work which takes place. For example, some factors for consideration include: the amount of time that is available to learners to plan and complete a task; the modes in which meanings are represented; the level of familiarization with topic; the extent to which learners have choices; the amount of information available and the ways in which it is handled (one-way or two-way exchange, existence of context and/or reasoning gaps); the mode(s) of evaluation of performance in the task, and the existence of opportunities for learners to reflect on the work that they have done.
Making learning-task design decisions
The ability of learners to complete a learning task successfully is a function of the way that task is planned and presented. To return to the case study, Ms Koh implemented a task that involved herself as the dominant participant in a series of activities that ran for the entire class. Her presumed purpose was to disseminate discipline knowledge that she expected would be received in the course of her pre-stage presentations and reproduced in the subsequent workbook exercises she selected. Thus, as a result of the decisions she made, her actions were largely determined by the content of the textbook and its instructional logic, and these factors combined to limit the intellectual space surrounding the material and task. I will return shortly to the issue of the intellectual space surrounding tasks.
In my judgement, the decisions made by Ms Koh were by necessity those of a task designer. Although Ms Koh is required to cover the biology syllabus in her school, and even though cell theory is an abstract topic that requires the study of phenomena at the microscopic level, she still has, to use a term coined from Cuban (2001: 167), the capability to exert her 'discretionary authority' in the way this topic is taught. There are, of course, consequences in doing so. For example, Ms Koh chose to copy diagrams and facts from the textbook on the board, and then test the learners' understanding on an individual basis. But could the learners' understanding have been scaffolded less explicitly? For example, they could have been told at the outset that they were going to be involved in comparing two things and then asked to complete the blank similarities-and-differences chart that appears on page 107 in their workbook (Tho et al. 2001b). The point here is that this chart was not given attention (in the class). It can be stated as a general task-design principle that what is designed and done in a task is equally as significant in terms of its pedagogic implications as what is not done by design.3
A second learning-task designer's decision that Ms Koh made relates to a feature of the class that was noticeable in its absence. Neither the teacher nor her learners used IT, and it is open to debate in these circumstances as to how far, and in what ways, this task-design decision impacted on the interactions and teaching and learning experiences that occurred.4 In the next section I outline some benefits of working with IT, and illustrate, in general terms, how these benefits may influence the design of learning tasks.
Teachers as digital learning-task designers
Based on the preceding points, it is my firm conviction that for lasting benefit to be derived from working with IT, teachers cannot function as mere 'technicians' or knowledge-transmitters. Rather, the new technologies demand a pedagogy that is purposefully and intelligently oriented towards a learning-task designer's perspective. This maxim applies especially to those who believe either that learning-task design is the exclusive domain of specialist curriculum designers and professional materials-writers, or that the quintessential feature of good teaching is to implement other people's predetermined workplans, including the use of approved resources like textbooks and workbooks.
But to demonstrate the rich texture and subtleties of all teachers' work, it needs to be acknowledged that they are necessarily involved in designing tasks at almost every twist and turn of classroom interaction. This conceptualization applies to the production of customized materials (worksheets, cue cards, diagrams, charts, etc.), just as it does to the implementation and modification of predefined workplans.
IT and the design of learning tasks
Put simply, IT works best in teaching and learning when it is conceived of and used as an integral component of a task---not when it is appended to an activity as an optional extra. Although a limited amount of experimentation is possible, teachers are advised, by and large, to make decisions about IT usage based on a set of principles (for example, those outlined by Towndrow and Vallance ), that give prominence to the benefits that can be derived from the technology. These principles include using IT to:
make possible activities that could not be done as easily, if at all, in the print-based realm;
allow the mixing of digital media and modes;
allow teachers and students greater flexibility in terms of when and where learning occurs;
allow access to a wide-range of information (going beyond what appears in a textbook);
allow for a focus on both the products and processes of learning;
allow for instructional material to be stored and recycled;
encourage discussion and consultation;
provide a channel for feedback and assessment;
avoid the unnecessary duplication of previously produced material; and
save time, over time.
However, the greatest range of benefits accrue from IT when teachers deploy it to help attain a spectrum of educational objectives. For example, in terms of providing the means for engagement with instructional material, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001: 67--68) outline a taxonomy of cognitive processes that range from simple recall to such higher-order cognitive processes as analysing and evaluating materials and creating connections. All such objectives, it is true, cannot be achieved instantly, but there is no reason why teachers working in an informed or principled way could not accomplish a limited number of these objectives. To illustrate some possibilities, I return to the topic of cell biology and consider some modifications to Ms Koh's original task design.
The following examples illustrate how IT may help in redesigning and implementing the task at two levels of integration: the first at a level where the teachers have started to use the technology to their advantage by adapting what they do in class to their learners' needs and interests; the second at a level in which teachers and learners confidently use technology in an educational setting that values learning as an active and creative social process. Both instances assume access to computers and the Internet.
The first example exploits IT as an information store and promotes the understanding of written and graphic communication. Plant and animal cells can be exemplified and interpreted, for example, with reference to interactive images available freely for classroom use through the World Wide Web (e.g. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 1997, CELLS alive! 2003). These resources can be used repeatedly, save time (in the sense that the teacher does not need to draw or reproduce images from a printed page), and promote exploration that could be used as the basis for subsequent comparison and inferential analysis.
The second example involves a departure from textbook-bound material and requires learners to work together to interpret factual information by converting it from one form to another (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001). Assume that the learners, having read the key point that the membrane of a plant or animal cell is partially permeable (Tho et al. 2001a: 285), are now curious about which materials are able to pass through the cell membrane and how this is achieved. Instead of the teacher entering into a dictionary-based monologue to explain the meaning of the terms 'partial' and 'permeable', he or she could assist the learners in re-articulating their interest as a problem and then ask them to do some on-line research to produce a graphic that illustrates their findings. Class time could then be spent discussing strategies for finding, disseminating, and reflecting on the information needed to explain the concept of partial permeability mentioned in the textbook. Note that I am not suggesting that biology courses or teachers do not deal with topics like osmosis. My point lies in another direction entirely.
The second example allows me to make several crucial comments about the nature of IT and the design of learning tasks. For this particular task, which involves guided exploration, to succeed, the teacher needs to be moderately flexible about the scope of the subject matter dealt with in class and the way learners work together. Given the teacher's willingness, the intellectual space surrounding the task must be open. The purposeful use of IT empowers both the teacher and learners to exploit the learning opportunities in this working environment. This conceptualization of classroom practice is without question located at a point beyond the mainstream of lockstep, textbook-bound instruction; IT and new media restructure the terrain of educational practice, and as a consequence learners need opportunities to exercise their power to manipulate and control what and how they learn. This is the kernel of task design with IT: addressing the expectations of policy-makers while overcoming perceptions, where they exist, that threaten and potentially displace the centrality of teachers. Teachers need assistance in implementing IT; this is best done, I maintain, by orienting their professional practice towards learning-task design perspectives. Towards this end, the next section of the paper proposes a generic programme structure for in-service secondary-level teacher professional development in digital learning-task design that would be conducted by researchers and trainers in the field of digital curriculum literacies. The framework also raises several questions about the practicalities of task-design pedagogy, which are flagged as agenda items for future research.
A generic programme structure for teacher professional development in digital learning-task design
If it is accepted that teachers can and do have a function to perform as learning-task designers, and that the decisions they make shape their interactions with their learners, then it would be helpful for teachers to expand their repertoire of task-design skills and task-implementation strategies involving IT. To provide teachers with the means for making informed decisions based on desired outcomes and conditions pertaining to particular situations as specified in particular tasks, it is proposed that they embark on a programme of professional development that is experiential, incremental, and supportive of pedagogic improvement and practice. Such a programme should allow teachers to:
define, describe, and classify learning tasks in general terms;
design and modify specific learning tasks and re-articulate (where necessary) specific instructional objectives; and
prepare, implement, and evaluate learning tasks according to specific learning objectives.
It is hypothesized that there are substantial benefits to be gained by teachers in these areas.
The first step in learning to design tasks from a digital perspective is to acquire or develop a vocabulary for describing and classifying learning tasks in general terms. One possibility for describing and classifying learning tasks is by making reference to the nature of the structure and degree of certainty of the subject matter they are concerned with (Freebody et al. 2003). For example, Jonassen (1997) proposes a continuum of instructional design models as seen that makes a distinction between well- and ill-structured problems (see figure 1). At one end of the continuum, well-structured problems typically involve learners in applying a limited number of concepts, rules, and principles in a restricted problem situation. Under these circumstances there is usually a correct and predictable answer or solution to be sought through a process that is preferred and/or prescribed, but importantly, not contextualized. At the other end of the continuum, ill-structured problems are proto-typically context-specific, authentic, and seek solutions (where possible) that are not predictable and require in problem-solvers what Spiro and associates (Spiro and Jehng 1990, Spiro et al. 1992) refer to as 'cognitive flexibility'---an attribute that requires careful honing and facilitation.
Figure 1. Continuum of instructional design models (derived from Jonassen 1997).
As far as teachers' work as task designers is concerned, the terms of Jonassen's dichotomy can be put to service when they are seen as more than simply devices that demarcate bipolar regions. Thus, figure 1 shows intermediate points along the continuum in acknowledgement of the possibility that problem-based tasks can be comparatively more well- or ill-structured, depending on the design and the 'definiteness' of the knowledge domain in which they are embedded. Theoretically, this realization allows a teacher to take any learning task he or she has conducted or plans to use and place it on the scale as a first step towards describing it and understanding the implications of its structure on the interactions that occurred or would be likely to occur in the classroom. However, as it stands, this attempt at benchmarking is of limited practical use because it is not necessarily evident which aspects of a task one would have to change in order to move it along the scale in either direction.
Knowing more about the operational factors and dimensions that surround learning tasks would encourage benchmarking with greater precision and assist in subsequent modifications. As far as problem solving is concerned, later work by Jonassen (2000) identifies a range of problem types from well- to ill-structured in 11 overlapping categories: logical, algorithmic, story, rule-using, decision-making, trouble-shooting, diagnosis-solution, strategic performance, case analysis, design, and dilemmas. Although Jonassen illustrates his taxonomy with sample learning activities, not all of his examples feature in typical, decontextualized secondary-level curricula. Therefore, it can be argued that for Jonassen's categories to be more fully practicable, more needs to be known. In particular, Jonassen was unable to articulate in sufficient detail the cognitive, social, affective, and historical dimensions surrounding all the problem-types he proposed, and it is hypothesized that the keys to reworking tasks are located within these properties (and perhaps others that have yet to be identified). This situation is unfortunate, but it is not a weakness. Further inquiry is required to augment Jonassen's preliminary task-design work and to assess if his categorizations and concepts are useful for mainstream teachers.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Jonassen's existing task-design typology is that it charts areas and identifies possibilities for a rich set of teaching and learning experiences to be discovered and exploited. But a mechanism that provides cognitive flexibility is also required to allow entry into these domains. The key point is that the movement into new, more open, educational landscapes is aided by IT, and so the professional development programme in learning-task design must enable teachers to view technology as providing for multiple:
solutions (in that end-points in learning may be validly different);
strategies (in that the route to a learning end-point is often generated by the invention of the learner and the needs of the data being generated as part of the process); and
perspectives (in that the perspective on a problem or issue investigated might be instrumental in a solution, or offer an alternative approach given a different point-of-view).5
Once teachers begin to adopt the multiple solutions, strategies, and perspectives approach to learning-task design, they will start to question with greater acuity the relevance and usefulness of various aspects of their designs. For example, the purposefulness of workbook exercises can be scrutinized, the function of group-work and collaboration can be considered, and the need to expedite the transfer of subject learning can be tackled. As a result of such deliberations, the expectation is that teachers can be led to modify their planned task designs, and through this action the requirement to re-articulate specific instructional objectives will emerge.
Thus, for ill-structured tasks, given that learners will be jointly responsible for making decisions about the design of a task, the teacher's role will change, but in ways that cannot be prespecified with any great deal of certainty. In other words, to scaffold teacher management of the intellectual space surrounding more open and flexible types of learning, a context-sensitive mnemonic structure is required that advances learning-task design. Two questions about the practice-oriented domain of learning-task decision-making arise at this point for further investigation. The first concerns the identification of factors that teachers need to consider when modifying tasks in real-time or at short notice; the second relates more generally to how teachers can be best guided in making quick task-design decisions.
The final stage in the generic programme in teacher professional development examines issues in preparing, implementing, and evaluating digital learning-task designs involving IT. Potentially, many questions could arise concerning the practicalities of aligning teacher and learner expectations about what learning tasks require (e.g. how problem-based tasks can be scaffolded), and what would count as evidence of learning within IT-based learning tasks. But there are no general rules or accepted procedures for resolving these questions, especially in the absence of information about the cognitive, social, affective, and historical factors that influence the execution of specific tasks in specific locations at specific times. While these matters need to be resolved through research and negotiation with teachers themselves, the reasons why teachers must evaluate, in particular, their learning-task design work can be stated more categorically as pedagogic principles. First, teachers need to know if what they do is helping their learners to learn; and second, given the dynamic nature of technological development and the ever-changing landscape of educational practice, teachers must continually improve in order to remain viable and relevant. The less teachers leave to chance with IT, the greater the possibilities are that they can keep up with events and cope with contingencies as they arise.
For the ideas outlined above to be assimilated into regular classroom practice, time, patience, and teamwork will be required by the teachers, researchers, and trainers. Qualities of teachers differ and their levels of exposure to, and comfort with, learning-task design matters are bound to vary. To illustrate the diversity and challenges present in various task-design and implementation starting points, I return to the material presented earlier about teaching and educational policies in Singapore and speculate in the following paragraphs about different teachers and teaching situations. I then offer some suggestions about how the proposed professional development programme would impact on these teachers in their specific contexts. Three fictional profiles are discussed: (a) rigid, (b) prudent-confident, and (c) prudent-willing. These are constructed within the constraints imposed by the Singaporean educational structure of expectations around national curriculum, examination success, and subject-matter-driven learning.
In rigid circumstances, teachers perceive their job as consisting of the delivery of a predetermined scheme of work that they had little or no part in constructing. Given the constraints of time and the ever-present need to prepare learners for end-of-semester and end-of-year high-stakes examinations, rigid teachers prefer dealing with well-structured tasks, individual seatwork, and learning rooted in surface-level issues. In addition, they are threatened by the consequences of working more openly, and worry in particular about ceding control of learning to their learners. In discussions about Jonassen's work (1997, 2000), rigid teachers find it difficult to generate examples of less well-structured tasks specific to their subject area, and show high levels of resistance to the suggestion that they can and do have a role to play as learning-task designers in their classrooms. Teachers of this type, it is suggested, conduct their work according to well-established and mechanical procedures; they are, as a result, at risk of fossilizing and eventually burning out.
The second group of teachers implements a scheme of work decided in advance but in which there is some room for manoeuvre about the way it is implemented. Prudent and confident teachers claim to conduct fairly ill-structured activities in their classrooms, and are comfortable about allowing learners to do small-group work. When discussing learning-task design matters, these teachers can sometimes be helped to generate examples that display principled thought, but they are not easily convinced about changing their classroom practices. The sticking point is that these teachers are successful in preparing learners for their tests and examinations and cannot find compelling reasons to change what they do best. While it would not be wise to tinker with a 'successful' teacher's working practices just for the sake of change, prudent and confident teachers in this kind of situation can be blinded by their successes. For example, they can start with fairly open learning-task designs on paper and then present them to their learners in such a way that their planned outcomes become constrained. This can be done knowingly because close-ended tasks are easier to implement and assess, or it can be done quite unwittingly when potentially innovative practices are funnelled through an established procedure of classroom practice that finally reduces all challenges to product-oriented outcomes that can be measured easily. To break this mould, teachers need to be able to move beyond the application of standardized measures of success and performance. This raises important issues in learning-task design about the framing and application of scoring rubrics that are customized to the specific characteristics of work undertaken in class.
The third group of teachers operates with a scheme of work that is largely decided upon in advance but in which there is probably some room for manoeuvre in the way things are done. By and large, prudent-willing teachers are most comfortable implementing well-structured tasks with some occasional small-group work undertaken in class. However, they can be persuaded to experiment with more open learning-task designs and flexible student-interaction patterns so long as this experimentation is done with the intention of improving learners' performance in quizzes and final tests.
The preceding sketches hint that teachers in Singapore, and elsewhere, are at various stages of preparedness for a programme of professional development that attempts to intervene positively in learning-task design matters at classroom level. Under these projected circumstances, I contend that the kind of action that is best suited here must not imply a sea change in pedagogic practice. Rather, it should be sensitive to local and national concerns and explore avenues for fine-tuning approaches with the intention of deepening learners' understandings of the subject matter they are expected to deal with on a daily basis.
I believe that teachers in Singapore, and in other contexts where similar circumstances apply, could be helped to develop professionally as learning-task designers and implementers by taking the initiative to do two things. First, they need to monitor what they do in class and reflect on their actions. Farrell (2004) shows convincingly that active, reflective practice can assist busy teachers cope with the demands of the profession. Thinking about teaching provides opportunities for teachers to make better choices about what they do, and to function more effectively given their limited time and resources. In addition, emerging learning-task designers need to find ways of sharing their teaching experiences at every opportunity. In this respect, it would be extremely beneficial for colleagues to talk about their forthcoming lessons. They could also be supported in their efforts to incorporate IT in their work through one-to-one consultations with the professional development programme researchers and trainers. The second initiative involves finding ways to ensure the successful execution of planned learning tasks in class by supporting learners in their work. Apart from scaffolding task-completion appropriately, teachers in Singapore are advised to make their expectations explicit at the outset of tasks. This can be done simply by explaining in commonsense terms why subject-specific content is important, or by translating abstract notions, where possible, using general, non-technical language.
As teachers become more involved in, and understand, their work as learning-task designers with IT, it is hypothesized that they can be led through a programme of professional development to a point at which they are extremely skilled and accomplished task designers. Furthermore, it is assumed that as teachers develop as learning-task designers they will do so in stages or phases. Figure 2, inspired by the findings of the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project (Sandholtz et al. 1997), is a conceptual representation of the movement teachers could potentially be involved in as they become more adept at designing and implementing learning tasks. Four interrelated phases are proposed:
at the point of Adoption, teachers design and implement teacher-centred tasks with IT and find it a challenge to modify their plans;
at the stage of Adaptation, teachers start using IT to their advantage but also begin to embrace student-centred and higher-order orientations;
with Appropriation, teachers personal attitudes to IT change and they are well on the path towards being confident experts and willing learners in task design; and
at the point of Invention, teachers are able to design, implement, modify and evaluate tasks that involve multiple solutions, strategies and perspective either in advance or during their execution, if necessary.
Figure 2. Stages of development in learning activity design (after Sandholtz et al. 1997).
For the outcomes of this professional development programme to be achieved, it is critical for teachers to be helped to appreciate that IT makes it possible for them, and their learners, to play larger and more significant roles in planning and executing tasks that are centred on, and controlled, by them. To avoid the charge of idealizing the potential of teachers to reorient their thinking towards curriculum design issues, educational policy-makers and school administrators must play their part in encouraging the changes in educational practice with IT that they propose and desire. If it accepted that teachers have a designer's role to play, then space needs to be created from within which this important function can be performed. An immediate factor that could help in this direction would be for formal assessment requirements to be eased so the tasks that teachers design can be a part of regular practice, and not done at the expense of attention to preparation on standardized tests. Second, a look around any school staff room where teachers sit in individual cubicles engrossed in silent work suggests that educational systems need to create opportunities for teachers to work together on task designs. That said, a great deal more needs to be known about fostering collaboration among teachers and successful learning activity design and implementation with IT both within individual schools and across school districts.
I have attempted in this paper to show how teachers can be assisted in overcoming disparities between the intentions of educational policy and practice with IT through a staged programme of professional development that focuses on learning-task design, modification, implementation, and evaluation. The proposals I have been outling are grounded in observations made of classroom practice in Singapore, but there are several general principles relating to curriculum studies and teacher professional development that can be derived from this specific context. The assertion that teachers can and should use their discretionary classroom authority to their advantage by redirecting their attention away from the whats of instruction towards an explicit consideration of the whys and hows of educational practice was intended to help them find (or rediscover) a direction in their work. Teachers would be best advised not confuse the desired goals of education with the means of achieving them.
IT gives teachers and learners unprecedented access to information in a variety of modes, and makes it possible for teachers and learners to apply, receive, analyse, evaluate, combine, manipulate, and create information in novel ways. However, more needs to be discovered about how teachers can become aware of their task-design role and how they can learn to exploit its potential by making informed decisions based on desired outcomes and conditions pertaining to particular situations. Clearly, navigating the paths leading to new educational landscapes with IT raises several pressing questions. A summary of the topic areas and research questions around teachers' development as digital learning-task designers is outlined in table 1.
Table 1. Topic areas and questions for research relating to a programme of teacher professional development in digital learning-task design.
Learning-task design and implementation
Teacher professional development
This paper is the result of research and development work undertaken as part of the Digital Curricular Literacies (DCL) project funded by the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The DCL project team is composed of the following: Principal Investigators, Peter R. Freebody, John G. Hedberg, and Guo Libo; Collaborators, Chin Hui Li Christine, H. Doreen Tan, and Phillip A. Towndrow. I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the following colleagues in the collection and analysis of DCL data: Lim Tze Mien, Chen Min Pyng, Ole C. Brudvik, Uma Natarajan, Sam Ming Shann Charmaine, Tiu Angela, Julie Lim Poh Gek, Sunita Shankar, and Muthukumar S. L. The DCL project is managed by Tiu Wendy.
1. I summarize at this point the arguments in Towndrow (2001).
2. The teacher's name is a pseudonym.
3. It is possible that Ms Koh did not make a conscious decision in this respect, but it still remains clear that a teacher's task-design decisions embrace what is included, and by implication what is excluded. Kress (2003: 49--51) makes a similar point concerning the centrality of design and the need to attend to the implications of both planned and unplanned events in relation to literacy and multimodality in contemporary educational contexts. In all likelihood, Ms Koh probably thought that it was more efficient to show the class how to compare plant and animal cells because she believed that the learners were not able to do so by themselves.
4. I am not interested in attempting to explain why Ms Koh did not use IT in her class or to speculate about what some of her other choices might have been. Rather, my purpose is to show in the remainder of the paper what could have been possible if she had used IT, in particular, and how teachers like Ms Koh can be helped to make more informed learning-task decisions that involve the strategic use of new technologies.
5. As an extension, the simultaneous use of multiple perspectives in difficult domains is also required. See Spiro and Jehng (1990).
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