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Rickety Roller-Coasters and Task-Based Teaching (Class nine)

Tonight I’d like to talk about tasks. Those of you familiar with TESOL terminology will know exactly what I’m talking about, but what about the rest of the world? What words does the average Joe associate with the word “task”? I don’t consider my husband to be in any way average, but his academic field is very different than mine, so I took a shot in the dark and asked him: “What do you think of when you hear the word task?”

“Mmmmm….” he said reluctantly, eyeing his yet-untouched hamburg steak and knowing that I would persist until he produced an acceptable answer. Within 30 seconds, he came up with: “Difficult”. “Arduous”. “Thankless”. “Heavy”. “Taxing”… Just as I suspected, all negative words.

My hypothesis was correct, and I was pleased. Heavy and taxing are words that would not necessary be chosen as collocates by native speakers (his first language is Japanese), but they definitely carry negative implications; the rest of his choices were spot on, so I let him dig into his dinner. I myself had never had a positive reaction to the word task, most often associating it with words like….. Monotonous. Repetitious. Unpleasant. Onerous. Laborious. Impossible. Remember Rumplestiltskin? If you’re familiar with the Grimm brothers’ grim fairy tales, you know that the lovely maiden of the story was given a task: “Spin this straw into gold by morning. If you do, you shall marry the King.” And children instinctively know the flip side: “If you cannot…. Death.” Then there’s the oppressive image of a Taskmaster, one who drives workers to the point of exhaustion, probably carrying a whip, sneering an evil sneer and using language my grandmother would not approve of. As conscientious adults, we feel we really should make a task list and check things off, but that’s an unpleasant task in itself, isn’t it?

Now push all those negative images aside and imagine a positive task, in the context of classroom learning. Rather than giving a definition, I will tell a story from this Monday’s Task-Based Teaching lesson in Dr. Jim’s class. One of our study questions was to recall and reflect on a task-based learning experience we ourselves had participated in, and my seat partner Cynthia had the best story. Here it is:

“When I was in high school, we did an extended project with my English teacher that went on for weeks–and the focus of the project was a single word. It had to be a ‘concept word’, and we had to have an attachment to it or a reason for choosing it. Then each week, we explored a different aspect of the word; one week we had to search for a poem including the word, and another week we had to find the word mentioned in a work by Shakespeare. The next week, we had to research the word’s history, and so on. Every week we had to find an example of the word used in a different context in a different medium, and in the end, we wrote a research paper—all about a single word. It was really motivating and made a huge impression on me.”

Cynthia’s enthusiasm as she recounted her memory made an impression on me as well, and we agreed that her high school teacher was the best kind of taskmaster. On my part, I recalled a particularly memorable culture festival at my son’s high school, featuring a terrifying but workable roller-coaster, constructed by students and supervised by the homeroom teacher. This brave and intrepid soul had organized students into groups, overseen the planning and construction, and let them go at it, offering advice and monitoring the process up until its successful completion, just minutes before the festival’s scheduled opening time. On that day, I held my breath as my very tiny twelve year old daughter–I swear she weighed next to nothing–hopped fearlessly into the makeshift contraption (she was first in line to test it out) and was pushed up and over a mountain of chairs held together with duct tape, coming careening down into a sea of sofa cushions. There were cheers from the sweaty high school boys and big sighs of relief from myself and the homeroom teacher.

“WOW,” said Cynthia when I finished my story. “That would SO not happen in the U.S. ! Lawsuits! Injuries! Damages!” But we also agreed that it was pretty cool.

So here’s what Cynthia’s word project and the brakeless plywood roller coaster have in common: they were motivating tasks. They were engaging. They had meaning for the learners. They involved positive, tangible outcomes. The teachers monitored and supported learners, rather than directing and leading. In Cynthia’s case, many of the tasks were assigned at school and completed at home, and the work was not collaborative. In my son’s case, most of the tasks were completed at school in the classroom and the entire project depended on co-operation and collaboration. Although both are good examples of task-based learning, the roller coaster example is probably closer to the way TBL functions in a language classroom…..let me talk about this in a little more detail, and you will see why.

Task basked learning is an approach to English language learning that encourages students to learn language by using it in order to achieve an outcomeIt’s not about accuracy, it’s about the task itself, which must be a task in the good sense: something that students want to achieve and something that means something to them. In Cynthia’s case, students worked on their tasks individually, but in the EFL classroom, tasks are usually done in small groups.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Here’s a photo of Jane and Dave Willis, whose book on task-based teaching is chock full of ideas and practical advice on how to transform a traditional teacher-centered classroom into a lively convention center, with students clustered in small groups using their interlanguage to collaborate on creating a list, doing a ranking exercise, sorting or classifying word items or phrases, or attempting to solve a hypothetical dilemma. Have you got the picture in your mind? Then, as the task phase finishes, the teacher-monitor takes the opportunity to wrap things up, reviewing and clarifying the language learners have been using. Helping to smooth out the rough patches. So students work with language and use their interlanguage in the process, but not for its own sake--the end result is the motivating factor, and the sense of accomplishment when the task cycle has finished naturally leads to increased confidence, which is almost never a bad thing.

On the other hand, as my very thoughtful classmate David remarked, task-based teaching doesn’t always conform to that ideal scenario. “I wish there was a troubleshooting manual for this stuff!” was how he put it. In my own experience, a task-gone-wrong can be discouraging, but that’s still vastly preferable to the opposite scenario: me standing by the chalkboard (how I’d love to have a “magic board”) with my pointer, calling on junior high school age students individually (most would rather die than volunteer) and waiting patiently (awkwardly) for the answer that may or may not be forthcoming. Give me the swarming hub of action any day! And, as Jane Willis, the lovely Task-Mistress, says, this kind of teaching is flexible. Textbooks can be adapted by teachers to be more task-like by adding supplemental “mini-tasks” and designing outcomes. There is a standard task framework for those practitioners who want or need the scaffolding, but it is the spirit of task-based teaching and learning that’s important, so I’ll close with the same words that I used to introduce this approach in its TESOL context: motivation, meaning, engagement, and outcome. These are the all-important factors that give L2 learners the impetus to continue, to push forward, to move toward rather than away from the language they are attempting to acquire.

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