Open-ended tasks have their place. But structure creates challenge.
I was discussing this with another teacher on Twitter and I found it difficult to make my thinking clear in 240 characters so here is the extension.
Open-ended tasks have their advantages that, paradoxically, are also their neuralgic points. On one hand, the students are free of constraints and that allows for a potentially more innovative approach to the task. Moreover, they can stretch their thinking and skill to the level of competence that they are at, without becoming anxious about the result or the desired standards expected by the teacher.
These are exactly the two vulnerabilities open-ended tasks have. Freedom can often be paralyzing, exactly as writers experience the anguish in front of a completely blank page at the start of a novel. I have seen this over and over in my teaching and I started to question the frequency of using open tasks, whether in literature, mathematics or another subject. The second aspect I mentioned above, personal competence, can often lead to mediocre work that students produce *precisely* because they are not challenged, despite the fact that they *can* do better. They would employ the same vocabulary, literary strategies, or thinking tools they already master.
Now, introduce structure and challenge. The student has a pathway for success because they are provided with the framework *and* can truly stretch their thinking because there are several constraints. I am a firm believer in high expectations of every single student and in providing scaffolds so that everyone reaches high standards, not the other way around (dumbing down the content).
Let’s take an example, the one that sparked the conversation on Twitter. This is a completely open-ended task that was cited among others, “You get the whole world’s attention for exactly five minutes. Write down what you would say to the world.” I prefer to use constraints on the literary techniques the student must use as well as specific words they need to incorporate in their writing. Why? Two reasons: students rarely embed literary devices unless we make them aware of that, and using more sophisticated vocabulary not only develops language skills but also thinking. Nuance in *communication* is nuance and complexity in *thought* – they are intertwined, and the more we encourage students to use complex language, the better thinkers they become. See some examples I created for my 5th graders. Their writing not only improved considerably, but they thoroughly enjoy writing and ask to write daily. They write for 15-20 minutes in complete silence, then share their writing with the class or with another peer and receive feedback.
This is a sample of writing (15 minutes, NO revising or editing) from a 5th grader (second-language learner). I told the kids they could add signs (a star, a line) where they would like to introduce a new idea – the other page I forgot to photograph (where the kid finished his writing).
“I was alone. Completely alone. Legs, arms, head…frozen. My voice seemed trapped in a dark lonely room. Unable to move, I kept screaming for help. The sorrow room looked like it was closing in on me and going to squeeze me. In extreme despair, I could only see a broken T.V., a dirty sofa, and the flat squeaking floor. The sound of silence disturbed my ears – it was deafening. I tried to walk but my touch and movement were gone and would never come back. ‘Is this my end?’ I wondered. Exhaustingly, I took my last few breaths…”
To end the post, this is not a debate about whether or not we should use open-ended tasks. Incidentally, my previous blog post is exactly about open-ended tasks in mathematics. This post is about how often we should use them and why alternative tasks, structured and yet allowing for creativity, can be better used.
You can download 12 of the prompts I created below. You can also use the Writing Devices list that I made for students (I printed it and each student has it, alongside other documents, at the back of their notebook in a transparent folder).