What do we mean by Rich Tasks?

Rich tasks

A ‘rich task’ is one in which a wide range of abilities is catered for, that allows a range of responses. We have found that a well-written rich task will stimulate interest and enthusiasm in all learners, can provide the means for gifted learners to engage alongside their peers without the dubious rewards that come from special treatment. In a rich task learners are able to use their own initiative, to work to their own strengths, and to explore a topic in depth. The nature of the task will encourage ownership– they will be able to have some say in how they tackle the task and what the end product will be.

So the task itself is not enough, it is how it is used which makes a task rich. This is an important tension that schools need to resolve in deciding how they plan for differentiation; how we make the process clear, in terms of skills used, questions asked, etc, is far more relevant in planning for rich tasks than in more conventional or linear modes of learning. What do rich tasks and contexts offer teachers who wish to provide high challenge, but low threshold learning opportunities for more able learners, as part of whole class teaching?

The key features of rich tasks are that they enable learners to:

  1. Develop learning from a common core of knowledge or skills
  2. Encourage exploration of a topic
  3. Develop authentic skills
  4. Allow a range of start and end points
  5. Have an element of open-endedness
  6. Can be accessed by learners of widely varying abilities.
  7. Encourage and provide for higher level thinking in a supportive environment
  8. Encourage critical thinking
  9. Encourage creativity
  10. Have an element of choice (either in the task or in the response), allowing learners to exercise self-direction
  11. Are interesting and motivating for the pupil
  12. Provide varying levels of challenge – including very high challenge – to all
  13. Provide opportunities for able learners to show what they are capable of achieving

We now discuss each of these features in turn.

  1. Develop from a common core of knowledge or skills

Rich tasks are based on a common core of work, generally one which would be covered by the class within their normal working day. In mathematics this might mean a task based around 3D shapes, for example. In science it might be based around the parts of a plant. The challenge is to take these common classroom tasks and enrich them. The core will generally encompass an element of subject material that the class needs to learn about or learn to do, such as labelling the relevant parts of a flower. The rich task provides for this basic level of learning but also provides opportunities for learners to move far beyond it.

  1. Encourage exploration of a topic

Rich tasks encourage learners to explore the subject material, rather than merely provide an answer or complete a closely defined set task. In the parts of a plant example, given earlier, learners might be asked to compare different plants and note how their parts differ, or look at parts of plants that grow in different environments and consider how and why they differ.  Socratic talk should be used to enable learners to elicit understanding, negotiate the meaning within in the task and to explore how it offers potential for learning. Depending on what they are used to, this may require some work.

  1. Develop authentic skills

A rich task generally enables learners to think and act ‘in role’. Whether this is as a mathematician, scientist, journalist or whatever, they support the development of expertise on the part of the pupil, to explore a context from a particular perspective and to produce responses which enable them to develop their voice as a potential or emergent expert. For many of us, this is the wider objective of gifted education.

  1. Allow a range of start and end points

Learners come to tasks from a wide range of backgrounds – some may have in-depth knowledge of a subject while others may have minimal or no knowledge, some will be interested, some not so keen. A well-planned rich task will allow for this, providing a range of choices that cater for all levels and abilities. Thus learners who already know the key parts of a plant might go on to investigate plants in more detail, while those who do not know the key parts may start with learning the names for the parts and identifying them on a given plant. By the end of a task all of the learners should have fulfilled the core requirement, while some of the learners will have gone far beyond this. The more open-ended nature of a rich task allows for a wide continuum of responses, thus providing for a wide range of abilities. But at whatever level the pupil operates, there needs to be genuine challenge available at all levels of ability.

  1. Have an element of open-endedness

Most rich tasks will have an element of open-endedness to them, to allow for the most able learners. This does not mean that there is no right solution or end product – rather, that there will be a range of them. They may have an initial, well-defined task that all learners will be expected to achieve and then move on to more open ended tasks or the entire task may allow a wide range of possible responses. In English this might mean starting with a description of a person in a story then going on to compare this person with others of a similar nature in different stories. In mathematics it might start from measuring the interior angles in triangles, move on to comparisons with four sided figures and finally look at how the number of sides might be linked to the interior angles. There is generally no ‘set’ way of answering at least part of the task – learners will approach the task differently depending on their learning styles and current levels of knowledge and ability.

  1. Can be accessed by learners of widely varying abilities

A classic mathematical example is ‘explore ways to make 32’. A less able child might respond by noting that 1 + 1 + 1 + ……= 32. They might then see what happens when they add in two’s. More able learners might start with numbers that add or subtract to make 32 but then quickly move on to using division or multiplication, or combinations of all four operations. Questions related to the starting question may prompt further investigation, for those who are capable of it.

  1. Encourage and provide for higher-level thinking in a supportive environment

The open-ended nature of rich tasks will provide opportunities for higher level thinking, if the classroom environment supports this approach. If teachers comment positively on work that goes beyond the bare minimum and are interested in different approaches to tasks, then learners will feel encouraged and supported in responding to rich tasks to the best of their ability. In a tightly constrained class, where there is one ‘right’ answer and the teacher is the only authority, learners will focus on providing what they feel the teacher is looking for. This will limit the richness of responses.

  1. Encourage critical thinking

Rich tasks will ask learners to analyse, synthesise and/or evaluate in the course of completing the task. Rich tasks are not about simple recall of facts or repetition of learned procedures; they require higher level cognitive processing. Facts and procedures may be the starting point for some rich tasks but they are not the end point. Rich tasks encourage learners to think creatively, work logically, synthesise their results, analyse disparate viewpoints, look for common features or evaluate findings. This is not to say that rich tasks might not also include lower level activities, such as knowing (learning) the parts of a plant, but this knowledge will have arise from or be activated by a process of questioning and enquiry.

  1. Encourage creativity

Rich tasks give learners permission to be creative in their responses – and creativity is strongly linked to giftedness. As with higher level thinking, the level of creativeness will also depend on the nature of the classroom – in a tightly constrained classroom learners may not feel that creativeness is either allowed or welcomed. Rich tasks also enable learners to appreciate the value of variety and differences in perspective – a really good example will also learners to see elements of beauty in a context, an elegant solution or the imaginative use of humour.

  1. Have an element of choice (either in the task or in the response) 

An element of choice, both in task and in end product, allows learners to work to their strengths and interests. Choices should be varied to ensure that learners encounter a wide range of tasks and products over the course of the school year. If we look at just the synthesis level of Bloom’s taxonomy, this will mean that learners may be asked to arrange, assemble, collect, compose, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, manage, organise, plan, prepare, propose, set up, write. The end product could be written or oral, a model or a PowerPoint presentation, an interview or a debate. Choices allow learners to feel ownership of the task or tasks and research shows that this, in turn, will increase their level of effort, engagement and enjoyment.

  1. Are interesting and motivating for the pupil

The range of choice and challenge in rich task make them inherently more interesting to learners. Tightly constrained tasks with a set end point tend allow the learners no individuality in either their approach or their output. All correct answers to 65 x 2 will be the same. The interest is in the end product or solution, with little or no interest in the process for getting there. In a rich task, learners have choices to make. Teachers will tend to be interested in how they arrived at their chosen endpoint and why they made the choices they did. All of this makes the rich tasks more interesting for both the pupil and the teacher. Often teachers will be surprised at the work that learners produce as a result of such tasks.

  1. Provide varying levels of challenge – including very high challenge – to all

Rich tasks make high levels of challenge available to all learners – not just those at the top end. There is always a ‘next step’ within a rich task, so that learners can work to their ability, whatever that may be. Rich tasks provide underperforming learners with opportunities to stretch and challenge themselves in a non-threatening environment. Questioning learners as they work may increase the challenge, for example: asking learners to look for patterns; to design a method to set their work out more logically; or to look for all the potential solutions to a problem.

  1. Provide opportunities for able learners to show what they are capable of achieving

Rich tasks can help in identifying able or gifted learners, particularly those who are ‘hidden’ or unidentified. Their open-ended nature and high levels of challenge provide opportunities for learners to show what they are capable of achieving. They also allow a finer-grained analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses than tightly constrained tasks, linking to assessment for learning approaches such as APP. A rich task enables learners to produce different kinds of products, to present their learning in a variety of ways and to be assessed at the level of their potential as well as their current attainment.