VelTaki 07-05-037

Taking Learning to Task:

Creative Strategies for Teaching Adults



Jane Vella

Jossey-Bass, 2001, 151 pp., ISBN 0-7879-5277-3


Jane Vella is adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina, the CEO of Global Learning Partners, and the author of several books on interactive adult learning, including the popular and fascinating Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach. 


The method of teaching is "learning centered," in distinction to teacher centered or student centered.  The book is focused on "learning tasks."  It demonstrates seven steps to planning learning-centered courses, four types of learning tasks, and a checklist of principles and practices. 


"A learning task is a way to structure dialogue.  It is an open question put to members of a small group, who have been given all the resource3s they need to respond.  A learning task is a way of ensuring engagement of learners with the new content."  (xiii) 


Most teachers structure their monologue rather than invite dialogue. (xiii) 


In this model, teaching and learning are integrated and the learning task is the overall design, incorporating the lecture or input along with practice. (xiv)


Learning-centered teaching "considers adult learners as subjects or decision makers in their own learning." (xvi)


Four Assumptions:

1.  Learners arrive with the capacity to do the work involved in learning.

2.  Learners learn when they are actively engaged with the content.

3.  New content can be presented through a learning task.

4.  Learning tasks promote accountability.  (7)


"In a closed question the teacher knows the answers."  "A learning task is an open question….  The open question…is the heart of the matter, inviting critical thinking, demanding reflection, stimulating creativity." (9)  The student's honest response gives the teacher valuable data about the learning so far. (9)


The "resources" students need to answer the open questions are made up of the new content (ideas, feelings, and skills).  We begin either inductively (examining the life, history, and context of the learner) or deductively (examining the latest content).  (10) 


"A good teacher does not teach all that he knows.  He teaches all that the learners need to know at the time…." (11)


"Learning tasks engage learners in a dialogue about the content…." (18) 


"The Seven Steps of Planning:

1.  Who: participants, leaders, the number of participants

2.  Why: the situation that calls for this educational program

3.  When: the time frame

4.  Where: the site

5.  What: the content: skills, knowledge, attitudes

6.  What for: achievement-based objectives

7.  How:  learning tasks and materials" (23-4)


"The who (participants) component controls everything.  It controls what time frame is useful for this group, what objectives will work, what learning tasks are designed."  "Fitting the how to the who, the learning tasks to the participants, is vital in designing effective programs." (30) 


As a rule of thumb you need at least one learning task for each piece of content, perhaps nine tasks, including setting the stage and completing the session, in a 6-hour time frame.  (30) 


"Learning objectives are what the learners do to learn the content."  An achievement-based objective has the learning task already in it. (30-1)


Effective design needs four components, usually in the following sequence:

1.  Inductive work - connecting learners with what they already know

2.  Input - a learning task that invites them to examine new input (concepts skills, or attitudes)

3.  Implementation - a learning task that gets learners to do something directly with the new content

4.  Integration - a learning task that integrates this new learning into their lives. (33)


LEARNING is what happens in the achievement-based objective.

TRANSFER is using the concept, skill or attitude in another setting.

IMPACT is the change in the organization as a result.  (36)


Once a learner works through all four I's, they know they know because they did it. (37)


An inductive task helps the learner clarify where he is, what she knows.  It begins with an open-ended question about the life and experience of the learner.  It sets the stage for learning by sharpening the perception of the learner.  Sometimes it is used as a warm-up.  The learner's perception is the substance of the task. (38-40) 


An input task invites the leaner to grapple directly with new content.  New content is presented and the learner is asked to something with it in order to learn it.  "Presenting new content is done within the framework of a learning task." (40-41)


"The design challenge is not to present this new material as static fact but as an integral part of a learning task, for learners to work over, struggle with, contest, and actually recreate to fit their context." (41)  Struggling with the content makes it her own.  We recreate what we learn so that it fits our world. (42)


Knowledge is more than cognition. (42)  The knowledge must be shaped so that it has meaning in one's own context. (43)


An implementation task invites the learner to use the new knowledge/skill/attitude in the learning environment immediately, to practice it and to provide feedback on the learner's understanding.  Consider one implementation learning task for each input learning task.  (44-5) 


"Once they have done this learning task and gotten feedback on their performance and responses to their questions, learners know that they know." (46)


In an integration task, learners are invited to apply what they have learned to their life and work, either by imagining what the learning will accomplish in their workplace or to accomplish a task after the course. (46)


Verbs are important.  Specific is better.  Learn is too big.  Productive verbs such as design, edit, decide, select, write, distinguish, organize, demand considered action.  Discuss leads to no result.  Avoid it. (52)  Page 53 lists a table of verbs to achieve learning cognitive, affective and psychomotor responses.  "Achievement based objectives must "sparkle with specificity." (56)


"A learning task engages learners in action and reflection.  The design … must challenge learners cognitively and emotionally--and often challenge them to complete some psychomotor activity." (59) 


"During a needs assessment, the designer of a program can wee and hear what kinds of learning task a group needs and wants."  (60)


"A learning task invites dialogue between learner and teacher and among learners as well.  Learning tasks are frequently designed to be accomplished in a small group, moving from individual work to pairs to work in a larger group.  Such small-group work affords opportunity for inclusion, allowing each individual to work in his or her own learning style.  It allows us to celebrate the autonomy of each learner." (60)


"New content is analyzed through a learning task; then, at the end of a class, course, or session, there is a synthesis task, putting it all together." (60)


Achievement-based objectives are quantifiable and verifiable.  They begin with verbs that indicate what the learner will do with what is being learned.  For example, by the end of the day, the participants will have reviewed…, distinguished…, practiced…, identified…, examined…, used…, etc. (62)


In the first or second learning task, the participants will tell their own persona expectations, what they hope to do or learn, perhaps write them on Post-it notes. (64)


Ask: "Who wishes to respond?"  Adult can decided if and when they wish to speak.  Respect their decisions.  Don't call on people.  (64)


Page 70 and following lists and describes a set of skills for leading learning tasks. 


The teacher is on center stage.  What she is doing is what she is teaching. (71) 


"I propose that an attitude is never directly taught through a learning task.  Attitudes are caught, not taught.  Attitudes are developed by reflection on new habits of acting." (89)


Designing learning tasks is difficult work.  We all face the constant temptation to 'teach'--to tell what we know. (111)


Chapter twelve lists 20 reasons and 20 principles for learning tasks.  Here are a few:

·        Learning occurs immediately if you use a learning task.  Learning tasks are more effective than teaching tasks.

·        Learning tasks stop us from merely telling.  "The more teaching (telling) there is, the less learning there is." (112)

·        Learning tasks invite critical thinking.  "When you context it, you are probably learning it well." (114)

·        "Effective learning tasks are tasks for the learners done in teams." (117)

·        "Learners learn if they recognize themselves as subjects (decision makers) of their own learning." (118)

·        "Three elements are essential for effective learning: ideas, actions, and feelings." (119)

·        "Teachers as well as learners learn when learning tasks are used." (121)


Appendix C is a very useful technical guide for designing and using learning tasks.


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