Tools and thinking in designing written tasks

“There’s an internal consistency to breakthrough design. It’s of itself, it reflects the intent of the designer. Copying the status quo is easy, commodity work. Creating a new paradigm, one that resonates, is the real work the designer seeks to offer.” – Seth Godin in In and of itself

When we speak of tasks assigned to students, there is an assumption that the task design underwent a design process. This process includes these elements:

  • There is a perceived need.
  • The need is operationalised.
  • The teacher thinks about the knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills, and attitudes which will be learned, rehearsed and manifested through the task.
  • The teacher thinks about the criteria for success for what is manifested through the task.
  • The teacher evaluates the task as well as how the students manifest the knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills and attitudes through the task as a summative assessment.
  • The teacher is able to break down these into lessons and rehearsals in the formative work that will be undertaken in the unit of inquiry.
  • The teacher designs the elements into the learning engagements within the unit, including home learning and reception activity.

In Language and literature as well as other subjects wherein writing is key to the learning transactions listed above, we might begin with the perceived need based on prior knowledge, which means surfacing those elements of knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills and attitudes so that the teaching and learning is targeted at the levels the students need.

Let’s suppose that grade 8 class at a particular point in their progress, show a need to understand analytical writing as a response to a provocation text.

We might have already surfaced prior knowledge through an in-class short writing responding to a passage from a text being currently read. In our perusal of the students’ writing, we might notice that:

  • Some students are writing with a conversational register
  • Some students did not consider author’s intent regarding devices used in the stimulus text
  • Some students did not use the elements of character, setting, motivation and conflict in their analysis
  • Many students did not use appropriate terminology like theme, setting, conflict
  • Many students do not consider context in the reading of the text

There could be lots and lots of other needs, in fact there could be hundreds of other needs as might happen early in the school year and in the middle of a school programme. Teachers might consider that there are other units in which the knowledge of, conceptual understanding of, skills of and attitudes toward analytical writing might be learned and rehearsed. In creation as in writing, the world does not evolve in one unit.

So the teacher decides that there is a focused study of analysis in this current unit. He or she decides on the end quality in analysis that the students might achieve. We recognize this resulting expressions of quality as embedded and described in the objectives and criteria specifically targeted in the unit of work.

Criterion A in Language and literature is key to this example goal-setting, since the main need seems to be analysis. In criterion A, we find that the success criteria for this particular unit task might be:

A i analyse the content, context, language, structure, technique and style of texts and the relationship among texts
A ii analyse the effects of the creator’s choices on an audience
A iii justify opinions and ideas, using examples, explanations and terminology
A iv evaluate similarities and difference by connecting features across and within genres and texts

(from MYP Language and literature Guide, p. 8)

Knowing the students and where they are in the entire overview of the subject, the teacher might consider specifying the success criteria according to the criterion strand descriptors, and develop task specific clarifications for the teacher as well as the learners. For instance in considering Ai above, a grade 8 class might need to focus on conceptual engagements with the concepts context, structure and technique but not so much on style and language. Perhaps the teacher might know that there is another unit coming up this school year which would more likely illuminate the concepts of style and language for the students.

Having decided the specific criteria which become learning objectives to guide how the teacher addresses the perceived needs of the students, the teacher might consider the writing task in light of the students’ cognitive moves during the performance of the task.

Adapted from Cummins and Trzebiatowski. See a closeup at this link.

I find the tool above useful in designing a writing task and operationalising what it means to perform that task successfully.

This tool adapted from Trzebiatowski and Cummins juxtaposes the level of language facility with the cognitive domains within which students think during a language-based task. As designers of the tasks our students perform as learning, we choose to ask students to spend time in the domains with high cognitive demands. In the upper right quadrant, for instance, we find a match with the criterion objectives named above from Criterion A of Language and literature.

A task which allows students to spend time in these thinking moves means that we have opportunities during the unit to support the students’ thinking at high levels of cognitive demand. An analytical task means the students spend a lot of time learning and rehearsing the cognitive moves in the upper right hand quadrant. These thinking moves operationalise what it means to think analytically.

Another useful tool is the classification of the command terms within Bloom’s revised taxonomy.

We might also synthesize the command terms into the actual behaviors students might engage in as they analyse a text in a written response.

Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking moves applied to writing.

In the task for the hypothetical grade 8 class, analysing elements of a stimulus text, students would need to move up and down through the taxonomy of thinking moves. In the performance of the task, the student would need to:

  • Understand the concepts of setting, character, conflict, motivation and theme through the text to be able to “draw extracts or quotes from text and annotates what they mean” at the Understand level.
  • He or she would need to “explain an idea, analyzes an idea, explains and interprets a concept, describes or reports on elements of a whole” at the Analyze level.
  • In the explanation of understanding and analysis, the student would also need to “evaluate stylistic choices” at the Evaluate level in order to comment on the effectiveness of author’s choices, and perhaps even to compare the stylistic devices used in the current text with other texts wherein the student has learned of effective author’s choices based on context, providing an opportunity to engage with the concepts of audience imperatives and intertextuality into the task.

Designing tasks for specific performance is a cyclical process. The instruction of writing is an iterative process because there might be a ‘prototype’ task, and in the assessment of the instruction and students’ performance in the formative tasks, the teacher gains feedback to feedforward into the learning toward the summative task, and uses that feedback information to redesign or tweak the tasks following so that these approximate the more optimal design toward success in the chosen criteria.

Extending the use of tools which operationalise thinking for the learner and the teacher supports the iterative nature of designing effective instruction. Although it seems that we’ve been assigning writing tasks forever in our practice, it might be valuable for us to break down the process and reflect on its efficiency as a design as we move toward a thoughtful, deliberate use of time and cognitive space within ourselves and within our learners’ minds.

Each school year is only 37 or so weeks. Because we want to make a difference during that finite amount of time, we invite our own thinking into the design of the thinking our students do. One of the useful implications of deliberately targeting the thinking students do while performing a written task or any task, is that the need itself presents us with instructional objectives and we can plan to focus instruction around what the students need to know in order to manifest knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills and attitudes in the performance of the tasks leading up to the assessed task. This is the core of assessment as learning.

The intentionality of a teacher’s work is often a quiet albeit labour-intensive cognitive space, and is not necessarily visible in the unit planner to a great degree–this is why we need to see impact not only in planning, but also in instruction and assessment. What’s a perfect unit planner when what we really want to see is the impact visible in the performance of the learners? When we begin to see in learners’ work the specific thinking moves described in the command terms, the criteria, the ATL skills…we see the impact of deliberate design on instruction. This is how our work resonates.




International Baccalaureate. (2015). Middle Years Programme Language and literature guide.

Trzebiatowski, K. (2015, July 30). BICS/CALP and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved on 20 September 2018 from

Featured photo Citta del Vaticano Photo by Jamie Goodwin on Unsplash








Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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