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Using theories of task design in curriculum planning

Written by: Lorna Shires
7 min read

The importance of the curriculum in effective teaching

Walter Doyle’s seminal paper ‘Effective teaching’written over thirty years ago (Doyle, 1985), argues that in order to assess the effectiveness of teaching, we have to take into account the curriculum and pedagogy. At a recent conference, Daniel Muijs, Ofsted’s Head of Research, made a similar point and also observed that research has now brought us greater clarity on the evaluation of teaching quality. Muijs suggests that the new Ofsted handbook on the nature of the ‘instructional leadership of curriculum and pedagogy’ offers a more reliable indicator that schools are doing what they can to improve the quality of teaching (Muijs, 2018). As teachers and leaders of teachers, the time is ripe therefore to think about the role of curriculum design and how it supports ‘the collective teacher effectiveness – all the teachers in the school’ (Muijs, 2018).


‘There’s nothing so practical as a good theory’

The EEF/NFER report, ‘Measuring teachers’ research engagement: findings from a pilot study’ (Nelson et al., 2017) suggests that ‘student progress data’ and ‘colleagues from my own school’ are the two predominant ways teachers interpret ‘evidence-based teaching’. I suggest that widening that evidence base to embrace curriculum theory, and especially theory around task design, has a significant and timely contribution to make to the understanding and practice of quality teaching across a school as a community of practising teachers. But what is the role of theory? Is it something esoteric confined to an ivory tower? As Encinas and Farnsworth (Encinas and Farnsworth, 2018) outlined at a recent BERA seminar, theory helps us address the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions that arise by operating as a set of ideas that explain something; as a set of key concepts to shape practice and how those concepts relate to each other. My own position is that the activity of theorising one’s practice, (that is to say, planning what and how I teach through the lens of pedagogical and curriculum theory) deepens my pedagogy because the epistemological basis at the centre of theory and practice are brought together.


Theory 1 – Think like an expert

Joseph Schwab (J. Schwab et al., 1978), a leading figure in curriculum-based educational reform and research, proposed two key concepts of knowledge to be enacted in the classroom. Substantive knowledge, otherwise known as domain specific knowledge: these are the key concepts in a subject and ‘their relation to each other in the way which matches how a subject is currently and commonly understood’. Syntactic knowledge is ‘best seen as the ways of thinking and representing that are expected of experts in a subject’ (Edwards, 2014) (p. 14). Edwards (Edwards, 2014) offers examples of these: in history, for example, substantive knowledge might include sovereignty, nationhood and empire, whilst syntactic knowledge may include inference, causality and evidence-based argument. My own heuristic for this theory is to think of them as, ‘the knowledge that makes up history’ contrasted with, ‘thinking like an historian’. Being clear about the substantive and syntactic knowledge base of the curriculum is the very first step in curriculum and lesson planning. Across a school many subjects will have syntactic knowledge in common and consideration of this should form the basis for whole-school planning and pedagogical approaches.


Theory 2 – Curriculum planning for the teaching of understanding

One of the processes of planning teaching is to consider students’ starting points when designing a lesson or unit. This is very difficult to do in practice because every child is starting somewhere slightly different in relation to the knowledge in the curriculum to be taught and so ‘starting points’ are often interpreted only in relation to student progress data, i.e. the tracking spreadsheet. We can think, instead, that the role of the teacher is to turn their subject knowledge into forms and practices for students through, ‘the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples and demonstrations’ (Shulman, 1986) (p. 9) because in teaching the curriculum the teacher is managing concepts and the students’ developing understanding of them. It can be helpful then, to design the curriculum by rethinking the term, ‘starting points’ with ‘everyday concepts,’ and ‘planning for progress in learning’ to be evidenced by students moving towards working with the ‘scientific concepts’ of the subject at hand.


Theory 3 – Where does the task lead?

One of the key roles of a teacher is to design tasks for students to undertake in the lesson. Throughout the lesson, one of the key responsibilities of the teacher is to make decisions about how to bring the student and the task closer together. When designing a task, the teacher should ask the question,

‘What will students learn by accomplishing this task?’ (or, put another way, ‘Where does it lead them?’)  Doyle (Doyle, 1983) (p. 162) offers two sets of outcomes to tasks that provide clarity in curriculum planning:


Task leads to acquisition of learning Task offers opportunity to practise operations
Facts Memorise
Concepts Classify
Principles Infer
Solutions Analyse


Theory 4  – Plan for direct and indirect teaching

Doyle (Doyle, 1983) argues that direct teaching focused on specific operations to complete the task produces immediate results but, because new understanding involves a reorganisation of our mental schema, some tasks in a sequence of learning need to be taught indirectly where students’ are using their prior knowledge. He identifies that these tasks should contain elements of risk and ambiguity. ‘Understanding tasks which require students to constructrather than reproduceanswers are high in risk and ambiguity because the answer cannot be fully specified in advance and the constructive processes can sometimes be unreliable.’ (Doyle, 1983) (p. 31) Edwards summarises the key messages from Doyle’s seminal research into classroom tasks and teaching for understanding: ‘Teaching repertoires should include direct instruction and the development of memory as well as domain structured open-ended tasks where instruction is indirect and knowledge is used; attention needs to be paid to how the accountability system shapes the tasks, to ensure at least some high risk high ambiguity activities in a learning sequence.’ (Edwards, 2014) (p. 20)


Theory 5 – Task sequencing

Edwards (Edwards, 2014) (p. 21) offers a very useful quadrant model to help teachers plan for how students are supported in their engagement with knowledge in the curriculum:


4. Demonstration of grasp of key concepts and ways of enquiring 1. Introduction of key concepts and modeling of ways of engaging with key concepts
3. More open tasks which enable students to apply key concepts and ways of enquiring 2. Tightly structured tasks which demand engagements with key concepts and ways of enquiring


In quadrants 1 and 4 knowledge is displayed: in 1, by the teacher as expert as they instruct and model, and in 4, by students in some form of summative assessment. In 2, students work in highly structured ways with substantive knowledge and begin to take some control over it. In 3, knowledge becomes a resource in problem solving activities. Students more firmly connect to a readjusted knowledge schema and the inferences that go with it. In weaker teaching, teachers move quickly and solely between quadrants 1 and 4. If teachers plan to spend time in quadrants 2 and 3, they offer students the opportunity to develop higher order thinking skills; take control over their learning; develop positive attitudes to learning and the chance to acquire and use the substantive and syntactic knowledge of the subjects in the curriculum.


Expert teaching and task design

Pedagogy can be understood as decision-making (Perrott, 1982). Hidden beneath the busyness of a classroom are its tasks, but by using theories of task design to illuminate classroom practice, expert teachers are able to plan a curriculum which enables students to engage with the theoretical knowledge of the subject being taught in the lesson. Task design theory also supports the relational expertise of teachers because it enables them to be clearer about their own role when working with their students to maximise student learning in the lesson.


Doyle W (1983) Academic work . Review of Educational Research 2(53): 159–199.
Doyle W (1985) Effective teaching and the concept of the master teacher . The Elementary School Journal 86(1): 27–33.
Edwards A (2014) Designing tasks which engage learners with knowledge. In: Thompson I (ed.) Designing Tasks in Secondary Education. Routledge, pp. 13–27.
Encinas M and Farnsworth F (2018) Exploring the theories behind your project . In: BERA Seminar: Research and pedagogy in the classroom , University of Suffolk, 9 June 2018.
J. Schwab J, Westbury I and J. Wilkof N (1978) Science, Curriculum, and Liberal Education. University of Chicago Press.
Muijs D (2018) Improving school attainment through Evidence-informed teaching. In: Raising standards and attainment through evidence informed teaching Forum, London, 12 June 2018.
Nelson J, Mehta P, Sharples J, et al. (2017) Measuring teachers’ research engagement: findings from a pilot study . Education Endowment Foundation.
Perrott E (1982) Effective Teaching. London: Longman.
Shulman L (1986) Those who understand knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher 15(2): 4–14.
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      Author(s): Bill Lucas