Tool IE-2: Comparing structured and unstructured tasks

For this tool you will need the following resources:

  • IE-2 PowerPoint
  • Handout: Structured and unstructured tasks – organising a table tennis tournament

The aim of this tool is to identify differences between structured and unstructured tasks and howdownload_powerpoint they are used in the classroom. The tool begins with a short introductory discussion, which is followed by paired work in which teachers compare structured and unstructured versions of the same two tasks. Finally, the group comes together to share their thoughts.

teamwork Hold a short discussion to introduce the topic. Discuss how in most mathematics and science classrooms, students are provided with structured tasks and are told precisely which techniques to deploy. Students learn by following instructions. Problems and situations that arise in the world are not usually like this. Rather than being exercises in the use of a particular skill or concept,  real-world problems require students to make simplifications, model situations, choose appropriate knowledge and processes from their ‘toolkit’ and test whether their solution is ‘good enough’ for the purpose in hand. It seems logical that if students are to learn to use their skills autonomously in their future lives, they will need some opportunities to work on less structured problems in their classrooms.

teamworkAsk the teachers to work in pairs or threes. Give them the Handout: Structured and unstructured tasks, which contains both structured and unstructured versions of two inquiry (problem solving) tasks set in different workplace contexts. It also provides sample responses to the unstructured tasks. Ask them to compare the less structured versions of the tasks with the structured versions and to consider the following questions:

  • What decisions have been left to the students?
  • What pedagogical issues will arise when you start to use unstructured tasks like this?

Students working on the table tennis tournament problem.

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teamworkBring the group together and ask each pair or three to share their thoughts. Make a list of the points they make.

Some immediate issues that teachers are likely to raise are:

  • unstructured tasks are more difficult;
  • it is more difficult to plan a lesson with these tasks;
  • students may not even know how to get started on them;
  • students will not necessarily use what we have taught them;
  • if we offer help too quickly, students will simply do what we say and not think for themselves;
  • students will generate a greater variety of approaches and solutions;
  • students may need reassurance that it is alright to try a different approach or reach a different conclusion.

nextsteps Ask the group to devise a research question which relates to the use of unstructured tasks. They should choose an unstructured version (ideally of a problem they have already taught in a more structured form) and teach it to their students. They should be prepared to report back at the next session, with a particular focus on what they have learned about the research question.