Performance Tasks as a Basis for Planning Curriculum & Instruction

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Over the last two months, many of my workshops have been focused on planning standards-aligned performance tasks. Interesting since this wasn’t a topic I suggested but coincidentally, one that several districts asked me to facilitate. In the era of Common Core Standards for ELA and MathNext Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and Social Studies 3C Framework, performance tasks are a perfect fit for teaching and learning. Why? Because each of these frames for teaching and learning recognizes the dynamic and interrelated nature of understanding across disciplines.

The C3 Framework is grounded in four dimensions: Developing Questions /Planning Inquiries; Applying Disciplinary Tools/Concepts; Evaluating Sources/Using Evidence; Communicating Conclusions/Taking Informed Action

The C3 Framework is grounded in four dimensions: Developing Questions /Planning Inquiries; Applying Disciplinary Tools/Concepts; Evaluating Sources/Using Evidence; Communicating Conclusions/Taking Informed Action

How do 21st Century Standards Demonstrate Interdisciplinary Thinking?

The ELA/Literacy Common Core Standards directly address dynamic disciplinary connections through the inclusion of Reading Information Standards as well as the History/Social Studies and Science, & Technical Subjects.  The language of specific standard (links here to standard 7) further enunciate the need for application of knowledge as they direct students use flowcharts, graphs, maps, charts, symbols, and mathematical expressions to integrate, translate, and evaluate to solve problems. Likewise, the C3 Framework  draws explicit parallels between the Social Studies Standards and the Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards, more than focusing on disciplines center the learning frame on questioning, planning, evaluating, and communicating (see cover at right).

Although all 21st century standards emphasize the dual nature of learning (across discipline and through performance) perhaps the best visual demonstration of that point is illustrated in  NGSS. Each set of grade-level standards delineate performance expectations as the standard’s header and supported at the base by connecting math and ELA/Literacy standards. In the colorful center are the foundations grounding the performance expectations: practices, disciplinary content knowledge (core ideas),  and concepts. This is not a random order; core ideas is buttressed by practices and concepts. Students are to model, question, plan, interpret, and construct as they come to recognize the concepts of patterns, causal and correlational relationships, systems, functions, and change. Yes, to my eye, the NGSS best models the relationship of interdisciplinary understanding, but all of the  new standards address their interdependence.

The NGSS clearly depict the interdependence of scientific understanding to practice, knowledge, and conceptual organization--and all sit atop of math and literacy standards.

The NGSS clearly depict the interdependence of scientific understanding to practice, knowledge, and conceptual organization–and all sit atop of math and literacy standards.

As Standards Shift so Must Instructional & Assessment Methods

Just as our new standards focus on the application of knowledge through practice, educators must redesign instruction and assessment. We must come to use PBL– performance, problem, and product based methods–consistently for teaching, learning, and assessment. These research proven methods though not new are effective–see an earlier post, Hattie, Problem-based Learning & Performance Tasks, a reflection on my own learning coupled with Hattie’s metadata.

What sets PBL from conventional practice? Unlike many standard types of learning tasks and assessment tasks, PBL tasks ask teachers and learners to use multiple resources to practice learning and demonstrate proficiencies. What does that mean? Instead of merely working a series of unrelated algorithms, learners solve a life-like problem or work through a scenario that requires the use of a series of algorithms.  Instead of reading a short story and answering a number of multiple choice questions or writing a short answer response that summarizes the reading, learners cast the characters and propose settings for a screen version of the text, illustrating and justifying the reasoning for their choices. Instead reading about the immigration of a people and then matching their movement to a labelled map, learners design a thematic map noting populations distributions. Instead of describing or selecting from among a list the characteristics of a microscopic organism, learners create a model of the structure under study.

The differences between conventional types of learning and performance learning are clear. Conventional learning is more focused on discrete knowledge: labelling parts, naming systems,  identifying relationships. Performance learning broadens the focus of teaching and learning through application of knowledge. Performance tasks “task” the learner with a situation that requires integrating skills and knowledge. The multiplicity of the demand, the cognitive load required to not only consider the given but also to anticipate the possible in terms of a solution, a model, or an alternative gives knowledge purpose and heightens motivation.

Tips for Designing Your Own Performance Tasks

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have written extensively on this approach. In December 2012, Wiggins & McTighe authored a series of blogs on standards, backwards design, and performance tasks. That thinking continues to serve us well:

The key to avoiding an overly discrete and fragmented curriculum is to design backward from complex performances that require content. A return to the linguistic roots of “curriculum” reveals the wisdom in this outcome-focused view. The Latin meaning of the term is a “course to be run.” This original connotation helpfully suggests that we should think of a curriculum as the pathway toward a destination. As mentioned above, our conception is that curriculum should be framed and developed in terms of worthy outputs; i.e., desired performances by the learner, not simply as a listing of contentinputs.

This is not a new idea. Ralph Tyler made this very point more than 60 years ago (Tyler, 1949). He proposed a curriculum development method involving a matrix of content and process components that would guide teachers in meshing these two elements into effective performance-based learning. (Edutopia, Dec. 2012)

Wiggins & McTighe are not proposing a new approach to curriculum and assessment; they are offering a practical design that supports long-held research and theory. Likewise, Marc Chun, (who credits the work Wiggins & McTighe) has worked to advance the practical applications of performance tasks for teaching and learning. He explains

Assessment should align with student learning objectives so that what faculty are teaching maps directly into what is being assessed.  However, a way to achieve even closer alignment is to seek convergence between pedagogical practice and assessment tools: in other words, for an institution to teach and assess in the same way.  Teaching and assessment– so often seen at odds- instead become coterminous. (Chun, 2010, p. 23)

To make learning most powerful instruction, practice, and assessment should be grounded in how skills and knowledge can eventually be used rather than taught as academic compartments separated from a practical reality. Wiggins & McTighe’s fifth blog in the series addresses that a rich performance task, well-written, can simultaneously assess multiple standards–yes! That is the idea of problem-centered, product-based performance tasks.

In Taking Teaching to (Performance Task), Chun shares five authentic performance-task scenarios. Each introduces the problem and establishes the role of the learner followed by a list of documents for use or discovery and culminating with the task. Although the examples are from the college stage of education, a modicum of imagination is all a teacher needs to develop their own interdisciplinary task. Overall, Chun suggests five-features associated with a performance task:

  1. Real-world Scenario: applying content learning to a situation related to the discipline or outside the discipline (to demonstrate transfer);
  2. Authentic, Complex Process: reflects the ambiguity of life–there may not be one “right” way, all information may not be available, completion requires steps and decision-making;
  3. Higher-order Thinking: involves cognitive conflict, analysis, synthesis, creativity–the solution may cause additional problems;
  4. Authentic Performance: the product is probably a write-up (memo, letter, blog, report) but not an academic paper;
  5. Transparent Evaluation Criteria: criterion-referenced with outcomes and rubrics shared beforehand.

Chun’s process is not unlike Wiggins & McTighe’s GRASPS

  • G: Establish the goal, problem, challenge, or obstacle in the task.
  • R: Define the role of the students in the task. State the job of the students for the task.
  • A: Identify the target audience within the context of the scenario.
  • S: Set the context of the scenario. Explain the situation.
  • P: Clarify what the students will create and why they will create it.
  • S: Provide students with a clear picture of success; Identify specific standards for success; Issue rubrics to the students or develop them with the students.

An Example I Used in My Classroom

In my class, the performance task was the  reason for learning. There were few conventional assessments. And if there were a conventional assessment, it was to check for understanding as a means to be sure necessary skills and knowledge were feeding into the needs of the performance task. All texts and activities supported development and design for the performance task which was announced early in the unit or multi-day lesson. As a result, there was excitement about the task and motivation to learn. Take a peek…

Cart before the horseA SCENERIO: Students struggle with understanding idioms and adages. They contend the truisms are outdated and irrelevant. Your task is to design a picture-book that illustrates ten to fourteen maxims in ways that either help to clarify their meaning or underscore their outdated nature in today’s society. Either way, the depiction of selected idioms must demonstrate clear and appropriate understandings of their original intent and their relationship to the present. You will be working in teams of three with roles of editor, illustrator, and publisher. No two groups may select the same expressions for development in their  publication. All publications will use a combination of visual representations and alphabetic explanations.

OR EQUALLY MEANINGFUL but less involved and designed for independent work:

 You have just read two short stories about learning life’s lessons as one grows up. Each of the stories focuses on a turning point in the main character’s life. Decide which of the two texts you think is a “must read” for a sixth grader both because of the lesson and the way the author develops the message. Then write a letter to a new teacher stating and supporting your opinion by analyzing how the author crafts a particular part of the story to develop the theme. Be sure to provide quotations from the text in supporting your claim.

Most of  my performance-tasks were contracts associated with specific standards and rubrics associated with quality (and sometimes quantity) performance. For instance, in this task the publishing group may have to develop closer to the maximum number to earn an A while those contracting for a C may only have to develop the minimal number. If I wanted to make this task related to a specific discipline, I could tweak the scenario to address the areas of science, music, physical education, etc. Or, I could add to the  scenario that the publishing groups should design their publication for a  specific audience.

Support the Team: Where Can You Take Your Standards?

Try generating a performance task for your standards and post it as a reply. I’ll provide feedback and we can grow a network of tasks to build on instruction and assessment. In my next blog, I will attend to setting perimeters around standards to make the task more manageable for assessment.


Chun, M. (2010). Taking Teaching to (Performance) Task: Linking Pedagogical and Assessment Practices.

McTighe, J. (Dec. 2012). Common Core Big Idea 4: Map Backward From Intended Results. Edutopia.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (n.d.). From Common Core Standards to Curriculum: Five Big Ideas. New Hampshire Journal of Education.

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