Since the national research network “Leistung macht Schule” (“Excellence in School Education”) started its work in 2018, we have been working with teams of English teachers (English as a Foreign Language, EFL) at 18 schools in the English subproject. With them, we are testing whether and in what way complex tasks can serve to identify, promote, or even make visible young people’s talents. The project is based on the hypothesis that the complexity of the challenges, the students’ independent ways of working, and an open-ended, albeit goal-oriented and problem-solving task can lead to performances that can hardly be accomplished with reductive, solely didactic assignments. Of course, this approach is based on numerous assumptions about the effects of the task approach and the complex task. The most important features that contribute to our assumptions about the potential of complex tasks to identify talents and enhance giftedness in the EFL classroom can be briefly outlined as follows.
A challenging complexity
Complex tasks are cognitively challenging (in terms of a proximal zone of development) and require the activation of all individually available competencies for successful task completion. Since these are individually different and extend far beyond language skills in the narrow sense, numerous sides of a learner’s personality can become visible that are hardly addressed at all in other, narrowly focused assignments or exercises.
The orientation towards a target product or problem resolution (e.g. the design of a foreign language interaction situation or a text) always requires a high degree of a learner’s autonomy when making decisions on stages of their work, defining individual content (in terms of the most optimal solution) and the design of the target product. In this way, for example, the ability to cognitively and linguistically-discursively structure their work and the target product can be made visible. It so happens that we noticed, more or less surprisingly, a pronounced interest of young people in aesthetically pleasing designs of their target products. Rather frequently, this involved an elaborate, unanticipated investment of time, e.g., in the layout and design of a magazine page, in the (non-requested) construction of a complete 3D model of a dream house or in the (requested) construction of a dream classroom in a box, in the design of an autobiographical comic or a blog post, and in many other target products more.
Complex tasks have a differentiating effect. Because of their openness and goal orientation, they open up a working and creative space that can and will be used differently by individuals. My mathematics colleague in the research network, Friedhelm Kaepnick, who also works with a task-approach (‘substantial tasks’) therefore calls this effect ‘natural differentiation’. Individual aspects of the working process and the task product can be designed in different degrees of elaborateness, precision, complexity and structure, but also diligence and richness or depth of knowledge. Of course, the pace of work and time management are also part of this kind of individualization. However, differentiation also occurs at the level of the input materials and the support that is offered, but also during the working process (strategies, goal orientation, efficiency, cooperation), and, of course, in the quality of the target product.
In this way, differentiation can really mean individualization. This may sound surprising or even paradoxical, but in fact the entire range of abilities, talents and knowledge in a learning group can be addressed and activated with one and the same task and by working on the common object that the task defines.
For complex tasks to develop their talent-activating and differentiating potential, they must be designed to address the individual members of a learning group and their (often assumed) talents, interests, and inclinations. Regarding the topic, the requirements, and the material and support it offers a task must be designed in such a way that it addresses and challenges the competencies and talents of the individual students as precisely as possible. The challenge here is to develop a criteria-based diagnosis as a reliable starting point for task planning, as developed and presented by Jan S. Schäfer (Giessen) in LemaS volume 2 (2022; Bielefeld, wbv).
It doesn’t take much to imagine that working with complex tasks is a substantial reorientation for students and teachers alike compared to other instructional practices, such as coursebook-based ones. This primarily concerns the roles of the teachers and the learners: the teachers need to take a distance from the principle of the continuous and tight control of all learning and working processes (and have the courage to do so). The learners must organize and design their own work and make numerous decisions of their own in order to achieve the goal of the task in a qualitative manner. Most importantly, teachers must plan and design the complex tasks themselves, a challenge that is not necessarily required or enhanced in textbook-based ways of teaching.
A new teaching and learning culture
It is obvious that there is some effort involved in developing one’s own tasks and materials. Therefore, it is advisable to proceed as most English teachers in our research schools do: they collaborate in teams in which several colleagues jointly develop complex tasks for a grade level and which they probe together. In this way, an entire pool of tasks can be developed in the English department that everyone can access and whose tasks can almost always be adapted for other grades or other topics. Also, routines of planning and developing tasks are gradually established, so that the common effort and workload is also counterbalanced by a reduction of the individual workload. Above all, however, one of the most important experiences in the project is that the changing role of the teacher in task-based work brings with it a considerable relief in the lessons themselves. Instead of impulses and reactions minute by minute, a rather continuous monitoring and planned, targeted interventions are required. These are related to the task and the students’ independent task process and are directed toward the learners’ accomplishment and quality of the task target.