TASC: Thinking Actively in a Social Context

By Caroline Esterhuizen

Day one of our sixth ‘Thinking Actively in a Social Context’ (TASC) Week and I have just returned from an impromptu visit to the Grade 1 classroom.

It is not the sort of drop-by for the faint-hearted: within minutes I found my six-foot self lying stretched out, prone on the carpet, surrounded by excited Grade 1 children and being made to try on spectacular light-splitting glasses, watch colour wheels spinning and listen in amazement at how the crystal angels hanging in the window break up light and make rainbows! Everyone is making scientific discoveries.

Teaching thinking about thinking

The enthusiasm is tangible and the school is buzzing with talk about batteries, prisms, light, sound, terrariums, circuits and Jules Verne-esque inventors and adventurers. Teachers are dishevelled, covered in glue and ink and, by the end of the day, are simultaneously exhausted and thoroughly invigorated by the dynamic exchange that has been going on in their classrooms and around the school! At the end of the week, the children will show off their findings to parents, visitors and to each other.

At Forres Preparatory School, we are committed to teaching children to think about their thinking. We began embedding various programmes into our curriculum to become a Thinking School shortly after being introduced to the life work of Belle Wallace at the International Association for Cognitive Education in Southern Africa (IACESA) Thinking Schools Conference early in 2011. Belle Wallace is the director of TASC International and has devoted her career to children’s thinking processes and cognitive development, explaining: The TASC Framework has been my life-search! I wanted to find a teaching and learning framework that would firstly, provide teachers with a creative problem-solving framework that would allow them to make full use of their natural gifts and skills; and secondly, provide learners with the scaffolding they need to move increasingly towards independent, autonomous learning that celebrated their many and diverse gifts.

A dynamic aspect of Wallace’s framework is the focus on problem-solving and thinking skills. To make TASC a part of the fabric of the school methodology, there needs to be a shift in both teaching and learning strategies. Learning is not onesided. In many instances, it is easier for children to shift their approach to research, than for teachers to allow for the process to happen. It requires teachers to take a leap of faith and let go of being the sole source of information and teaching to allow learning to take place intrinsically.

There are two questions (and answers) that give you a sense of what TASC is about:

What does a TASC classroom look like? Messy!

What does a TASC classroom/school sound like? Noisy!

A strength of TASC is that it initiates group discussion in the classroom context. If you watch children busy collaborating, they are strongly focused on what they are doing and what their role is in the project. This is more than just another group project scenario driven by one person in the group. The teacher facilitates the groups to ensure that every child is engaged.

Peer groups and stars

All problem-solving and thinking during a TASC activity happens within the relevant context. The peer group is the strongest reference for the process. Each group begins by asking “What do I know about this already?” At this point, brainstorming strategies come in to play, and children pour out everything they know about that topic. They are encouraged to offer as much as possible, because editing and revising happens at a later stage. Children are invariably surprised at how much they already know about any given topic. Everyone is then asked to refine their thoughts into workable themes and reminded to reflect on the task, what they are expected to do and, most importantly, what the group wants the final project to look like: will it take the form of a rap, a play, a multimedia presentation, an artwork or a construction? The excitement escalates when the groups finally have the opportunity to report back and show or tell about their findings.

Finally – and for Wallace this is a critical stage – everyone is asked to evaluate the project using the simple ‘two stars and a wish’ evaluation tactic. Each child is asked to give themselves two stars for their efforts, to represent what they are really proud of – for example, learning to get along with someone new in their group, for writing neatly, or discovering that they were good at modelling with clay. The wish is one thing that each child feels that they can do better next time. It may also be something that he or she feels could be done differently.

A whole school approach We have run with six annual whole school TASC weeks. What this means is that the school community is engaged in research and thinking about a broad theme. For the whole week, smaller groups work through the TASC wheel to sh owcase their work at the end of the week in one communal event:

What a wonderful world
A geographic week during which each grade selected a biome/ geographic region to explore.

The diary of a Forres kid
A literary week.

Around the world in a hot-air balloon
A social studies week.

A walk through time
An historic week.

The hero’s journey
A literary week looking at heroic qualities.

Science fair
A scientific week featuring great inventors and their discoveries, culminating in a science fair.

Running with the programme on a large scale has helped the teachers and the school to familiarise themselves with the language and process, with the happy result that the TASC wheel has become a safe and convenient tool for simpler, shorter lessons around a single activity. Recently I presented a works hop at a high school for girls, where teachers are struggling to establish reliable, workable research strategies for the students. The school has inherited a generation of young people from educationally impoverished communities, who have never been asked to take ownership of their research. I liaised with Wallace before I addressed the staff, and she was very excited about the development, as it would seem her work has come full circle.

Great service to education

The TASC Project was originally developed in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where teaching and learning was sorely failing children in the mid- 1980s. In 1985, together with Harvey Adams, Wallace established the curriculum development unit attached to the faculty of education at what was then called the University of Natal. From 1988 to 1994, Wallace was immersed in the intensive work carried out with the first pilot group of 28 mid-secondary school students. Since then, the project has become internationally relevant. Wallace has served on the executive committee of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children; she has been editor of Gifted Education International, a peer-reviewed journal, since 1981; and she is immediate past president of the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) in the UK. Recently, Wallace was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, in recognition of her service to education.

Wallace returns to South Africa from the United Kingdom annually, from January to the end of March, and is available for in-school training and workshops.

TASC returns pride

We tend to stifle pride in our children. They have mysteriously learned to be self-effacing and are reluctant to assert their strengths. As teachers, we really can do a lot more to encourage children to look with sparkling eyes on the world around them as they speak about their victories, both great and small.

Sources:

1. See www.teachingtimes.com/articles/ctl-1-4_thinking-context.htm.

2. See http://www.tascwheel.com/belle-wallace.

3. See http://gei.sagepub.com/site/special_issues/editors_choice.xhtml.

Category: Winter 2013

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