A reader recently observed a “Wax Museum” event at their school. If you’re not familiar with an event like this, it’s where students dress up as a famous person and give a little talk about that person to folks visiting the “museum.” In my experience, there is usually a button that visitors press to “activate” the kids.
But… is it only cute?
This was the reader’s concern: is there anything more we could be doing here?
Don’t Start With A Product
I immediately recognized a mistake that I used to make. The focus here is all about the final product. This is called a WAX MUSEUM project, after all. The whole thing is focused on dressing up, creating a museum, and inviting visitors.
But the final product isn’t where we should start when differentiating. Differentiation (and really any lesson design) must start by planning how we want students to think about the content.
So work backward with me: “How are these students thinking about the famous people they’re presenting at this Wax Museum?”
[Pausing so you can consider.]
Well, students are really just restating already-known facts. That is at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy! In fact, I’d say it’s not really “thinking” at all.
So, to write a great task, don’t start with the product. Begin by asking, “How could students think about this content in an interesting way?”
Then give them resources that will support that thinking.
Finally, pick a final product that will show off that thinking.
How I Plan A Differentiated Task
I always come back to my student teaching days when my mentor, Nanci Cole, sat me down and showed me how to write a real task statement. I think she learned this method from Kaplan and Gould.
There are four parts to a task statement (which I wrote about in detail here).
- Thinking Skill – often taken from Bloom’s Taxonomy
- Content – may be something you “have to teach,” but modified with depth and complexity
- Resources – the books, articles, videos, interviews, etc. students use to think about the content
- Product – how students communicate their thinking
I even made a handy animated GIF!
Students think about the content using resources and then create a product which shows off that thinking.
Plan The Thinking First
The thinking skill is the foundation of any lesson. My pal Lisa and I came up with a slogan: Differentiation is about what students are doing with their brains – not their hands.
The thinking skill must target our highest ability students. We can always scaffold down. But it’s quite hard to add complexity to a weak task. This is the idea behind high ceiling, low floor.
Aim high, then build supports. Don’t start in the middle, and then try to make it more complex.
If you start with a standard, you’re stuck there. If you start with a textbook’s worksheet, you’re stuck there. If you start with “restate the facts”, you’re stuck there!
Aim high. Scaffold down.
Three Sample Task
So here are three options for what a “restate facts about famous people” task could turn into. I’ve picked high levels of Bloom’s and embedded prompts of depth and complexity as appropriate. Note that I have not chosen the resources I’d give kids, nor have I picked the final product they would create yet.
1. Two Opinions Students will contrast two 👓 points of view of The Famous Person. They will think from the perspective of one person who admired The Famous Person and one who disliked them. Students will argue from these two different points of view, ⚖️ defending and attacking The Famous Person.
2. A Perspective Out of Time Students will pick a person from an earlier time (who did not know about The Famous Person). Then they will determine 👓 what that person would have thought of The Famous Person, noting both ⚖️ positive and negative traits. They’ll create a 🏛️ final judgment.
3. Changing Reputations Students will explain how The Famous Person’s reputation has ⏳ changed over time. Then, they will find another famous person who has had a ⏸️ similar change in reputation. They will explain whether these two people would get along with each other or dislike each other.
And, just to be clear, these are three different tasks! I would obviously not do all three. Just wanted to give a variety of possibilities.
Now, some of those tasks could lead to Wax Museum speeches, but perhaps other products fit better and would show off students’ thinking more clearly. The product serves the thinking, not the other way around.
Aim High, Then Lower The Floor
Note that these tasks have very high ceilings. Your most capable student has room to stretch their brains. The questions are interesting, not merely challenging. The tasks scale. You could pose these questions to a fourth-grader, middle schooler, and a college student and get appropriately sophisticated responses.
As teachers, our job is then to lower the floor. What scaffolds will students need in order to be successful? They’ll need some stepping stones along the way, right? They have to gather facts before they can make ethical judgments. They need to make a list before they can write an essay. Build those scaffolds out and kids will climb surprisingly high.
So those are three possible ways to replace a typical “restate the facts” Wax Museum with a task that will get kids’ brains sweating in interesting ways!
I’ll sum up three main points I come back to when writing a high-level task:
- Plan for the thinking, not the product.
- Look for opportunities to add drama with ⚖️ ethical problems, 👓 multiple perspectives, and comparisons ⏳ across time.
- Aim high and scaffold down.
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