Why Do Simple Tasks Seem Complex to our Students?

I still remember the first time I had to assemble a piece of furniture from a box.  It was quite the comedy routine.  I had the left side on the right side and put the screws in from the wrong side.  I was missing parts and pieces, and the instructions were about as useful as a speck of sand in the desert.  Looking back on it now, the experience was pretty much a disaster.  What I thought would be a simple task, ended up taking several hours to complete.  I find it so interesting that what I usually think is an easy thing to do ends up being a lot more complex than I originally thought.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s our perception of the task.  Because we don’t fully analyze what we need to do ahead of time, we go in unprepared.  If we spend more time preparing and fully understanding the task we face, perhaps we might be able to better approach and complete it.  This same rule applies in the classroom as well.  I find that when I plan new lessons that I think will be quite successful, they end up failing because I don’t fully think them through before executing them in the classroom.  If I spend more time preparing for the lesson and think about any shortcomings or challenges ahead of time, I might have more success.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I planned what we thought would be an interactive and engaging activity for the students.  We planned it out and prepared guiding questions in preparation for today.  The only thing we forgot to do was figure out our delivery.  How would we present this activity to the students?  We failed to discuss this one tiny piece of the puzzle, which ended up proving to be a mistake.  While the lesson and activity did not bomb by any means, I do wonder if the explanation could have gone smoother had my co-teacher and I put more time into thinking about how we would explain the task to the students.

The assignment seemed simple enough to us:

  • Choose a form of government and a country in the Middle East Region that utilizes that form of government.
  • Using reputable online resources, research your form of government.
  • Create a fictional character that might reside in the country you chose.
  • Make a trading card, using a sheet of paper, for your fictional character.  Draw his or her picture on the front and be sure to include his or her name.  On the back, answer a series of questions regarding the character’s life and thoughts on living in the country you chose. Be sure to answer them as though you are the character.  Use first person.  Base your answers off of your research and character development.

That’s it.  The students needed to create a trading card for a fictional character they created that might live in the country they chose.  The task seemed simple enough.  I went over it quite explicitly as well.  Then came the questions and confusion.  A few of the students didn’t understand how they were supposed to answer the questions as both themselves and their fictional character.  What?  So, I reviewed the instructions and task again.  Then, another student asked about how they were supposed to answer questions about the leader of their chosen country if they were only researching the form of government.  Oh my goodness, I thought.  What?  They are confused.  So, once again, I clarified the assignment for the class.  These questions continued for several minutes.  Why is this task that seemed so simple to my co-teacher and I causing such confusion amongst the students?  Did I not explain it well?  Maybe.  I could have modeled the process involved in completing the activity for the students so that they would know exactly what to do.  That might have helped.  I sometimes wonder though, if I show or explain a task too much, am I taking creativity and problem solving opportunities away from the students?  If I had spent more time planning out how I was going to introduce this activity, perhaps my students would have been less confused.

Despite the mass confusion during my explanation of the activity, once the students got to work, they were very focused and completed quality work that showcased their understanding of the assignment.  They had very few questions while they worked.  Maybe they needed to ask numerous questions to allow their brains to process the task I had put in front of them.  Even though the many questions they posed seemed to lead me to believe that they were confused by what I was asking them to do, perhaps they just needed the time to understand the task.  Maybe this was all part of the learning process.  In order to make sense of simple tasks, perhaps my students needed to complicate matters first in order to get to a place of understanding.  Interesting.  If I had explained the task in a more descriptive and clear manner, would they have been able to understand it better or would they have been more confused when they started working?  Perhaps I will take this other approach the next time I introduce an assignment to the boys and see what happens.  Who knows, maybe I will collect contradictory data or maybe I’ll confirm what I think right now.  Either way, I feel that it would be great to know what method of explaining and introducing a task to my students is most effective for them.


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