April 25, 2014

Mighty Math Tasks!

Guest post by Cassie Tabrizi

Several years ago I was lucky enough to attend a state-wide training on math tasks. When I entered the classroom on the first of four long training days, I thought we would just be talking about word problems or hands-on learning. I was blown away by what I got instead!

The presenters walked us through how our state wanted math tasks to be: open-ended, higher-level, and engaging. This idea fascinated me! Our state had recently adopted the Common Core State Standards, and the level of higher-order thinking skills needed to meet each standard is incredible. The tasks that were presented meant that our kids had to do all of the “heavy lifting” as they went through the mathematical process.

What does this mean exactly? Well, it means that all the math tasks I have created since that training are open ended. This was really hard for me to grasp at the beginning of the training. I thought “There is no way that my third graders are going to be able to estimate reasonable numbers to fit this problem!” However, I was surprised by how much they loved working through the process and figuring things out.

I had to first decide how to set up my math task time. I decided to do math tasks once a week with groups ranging from 2-4 students (I found that groups of 2 worked best!). The first two or three tasks that I gave them, we did as a class. We talked about math task procedures (this is a freedbie for you), and then went over the task. I showed them my thinking and had them help me solve the problem.

After that, we would briefly review the task procedures and then I let them work on a similar problem on their own. They usually had about 30-45 minutes to work. Each task I created had an extension at the bottom for early finishers. My students LOVED task day. It really helped get them involved in their learning and approach math in a whole new way!

Sleepover Treats
Let me give you an example of what I mean. This is a third grade task that I actually used in my classroom. You can get it here for your own use.

If you are like me, your first thought probably was “But we don’t even know how many kids were at the sleepover?” This is what is meant by opened ended. There are many ways to answer this question!

Each group has to reasonably estimate how many students would be at a sleepover party. 3? 6? 10? It really doesn’t matter what number the students come up with because the focus of these tasks is about the mathematical process. As long as the students do the math correctly, they can use any number they want.

Of course you will probably get the student that says “One million!”, thinking they are hilarious. When that happened to me, I let them try and figure it out using that number. They will learn really quickly that one million is a really hard number to work with in this problem and will change to a smaller number.

While the students were working, my teaching partner and I would walk around the room to scaffold where needed. We tried not to give too much information to help them along. Then, we would have a few students share what they had so far on the document camera. After sharing a few, my students would go back to work.

I would walk around and ask questions like: "Okay, explain to me what you are doing" or "Can you tell me more about this?" I tried not to praise too heavily (and the facilitators at our state training said to not praise at all!), because then the other groups think that there might be only one correct way of doing things. I couldn't just look and them and say nothing so I would respond with "I like your thinking here!" or "I really love how you showed me two different ways to solve this!"

These tasks were really great at getting my kids to become deep, independent thinkers. While it was scary for me at first to let go of the reigns, I am really glad that I did!

Cassie Tabrizi is a Teacher-Author who blogs at Create-abilities. She taught five years in 3rd grade and one year in 5th grade. She got her master’s in Instructional Design and loves using what she knows to make quality resources to use in the classroom. She creates products tied directly to the common core and then tries and tests them in her classroom.


  1. Loved reading about this! Thanks for a great post on open ended questions and how you worked through using them in your own classroom. Thank you so much for sharing!
    Differentiation Station Creations

  2. Great post! As a teacher who is moving from Kindergarten to 3rd grade and looking for resources to teach, I will be looking for more resources like yours. When I first read the Math story I thought "how many children", what! more than one answer! Open ended huh? and fractions? I know I can do this.Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Are there 1st grade resources as well?

  5. Thank you sooo much! This is exactly what I've been struggling with and I really appreciate your words.

  6. Great ideas for collaborative and divergent thinking! The posters are great!

  7. Cassie, this is such an awesome post! What a great idea! Can't wait to use it in my classroom! Thanks for sharing!

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