Which one has a bigger area?

Many grade 3 teachers in my district, after taking part in some professional development recently (provided by @teatherboard), have tried the same task relating to area.  I’d like to share the task with you and discuss some generalities we can consider for any topic in any grade.

The task:

As an introductory activity to area, students were provided with two images and asked which of the two shapes had the largest area.


A variety of tools and manipulatives were handy, as always, for students to use to help them make sense of the problem.

Student ideas

Given very little direction and lots of time to think about how to solve this problem, we saw a wide range of student thinking.  Take a look at a few:

Some students used circles to help them find area.  What does this say about what they understand?  What issues do you see with this approach though?

Some students used shapes to cover the outline of each shape (perimeter).  Will they be able to find the shape with the greater area?  Is this strategy always / sometimes / never going to work?  What does this strategy say about what they understand?

Example 3

Some students used identical shapes to cover the inside of each figure.

And some students used different shapes to cover the figures.

Example 7
Example 8
C-rods, difference
Example 9

Notice that example 9 here includes different units in both figures, but has reorganized them underneath to show the difference (can you tell which line represents which figure?).

Building Meaningful Conversations

Each of the samples above show the thinking, reasoning and understanding that the students brought to our math class.  They were given a very difficult task and were asked to use their reasoning skills to find an answer and prove it.  In the end, students were split between which figure had the greater area (some believing they were equal, many believing that one of the two was larger).  In the end, students had very different numerical answers as to how much larger or smaller the figures were from each other.  These discrepancies set the stage for a powerful learning opportunity!

For example, asking questions that get at the big ideas of measurement are now possible because of this problem:

“How is it possible some of us believe the left figure has a larger area and some of us believe that the right figure is larger?”

“Has example 8 (scroll up to take a closer look) proven that they both have the same area?”

“Why did example 9 use two pictures?  It looks like many of the cuisenaire rods are missing in the second picture?  What did you think they did here?”

In the end, the conversations should bring about important information for us to understand:

  • We need comparable units if we are to compare 2 or more figures together.  This could mean using same-sized units (like examples 1, 4, 5 & 6 above), or corresponding units (like example 8 above), or units that can be reorganized and appropriately compared (like example 9).
  • If we want to determine the area numerically, we need to use the same-sized piece exclusively.
  • The smaller the unit we use, the more of them we will need to use.
  • It is difficult to find the exact area of figures with rounded parts using the tools we have.  So, our measurements are not precise.

Some generalizations we can make here to help us with any topic in any grade

When our students are being introduced to a new topic, it is always beneficial to start with their ideas first.  This way we can see the ideas they come to us with and engage in rich discussions during the lesson close that helps our students build understanding together.  It is here in the discussions that we can bridge the thinking our students currently have with the thinking needed to understand the concepts you want them to leave with.  In the example above, the students entered this year with many experiences using non-standard measurements, and this year, most of their experiences will be using standard measurements.  However, instead of starting to teach this year’s standards, we need to help our students make some connections, and see the need to learn something new.  Considering what the first few days look like in any unit is essential to make sure our students are adequately prepared to learn something new!  (More on this here: What does day one look like?)

To me, this is what formative assessment should look like in mathematics!  Setting up experiences that will challenge our students, listening and observing our students as they work and think… all to build conversations that will help our students make sense of the “big ideas” or key understandings we will need to learn in the upcoming lessons.  When we view formative assessment as a way to learn more about our students’ thinking, and as a way to bridge their thinking with where we are going, we tend to see our students through an asset lens (what they DO understand) instead of their through the deficit lens (i.e., gaps in understanding… “they can’t”…, “didn’t they learn this last year…?).  When we see our students through an asset lens, we tend to believe they are capable, and our students see themselves and the subject in a much more positive light!

Let’s take a closer look at the features of this lesson:

  • Little to no instruction was given – we wanted to learn about our students’ thinking, not see if they can follow directions
  • The problem was open enough to have multiple possible strategies and offer multiple possible entry points (low floor – high ceiling)
  • Asking students to prove something opens up many possibilities for rich discussions
  • Students needed to begin by using their reasoning skills, not procedural knowledge…
  • Coming up with a response involved students doing and thinking… but the real learning happened afterward – during the consolidation phase

A belief I have is that the deeper we understand the big ideas behind the math our students are learning, the more likely we will know what experiences our students need first!

A few things to reflect on:

  • How often do you give tasks hoping students will solve it a specific way?  And how often you give tasks that allow your students to show you their current thinking?  Which of these approaches do you value?
  • What do your students expect math class to be like on the first few days of a new topic/concept?  Do they expect marks and quizzes?  Or explanations, notes and lessons?  Or problems where students think and share, and eventually come to understand the mathematics deeply through rich discussions?  Is there a disconnect between what you believe is best, and what your students expect?
  • I’ve painted the picture here of formative assessment as a way to help us learn about how our students think – and not about gathering marks, grouping students, filling gaps.  What does formative assessment look like in your classroom?  Are there expectations put on you from others as to what formative assessment should look like?  How might the ideas here agree with or challenge your beliefs or the expectations put upon you?
  • Time is always a concern.  Is there value in building/constructing the learning together as a class, or is covering the curriculum standards good enough?  How might these two differ?  How would you like your students to experience mathematics?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a reply here on Twitter (@MarkChubb3)