“Number Boxes”

A few weeks ago I was introduced to Jenna Laib‘s game “Number Boxes” and was very interested in using it as a dynamic game to help students learn a variety of new content — Jenna’s blog explaining the game can be found here: “One of My Favorite Games: Number Boxes“.

Basically the game involves students rolling dice (or spinning a spinner / drawing a card) to generate a random number and placing that number in one of their empty number boxes one-at-a-time. The game can progress in a variety of ways:

Rolling 1 number at a time, create the largest number you can.
Rolling one number at a time, create 2 numbers that will add to the largest number.
Rolling one number at a time, create an expression that is as close to 2000 as possible.

As you can see, the game is quite adaptive to the sizes of numbers and concepts your students are comfortable with. As students roll/spin/draw a number, they have to place it on the board. What makes this tricky is not knowing what future numbers will be. In the board above, you can see that there is also a “Throwaway” box that students can use if they do not like one of the numbers rolled/spun/drawn. This game is an excellent example of a “Dynamic Game” or “Dynamic Practice” as students are following the ideals on the right side of the chart below:

practice2
Originally published here

Blow is a gallery of some possible adaptations of this game or linked here is a slideshow

Metric Conversions

I however, wanted to use Jenna’s game to help students practice a concept they often have difficulty with – Metric Conversions. Once students have had many opportunities to estimate and measure various distances, capacities, and masses, they should be able to start making connections between all of the units. I suggest a good balance between using problems that help students make sense of the relationships between the units, and opportunities to practice conversions on their own. However, instead of randomly generated worksheets or other rote practice, I think Jenna’s game could work perfectly. Take a look at some examples:

Rolling one number at a time, find the largest total distance possible
Rolling one number at a time, find the largest total mass possible
Rolling one number at a time, find the largest possible distance
Rolling one number at a time, how close to 5km can you get?

Reflection

It is important to offer tasks that allow students to make choices and decisions like the ones offered in this game. Learning needs to be more than handing out assignments, and collecting work… Learning takes time! Students need more time to explore, see what works, have peers challenge each others’ thinking, make important connections… Hopefully you can see these opportunities in this task.

Final Thoughts:

  • If you play one of these games, or your own version, will you first offer a simplified version so your students get familiar with the game, or will you dive into the content you want to teach?
  • Would you prefer your students to play this game as a class or with a group, a partner, or independently?
  • How will you build in conversations with students so they discuss which numbers they think should be the highest / lowest numbers? How will you offer time for these strategic discussions?
  • Should we adapt these to continually offer more challenge and deeper learning, or offer more opportunities to play the same game board? How will we know when to adapt and change?
  • What does “practice” look like in your classroom?  Does it involve thinking or decisions?  Would it be more engaging for your students to make practice involve more thinking?
  • How does this game relate to the topic of “engagement”?  Is engagement about making tasks more fun or about making tasks require more thought?  Which view of engagement do you and your students subscribe to?
  • How have your students experienced measurement concepts like these? Are they learning procedural rules or are they thinking about the actual sizes of numbers / sizes of the units involved?
  • As the teacher, what will you be doing when students are playing? How might listening to student thinking help you learn more about your students? (See: Noticing and Wondering: A powerful tool for assessment)

I’d love to continue the conversation about “practicing” mathematics.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3

The role of “practice” in mathematics class

A few weeks ago a NYTimes published an article titled, Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later, an opinion piece that, basically, asserts that girls would benefit from “extra required practice”.  I took a few minutes to look through the comments (which there are over 600) and noticed a polarizing set of personal comments related to what has worked or hasn’t worked for each person, or their own children.  Some sharing how practicing was an essential component for making them/their kids successful at mathematics, and others discussing stories related to frustration, humiliation and the need for children to enjoy and be interested in the subject.

Instead of picking apart the article and sharing the various issues I have with it (like the notion of “extra practice” should be given based on gender), or simply stating my own opinions, I think it would be far more productive to consider why practice might be important and specifically consider some key elements of what might make practice beneficial to more students.


To many, the term “practice” brings about childhood memories of completing pages of repeated random questions, or drills sheets where the same algorithm is used over and over again.  Students who successfully completed the first few questions typically had no issues completing each and every question.  For those who were successful, the belief is that the repetition helped.  For those who were less successful, the belief is that repeating an algorithm that didn’t make sense in the first place wasn’t helpful…  even if they can get an answer, they might still not understand (*Defining 2 opposing definitions of “understanding” here).

“Practice” for both of the views above is often thought of as rote tasks that are devoid of thinking, choices or sense making.  Before I share with you an alternative view of practice, I’d like to first consider how we have tackled “practice” for students who are developing as readers.

If we were to consider reading instruction for a moment, everyone would agree that it would be important to practice reading, however, most of us wouldn’t have thoughts of reading pages of random words on a page, we would likely think about picture books.  Books offer many important factors for young readers.  Pictures might help give clues to difficult words, the storyline offers interest and motivation to continue, and the messages within the book might bring about rich discussions related to the purpose of the book.  This kind of practice is both encourages students to continue reading, and helps them continue to get better at the same time.  However, this is very different from what we view as math “practice”.

In Dan Finkel’s Ted Talk (Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching) he has attempted to help teachers and parents see the equivalent kind of practice for mathematics:

Finkel Quote


Below is a chart explaining the role of practice as it relates to what Dan Finkel calls play:

practice2

Take a look at the “Process” row for a moment.  Here you can see the difference between a repetitive drill kind of practice and the “playful experiences” kind of  practice Dan had called for.  Let’s take a quick example of how practice can be playful.


Students learning to add 2-digit numbers were asked to “practice” their understanding of addition by playing a game called “How Close to 100?”.  The rules:

  • Roll 2 dice to create a 2-digit number (your choice of 41 or 14)
  • Use base-10 materials as appropriate
  • Try to get as close to 100 as possible
  • 4th role you are allowed eliminating any 1 number IF you want

close to 100b

What choice would you make???  Some students might want to keep all 4 roles and use the 14 to get close to 100, while other students might take the 41 and try to eliminate one of the roles to see if they can get closer.


When practice involves active thinking and reasoning, our students get the practice they need and the motivation to sustain learning!  When practice allows students to gain a deeper understanding (in this case the visual of the base-10 materials) or make connections between concepts, our students are doing more than passive rule following – they are engaging in thinking mathematically!


In the end, we need to take greater care in making sure that the experiences we provide our students are aimed at the 5 strands shown below:

strands of mathematical proficency.png
Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics


You might also be interested in thinking about how we might practice Geometrical terms/properties, or spatial reasoning, or exponents, or Bisectors


So I will leave you with some final thoughts:

  • What does “practice” look like in your classroom?  Does it involve thinking or decisions?  Would it be more engaging for your students to make practice involve more thinking?
  • How does this topic relate to the topic of “engagement”?  Is engagement about making tasks more fun or about making tasks require more thought?  Which view of engagement do you and your students subscribe to?
  • What does practice look like for your students outside of school?  Is there a place for practice at home?
  • Which of the 5 strands (shown above) are regularly present in your “practice” activities?  Are there strands you would like to make sure are embedded more regularly?

I’d love to continue the conversation about “practicing” mathematics.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3