Parallel Tasks

Open problems are probably my most used strategy to help meet each student where they are.  Problems that offer a low floor and high ceiling are great because all students engage in the learning, then can participate and learn from each other.  However, some teachers also like to offer Parallel Tasks as a way to differentiate instruction.  The idea here is that students can be given a choice of a task/problem, some being more difficult than others, yet all of the tasks/problems deal with the same standard (curriculum expectation).  Let’s take a look at an example of how a quality parallel task can work:

Take a look at the problem below.  What is it asking us to do?

Pick ONE of the choices… build your design worth “B”.  Be ready to share how you know your answer is correct.

I’d love some actual responses here.  Build it using actual manipulatives (ideally) or using virtual manipulatives (This Illuminations Applet might help).


 

Notice that each choice allows students to do the same expectation related to proportional thinking, however, students are given choice about what numbers they want to think about.

Think about what the answers would look like?  When we discuss designs afterward, we should be able to discuss the solutions to each problem and compare the similarities and differences.


Here are some designs students made.  Can you tell which option each student chose?

pattern-blocks-1
Student #1
pattern-blocks-4
Student #2

 

pattern-blocks-3
Student #3
pattern-blocks-5
Student #4

 

Actually try to match the designs to each of the tasks/problems.  Take a moment to think this through.  What do you notice about the 4 images above?

This task was designed very cleverly to help make a point… to help us bring ALL of our students together to have a conversation  (Even when we ask our students to do different things from each other, we still need to make sure we come together and have shared experiences).


 

Did you notice anything about the 3 options?  Did you try decimals or fractions to solve any of the students’ designs?  If you did, you would notice that all 3 options used the same proportions.


 

A great parallel task helps us to learn things together…  It helps us see others’ thinking…  It allows every student to start to think where they are comfortable, yet be able to learn and grow from the ideas of others.


 

If you were to offer a parallel problem/task for your students would you:

  • Choose which students get each choice, or allow students to pick themselves? (Does this matter?)
  • Expect all students to create the design using blocks or digitally?  (Does this matter?)
  • Ask students to work independently or in a small group?  (Does this matter?)
  • Offer calculators or not?  (Does this matter?)
  • Engage in 3 different conversations – 1 per group – or 1 conversation all together?  (Does this matter?)

The small decisions we make tell a lot about what we value!    Personally, IF I want to offer Parallel tasks/problems, I want to make sure that all of my students feel successful, that everyone realize their ideas are valued, that there isn’t a hierarchy of ability in the room… and of course, that the mathematics we are engaged is important.  

I’d love some feedback about Parallel tasks in general, or the task itself.

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Seeking Challenges in Math

I was working with a grade 7 teacher and his students a while back.  The teacher came to me with an interesting problem, his students were doing quite well in math (in general) but only wanted to do work out of textbooks, only wanted to work independently, and were very mark-driven. The teacher wanted his students to start being able to solve non-routine problems, not just be able to follow the directions from the textbook, and he wanted his students to see the value in working collaboratively and to listen to each other’s thoughts.

Our conversations quickly moved to the topic of mindsets. It sounded like many of his students had fixed mindsets, and didn’t want to take any risks.


For those of you who are not familiar with growth and fixed mindsets, students with fixed mindsets believe that their ability (in math for example) is an inborn trait.  They believe how smart they are in math is either a gift or a curse they are born with.  Those with growth mindsets, however, believe that their ability improves over time with the right experiences, attitude and effort.

When confronted with challenges, those with growth mindsets are willing to struggle, willing to make mistakes, knowing that they will continue to learn and grow throughout the learning process.  On the other hand, those that have fixed mindsets tend to avoid challenges.  They believe that struggle, making mistakes, and being challenged are signs of weakness.  Psychologically, they will avoid the feeling of discomfort in not knowing, as this threatens their belief about how smart they are.


Knowing this, we devised a plan to see whether or not his students were able to take on challenges.  We started the class by giving each student their own unique 24 card (see below).

24 card.jpeg

We explained that each card had 4 numbers that could be manipulated to equal 24.  For instance, the card above could be solved by doing 5 x 4 x 1 + 4 = 24.


We then explained that we would give them time to solve their own card (which had a front and a back), and that we would give them additional cards if they completed both problems.  We also explained the little white dots in the center of the card, 1 dot being an easy card, 2 dots being more complicated, and 3 dots being the most difficult.

As students continued to work, we noticed some students eagerly trying to solve the cards, and others starting to become frustrated by others’ successes.  After a few minutes, the first few students had completed both problems and asked for their next card.  We asked, “Would you like another easy card, or would you like to challenge yourself?” to which the vast majority asked for another easy card.  In fact, some students completed many cards, front and back, all at the easy level, never accepting a more challenging card (even bragging to others about how many they had completed).  Others, after giving up pretty quickly, asked if they could work with a classmate to make a pair.  While we were happy at first with this, none of the pairs had students working cooperatively together for most of the time.

Take a look at some of the challenging cards.  What do you do when confronted with something challenging?  Do you skip it and move on, or do you keep trying?

 


As soon as we were finished, we showed the class this video:

Watch the 3 minute video above as it ties in perfectly with the 24 problem from above.  We had a quick discussion about the video and why some of the students wanted to choose the easier puzzles.  The class quickly saw the parallels between the problems we had just done and the video.

While we had a great discussion about fixed and growth mindsets, it took most of the year to be able to get this group to see the value in collaboration, to focus on their learning instead of their marks, to be able to take on challenges and not get frustrated when they didn’t have immediate success.

Changing our mindset takes time and the right experiences!


I am really interested in why students who believe themselves to be “smart” at math would opt out of challenging themsleves.

Do any of your students exhibit any of the same signs as these students:

  • Not comfortable with tasks that require thinking
  • Eager for formulas and procedures
  • Competitive with others to show they are “smart”
  • Preference to work alone
  • Preference to work out of textbooks/ worksheets instead of on rich problems/tasks
  • See math as about being fast / right, not about thinking / creativity
  • Eager to do easy work that is repetative

 

So I leave you with some reflective questions:

What previous experiences must these students have had to create such fixed mindsets?

What would you do if your students avoided challenges?

What would you do if your students groaned each time you asked them to work with a partner?

How are you helping your students gain a growth mindset in math?

Can you recognize those in your class that have fixed mindsets?  Are you noticing those from different achievement levels, or just those who are struggling?

If our students find everything we do “easy” what will happen to them when they get to a math course that actually does offer them some challenge???


 

 

P.S.  Did you solve any of the 24 cards above?  Did you skip over them?  What do you typically do when confronted with challenges?

An Unsolved Problem your Students Should Attempt

There are several great unsolved math problems that are perfect for elementary students to explore.  One of my favourites is the palindrome sums problem.
In case you aren’t familiar, a palindrome is a word, phrase, sentence or number that reads the same forward and backward.


The problem itself comes out of this conjecture:

If you take any number and add it to its inverse (numbers reversed), it will eventually become a palindrome.

Let’s take a look at the numbers 12, 46 and 95:

Palindrome adding1


Palindrome adding2


Palindrome adding3


As you can see with the above examples, some numbers can become palindromes with 1 simple addition, like the number 12.  12 + 21 = 33.  Can you think of others that should take 1 step?  How did you know?

Other numbers when added to their inverse will not immediately become a palindrome, but by continuing the process, will eventually, like the numbers 46 and 95.  Which numbers do you think will take more than 1 step?


After going through a few examples with students about the process of creating palindromes, ask your students to attempt to see if the conjecture is true (If you take any number and add it to its inverse (numbers reversed), it will eventually become a palindrome).  Have them find out if each number from 0-99 will eventually become a palindrome. Ask students if they need to find the answer for each number?  Encourage them to make their own conjectures so they don’t need to do all of the calculations for each number.


Mathematically proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure. They notice if calculations are repeated, and look both for general methods and for shortcuts. (SMP 7)

Some students will notice:

  • Some numbers will already be a palindrome
  • If they have figured out 12 + 21… they will know 21 + 12.  So they don’t have to do all of the calculations.  Nearly half of the work will have already been completed.
  • A pattern emerging in their answers … 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, 99, 121… and see this pattern regularly (well, almost)
  • A pattern about when numbers will have 99 as a palindrome, or 121… 18+81 = 27+72 = 36+63…

Thinking about our decisions:
  • What is the goal of this lesson?  (Practice with addition?  Looking for patterns?  Perseverance?  Making conjectures? …)
  • Do we share some of the conjectures students are making during the time when students are working, or later in the closing of the lesson?  
  • How will my students record their work?  Keep track of their answers?  Do I provide a 0-99 chart or ask them to keep track somehow?
  • Will students work independently / in pairs / in small groups?  Why?
  • Do I allow calculators?  Why or why not?  (think back to your goal)
  • How will I share the conjectures or patterns noticed with the class?
  • Are my students gaining practice DOING (calculations) or THINKING (noticing patterns and making conjectures)?  Which do you value?

The smallest of decisions can make the biggest of impacts for our students!  


So, at the beginning of this post I shared with you that this problem is currently unsolved.  While it is true that the vast majority of numbers have been proven to easily become palindromes, there are some numbers that require many steps (89 and 98 require 24 steps), and others that have never been proven to either work or not work (198 is the smallest number never proven either way).


Some final thoughts about this problem…

After using this problem with many different students I have noticed that many start to see that mathematics can be a much more intellectually interesting subject than they had previously experienced.  This problem asks students to notice things, make conjectures, try to prove their conjectures and be able to communicate their conjectures with others…  The problem provides students with the opportunity to both think and do.  It offers students from various ability levels access to the problem (low floor), and many different avenues to challenge those ready for it (high ceiling).  It tells students that math is still a living, growing subject… that all of the problems have not yet been figured out!  And probably the most important for me, it sends students messages about what it means to really do mathematics!

 

palindrome2
Taken from Marilyn Burns’ 50 Problem Solving Lessons resource

 

Is That Even A Problem???

Ask others what problem solving means with regard to mathematics.  Many will explain that a problem is when we put a real-world context to the mathematics being learned in class… others might explain a process of how we solve a problem (look at what you know and determine what you want to know, or some other set of strategies or a creative acronym that we have likely seen in school).  Sadly, much of what most others would point to as a problem is not really even a problem at all.

I think we all need to consider the real notion of what it means to problem solve…

George Polya shared this:

Polya

…Thus, to have a problem means: to search consciously for some action appropriate to attain a clearly conceived, but not immediately attainable, aim. To solve a problem means to find such action. … Some degree of difficulty belongs to the very notion of a problem: where there is no difficulty, there is no problem.

What Polya is suggesting here is that if we show students how to do something, and then ask the students to practice that same thing in a context IT ISN’T A PROBLEM!!!  A problem in mathematics is like the DOING MATHEMATICS Tasks listed below.  Take a look at all 4 sections for a minute:

math_task_analysis_guide  - Level of Cognitive Demand.png

My thoughts are simple… If a student can relatively quickly determine a course of action about how to get an answer, it isn’t a problem!   Even if the calculations are difficult or take a while.  The vast majority of what we call problems are actually just contextual practice of things we already knew.  Doing word problems IS NOT the same as problem solving!

On the other hand, if a student has to use REASONING skills, they are thinking, actively trying to figure something out, then and only then are they problem solving!!!

Marian Small has written a short article on her thoughts about problem solving:  Marian Small – Problem Solving

What are her main messages here?  Does this or Polya’s quote change your definition of a problem?


I’ve already written about What does Day 1 Look Like where I shared the importance of starting with problems.  So, why should we start with problem solving?  If we don’t start there, we aren’t likely ever doing any problem solving at all!


 

I also think that many hearing this might assume that this means we just hand students problems that they wouldn’t be successful with…  Ask everyone to attempt something that they wouldn’t know how to do.

Let’s look at an example:


Take a look at these two grade 8 expectations from Ontario curriculum:

  • determine the Pythagorean relationship, through investigation using a variety of tools (e.g., dynamic geometry software; paper and scissors; geoboard) and strategies;
  • solve problems involving right triangles geometrically

Many teachers look at these expectations, think to themselves, Pythagorean Theorem… I can teach that… followed by explicit teaching on a Smartboard (showing a video, modeling how the pythagorean theorem works, followed by some examples for the class to work on together…), then finally some problems that students have to answer in a textbook like this:

pythagoreanladder1

This progression neither shows how we know students learn, nor does it even get students to be able to do what is asked!

Let’s take a step back and start to notice what the curriculum is saying more clearly:

  • determine the Pythagorean relationship, through investigation using a variety of tools (e.g., dynamic geometry software; paper and scissors; geoboard) and strategies;
  • solve problems involving right triangles geometrically, using the Pythagorean relationship;

When we pull apart the verbs and the tools/strategies from the content, we start to notice what the curriculum is telling us our students should actually be doing that day!  Remember… these expectations are what OUR STUDENTS should be doing… NOT US!!!

Above I have colored the verbs blue (These are the actions our students should be doing that day) and tools/strategies orange (specifically HOW our students should be accomplishing the verb).

Now let’s take a quick look at how this might actually play out in the classroom if we are starting with problems like our curriculum states:


Let’s start with the first expectation.  Our curriculum often includes the statement “determine through investigation,” yet it is overlooked far too often!  Students need to determine this themselves!  We need to assess students’ ability to “determine the Pythagorean relationship through investigation.”

This doesn’t mean we tell students what the theorem is, nor does it mean that we expect everyone to reinvent the theorem… so what does it mean???

Well, it could mean lots of things.  Here is one possible suggestion…

maxresdefault (1)

Show the figure on the left.  Ask students the area of the blue square in the middle.  Possibly give a geoboard or paper and scissors for this task.  How might students come up with the area?  How many different ways might students accomplish this?

Share different approaches as a group.  (By the way, some calculate the whole shape and subtract the 4 corner triangles.  Others calculate the 4 black rectangles and divide by 2 then add 1 for the middle… others rearrange the shapes to make it make sense).

Now explore how the two pictures are similar / different.  What do you notice between the two pictures?

If the curriculum tells us to “determine through investigation” that is exactly the experience our students need to conceptualize the concept.  It is also what we need to assess.  This can’t be put on a test easily though, it needs to be observed!


That second expectation is quite interesting to me too.  At the beginning of this post we started talking about what is and isn’t a problem.  If our students have now understood what the Pythagorean Theorem is, how can we now make things problematic?

Showing a bunch of diagrams with missing hypotenuses or legs isn’t really problematic!

However, something like Dan Meyer’s Taco Cart would be!  If you haven’t seen the lesson, take a look:

Dan-Meyers-Taco-Cart-Three-Act-Math-Task.png

 

 

Oh… and by the way… problem solving isn’t always about answering a question… really, at it’s heart, problem solving is about making sense of things that we didn’t understand before… reasoning though things… noticing things we didn’t notice before… making conjectures and testing them out…  Problem solving is the process of LEARNING and DOING MATHEMATICS!


So I want to leave you with a problem for you to think about: what does this have to do with the Pythagorean Theorem?

 

“Worst Problem Ever!”

A few years ago I was teaching a 6/7 split class.  We had been exploring surface area and volume of prisms (rectangular so far), but were quite early on in the learning cycle.  At the beginning of my math class I drew a picture of a rectangular prism and wrote the dimensions on the diagram like below:

SA and V 4

I asked everyone to calculate the Surface Area.  Really this was just a check for me to see if we understood surface area… the problem for the day was coming up.

However, as I walked around, I realized something VERY unusual.  EVERYONE got the answer of 250… but not everyone did it correctly.  Let me show you:

 

SA and V 3

Take a look at the 2 answers above.  Some students calculated the Surface Area correctly at 250 units squared… and others calculated 250 units cubed (they found the volume).

I apologized to the class for giving them the worst problem ever… THE ONLY POSSIBLE rectangular prism that has the same surface area as volume.  Then one student commented, “Is that the only possible prism?”  

I didn’t know the answer, so we started seeing if it was the only possible prism.

Over the next 100 minutes, every student in the class, some in pairs, some on their own, started drawing prisms and calculating the surface area and volume.

Eventually, a student told me that one of the dimensions couldn’t possibly be a 1.  I asked him to prove it… After a few minutes he showed me several examples with numbers that were small or large.  He attempted to find the limits:

SA and V

He explained to the class that if there is a 1 as any of the dimensions, the Surface Area would always be larger.   We explored why that happens.

Minutes later, another student told me that it was impossible to have a 2 as one of the dimensions.  I asked her to prove it… She showed me the work that she had completed and shared it with the class.

SA and V2

She explained that the numbers were getting close if she chose 2 of the numbers identical, but the end pieces of the shape would always add up to more than the volume would.

After lots of trial and error… guessing and refining ideas, several students started finding possible prisms that also had the same Surface Area and Volume…

The class started noticing a pattern between the dimensions and found limits between the smallest and largest possible prisms…  

By the end of class, all students had calculated dozens of surface areas and volumes… all students were making conjectures or testing out the conjectures of others.

My original problem, which I intended as a quick warm-up was not a quality engaging problem.  However, I want you to think about what made this lesson better?

WHO posed the problem that day?  Did this have something to do with the shared responsibilities that happened later in the lesson?

What if I just moved on?  would the learning have been as rich?

Think about how the students picked the shapes they were testing?  Some students worked in teams to work strategically… others made their own conjectures and followed those patterns.

In this lesson, choice was key, but the choices didn’t come from me… Students were working together to reach an ultimate goal, not in competition with each other…  Conjectures were made and tested, not because I told everyone to, but because it served our purpose!

I think about Dan Meyer’s “Real World vs Real Work” a lot.  Why were my students so engaged here?  There was NO real world connection.  That wasn’t what was motivating my students at all!

140822_2hi.png

I also think we need to reflect on the level of cognitive demand we ask our students to be engaged in:

math_task_analysis_guide.png

“Doing Mathematics Tasks” seems like something that is hard to do, yet, every one of my students were engaged in this problem… everyone eagerly searched for patterns, many drew pictures, used snap cubes, visualized what was happening… all in the name of better understanding the relationships between the dimensions of a rectangular prism, and its surface area and volume!

By the end of the class, my students had found exactly 10 rectangular prisms that have the same value of its surface area as its volume (using only whole numbers), and could prove that these were the only 10 possible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about our problem… or why the students were SO engaged… or about the conditions that must have been present in the class… or how problem solving can be used as a purposeful practice of procedures…..