Rich Math Tasks

Thursday evening I asked Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) and Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf) a question about whether they thought there was any value in students using a reductive, drill-and-kill math practice exercise platform, provided that it was accompanied by rich tasks and assessments in a classroom that demands synthesis and critical thinking, and provides students with opportunities to develop mathematical habits of mind.

I received a reply, but I’m more interested in a tangential question @NatBanting asked in the middle of the exchange:

What Do I Even Mean?

I’ve been throwing that phrase (“rich tasks”) around a lot more lately, in tweets, blog posts, workshops, and conversations at school and at home (my wife is either amazingly longsuffering or genuinely interested—maybe both?—when it comes to talking about math education). So what exactly is a “rich task”? What do other people have in mind when they use the phrase? What do I mean when I use it?

I told Nat that I’m still working that out in my own mind, but I think it’s time to clarify what I mean, if for no other reason than to have a better sense of what I’m looking for when I try to find, adapt, and/or create rich tasks for my own students.

Here’s What I Do Mean

A rich mathematical task is one that…

Has a low floor and a high ceiling

The first of many ideas I’ve stolen from others, this one from so many sources I don’t even know who to credit anymore. Most recently, Dan Meyer has me thinking about this in his Makeover Monday series. The bottom line: everyone can start, no one can truly say they’ve exhausted the problem’s potential (at least not in a 50-minute period).

Has multiple entry points, invites use of multiple representations

Student A starts by exploring numerically, Student B begins by investigating graphically, Student C jumps in by reasoning algebraically, and I don’t have to tell two of them that their approach is a dead end because—even if they don’t always make it—there is fruitful territory a little further down the path in any of their approaches.

Has multiple solution paths, provides opportunity for rich discussion

If there’s only one way to solve the task students lose out on the rich discussion of making connections between various approaches and teachers lose the opportunity to build a mathematically coherent, concrete-to-abstract storyline as they orchestrate these discussions.

Integrates multiple topics

I owe a lot of what I’m thinking here to a single word Daniel Schneider used in a post about assessment. After my initial foray into standards based grading left me dissatisfied with an overly fractured curriculum, I’m now placing a high priority (philosophically, at least) on tasks and assessments that bring multiple topics together. A rich task, in my estimation, should demand that students wrestle with multiple topics from multiple domains (if I can use the term in the CCSSM sense).

Engages student interest, is mathematically/cognitively challenging

I’m a little mixed up here, because I believe engaging students’ interest is massively important, but I’m not ready to throw away tasks that fail to generate buzz among students if I know they nevertheless provide great opportunities for exploration and discussion.

Here’s What I Don’t Mean

To clarify what I think a rich task is, I’ll share a few thoughts on what I think a rich task is not:

A well-crafted, but constrained guided-discovery activity

I value this kind of activity, but when students are guided along a specific path to a specific goal, it pushes the lesson into a different category for me.

A thoughtfully constructed lecture or an engaging presentation

If the instructor is doing the heavy lifting during class, I would say the students are not engaged in a rich mathematical task. I’m not opposed to heavy lifting, especially in preparation outside of class, but students need to play an active, central role in exploring/solving/reporting if I’m going to use the “rich task” label for an activity.

A challenging problem for which students already have a tried-and-true method

I have a large stack of started-but-not-finished books, some related to math and education, others not. George Polya’s How To Solve It is on the list, though I’ve read enough of it to be provoked and inspired, particularly by the distinction Polya provides between a problem (solution/method not known) and an exercise (solution/method already known).

I’ll Close with a Link…

Incidentally, after typing out the post, I Googled “what is a rich mathematical task” and found this.

…And an Invitation

I would love to hear what you think are the key characteristics of a rich mathematical task. Drop a line in the comments or send me a line on Twitter.