Why I Prefer Open Tasks

Open tasks create access and allow for intrinsic motivation by allowing students to feel competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

I allow my students to feel competent through…

  • Wide thresholds and high ceilings- While some students wouldn’t understand this high level of math presented in a different way, they now can be involved in at least part of the problem and maybe, with that foot in the door, understand something even if it’s not the entire learning target.
  • Multiple representations or strategies- If they don’t understand one way of solving a problem, then maybe they will have access to the problem through another way.
  • Reducing cognitive load- Many of my students are overwhelmed with information when they have to read multiple paragraphs and questions for a single problem, move from one scenario to another, record their thinking in their notebook, and then transfer their solution/answer from the notebook to a document for submission. Instead, I issue a single sheet of paper along with one question that’s really rich and deep. We can talk about it together, clarify the misunderstandings, and fill in any gaps they may have so the students can get to the math. Then I can go along and ask the appropriate follow-up questions, or give out the appropriate challenge.

I allow my students to feel related, valued, and respected through…

  • Encouraging student work to drive the discussion- My students realize that not only do they have to do the math, but more importantly, their thinking is critical and valued in our class. I have kids who normally would goof off, coming up to me begging to put something on the board. Sometimes they’re ready for it, while other times they have nothing on the paper. They think that they have the right method in their head, so they want to be the first ones to reserve the right to the board. Regardless, they are engaged because they feel valued.

I allow my students to feel autonomous through…

  • Giving some space to think about the different strategies- I try to give everybody in the classroom opportunities to talk about the same problem and to not feel rushed. They have a safe space to share strategies, or ask a friend for help so they’re ready for the next similar question.

This is all only possible because I’m in control of the final conversation for the problem. When I have tried sending them off to work in their teams with a large, complex cognitive load, I come around to find many teams stuck. They start distracting their teammates or other teams around them. Other times teams zoom through questions, but miss key components of the lesson.

Rather, with an open task…

  • everybody’s work is on the board,
  • I can get everyone quiet and focused so we can look at each other’s work together,
  • I can ask individual students to think about what somebody else did,
  • I can send that conversation back to the teams,
  • we can come back to the whole group and talk about what they talked about in the small teams,
  • we can talk about which strategy is fastest,
  • we can talk about which strategy deepens understanding,
  • we can ask questions about why someone did something,
  • we can talk about strategy choices for use in the future,
  • we can make connections between the multiple strategies.

All of this is led by the student’s thinking. I’m facilitating the questions, but I’m also having the students ask questions that they have and share the connections that they recognize.

The teacher moves that I use to open up tasks:

  • Simplify the lesson launch to revolve around one main question– I temporarily take away a bunch of the introduction, follow-up questions, and other noise to deliver only the minimal and necessary information. This helps reduce the reading load and prevents drowning in details.
  • Allow for multiple pathways for the students to answer the questions- This could include multiple representations like a table, graph, double number line, or equation. It could include different options for tools such as a graphing calculator or algebra tiles.
  • Widen the threshold- Encourage students to take a guess at what answer would be too high or too low. Solve the problem in any way you can and as many ways as you can.
  • Create intrigue- Don’t give students all the information. Ask them what they need to know to solve the problem.  Share a situation or a story without numbers (or without all the numbers) to keep them curious.

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