Innovative Math in 3 Acts

Last week I had the pleasure of working with an awesome group of fifth graders over at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary. Their equally awesome teacher had contacted me on the rumor that I had a plan for a class to develop and film their own 3 Act Tasks. In truth, I only had about 5/8 of a plan but as I was also the one that started that rumor, so I was eager to close the deal.

The idea of 3 Act Tasks comes from Dan Meyer a math teacher/guru and blogger out of Oakland. In Three-Act Tasks, students are shown an image or video that depicts an interesting situation. Examples of elementary tasks might include an image of two sisters standing side-by-side, one taller than the other, or a video of candy being poured into a jar. A good task will suggest some mathematical features or relationships that children may wonder about. After viewing the image or video, students are engaged in asking mathematical questions, identifying important information that is needed to answer those questions, constructing mathematical models of the situation, and comparing their models to the real world.

(Dan Meyers collection   Graham Fletchers collection)

The activities are real world, engaging and require deep inquiry.  They are also beautifully simple in structure. Three short video clips, and a couple leading questions. Reasoning that if deep thinking is required for an outcome then equally deep contemplation must be needed for the creation we set up the perimeters with the class.

  • We used “old math,” concepts at least a grade level below their current work.
  • Teams of 4 or 5
  • A cast of hands and arms (No head or face shots in the video.)

The class had already seen several 3 Act Tasks in their daily grind but we watched a couple more with different eyes. This time looking for how they were laid out, trying to figure out what was enough info to raise questions without doing the work for the learners. As this was our first outing we looked for ways to mimic patterns without stealing ideas.

It was tricky keeping the groups centered on a single task. The temptation to create a 3 tasks was a common distraction. The realization that the work required both a problem and an answer was a bit of a disappointment to some.

 

The results:

For three days a group of 5th-grade students as varied and diverse as any in our district were actively engaged in understanding and explaining real-world math problems. (some of which involve candy)

The class was exposed to a new way of approaching any task by asking themselves not only what math is being asked of them but also the whys and hows of the request.

We all learned about the magic of video editing, and that first attempts are best designed to be explorations not a nominee for best educational short.

We will work on that nomination next time.

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