Tuesday Teacher Tips: Thinking "Beyond One Right Answer"

Welcome to the Tuesday Teacher Tips series! Each week we’ll highlight teaching and learning resources, ideas to use in the classroom, as well as things to ponder as you go about your teaching day.

For me, one of the most difficult aspects in teaching math is how to reach all students. There are the perennial dilemmas: Do you keep advancing through the curriculum so that all of the learning objectives are ‘covered,’ but not necessarily mastered? Or do you stop and reteach until everyone understands and masters the content? (And at what point do you eventually have to keep going?)

As I’m teaching new concepts, there are students who are not ready for it, but eventually we have to move on to ensure that I teach to all the standards. And I know there are students who, during whole group instruction, half-heartedly attempt problems, preferring to stall until one of their classmates volunteer the answer. This could be because they are not comfortable with the math or because they simply don’t see the point—“Let someone else come up with the right answer!”

During a math cohort meeting, the instructor asked us to read “Beyond One Right Answer” by Marian Small (Educational Leadership, September 2010). In the article, she describes two techniques that allow teachers to open math discussions to all students.

Open Questions
Small defines open questions as “…a single question that is broad enough to meet the needs of a wide range of students while still engaging each one in meaningful mathematics.” By asking questions that are open, students can answer at their level, allowing math to be assessable to everyone in the classroom.

For example, you could write the number 65 on the board and ask students to write equations that equal 65. You may have some students responding with 64 + 1 or 25 + 25 +15 or 1065 -1000 or 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5. This ambiguous question allows choice and gives everyone a way to participate no matter their math ability.

Parallel Tasks
Another strategy to use would be parallel tasks, where everyone is focused on the same big idea but at various levels of difficulty. To do this, allow students to choose between two problems. Both problems would incorporate the same skill or concept, the only difference between the two would be the number values. One problem might have students working with three digit numbers, while the other only has one digit numbers. At the end of the task you can ask all of the students the same questions concerning mental math strategies and operations. Regardless of which problem they chose, they would still be able to participate in the discussion.

By differentiating for all learners in my classroom, I’m allowing everyone to process new math concepts at their level and still enter into math discussions for deeper understanding.

What are some ways you differentiate in your math classroom? We’d love to hear about them.

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