Embarkation, Task, & 3rd Grade Math

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to the administrative staff from Jeffco, who were coming back from their summer break for some beginning-of-school-year training in preparation for this upcoming school year.

The Superintendent’s beginning of year talk is intended to set the tone for the upcoming school year. Too often, these talks are the announcement of the year’s “next big thing” – the annual roll-out of some new program or nifty approach.

Don’t get me wrong, these sorts of things have their place and they (occasionally) can improve practice. Too often, however, the “next big thing” fails to live up to expectations and in a few years becomes yet another tried and failed effort.

Instead of rolling out the “next big thing,” I think we need to focus our efforts at the level they make the most difference. That is, changing the experience students have in learning through a profound redesign of something called student “task.”

Now, task is a sort of wonky pedagogical term, but it really means the stuff we ask kids to do on a daily basis – and if we aren’t doing something to change it, we aren’t really changing the educational experience.

I’ll put an excerpt from my talk to the administrators below which discusses two different student tasks, both focused on the same content and in the same grade.

I’d be interested in what differences you see between the two – and in which class you’d rather be!

In one classroom, a 3rd grade teacher is teaching column addition. This is an important and useful concept for kids and you may recall it’s when you stack two (or more) multiple digit numbers on top of one another and add them together.

In this first classroom, the teacher has the students coming up to the white board, writing two digit numbers on top of each other, and adding them using the column addition method in front of their peers. The other students call out if the student at the board is right or wrong, and then another student comes up and repeats the exercise. After doing several of these together, the teacher passes out worksheets on column addition, the students work mostly quietly and independently for a while, then they trade worksheets and go over the answers with the teacher.

In the second classroom, also in the third grade where a teacher is at the same place in the math curriculum scope and sequence. In this classroom, the teacher pulls everyone in the class together and tells them “we are going to have a party” instant engagement! Then she tells them that she needs the class’ help in getting ready for the party because they are going to have lemonade and ice cream cones. She needs to know how many cups to buy, how many cones. And also, they should take into account that people may use more than one cup, or cone. And, that they will be having the party not just with their class, but also with the 3rd grade class across the hall, with Ms. Jones and Mr. Smith’s class – and even those poor saps doing the column addition worksheets! She tells them to “go.”

The students start working together and it takes about 30 seconds before the column addition starts coming out. How many students are in this class (22), and how many across the hall (24), and in the other classes?

15 thoughts on “Embarkation, Task, & 3rd Grade Math

  1. I love the second class, but how do you ensure that each kid is getting the concepts? I have a rising third grader with some special education needs, how would she be involved? What concrete techniques can teachers use to make sure the same six kids in the class aren’t making all the contributions? How do you take the pressure off an anxious child? The idea is fun, but what does the framework look like in terms of real strategy?


    1. Hi Kelly and thanks much for the questions!

      As Katherine (below) is pointing out, we are basically juxtaposing a direct instruction approach versus a problem-based learning approach. In the second classroom, the teacher would move from delivering knowledge from the front of the room and instead be facilitating learning with the students. In that role, the teacher would have considered in planning how to accommodate students with disabilities in the task, how to balance roles and create manageable group sizes for individual accountability, and how to make sure every child is engaging.

      Both tasks are focused on the same content, but the second one provides an opportunity for students to practice a variety of other skills as well. I believe our most important work ahead is in shifting student tasks to be these kinds of deeper and more complex challenges.

      The Buck Institute provides a nice framework for what components should be in place for this kind of transformed task. Check it out here: http://www.bie.org/blog/gold_standard_pbl_essential_project_design_elements

      I’d be interested in your thoughts!



  2. While I appreciate your effort here, I don’t really like your example because it is too simplistic. I think you are trying to describe direct instruction vs. project based learning (where kids have a reason to solve the problem). I’m all for PBL but, unless the teachers are actually providing the lemonade and ice cream for the classes (out of their own pockets?), all you have described is a word problem (which has been met by groans for decades).

    Also, as Kelly Price mentions above, there is much more that goes into a lesson than the portion described: making sure kids have basic concepts needed before new learning, supporting those who do not, planning for misconception, managing group work and balance, and informally and/or formally assessing that day’s learning to plan for the next day. Truth be told, the direct instruction may actually be better if the PBL is not planned well. I am all for making instruction more meaningful for students, as teachers have been trying to do for centuries, but teachers need to make choices about how to best spend the precious time they have to best and most efficiently serve their students’ needs. Sometimes that will be PBL and sometimes direct instruction or another option. Variety s the spice of life and one size does not fit all when it comes to education.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Katherine,

      Thanks much for this thoughtful and well-crafted critique!

      For the time being, please allow me to set aside the question you raise about who is paying for the lemonade and ice cream! The example does not provide that detail, but there are 101 possible ways that issue could be solved that do not involve the teacher paying for it out of their pocket. As the spouse of an elementary teacher who paid for many things in her classes, I don’t mean to diminish the issue – just to say it isn’t as germane to the question of changing student task, which is the real focus here.

      I can tell you have a great deal of expertise around this subject and have given it some thought. As you probably already know, it wouldn’t really be a genuine problem-based task unless it was authentic and resulted in a real product. So, I’d say that if the second teacher were following problem (or project) based best practices, this exercise would move beyond a word problem – especially given the collaborative aspect of it.

      I think your critiques of what’s missing in my example from this task are accurate, and I would need to be better in providing more detail out to give a really complete picture of what’s going on. This point is also present in Kelly’s comment above.

      However, I beg to disagree with you on the PBL versus direct instruction point you make in your comment. While we should be cautious not to create false dichotomies (PBL versus Direct Instruction) and there are places where both instructional methods might be best, there are also elements that direct instruction is decidedly weaker at providing. Things like collaboration, design, teamwork, authentic work, moving beyond just interacting with the content, and even having the kind of thoughtful critique and exchange you and I are having here – these are all things direct instruction is particularly weak at addressing. And, I’d say they are the exact kinds of things we need more of in our teaching and learning.

      Again, I can tell you have given this some thought and have some expertise on this question. I’d be interested in knowing how you might transform a direct instruction and content-based task to one that is problem or project based, and that relies on the demonstration of important skills.

      Thanks again!



  3. As a STEM teacher who uses PBL regularly, I’d like to offer a couple of possibilities for the teachers who are not quite sure the lesson about a party would work. As far as providing the actual party, what if this were timed to coincide with the traditional Halloween or Valentine’s parties and have the kids plan the parties themselves instead of parents taking over? What if it was simply cookies and juice boxes to celebrate a class achievement and parents sent in small quantities to share? It doesn’t HAVE to be teachers providing out of their own pockets.
    I have found that everything in a successful PBL is set as teachers build a classroom culture of inclusion and a acknowledgment of struggle preceding learning. Although I teach 5th grade, in my PBL’s I always have the special education students working alongside other students. They offer their suggestions and are contributors as well. These expectations are set in the first days of school and are reinforced in every PBL.
    Maybe this post was confusing because there’s a LOT that happens after the teacher says “go”! I’m meeting with each group and taking notes on student understanding. I offer suggestions and clarify strategies that I observe. In the sharing part of my math workshop, we bring together and name the learning that happened during the PBL. Of course there is follow up on subsequent days of instruction as well as students creating other scenarios where column addition would be an appropriate strategy.
    I realize I am adding a comment as an enthusiastic supporter of PBL. I certainly don’t teach EVERY concept in a PBL setting – but I support Dr. Glass in his assertion that PBL’s can be engaging and kids can learn to love being in math class.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Tami – thanks for contributing the wisdom of your experience in this kind of teaching and learning. I am deeply appreciative of the complex work that comes with doing this right – and also know the truly transformative effect it can have on teaching and learning. Would you be willing to share another example of how student task might be transformed, moving away from a purely content focused exercise and toward one that demonstrates the key aspects of the problem/project based model – and which gives kids the chance to practice some important skills and to show off some innate talents they have?


  4. In the first lesson, students do not have the opportunity to follow their passions, explore their interests, or engage in personal and authentic learning opportunities. Massive disengagement is the byproduct of this learning design. As I say, I would never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly by worksheets. The phrase “sage on a stage” comes to mind thinking of this lesson with the teacher being the driver of learning and engagement.

    The second lesson tailors instructional strategies needed by the learner while leveraging students’ unique interests, passions, and builds on their strengths. It sees student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) as a valuable component of the instructional process. This lesson is a shared experience that allows for students to design, create, engage more, and dive deeper both independently and collaboratively with others. The level of rigor is higher in this classroom, as is student communication and collaboration and likely their use and application of academic language. Students in this lesson are actively exploring real world problems and challenges. The teacher in this lesson is a coach or facilitator of student inquiry and reflection. Students are in control over their learning and they are creating to show their growth and understanding.

    I’d would rather be in and would want my 4 kiddos in the 2nd classroom.

    John Dewey once said “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” We must prepare students for their future, not our past. Making learning relevant, meaningful, and applicable is a means to so. Transforming the learning experience to the 2nd classroom is a shift for educators who from experience and preparation are rooted in the traditional structure of the first classroom. We must shift the paradigm. If you want something you never had, you must be first willing to do something you have never done. As you embark on this shift in Jeffco, it’s vital for district and school leadership to support staff to take risks and fail forward. Creating a culture of innovation is rooted in leadership and having the school culture that allows for transformation to occur.

    Our call as educators isn’t to prepare students for something. We need to move past this hyper, buzz-word focus on college and career readiness. Important, sure. We want students to have the knowledge and skills to survive and thrive in both places. Rather, I feel would should prepare our students to be “Future Ready”. This type of education prepares all students for ANYTHING.

    This notion is living in the 2nd classroom and I look forward to it living in all Jeffco classrooms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, CJ! I’ve been asking others to consider how they might transform a traditional and purely content focused task into a more engaging and skill-based task. If you have time, would love to hear an example you come up with!


      1. Here’s an example of how to take the traditional 3rd grade writing of poetry and make it into a more engaging, skill-based task………..This a project like this, I would recommend holding an Exhibition Night at the end where students present and explain their design or product.

        Guiding Questions: Who are dreamers? Can “dreamers” have more than one dream? What are my dreams? Why are we here if not to dream?

        In this project, students will engage in conversation with different members of our Leawood (3 of my kiddos go here) and Jeffco community to investigate the wide scope of dreams an individual may have in their lifetime. In honor of April being National Poetry Month, they will seek inspiration from various poets, and deeply examine their own lives and dreams for the future to create a piece of writing accompanied by a mixed media illustration. These poems will be compiled into an anthology and published by a company selected by the students based on cost and time efficiency. Their co-created anthology will act as a “dreamcatcher,” or legacy project, of the student’s aspirations at this point in time.

        Learning Goals:
        -Students will be able to create and conduct interviews
        -Students will write a piece of poetry about a dream they have for themselves
        -Students will create a mixed media illustration to accompany their dream poem

        Products & Deliverables:
        -Multimedia art piece

        Required Materials or Tools:
        -Colored pencils
        -Watercolor paint
        -Transfer paper

        Project extensions and real world connections:
        -Process of co-illustrating, writing, and publishing a book
        -Critiquing others work for improvement

        A lot more engaging than the traditional means of just having students write a poem to turn in for the teacher to grade. You end up with a legacy project that can be shown in the school for years to come.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. The column addition example is great and would be a PBL that lasts a few days. A longer PBL that I use in 5th grade science is during our weather unit. I could lecture and give kids worksheets that explain how to read weather maps and use a barometer, etc. Instead, we begin with an inquiry question that asks, “How would I, as a 5th grade meteorologist, use green-screen technology to create a weather forecast?” After watching videos of real weather forecasts, groups of students make a chart of what equipment they would need and what knowledge they would need to accomplish the task. Over the next couple of weeks, kids work with equipment and build the knowledge they need to complete the task. THEY do the research, THEY plan and write the script, THEY learn why low pressure/barometer readings are important. We green-screen the forecasts, post the videos to our class website to share with parents and my students learn every objective in the Bridge to Curriculum with positive engagement. I am a facilitator and an equipment manager, but students own the knowledge. To be honest, PBL is way more fun for me, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would much prefer to be in the first classroom, as both a student and as a teacher. Despite the obvious bias in the presentations of the scenarios, direct instruction bests so-called “real world” applications most of the time. It is our job to teach content.

    I realize that my pro-traditional opinion will not be respected and will be ridiculed by many. But there are lots of traditionalists out there. Many have learned to stay silent because of the fear of retribution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for engaging, Jim. While I don’t share your view, I do appreciate and respect it. Thanks again for contributing – different points of view are welcome and we are better off through an honest and respectful exchange.


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