What We Can Learn from Our Math Colleagues: A Look at Rich Tasks

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This year I’ve had the privilege of doing some work for an amazing organization called Metamorphosis. Founded by the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, Metamorphosis offers content-focused coaching to math—and more recently ELA and science—teachers through an outstanding corps of consultants. And it also operates as a kind of think tank that explores best practices in teaching and coaching, which is where I first heard of rich tasks.

At the first consultants’ meeting I attended, a visiting mathematician Betina Zolkower asked us to form groups to try to solve one of several problems she presented, all of which were examples of rich tasks. Not feeling particularly confident about my math skills (i.e., being terrified), I chose one that seemed relatively easy: to figure out the number of ways you could spell MATH from the following graphic configuration:

MATH Graphic

Different group members approached the problem differently. For me, after staring at it for a while, I took the simple route. I used colored markers to trace the different ways, discovering that there were more ways than I’d initially thought (which is a testament, I think, to what happens when you muck around instead of ponder from afar). And then I doubled the numbers of times each way showed up to account for the bottom.

MATH with Markers2

This method worked but I was aware that there might be a more mathematical way of approaching it, which wound up being needed when Betina upped the ante by asking, “What if the word were OCTOPUS instead of MATH?” Immediately I realized the limits of my method, envisioning a tangle of colored markers too confusing to count. But fortunately one of my group members shared what she’d done. She showed me how each letter (except for the H) could form the word by going two ways, which she was able to express mathematically as 2 to the 3rd power. My conceptual understanding of that still needed a lot of work, but I cannot tell you how excited I was when I realized I could apply what she’d done to the word OCTOPUS without making a magic marker mess. And for one wonderfully energizing moment, I felt smart in math.

MATH with Markers3

If I asked you to think about what a rich task was based on this example, my hunch is that you’d come up with some of the same descriptors found in these links to Metamorphosis and an educational blogger in Victoria, Australia—or in my words here:

  • RICH TASKS are open-ended problems or projects that offer students multiple points of entry and multiple ways of solving, from simple to complex (e.g., my route versus my group-mate’s, which means they offer built-in differentiation).
  • RICH TASKS invite creative and critical thinking as well as reasoning and meta-cognition as students explore the problem and explain how they worked through it to each other.
  • RICH TASKS throw the spotlight on both process and product in a way that helps students better see the connection between means and ends.
  • RICH TASKS promote student ownership, self-direction and engagement while maintaining academic rigor (or as several students I’ve worked with have said, “That was hard but fun!”).

What’s interesting, though, was that when I googled ‘rich task’, all I came up were math sites. And adding the word literacy didn’t really help. There were plenty of links about rich tasks for mathematical or media literacy, and lots that looked at “literacy-rich environments.” But the only one I found that specifically discussed rich tasks in ELA equated them with the kind of performance-based tasks designed by PARCC and Achieve the Core, which are anything but open-ended. In fact, those tasks do exactly what my new friend in Victoria, Australia, says rich tasks do not: They put students in the position of “simply trying to crack the code to predict an answer/solution that has been predetermined as correct by the teacher.”

AfterSo what would a truly rich task in literacy look like? For me, it seems to be a new way of talking about the kind of problem solving I often ask kids to do, which, in one way or another, involves thinking about what an author might be trying to show us or asking us to consider in a scene, a passage, a line, a whole text. Depending on the text, this might also be framed in a slightly more specific way, as I’ve been doing with one of my favorite finds of the year, Gregory Maguire‘s short story “How Th’Irth Wint Rong by haplessjoey@homeskool.guv” from the anthology After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and DystopiaWhether with a 10th grade class that was reading dystopian novels or the participants at one of my sessions for the Literacy Promise Conference, I’ve asked everyone to read the first page and consider the following question: What do you think is happening and why?


Considering that question requires all kinds of problem solving: What does the title mean? Why all the misspellings? Who’s Big Ant and Hapless Joey? And where and when is this taking place? Like my math group, different people—whether they were 10th graders or conference attendees—took different paths to come up with different possible answers. I, for instance, along with the 10th graders, didn’t figure out the word Th’Irth until the second page, while some of the teachers in Salt Lake figured it out more quickly. Everyone agreed that the time wasn’t now, some from the detail about the old-timey pen and others from the next page, where Big Ant called homeskool.guv “Brite-time writing. From back in the days of internet and puters.”

As for what happened, many wondered at this point whether there had been some catastrophe (like an atomic war, which, as one of the Conference attendees said, might account for Hapless Joey’s “hairliss skalp”) and/or whether our dependence on technology had come to the point where people no longer knew how to spell. But no matter how readers interpreted this text, everyone was engaged. And just as I felt with the math problem, everyone had a moment when they felt really smart.

I’ll try to share more ideas for creating rich tasks (or enriching tasks you have) later on. But given all these benefits—and the fact that those 10th graders were actually enjoying reading closely—I don’t fully understand why the idea of rich tasks hasn’t had as much traction in literacy as in math. My hunch is that it has to do with narrow interpretations of the Standards and our obsession with outcomes and products—plus the fact that it’s hard to package such open-ended curriculum. But if ELA students can meet the Standards through rich tasks as well as more teacher-directed methods, why wouldn’t we want them to experience the thrill of independently figuring things out?


16 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from Our Math Colleagues: A Look at Rich Tasks

  1. As an administrator and former math teacher, taking on literacy learning this school year, I continually make connections from what I know about effective math instruction to what I’m learning about effective reading instruction. Instruction and engagement in these two content areas shouldn’t be exclusive of one another, and both should emphasize critical thinking and problem solving. Thanks, again, for a very insightful post!

    • This reminded me of a great quote I’ve been wanting to share from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” Critical thinking is such a complex skill—and we tend to simplify it be trying to make it easy through shorts cuts, scaffolding, etc. But I think simplifying it on the other end would mean that we kept it complex by tried to approached it similarly across the curriculum. Those kinds of connections, I believe, would serve kids so well. And glad to hear about someone who’s trying to make them more visible!

  2. This entry comes at a good time for me. I am teaching I Am the King of the Castle to Year 10, The Hunger Games to Year 9, and the play version of Cry the Beloved Country to Year 8. Besides the rich task of Accountable Talk, I am finding it very challenging to think of other literary rich tasks, especially the “multiple points of entry and multiple ways of solving, from simple to complex” part. I’m finding it boring and listless to just “teach a novel” without being able to address–in some other way besides conversation–some larger issues. I think essential questions point to some possible routes to rich tasks. For The Hunger Games I was thinking of some issue like: Does Katniss survive because she is the fittest? For Cry the Beloved Country I’m thinking about “What is race?” where we can learn about race as a social construct that is used to divide and conquer. And for I’m the King of the Castle, maybe “Who is the king of the castle?” But then what do I do once I have these questions in mind? Essays? Dioramas? (Just kidding…) Is it a rich task if I give kids the choice of their own topics for essays (as long as they are about the book)?

    • Hello Dinah! Hope you’re feeling better! I wonder if rather than thinking about a rich task as something other than what you do, you think about how you can enrich what you do. I know that accountable talk can be rich or narrow depending on how much room the teacher gives the kids—and I’m sure you give your kids lots of space. Similarly letting them pick their own topics for a paper immediately makes something richer. As for the EQs, I have to confess that the only book I know (or remember since I’m sure I had to read Cry the Beloved Country at some point)is The Hunger Games, and a little tweaking could make those questions a little more open-ended, such as What might the author be trying to show us about about the human condition based on why and how Katniss survived the Games? And for Alan Paton maybe something like What does this book have to say about why and how we focus on race?

      Hope that helps. And big question: Are you staying in Khartoum or coming back to Brooklyn?

  3. Ok, it took me three reads to get th’Irth! The puzzling nature of the text makes it something we want to figure out. We enter problem solving in our own quirky ways and teaching those variable entry possibilities is really just making students aware of what might work for them. The idea of pursuing rich tasks in reading feels like we would get closer to getting readers to be metacognitive about their reading process. ( I finally got th’Irth in part from the capital “I”.) A short text like Maguire’s is perfect for that kind of processing. Very fun for those reading dystopian books. I wonder what my 5th graders would make of this.

    • I was shocked and a little embarrassed that so many of the teachers in Utah got it so much faster than I did. And many of them did get it by noting the pattern between th’Irth and th’essay which then allowed them to read the word. Like The Arrival, I love doing this with teachers because it really lets them see the process of meaning making. And those 10th graders loved it, too. I don’t really know what 5th graders would make of it, but, boy, did Steve’s kids get a lot out of The Arrival, which I usually use in middle school. So if you decided to try it, do let me know how it goes!

  4. You’ve piqued my interest with the excerpt from “How th’Irth Wint Rong!” I’ve been thinking a lot about ensuring the work our students are doing actually builds critical thinking, and your descriptions of rich tasks is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!

    • My hunch is that you offer kids rich tasks all the time, you just never called them that. But I’m finding the term incredibly useful both because the word rich is so much nicer and more inviting than performance-based, which seems judgmental and cold to me, and because it offers a way of thinking about lessons across the curriculum. And as I said to Julienne, I love doing the story with teachers because it lets them get a better sense of the problem solving kids actually have to do in texts that we may think are easy.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! As a math teacher, I am pushing for more of these rich tasks, and the “hard to package such an open-ended curriculum” is right on. Telling students what to think (often through the standards push) is much easier than teaching students *how* to think.

    • So excited to have a math teacher here! Have you by any chance caught any of Colette Bennett’s post on applying the math practice standards to literacy? You can find them at http://usedbooksinclass.com/?s=math. Made me really envious that you guys have practice standards and we don’t—though perhaps they’ve been interpreted as narrowly as the actually standards have because they can’t be neatly packaged.

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  8. Okay, now you’ve done it. I’m going to have to check out that anthology and read the whole story!

    We give our final “old standards” state assessment this year, so I’ll be jumping into Common Core with both feet next year. I have a feeling I’ll be cruising your archives throughout the summer as I shift my thinking. Love the connection to math’s rich problems. Food for thought.

    • I can’t help thinking, Mary Lee, that whatever you’re already doing in your room will meet the CCS because it’s deep, thoughtful, authentic work. And the stuff that isn’t met, is probably the stuff that comes from narrow interpretations of the standards, not from the the CCS itself. But good luck! And in the meantime, enjoy your time with HaplessJoey!He’s quite a kid!

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