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March 16, 2021

Connecting Math To Real-World Tasks

When I started teaching, I remember being overwhelmed by the many things I was “supposed” to do during a lesson. Grab students’ attention, check for understanding, make sure everyone had an opportunity to share their thinking… the list went on!

Sometimes it felt like I spent more energy making sure I checked off each part of my lesson than actually teaching. But over time, I learned to internalize all these different strategies and plan lessons using a variety of effective techniques.

In our new video series, funded by Cisco Systems and created in partnership with the Rodel Foundation of Arizona, we get to explore the approach of the Rodel Math 20/20 Initiative. Included in this approach is a three-phase lesson structure (adapted from Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics) that helps teachers make sure they are covering — and then internalizing — the parts of an effective and engaging real-world math lesson.

By diving into this structure, we can learn important components to consider when designing and teaching math lessons. The phases are:


  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Be sure the problem is understood
  • Establish clear expectations


  • Let go!
  • Notice students’ mathematical thinking
  • Provide appropriate support
  • Provide worthwhile extensions


  • Promote a community of learners
  • Listen actively without evaluation
  • Summarize the main idea and identify future problems

In the video Three-Phase Lesson Structure: Understanding Fractions Through Real-World Tasks, we see Maria Franco use the Rodel 20/20 three-phase lesson structure with her 3rd graders. Ms. Franco engages her students in solving a real-world task about fractions of watermelon, beginning by activating background knowledge and then encouraging collaboration throughout the lesson. I love watching how at some points in the lesson, Ms. Franco chooses to step back and let students grapple with the task, while at others she gently pushes them to develop understanding. In the short strategy video Step Back: Promoting Independent Thinking, Ms. Franco talks more about how she steps back to help promote independent thinking.

 Understanding Fractions through Real-World Tasks

VIDEO: Understanding Fractions through Real-World Tasks

The neat thing about a lesson planning structure is seeing how teachers adapt it to make it their own. In the video Three-Phase Lesson Structure: Launching A Fraction Task, we see Patricia Linares teach her 4th graders about a fraction task. Though the lesson is about fractions and follows the same three-phase lesson structure, we can learn different things from looking at the classes of both Ms. Linares and Ms. Franco. When watching Ms. Linares’ class, I loved seeing the time that was spent making sure students understood the task. This set students up for success by preventing possible misunderstandings and giving them the confidence to dive into independent work time. Ms. Linares also does a wonderful job creating a community where students feel comfortable taking risks. She explains how she creates this strong classroom culture in the strategy video Working Together: Creating A Community of Learners.

It’s so interesting to see the same lesson planning tool at work in multiple classrooms. Hopefully watching teachers use the same tool in different ways gives you ideas about how you can adapt these strategies for your classroom. What parts of the three-phase lesson structure might you use? 

This work was made possible through support by Cisco Systems and the Rodel Foundation of Arizona.


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