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March 11, 2021

Modeling With Mathematics

Modeling with mathematics is the practice of making sense of the world through a mathematical perspective. Take a moment to look around and get curious: How do you use mathematics to make decisions in your everyday life? Maybe you’re deciding what to make for dinner. Does the recipe have enough servings to feed everyone or will you need to modify it, perhaps by doubling or halving the amount of each ingredient? When should you start making dinner if you’d like to eat at 6?

These questions can be viewed from a mathematical perspective. There is something to count, measure, or quantify and the answers to these questions have real and interesting implications for our lives.

Children also need opportunities to identify mathematical problems in their world, determine what information will help them solve a problem, develop mathematical models of situations, and revise their models to more closely predict real world phenomena. This is the work of modeling with mathematics, a mathematical practice identified by the Common Core State Standards as central to the work of K-12 mathematics.

Three-Act Tasks

A Three-Act Task is a lesson structure designed specifically to engage children in modeling with mathematics. The activity was created by Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher and blogger. Teachers around the country are trying these tasks with students and sharing what they’ve learned. Here are just a few bloggers to check out: Graham FletcherAndrew StadelMike Wiernicki, and Brian Bushart.

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.

The first two videos in this series take us inside two primary classrooms where children are working on Three-Act Tasks and modeling with mathematics. As you watch Three-Act Tasks: Modeling Addition and Three-Act Tasks: Modeling Subtraction, consider:

  • What rich mathematical ideas do the children apply to these contextual situations?
  • How are Three-Act Tasks similar or different from other problem solving activities?
Modeling Addition

Three-Act Tasks: Modeling Addition

Modeling Subtraction

Three-Act Tasks: Modeling Subtraction

Two Strategies that Support Student and Teacher Learning

In Teacher Collaboration… While Teaching, we explore the ways teachers collaborate in the classroom to learn together, adapt lessons in the moment, and grow their instructional practice. The teachers use two strategies — Teacher Time Out and Huddling — to discuss instructional decisions together while lessons play out. These strategies are enacted by pairs of teachers working together, but can also be used by small groups of teachers who are learning about new instructional strategies or who are working together to improve their practice.

Finally, in the video Building Emotional Literacy, we get a glimpse into one small strategy that Sarah, Kristin, and their colleagues use to support students to develop emotional literacy skills and ready their bodies for learning. They link their work to a program called RULER, which involves a set of coordinated components to support students’ socio-emotional learning.

Give these strategies a try and let us know in the comments below what you and your students learn.

For more on Modeling with Mathematics, visit these great resources:

Three-Act Tasks

Dan Meyer: Three-Act Tasks (grades 6-12)
Graham Fletcher: Three-Act Tasks (grades K-7)
Mike Wiernicki: Three-Act Tasks (grades 2-8)
Andrew Stadel: Three-Act Tasks (elementary-high school)

Other Resources

An entertaining 60 minute presentation by Dan Meyer: Fake-World Math: When Mathematical Modeling Goes Wrong and How to Get It Right

brief blog post by John Pelesko with suggestions for elementary mathematical modeling: “How did the chicken cross the road?”

Have some fun with mathematical modeling! This website by Dan Meyer has interesting images and videos that you can ask mathematical questions about.

This work was made possible through support by the National Science Foundation.


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