Purposeful Numbers: Accessing Complex Tasks in Elementary School

When was the last time your students wanted to forego lunch so they could continue working through a task? When was the last time your students “high-fived” during math class?  Unfortunately, timed tests and the majority of elementary math curriculums do neither.  If I could force anything to happen at this present moment in education, it would be for complex tasks and elementary mathematics to fall madly in love.

For the record using larger quantities doesn’t make math harder or more complex…it makes math cumbersome!!!  Tedious math is not fun math for students.  Taken straight from the mouth of a 2nd grader earlier this year:

S: Hey Mr. Fletch.  This math is fun!

Me: Oh ya….why’s this math fun?

S: Because it’s like we’re not really doing math!

I’ve spent the last 8 months seeking complex and worthwhile tasks for our elementary students and have repeatedly struck out.  What I’ve come to find out (recently and over the past year), is that there are lots of people who own the idea of complex tasks and being less helpful in Middle and High School (StadelFawn Nguyen,  Kaplinsky, and Dan), but very few in Elementary School.

The scarcity issue with complex tasks in elementary school is alarming! Because of that, I’ve been scrambling to create new tasks and adapting some of the brilliant ones already shared (from the aforementioned gurus). I’m not saying that every K-5 teacher needs to become a task master!  But what I am suggesting is that teachers can take what is already out there and make it accessible to students, without ever compromising the complexity of the task.  Here’s one example of taking a complex high school task and purposefully making it accessible (NOT EASIER) for students!

Below is a side-by-side comparison of Dan Meyer’s Water Tank to my Fish Tank:

Water Tank

Fish Tank

Grade Level

High School

5th grade



5.MD.1, 5, 4

Tank Shape

Octagonal Prism

Rectangular Prism

Water Rate

0:08:46 sec per 16 ounces

10 sec per cup


Cubic centimeters to ounces

Cubic inches to cups

The complexity of the problem doesn’t change just because the grade level changes.  The math is made accessible to students but the same struggle occurs in both classes. I’m continually trying to improve in this area and be more purposeful in the choices I make.  For the Fish Tank it took me about 10 minutes to get the water rate to be exactly 10 seconds per cup…but that’s ok.  This is the “behind the scenes stuff”  that purposefully makes the numbers AND this task accessible to 5th grade students.

There is no upper level or lower level math and it is my hope that the push to engage our K-5 students in complex tasks continues.  Thanks to those who are already leading the way  and continue to push me as an educator!  (Yummy MathJoe SchwartzKaplinsky, and my 2 math nerd friends Mike Wiernicki and Jenise Sexton.

The Challenge: Take a complex high school or middle school task and make it accessible for elementary grades.  Then share with the world where to find it.  If you’re already doing this please don’t be selfish and share the love!

About gfletchy

K-8 math consumer trying to listen and learn each day. Stay thirsty my friends!
This entry was posted in 3-Act Tasks, Patient Problem Solving. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Purposeful Numbers: Accessing Complex Tasks in Elementary School

  1. Joe Schwartz says:

    Great idea. I like how you’re modifying the 3 acts for elementary; we certainly need them down here. I modified Andrew and Fawn’s “Hotel Snap” project for our fifth graders, but I haven’t tried it out yet. That will be coming later this spring, and I hope to make that experience the subject of a post.

  2. gfletchy says:

    What a great idea about modifying Snap Hotel. The open ended-ness of the task is going to blow some minds….so I’m on board. There is a 5th grade teacher that was asking me about innovative ideas/tasks for May (after testing) and Snap Hotel definitely fits the bill.

    Thanks Joe…Can’t wait to hear how it goes for you and the students!

  3. Love the idea of taking a higher level math task and modifying it for your grade level! I wonder if I can do this for first grade. 🙂

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