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One way to differentiate in math class is creating open-ended tasks and questions (I talked about several differentiation strategies I use here – Mathematically Speaking).

I think it is useful to clarify the scheme of mathematical problems – below I used Foong Pui’s research paper:

“Problems in this classification scheme have their different roles in mathematics instruction as in teaching for problem solving, teaching about problem solving, or teaching via problem solving.”

1. CLOSED problems  are well-structured problems in terms of clearly formulated tasks where the one correct answer can always be determined in some fixed ways from the necessary data given in the problem situation.

A.Routine closed problems – are usually multi-step challenging problems that require the use of a specific procedure to arrive to the correct, unique, answer.

B. Non-routine closed problems – imply the use of heuristics strategies * in order to determine, again, a single correct answer.

*Problem-solving heuristics: work systematically, tabulate the data, try simpler examples, look for a pattern, generalize a rule etc.

EXAMPLES

Routine problem: Minah had a bag of rice. Her family ate an equal amount of rice each day. After 3 days, she had 1/3 of the rice left. After another 7 days, she had 24 kg of rice left. How much rice was in the bag at first?

Non-routine problem: How many squares are there in a chess board?

2. OPEN –ENDED problems – are often named “ill-structured” problems as they involve a higher degree of ambiguity and may allow for several correct solutions. Real-life mathematical problems or mathematical investigations are of this type – e.g. “How much water can our school save on a period of four months?” or “Design a better gym room considering the amount of money we can spend.”

FEATURES of open-ended problems:

• Solved in different ways and on different levels (accessible to mixed abilities)
• Empower students to make their own mathematical decisions and make room for own mathematical thinking
• Develop reasoning and communication skills

HOW do you create open-ended tasks?

Usually, in order to create open-ended questions or problems, the teacher has to work backwards:

• Indentify a mathematical topic or concept.
• Think of a closed question and write down the answer.
• Make up a new question that includes (or addresses) the answer.

STRATEGIES to convert closed problems/questions

1. Turning around a question

CLOSED: What is half of 20?

OPEN: 10 is the fraction of a number. What could the fraction and the number be? Explain.

CLOSED:  Find the difference between 23 and 7.

OPEN: The difference between two numbers is 16. What might the numbers be? Explain your thinking.

CLOSED: Round this decimal to the decimal place 5.7347

OPEN: A number has been rounded to 5.8. What might the number be?

CLOSED: There are 12 apples on the table and some in a basket. In all there are 50 apples. How many apples are in the basket?

OPEN: There are some apples on the table and some in a basket. In all there are 50 apples. How many apples might be on the table? Explain your thinking.

1. Asking for similarities and differences.

Choose two numbers, shapes, graphs, probabilities, measurements etc. and ask students how they are alike and how they are different.

Example: How are 95 and 100 alike? How are they different?

They are alike because you can skip count by 5s, both are less than 200, both are greater than 90 etc.

They are different because one is a three-digit number, only one ends in 5, only one is greater than 99 etc.

Example: How are the numbers 6.001 and 1.006 alike? How are they different?

Example: Compare two fractions with different denominators. Tell how you compare them.

Example: 4 is a factor for two different numbers. What else might be true about both numbers?

1. Creating a sentence

Students are asked to create a mathematical sentence that includes certain numbers and words.

Example: Create a sentence that includes numbers 3 and 4 along with the words “more” and “and”.

• 3 and 4 are more than 2
• 3 and 4 together are more than 6
• 34 and 26 are more than 34 and 20 etc.

Example: Create a question involving multiplication or division of decimals where the digits 4, 9, and 2 appear somewhere.

Example: Create a sentence involving ½  and 64 and the words “less” and “twice as much”.

1. Using “soft” words.

Using the word “close” (or other equivalents) allows for a richer, more interesting mathematical discussion.

Example: You multiply two numbers and the product is almost 600. What could the numbers have been? Explain.

Example: Add two numbers whose sum is close to 750. What can the numbers be? Explain.

Example: Create two triangles with different but close areas. (*instead of, “Create a triangle with an area of 20 square inches.”)

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A few important considerations are to be made when creating open-ended problems or questions.

2. Develop questions with the right degree of ambiguity (vague enough to be interesting and to allow for different responses, but not too vague so as students get frustrated).
3. Plan for two types of prompts:
• enabling prompts (for students who seem unable to start working)
• extension prompts (for students who finish quickly)

High quality responses from students have the following features:

• Are systematic (e.g. may record responses in a table or pattern).
• If the solutions are finite, all solutions are found.
• If patterns can be found, then they are evident in the response.
• Where a student has challenged themselves and shown complex examples which satisfy the constraints.
• Make connections to other content areas.

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References:

Designing Quality Open-Ended Tasks in Mathematics, Louise Hodgson, 2012

Using Short Open-ended Mathematics Questions to Promote Thinking and Understanding, Foong Pui Yee, National Institute of Education, Singapore

Good Questions – Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction, Marian Small, 2012