A few days ago I started reading Principles to Actions Ensuring Mathematical Success For All as part of a book study. As I was reading in preparation for our first session I came across a few ideas worth highlighting. Pages 18 and 19 discuss the four levels of cognitive demand in math classes.   Along with expectations, these demands are often revealed in tasks or assignments that students are asked to complete.

The book describes lower-level demands as tasks related to memorization and procedures without connections. Memorizing rules/formulas and following procedures is often related to lower-level demands. Students often understand what’s expected when lower-level demands are required. Generally one answer or procedure is evident with this type of task. Worksheets that have students practice rote computation skills without words could fall into the lower-level demand category. Higher-level demands are procedures with connections and often require considerable cognitive effort to achieve. Anxiety is often a part of higher-level demands, although this may be because students don’t see these types of tasks as often.

After reading this page and looking at the different examples I started to reflect on how elementary math classrooms are organized. Math practice is needed, but students should also be given time to explore, discuss and make connections in a low-risk environment. I find more lower-level demands in math classrooms than higher-level, but an ideal ratio is challenging to ascertain.

So after reading pages 1-35 I decided to use an example of a higher-level demand activity with a fifth grade classroom. This particular class is learning about fraction multiplication and division. Students have learned in the past to multiply the numerators and denominators to arrive at a solution. To delve a bit deeper in their understanding I decided to use and adapt one of the tasks in the book. I first grouped the students into teams and gave each team 12 triangular blocks and a whiteboard marker.

Students were asked to show a visual model of 1/6 of 1/2. Some students knew the answer already but seemed unsure of how to show the answer visually. Many of the groups weren’t quite sure on how to approach the construction of the fractions. They understood the abstract and procedural but had a challenging time visualizing the fractions.

After seeing the students struggle a bit I’m glad that I decided to have them work in pairs. Students started to build models of 1/2 using the 12 triangles. Some of the groups came to a conclusion that two different sets of six triangles shows half. Then from there students started to think of what’s 1/6 of the 1/2. Students took out 1/6 but then debated on the value. Some groups said that the answer was 1/6 while others were confident that it was 1/12. Eventually the students decided that 1/12 was the correct solution.

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I went around the classroom and took some pictures of the different creations. Not everyone created the same type of model. This was a great opportunity to highlight some of the different models that arrived at the same solution.

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Afterwards, I thought that offering exactly 12 triangles helped but limited the choices for a visual model. The student models were somewhat similar as a result of the level of scaffolding. As students reflected on their actions in this activity I heard some interesting conversations. Students were aware of the procedure to multiply fractions less than one, but started to visualize the model through this activity. I thought this might be one way to introduce fraction multiplication at the fourth grade level.  I also thought that this activity was well worth the time and I’m looking at incorporating additional high-level cognitive demand activities in the future.