29 September 2022

Tasks that can't fail

Do you have tasks that you use in lessons that "can't fail"? Favourite tasks that you've used many times and that always seem to go well? What features of these tasks seem to make this happen?

When mentoring trainee teachers in school, I found that it could be useful to have tasks to share with them to try out as some of their first experiences working with students (Foster, 2021). I think there's a place for tasks which "always seem to go well" and never seem to fail. Of course, we should 'never say never'. But rather than asking the trainee teacher to teach whatever happens to come next in the scheme of learning, for their first experiences I would usually give them something which requires minimal introduction and explanation and which students are likely to engage in with some enthusiasm, and will lead to productive conversations and the potential for a nice whole-class discussion. (These kinds of tasks can also be useful for 'interview lessons', when going for a job in another school.)

Sometimes trainee teachers, as one of their first experiences, are asked to do "the last 10 minutes" of a lesson. But I think this is very difficult. Even with lots of experience, it can be hard to gauge how long something will last, and the skill of drawing things out or speeding them up is really hard. Games like mathematical bingo are particularly difficult for lesson endings, I find, because it's hard to predict when someone will win and the game will finish, and if there's just 1 minute of the lesson left is there time to play another round? Also, students may be tired and not always at their best at the end of a lesson - especially if the lesson is followed by break or lunch or home, or if something fractious happened during the lesson. And the trainee teacher can be in the undesirable position of starting something off that goes well and then having to stop everyone part way through so as not to crash through the bell.

So, I prefer to ask the beginning trainee teacher to do the beginning of a lesson, and take as long or as short a time as they wish - and then I will pick up from wherever they leave off. If their section ends up taking 5 minutes, that's fine. If it ends up taking 20 minutes, that's also fine. Obviously, timekeeping is an important part of teaching, but I think it's helpful to focus on one thing at a time, so I try to remove time pressure in the first early experiences, so that the teacher can focus on what they are doing and what the students are doing, and experience the freedom of 'going with something' that takes off. So I want to take some things away, that they don't need to worry about until later. Above all, I want the teacher's first experience teaching a class to be a positive one that doesn't put them off. I want them to feel that teaching is something they can enjoy and that they want to do and can get better at doing.

So, what kinds of tasks can be effective for this? Over the years, I've developed a list of "can't fail" tasks for these kinds of purposes. Here are two:

1. Four fours

I probably don't need to say much about this task, as it is such a classic:

What numbers can you make from four 4s?

(For more details, see Foster, 2020.) Sometimes teachers use this task in order to work on specific topics, such as priority of operations, but it can also be a great task for general numeracy and developing careful, systematic thinking. I think 'Four fours' can work with pretty much any age/stage of class. It requires very little set-up at the start and it is easy to get students sharing what they've come up with. I've used it with all ages in school and also with teachers.

2. Possibility tables

Collaborative 'group work' is often perceived as an extremely difficult thing to do well, and perhaps something for trainee teachers to delay attempting until they have more experience (Foster, 2022). I think this is not necessarily the case, and pairwork, in particular, can be highly effective in situations in which the students have a clear joint task, which they both need to contribute to. One way to encourage this is through the resources that you provide. I remember one day realising in a flash of insight - as though it were a huge revelation - that the photocopying cost of one A3 piece of paper is (about) the same as that of two A4 pieces of paper. So, for the same cost, I could give every pair of students one A3 sheet, rather than give every student one A4 sheet. One A3 sheet and one pencil between two students can, if the task is well designed, almost 'force' effective pair work.

One "can't fail" task that seems to do this is what I call Possibility tables (Foster, 2015). These are a bit like what John Mason calls structured variation grids (see http://mcs.open.ac.uk/jhm3/SVGrids/SVGridsMainPage.html#What_is_an_SVGrid). For example, the possibility table below (pdf version) varies order of rotational symmetry across the top and the number of lines of symmetry down the side. The task is for students to write the name, or draw a sketch, of any figure that could go in each cell of the table. If a cell is impossible to fill, they should indicate so, and try to explain why. (The notion that some combinations may be impossible is 'on the table' from the start.)

Again, with a task like this, there is very little set-up at the start from the teacher. A quick check or reminder about the definitions of 'order of rotational symmetry' and 'line of symmetry' is all that is required, and, if some students are still a little unsure of these, they will have ample opportunity to clarify that through the task.

The dynamic of one large sheet of paper and one shared pencil (pencil is preferable to pen, because then ideas are easily erased and replaced) seems to 'force' discussion. (A separate blank sheet of rough paper may also be useful, for trying out ideas.) If both students have a pencil, they can end up working relatively independently at opposite ends of the sheet, which is probably not what I would desire, whereas one shared pencil seems to lead to conversations about what is possible and what should be put where. But if students are very proficient at collaborative work then a pencil each might be OK (as in the drawing below). Often a 'wrong' figure can be viewed as 'right; just in the wrong place', and we can just move it to a different cell, and this sometimes means that we end up with multiple figures in some cells, which is fine. We can ask: Why do some cells seem to be easier to find figures for than others?

You could say 'shape' instead of 'figure'. If students can't think of 'mathematical' shapes to try, you could suggest capital letters of the alphabet. One strategy is to work through the cells systematically, trying to think of shapes that would fit. Another is to first think of shapes and then decide where they go.

I find that lots tends to emerge from this task. Like 'Four fours', I've used it with students from primary age up to sixth form, and with trainee and experienced teachers as participants. It is possible to use university-level mathematics to reason about which symmetry combinations are definitely impossible. And there are many other pairs of variables that can generate other possibility tables.

These are two tasks I would generally be confident to give to a beginning teacher in the expectation that they would be likely to have a positive experience.

Questions to reflect on

1. What do you make of these tasks?

2. What "can't fail" tasks do you use?


Foster, C. (2015). Symmetry combinations. Teach Secondary, 4(7), 43–45. https://www.foster77.co.uk/Foster,%20Teach%20Secondary,%20Symmetry%20Combinations.pdf

Foster, C. (2020). Revisiting 'Four 4s'. Mathematics in School, 49(3), 22–23. https://www.foster77.co.uk/Foster,%20Mathematics%20in%20School,%20Revisiting%20Four%204s.pdf

Foster, C. (2021). First things first. Teach Secondary, 10(6), 82–83. https://www.foster77.co.uk/Foster,%20Teach%20Secondary,%20First%20things%20first.pdf

Foster, C. (2022). The trouble with groupwork. Teach Secondary, 11(5), 70–71. https://www.foster77.co.uk/Foster,%20Teach%20Secondary,%20The%20trouble%20with%20groupwork.pdf

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