Differentiating: Using parallel tasks in your math lesson

At the start of this school year in our elementary school, we decided to focus on differentiation strategies all teachers can use in their classroom. To be more specific, we invited all teachers to explore strategies they can use during Tier 1 instruction (RTI), not necessarily differentiating for students with moderate or severe disabilities, but strategies that can make the learning accessible for all students in the classroom.

Students that require Tier 2 or Tier 3 instruction benefit rom support from the Math Learning Support Specialists AND benefit from these Tier 1 interventions and learning experiences in their classroom.

During our first team meetings, all teams from kindergarten to 5th grade explored a variety of strategies we could learn about and put into practice, and were invited to develop a professional team or individualized goal as part of our annual professional growth and evaluation model.

“Parallel tasks” was a popular strategy the teachers identified. I’d like to share some simple strategies so you can give it a try.

1st grade team working and learning together at Shanghai American School

Mathematically Gifted

Let’s not forget about our students who are able to show proficiency during the pre-assessment! We also need to intentionally plan for them. I am not referring to students who get answers quick or have memorized algorithms that give the impression of understanding mathematics; I’m talking about students who can problem solve by choosing the most efficient strategy to solve a problem, show their thinking with a pictorial or more abstract model, and can explain how they solved a problem and why they chose a particular strategy. Do you have some of those students? We do. There are not many, but there are some.

There are many strategies for them, however in this blog I will only explore parallel tasks. However, I do want to mention some strategies to AVOID with these students:

  • MOTS: More Of The Same work. This is the least appropriate way to respond. Students might start to hide their abilities.
  • FREE TIME: Students might find this rewarding, but it does not maximize their intellectual growth. Students will hurry to finish without giving it their best effort. Other students that require more thinking time, will feel they are “not good at math”.
  • HELPERS: This does not stimulate their intellectual growth, and will put students in socially uncomfortable and undesirable situations.
  • PULL-OUT: This practice tends to be unrelated to the regular math classroom, and it does not allow students to go deeper in their understanding of the math content they are learning in class. Unfortunately, many of us did this for years!
  • COMPUTER TIME: Although there are great apps to practice math skills, it does not engage students in their conceptual understanding of math, increase their problem solving ability, nor increase their reasoning and communicating skills needed to justify their thinking.

Parallel Tasks

Parallel tasks are 2 or 3 tasks that focus on the same learning task/learning objective but offer different levels of difficulty. All students should be able to participate in the “Share-Out” at the end of the lesson which is the most important part of the lesson because this is where the teacher learns how students are tackling the problem, what strategies are they using, and what misconceptions they might have.

You can assign students to a particular task or you can give them options. I prefer to provide different options as this gives students more ownership of their learning pathway. If they choose a task that is too difficult, they can move to another one.


Learning target: Represent and solve problems involving addition and subtraction

Lesson objective: Use place value knowledge to subtract within 100

Standards: 2.OA.1, 2.NBT.5, 2.NBT.7

There are many great things to notice about these two slides.

First of all, the teacher will use the “slow release” function, to release each sentence one by one allowing students to notice and wonder about the context of the problem. Using Numberless Word problems is essential when creating parallel tasks. (To learn more about Numberless Word problems click here: https://bstockus.wordpress.com/numberless-word-problems/ by Brian Bushart)

For example, she/he might ask students, how many kinds of apples are there? Or how many apples could there be? (Estimation180 is a fantastic website that can support this type of thinking and dialogue in your class).

After the “release” of how many apples each child has, students might wonder about the question, and will then come up with the best questions. Give them a chance to discuss with a partner first before you ask a student. This gives them the chance to practice their question, and/or craft a question with their partner.

Next the teacher will show the 2nd slide; this is when students have the choice of numbers they can choose to solve the problem.

Notice how ALL students will be showing the strategies they used to solve the problem, explaining how they solved it, and making sure that their argument supports their work (Claim-Evidence-Reasoning).

If students need to use manipulatives to solve, the first set of numbers allows them to use any type of manipulatives such as discs, unifix cubes, or single cubes. The second set of numbers will require ones and tens.

If you want students to move from using base ten blocks in order to try other strategies, encourage students to use the third set of numbers as they will have an incentive to think about another strategy.

For problems involving computation, you can add multiple sets of numbers to allow for ways to vary the difficulty level. You could also use parallel tasks to vary the level of problem solving and reasoning.

Open Middle

“Open Middle” is a great resource created by Robert Kaplinsky www.openmiddle.com that provides parallel tasks for the same standard, however the lesson objective might vary because students will show proficiency of it using deeper problem solving skills, than only computational skills. Take a look.

“Open middle problems generally require a higher Depth of Knowledge than most problems that assess procedural and conceptual understanding.   They support the Common Core State Standards and  provide students with opportunities for discussing their thinking.” Robert Kaplinsky.

During the active engagement of your lesson, walk around to observe the strategies and different approaches that students are using to tackle the problem. This is where the teacher plans which students will be sharing their ideas making sure that a variety of strategies are shared. The teacher uses this time to look for opportunities to help students make connections between the different ideas shared.

Last week, I was in a 1st grade classroom when the teacher asked a student to share how he persevered when solving a tangram puzzle. It was a fantastic share-out moment, and we all learned from this 6 year-old talking about not giving up!

Next steps

When you are thinking about creating parallel tasks for your lesson, start by identifying the big idea you want to focus on and think about what your students might need. You could start by using different sets of numbers, the number of operations they can use, or making them open to allow for deeper problem solving, etc.

Start with a task from your original lesson then create parallel tasks in order to allow students to choose the task they will work on while making sure that sometimes the most difficult task is the first one. This will ensure that students consider all options before choosing their task.

If you are interested in reading more about parallel tasks, refer to “Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics” by John A. Van de Walle.

Other samples of parallel tasks:

1st grade sample. More resources at http://www.openmiddle.com
2nd grade sample
3rd grade sample. Based on #tapediagramtuesday by Duane Habecker
5th grade sample

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