Math Anchor Tasks: It’s Not About the Answer—It’s About the Process

By Ricky Mikelman

An important step in good math lesson planning is choosing an anchor task—a question or problem posed to a group of students to help them construct meaning. One of the most exciting benefits of an anchor task is that students don’t have to get the “right” answer to succeed or to deepen their understanding. The fact that students share, talk about their thought processes, and find their mathematical voices is what makes anchor tasks so valuable.

In this article, we’ll discuss the key characteristics of anchor tasks and how to best use them every day in the classroom.

Zone of proximal development

An anchor task is not “busy” work. It should not be easy. It should offer students the right amount of challenge and require them to persevere to complete it. The idea is to give children experiences within their zone of proximal development—a term developed by psychologist Lev Wygotsky that describes the difference between what a learner can do without help and with help. By assigning anchor tasks within a child’s zone of proximal development, a teacher can encourage and advance their individual learning. When a student is in the “zone”, a teacher can provide appropriate assistance that will give the student the boost to complete the task.

Group work

Wygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. In Singapore, students primarily work in groups, not as individuals. These are the same students who have repeatedly ranked at or near the top on international math exams since the mid-1990s. Instead of a teacher showing students how to solve a math problem, students work together to solve it on their own. In groups, students pool knowledge and experiences. They share diverse perspectives. They challenge assumptions, give and receive feedback, and develop their own voices. As they discuss, debate, compare, and think, they learn.

Teach less, learn more

This is another Singapore concept and at the heart of anchor tasks. It doesn’t mean teachers are supposed to do less. Rather, they are encouraged to teach better—to encourage active and engaged learning, rely less on drill and practice, guide and facilitate rather than tell and talk, and nurture students’ curiosity and passion for learning. This may be difficult for teachers who “teach to the test” and feel compelled to jump in with the “right” answer. But something magical starts to happen when teachers get out of the way and stop telling students exactly what to do and how to do it. Students think, problem-solve, question—and learn more.

Questioning

Student thinking is not driven by answers, but by questions. Questioning is a key strategy for deepening student understanding. To make it work, teachers need to develop questions in advance of the start of an anchor task. These questions should nudge students, push them, or shove them—depending on the situation and student needs. “Yes” and “no” should not be part of everyday classroom language. Asking open-ended questions encourages students to reflect on their thinking process. If a question stimulates a child to ask further questions, then job well done.


Anchor tasks and questioning are most effective when they become part of everyday lessons. SDE offers a webinar that shows you how to do that. Check out Anchor Tasks & Questioning: The Basics & More (Grades 1–5) by award-winning educator and math coach Ricky Mikelman.

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