A series of professional development resources designed to support embedding rich tasks into the curriculum can be found here.
I have read a number of articles which reference "rich tasks" recently but none of them really seems to tell me what the person writing thinks a "rich task" is. I have found this somewhat frustrating and then it dawned on me that the NRICH website is full of things we would describe as "rich tasks" or problems but, like many other writers, we have not said explicitly what we might mean by "good
problems" or "rich tasks". So, what are "rich tasks" and why are they important?
I would describe a rich task as having a range of characteristics that together offer different opportunities to meet the different needs of learners at different times. What is also apparent to me is that much of what it takes to make a rich task "rich" is the environment in which it is presented, which includes the support and questioning that is used by the teacher and the roles that learners
are encouraged to adopt. That is, an environment in which learners are not passive recipients of knowledge, accepting what is given, but independent assertive constructors of their own understanding who challenge and reflect. On its own a rich task is not rich - it is only what is made of it that allows it to fulfil its potential. With this in mind it might still be useful to list some of the
things I might say when describing a rich task. Rich tasks (or good problems):
In the guidance document "Mathematics at Key Stage 4: developing a scheme of work", the Secondary National Strategy describes a rich task as:
It is possible for rich tasks to have at their core, the opportunity to develop an understanding of, explore or employ mathematical concepts that are part of the normal curriculum. Rich tasks and curriculum coverage or even testing are not at odds with each other. The nature of rich tasks gives learners the opportunity not only to question and develop their understandings of mathematical ideas
but also to gain in confidence that they can apply their knowledge in a range of contexts, even unfamiliar ones. They also have the capacity to meet the needs of a functional mathematics curriculum.
Sometimes though, perhaps a better description would be "rich contexts". The context could be a problem but it could also be a series of related tasks or an open environment that is rich in many of the senses described above. An example of a rich environment on the NRICH site might be the Geoboard environment . A
series of rich tasks might include the game "square it", the problems "square coordinates" and "tilted squares". These all consolidate and develop the
idea of a square, link this idea with pattern and coordinates and Pythagoras' theorem. Pretty rich, and all based around drawing squares on a dotty grid!
To aid teachers in making decisions about what rich tasks to apply where, the NRICH website offers a number of support mechanisms:
But we are not telling teachers how to use the problems by giving detailed lesson plans and that is because the nature of a rich task involves "letting go" and preparing for the range of needs of your own learners and where they are likely to go. Any suggestion that we can begin to second guess what best serves the needs of the learners in every classroom would be misplaced. However, the
following basic ideas may be useful to draw on when you are planning work with your learners :
In essence, rich tasks encourage children to think creatively, work logically, communicate ideas, synthesise their results, analyse different viewpoints, look for commonalities and evaluate findings. However, what we really need are rich classrooms: communities of enquiry and collaboration, promoting communication and imagination.
Secondary National Strategy, 2007, Mathematics at Key Stage 4: developing your scheme of work, DfES.