What Makes A 3 Act Math Task So Effective?

What Makes A 3 Act Math Task So Effective

When delivering teacher workshops, I almost always include a 3 Act Math Task as a way to model the 4-part math lesson framework and for teachers to experience the power of introducing new concepts by leveraging curiosity. Although my workshops spend a significant amount of time exploring interesting lessons, teachers often want a formal description of what defines a 3 Act Math Task from any other effective task. I thought it was about time that I pull apart what I believe makes an effective 3 act math task and why I have found them so useful in my classroom.

As many are aware, the Three Acts of a Mathematical Story approach shared by Dan Meyer when he began creating media rich math tasks that were structured using the effective storytelling technique of “acts” where:

  • Act One:

    The hook that introduces the storyline, often leaving you curious with questions you are interested in answering and rising tension.

  • Act Two:

    Tension continues to rise to its highest point as more clues are revealed to help lead you to the climax of the story.

  • Act Three:

    Curiosity is satisfied with answers to your questions and tension is restored to its original state prior to the first act.

Click here for an example of how we can apply the three acts storytelling technique to a math task.

Student Engagement

It’s no secret that math isn’t high up on most people’s list of things they enjoy to do in their spare time. Worse yet is trying to teach new concepts to students when more often than not, there are no immediately apparent reasons why we need them. As students move from junior grades into intermediate (or from elementary to middle school) where concepts become more abstract, the purpose of mathematics is less obvious to the learner and interest in the subject often decreases. As student engagement in mathematics falls, teachers are left wondering how they can recapture that abundance of natural curiosity younger children seem to possess.

When discussing the topic of student engagement, I often hear math teachers firmly state: “teachers are paid to teach, not to entertain” – something I’d firmly agree with. However, I do believe that it is our duty as teachers to seek out ways to capture the attention of our students by making math class a compelling environment. Just as storytellers and filmmakers are forced to work hard to hook in their audience, it would make sense that math teachers, especially in the middle to high school grades, would have to work even harder to hook in their respective audience. It is easy to forget that many students never willingly signed up to sit in our classroom – they had to. I think educators need to work just as hard to engage our audience as those in other industries do – some for good, others not so much – if we want to have any sort of influence on our learners.

Why 3 Act Tasks Can Be Effective

While there are many beliefs as to why the 3 act math task approach is beneficial, here are just a few of many reasons I’ve compiled over the past couple years as a frequent user of this approach.

Sparking Curiosity

While I believe the 3 act approach could be used to introduce any question in any subject area, they are best known as a way to deliver media-rich questions in the math classroom. By showing an image or short video, you can quickly spark curiosity in all learners regardless of their mathematical ability.

Student Math Discussion

Dan Meyer and others using this framework typically encourage students to share their thinking throughout the process. Sharing what they notice or wonder, what questions come to mind, predictions and extraneous variables that could affect outcomes are just some of the common discussion starters that can be used.

Process Over Answers

Because most 3 act math tasks model math in the world around us, often times applying a standard formula or algorithm may not accurately calculate what will actually happen in the given scenario. Encouraging students to think outside of the box and consider what would happen in the real world vs. in the “fake world” math questions often have us living in.

Connecting Topics to Visual/Context

Those who are lucky enough to have the sense of sight are constantly processing images of the world around them. It seems logical that providing students with a visual to better understand mathematics, especially when the content becomes increasingly abstract over each grade level.

Low Floor, High Ceiling

Most tasks provide an opportunity for all students to participate and can be extended to more open ended (or open middle) questioning via “sequels” to the original question.

While there are many different ways to engage students in math class, it is clear to me that using the art of storytelling such as Dan Meyer‘s 3 act math approach is a solid way to raise student interest, curiosity and engagement in my mathematics classroom.





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About Kyle Pearce

I’m Kyle Pearce and I am a former high school math teacher. I’m now the K-12 Mathematics Consultant with the Greater Essex County District School Board, where I uncover creative ways to spark curiosity and fuel sense making in mathematics. Read more.


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