Thinking through a Lesson: Successfully Implementing High-Level Tasks

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  • 1 University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • 2 University of Pittsburgh
  • 3 University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls

Mathematical tasks that give students the opportunity to use reasoning skills while thinking are the most difficult for teachers to implement well. Research by Stein and colleagues (Henningsen and Stein 1997; Stein and Lane 1996; Stein, Grover, and Henningsen 1996) makes the case resoundingly that cognitively challenging tasks that promote thinking, reasoning, and problem solving often decline during implementation as a result of various classroom factors. When this occurs, students must apply previously learned rules and procedures with no connection to meaning or understanding, and the opportunities for thinking and reasoning are lost. Why are such tasks so difficult to implement in ways that maintain the rigor of the activity? Stein and Kim (2006, p. 11) contend that lessons based on high-level (i.e., cognitively challenging) tasks “are less intellectually ‘controllable’ from the teacher's point of view.” They argue that since procedures for solving high-level tasks are often not specified in advance, students must draw on their relevant knowledge and experiences to find a solution path. Take, for example, the Bag of Marbles task shown in figure 1.


Over the past decade, Margaret S. Smith has been developing research-based materials for use in the professional development of mathematics teachers and studying what teachers learn from their professional development.

Victoria Bill provides professional development to coaches and other instructional leaders who are supporting mathematics education reform in urban school districts.

Elizabeth K. Hughes areas of interest include preservice secondary mathematics teacher education and the use of practice-based materials in developing teachers' understanding of what it means to teach and learn mathematics.

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