Teachers often ask me, a math coach, what to do with “fast finishers.” Most teachers have some set of "enrichment” or “bonus“ or “challenge” tasks ready for these moments, usually puzzles or logic problems. But no matter how we dress these activities up, they rarely work in the way we hope. Chasing good enrichment is almost always a trap that neither accomplishes our goals nor supports the classroom environment we hope to create.
THE ENRICHMENT TRAP
By definition, enrichment activities are not about furthering the students’ learning, because we use them purposefully to keep students from getting too far ahead of their classmates. If the challenge work requires too much effort from students, it tends to lose its allure, so it rarely stretches them in meaningful ways. Even if we could find the right level of challenge to keep students engaged in deep work, the setup itself undermines good math classroom culture. To begin with, we have publicly rewarded speed over depth by giving out the “fun math” to those who finish early.
We have also essentially divided the activities in class into the regular “boring” work and the more interesting “bonus” challenges. And on top of all this, finding, creating, and following up on enrichment activities takes up teacher time and effort that could be better focused elsewhere. What starts off as a way to solve a classroom management problem quickly becomes a trap for teachers who get stuck with the impossible task of producing more and more assignments.
Although there are no easy solutions to the problem of what to do with the differential in how quickly students finish their math work, there are things that teachers can do to at least reduce the need for the constant stream of enrichment worksheets.
MOVING BEYOND ENRICHMENT
Focus on big ideas, not completed work: As a math coach, I have the opportunity to watch a lot of classes in a variety of grade levels. Often, it feels like the purpose of the class is to finish the activity, handout, or workbook page. But, as Marian Small argues in Good Questions, using parallel tasks and open questions allows all of the students to be working on the same topic with the same learning goals at the same time without requiring everyone to be doing exactly the same thing.
Open questions can take many forms (Marian Small offers six different strategies) but usually allow multiple entry points and different answers. Instead of asking about seven bags of five apples, you might let students consider different numbers of apples per bag that would give you about three dozen apples. Even just using terms like “about” and “close to” takes away the singular focus on one answer and makes the context more central.
The more open you can make the question, the more students can participate. Everyone needs to be engaged deeply with the ideas. Not every student needs to solve a problem with the exact same numbers, and not everyone needs to complete page two.
Offer choices, not extensions: Extensions move beyond a topic; choices allow students to explore topics in different ways. Some choices can provide a more challenging set of numbers or a more complex context, but it is really important that the students make the choice themselves.
When I work with teachers, we can often easily split up what was one long set of tasks into multiple smaller ones. Letting students choose which problems to do is more productive than having everyone try to do all of them and allows us to offer more variety without creating a dynamic that splits the class into groups based on speed.
Set a timer: As in art and sports, everyone has to practice basic skills in math. You don’t stop doing scales because you can play songs, and you don’t stop practicing free throws because you can shoot three-point shots. Since everyone needs to practice, we do not need to provide enrichment when our goal is simply practice. I encourage teachers to have students practice for set amounts of time rather than a set number of problems.
Doing as much as they can in 10 minutes allows students to work at the pace they need without requiring extensions for students who can practice more in that time. This approach requires creating a culture where practice is valued and speed is not rewarded. Allowing time at the end to have students reflect on how they’ve improved and what they still need to work on builds that sense of purpose into the activities.
Enrichment for the whole class: Sometimes we plan well, and we still end up with some students needing more time and other students needing to do something new. Even in these situations, there are ways of avoiding the enrichment trap. Full-class challenges, like taking on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Year Game as a group, allow everyone to participate and add to the effort when they have time. Giving some class time when everyone gets to try a puzzle or game takes away the sense that those activities are only for the “smart” kids.
Although none of these strategies eliminate the need for enrichment tasks, they can help teachers focus on the more important aspects of creating a class that feels more accepting of all their students.