Sunday, February 3, 2019

Teaching with Anchor Tasks

What are anchor tasks, and what place do they have in the classroom?
To understand this, we need to begin with a little neuroscience. According to Dr. David Sousa, the “primacy” effect of the brain means that in a lesson, the first ten minutes are the most important for learning. The brain is able to retain the most in this first period. This means that if teachers waste this with attendance, handing in homework, reviewing old work, or other administrative tasks, they are losing the most valuable time in their lesson!

How can we leverage this knowledge more effectively? Singapore teachers have done so by creating anchor tasks. These are rich tasks that engage learners in discovering concepts through exploration and application and are accessible to multiple levels at once. 

A mathematical problem or situation is presented to students to explore and question, in which the students work in groups and the teacher facilitates. A rich discussion ensues, in which different learners share strategies and learn from each other, and the teacher can facilitate struggling learners to make sense of the concept.

One example is a third grade teacher preparing a class for a class on multiplication. The students are familiar with multiples of 2, 5, and 10. Today she wants to introduce multiples of 3, so she projects this image and gives a copy of this chart to each table.

She also provides manipulatives, Rekenreks, and white boards to the students to support their explorations.

She then asks, “Can you fill in this the missing blanks on this chart? Do it as a team, and share your thinking about how you were able fill in the blanks.”

This will encourage pattern thinking and extension. She may also encourage early finishers to extend the chart and fill in as many blanks as they can, justifying their work with pictures or demonstrations to avoid relying on rote memorization.

One student might make doubles of each number to find the product on the second row, and then another might recognize the commutative property and how that leads to the related product. For example, the student might demonstrate that 3 twos are 6 by laying out 3 rows of 2. Another student might then point out that this is the same as 2 threes if you switch the rows and columns. This leads to an intuitive understanding of the commutative property.

When an anchor task is used to launch a lesson, students are fully engaged and learning, and all students are involved, rather than just a few vocal ones. The practice in the workbook or online then has meaning and relevance, rather than being dry and disconnected. 

Do you have experience with anchor tasks in your classroom? Share it with us in the comments!
Susan Midlarsky is a Math Consultant, a Curriculum Writer, and is keenly interested in questions related to learning math. You can find out more about her at

The Matholia Team


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