Home Education Opening Minds with Open Ended Math Problems in the Primary Classroom

Opening Minds with Open Ended Math Problems in the Primary Classroom


What are open-ended math problems?

Open-ended math problems are problems that have more than one possible answer. These problems might present an end result and then ask students to work backward to figure out how that end result might have been achieved or they might ask students to compare two concepts that can be compared in a variety of different ways. But whatever way they are presented, the purpose of open-ended math problems is always to encourage students to use higher order thinking skills to solve problems and understand that some problems can be solved in many ways, with many outcomes.

Examples of Open-ended Math Problems

If you teach pre-k or kindergarten, an open-ended math problem might be: “You have 2 shapes that have a different amount of sides. What 2 shapes could you have? Show and name the shapes.” You would provide them with crayons, paper, pattern blocks, or whatever other manipulative they might be used to using when discussing shapes and students would use these manipulatives to come up with as many answers as they can. Your little ones may answer with a variety of answers based on their current skill level. You may get answers like “triangle and square”, “hexagon and parallelogram”, or “a circle is a shape” depending on what each student knows about shapes. This is a great way to reinforce what students already know and to quickly assess where they are in their knowledge.

If you teach first grade, an open-ended math problem might be: “I’m thinking of the number 8. What two numbers work could work together to make the number 8?” Again, you would provide them with manipulatives they normally use for composing and decomposing numbers, like counters, small erasers, counting bears, unifix cubes, or even playdoh balls. The extra bonus about this kind of problem is that it’s extremely easy for students to show their math skills. Some might use addition, others will use subtraction, and you may even run into a kiddo or two who can use multiplication to find the number. However students choose to explore all the possibilities for answers, be sure to give them a few options for how to show their thinking. This might include simply writing equations, drawing pictures with the equations, or even building the number with a manipulative and then taking a picture of it with an iPad.

As students get older and move onto more abstract thinking in second and third grade, you might incorporate more word problems like: “The difference between the temperature on Monday and Tuesday was 13 degrees. What could the temperature have been on each day? Find and explain at least 5 different answers.” Or “Penelope sees 37 children playing in a corn maze. If those children split into four groups, how many children could be in each group? Find and explain at least 5 different answers.” As always, be sure to provide students with manipulatives, paper and pencils, dry erase markers and whiteboards, or whatever you normally use to help them solve problems and then let them go to work! By presenting these kinds of word problems, you’ll expose students to a variety of math concepts (such as division in this example) just by allowing them to think about how to solve the problem on their own. Then, when these concepts are formally introduced, they will hopefully feel more familiar to some students.

Why should I use open-ended math problems with my students?

There are many benefits to incorporating these kinds of problems into your students’ daily routine, but here are a few of the most obvious and effective ones:

  1. Open-ended problems encourage higher order thinking skills. Students will not only be “recognizing”, “identifying”, or “describing” their thinking; they’ll be “justifying”, “defending”, and “evaluating” their problem solving skills and how they arrived at their answers.
  2. Open-ended problems build confidence in your students. Once students recognize that there are many possibilities for correct answers and thinking, they begin to participate more readily because they can bring to the table. Students who normally struggle with math might solve the problem on a very basic level, using a basic strategy, but they’ll be correct! And your advanced students can solve it on their advanced level and be just as correct as the student who struggles. Simply knowing that the way that they specifically thought and solved the problem was considered correct builds confidence for students.
  3. Open-ended problems are engaging! Students are immediately engaged in these kinds of problems because they recognize that there are so many different ways to solve it. Whether students are working in small groups or independently, there is possibility for so many different ideas and answers to be correct that everyone wants in on it. This engagement, in turn, encourages collaboration among students and soon, they’re sharing their thinking and learning from each other to solve problems.
  4. Open-ended problems encourage creativity. Students are capable of using so many strategies that they’ve learned over the years to solve problems and, given the space and time, they can even come up with some of their own strategies for solving problems. Open-ended problems give students permission to be creative in their thinking and problem solving.
  5. Open-ended problems make it easy for teachers to see what levels students are working at. Simply by walking around the room while students are working to solve an open-ended math problem, you’ll be able to informally assess what kind of level they are independently working on. This can be extremely beneficial as you are collecting data, forming groups, or simply getting a feel for what kind of skills each student is working with.

For more information about the benefits of using open-ended math problems, read:


How do I incorporate open-ended math problems into my math instructional time?

Some of the simplest ways to incorporate open-ended math problems into your math instructional time is to include them in math stations, use them in small groups, and use them as a warm up.

  1. Math Stations: You can implement open-ended problems into your math stations a number of ways, including thinking mats, task cards, or interactive math journals. The simplest way to implement them into your math stations is by using task cards. Task cards are pre-made cards that you can create or purchase to cut and laminate for students to use repeatedly. Task cards usually include words, pictures, diagrams, or a combination of all to present a problem to students. To use task cards in a math station, simply create or purchase the cards you want with open-ended word problems or picture problems. Then, simply print them out and cut/laminate them to make them durable and easily reused. (TEACHER TIP: Most dry erase markers wipe off of lamination pretty easily if it’s wiped off within a reasonable amount of time. Your students may want to mark the important parts of the problem on the actual task card with dry erase marker if you want them to. Just wipe if off after use!) I would suggest storing cards in a labeled plastic container or ziplock bag to keep them organized. It is suggested that you always allow students to use manipulatives as needed, as this can help students feel allowed to express their creative problem-solving thoughts. So, be sure your task card station provides anything students might use to solve problems in their own way: whiteboards, markers, papers, crayons, counters, manipulatives, thinking mats, laminated task cards, etc. For example, if you give students a task card with this problem on it: “Marcy finds 47 apples on the ground. What 3 addends could create this sum? Find and explain at least 5 answers.”, I would provide them with small apple erasers or counters, a whiteboard and dry erase marker, and an iPad to take picture evidence of their five (or more!) answers when they’re finished.  Please refer to pages 10-16 in the resource provided to you below this article for some sample open-ended word problem task cards that you can use with your students immediately!
  2. Small Groups: To implement open-ended problems in your small groups, using thinking mats, manipulatives, and prepared open-ended problems is a great way to ease students into working on open-ended problems independently. This is a great way to model your own thinking and problem-solving to allow students to see how they can begin their own ways of solving the problems. Take a moment to download and look at the thinking mat activity in the downloadable resource below. You can incorporate these mats into your small group activity by providing each student with a laminated copy of the mat you want to use and manipulatives for them to work with to follow the mat’s directions. For example, the thinking mat that says “Make patterns out of these shapes and name them.” would be an excellent open-ended activity for a group of kindergartners who are working on shapes OR patterns. Give each student a few of each of the pattern blocks shown on the mat and a dry erase marker. Explain and model how YOU would complete the activity by creating a pattern with the pattern blocks, tracing the blocks or drawing your pattern, and then naming it with letters (ie.: rhombus, rhombus, circle would be named an AAB pattern). This will give your students an idea of what’s expected and their little brains can get started coming up with their own patterns!
  3. Warm Up: Using your warm-up time to practice with open-ended problems is a great way to model your own thinking to the whole. Modeling how to solve these problems step-by-step along with the whole class can help give reluctant participants the courage and understanding to participate and ready participants the reassurance that they’re on the right track. As an example, look at “Activity 3: Creating and Solving Problems” in the downloadable resource. You will notice a few thinking mats included, along with cards that correspond to the mats. For a warm-up activity before you begin your lesson for the day, you could give each student a laminated thinking mat and a corresponding manipulative (like, pass out the table and basket cards and give every student some small apple erasers). Then, project a corresponding task card so that everyone can see it. Read the card together, model one way you could solve the problem using your own thinking mat and manipulatives, and then allow students to solve it their own way to find one or two other answers. I would ask students to record their thinking and answers in a math journal or something similar so I could look back on their skills from early in the year and compare them to the end of the year. This is a quick, great way to collect data on student’s skills without a lot of involvement from you!

These are just a few ways to incorporate open-ended problems into your math time. I encourage you to try one way for a week or two and then experiment with another way once your students are showing they feel confident in the first implementation.


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