The floor tells us how easy it is to get going with the task. A low floor means it’s easy for everyone to get on board.
TicTacToe is an example of a game with a low floor. It’s easy to understand and even the youngest of kids can start playing pretty quickly. A low floor is inviting.
Chess has a high floor – evidenced by how many collegeeducated adults I’ve met who cannot play. Chess’s floor appears so high that they just never got going. A high floor is a barrier.
We want tasks with low floors so many students can get started easily.
If the floor’s too high, some kids can’t get started. They get frustrated.
The ceiling is the potential room for a task to grow. If it strikes a fancy for a particular student, how far can a kid go before they hit the ceiling?
TicTacToe has a very low ceiling. It’s too easy to master. Play anyone with even a basic level of skill and you’ll end up with a tie. TicTacToe has a low floor and a low ceiling — the board game equivalent of a worksheet.
Chess has a very high ceiling. You could play for a lifetime and still learn more. With its high floor and high ceiling, Chess is rewarding, but only for the most determined of board gamers.
We want a high ceiling – it gives students room to explore an idea before getting bored.
Here’s where we come in. A skilled teacher can lower the floor of any task. We do this all the time through modeling, guided practice, scaffolding, feedback, and proximity.
To lower the floor for chess:
A highly complex game like chess can be scaffolded so that any learner can begin playing. Then we can raise the complexity until they’re eventually playing the full game.
This is also true for complex tasks in the classroom.
It should be our goal to develop tasks that all students can get started with, but that also scale up for students who are ready for more. This is the easiest way to create a task that can work for everyone.
My friend Lisa has a fantastic piece of differentiation advice:
Plan for your highestability students first, then figure out how to onboard your other learners.
Why? Because it’s really hard to increase the ceiling on a worksheet. It’s much easier to lower the floor on, say, a research project. You can always scaffold – but you can’t always raise the ceiling.
No matter how many times you play TicTacToe, it doesn’t raise the ceiling. It doesn’t get more interesting, it doesn’t increase the strategy. In fact, it’s some form of hell to be forced to play TicTacToe over and over once you’ve mastered it.
More math problems won’t raise the ceiling nor will another worksheet. Writing vocabulary words ten times isn’t any more complex than writing them one time.
Aiming for a low floor and high ceiling supports all students. Plus, it gives even lowperforming kids a chance to go somewhere interesting. You’ll never know who will take advantage of that high ceiling.
I believe the “high ceiling, low floor” term comes from Jo Baoler, but I heard about it via Dan Meyer.
]]>How will I know if this worked?
Start by defining success. Sounds obvious, right? But I’m sure you’re as guilty as I am of jumping in without considering what you want the end result to be.
Ask: How will I know if…
Whatever it is you’re implementing, spend some serious time deciding what you’ll see when the new idea works. Be specific! Be student focused!
And, if you can’t decide, maybe the new idea isn’t worth implementing at all.
]]>People confuse Big Ideas with topics.
Let me explain:
Topic  Big Ideas 

Earthquakes 

The Giving Tree 

The American Revolution 

Note the differences? Big Ideas should be:
The next time you see the Big Idea icon next to an incomplete sentence, pull the emergency break and fix things – it’s likely you’re seeing a topic rather than a true Big Idea.
]]>The pattern of alternating messy thought with neat thought seems to come up across many disciplines. It disappoints me when I hear people waste time arguing for only one of these two modalities, as if only one of the two is always the way to operate. From Messy Thought, Neat Thought by MayLi Khoe
Great post (with wonderful illustrations of this thinking process) from MayLi.
I can so relate. Any talk, blog post, video, or lesson I work on goes through this alternating process. There’s absolute chaos for a while as I try things out, create prototypes that fail, and simply figure out what the heck I’m doing.
Then, once I realize I’ve got it, I start refining. I start deleting what doesn’t belong and push deeper into what does. And, often, I’ll hit another messy thinking time and end up changing direction yet again.
So give your students time to be both messy and neat in their thinking.
]]>Here are the problems:
Students should use prompts that best connect to the content, not a generic “use as many as we can” worksheet. If you’re cooking, you don’t always use all of your spices, right?
In this case, there are so many prompts of depth, that students will rush through to complete it all, leading to, ironically, shallow thinking.
In this worksheet, there’s just a prompt sitting there by itself. What are students supposed to do with the prompts? If you don’t make this clear, they’re just going to list three rules, three details, three patterns – and that’s not very deep thinking.
Rather than settling in for deep thinking, students will be thinking: ok, six more to go before I’m done with this worksheet.
The simple act of delaying the grade meant that students had to think about their writing. They had to read their own writing — after a few weeks away from it — and digest my comments, which allowed them to better recognize what they did well or not so well… One boy said, “Mrs. Louden, you’re a genius. I’ve never read what a teacher writes on my essay before, and now I have to.”
There’s some great, specific ways to implement this idea in your classroom: check it out!
]]>In the past I’ve written about Lewis Carroll’s Word Ladders as a fun vocabulary puzzle. I picked up a used copy of A Book of Puzzlements and found an example of what I’ll call a Word Pyramid.
Here’s a Word Pyramid that goes from A to BRANDS:
You add one letter at each level, and each level has to be a valid word.
What if you started with I? How far could you go?:
Then, feel free to change the rules a bit:
Here’s a great final example from the book:
Can you (or your students) figure out the rules to this Word Pyramid?
Sometimes the best form for these puzzles is just to let students play with them rather than giving strict rules. See what they can come up with!
]]>This one’s brief: never threaten students about a future “real world.” This implies that their current world is not “real,” which is pretty demeaning. Whether they’re in 3rd, 5th, or 11th grade, students’ worlds are just as real as anyone else’s.
Plus, we have no idea what future “real world” awaits our students. The only certainty is that it won’t be anything like our own postschool experiences. I mean, you do know that people today can already make a good living creating YouTube videos, right? That’s already the real world. Who knows what opportunities will exist in ten years.
The other use of “real world” is trying to find realistic applications of learning. But when we search for “real world” problems, we’re assuming that these are somehow better problems.
But they’re not.
Would you rather work through Sudoko or do your taxes? Read a contract or read Harry Potter? Play a card game or figure out your cell phone bill? Many “real world” tasks are the worst! We pay others to do them for us so we can enjoy nonrealworld activities.
Go for “interesting” not “real world.”
When I put a Word Ladder on the board, kids didn’t complain that it’s not “real world.” They dove in because they found it engaging.
When we tried to figure out what The Little Prince would think about about Claudia, from The Mixed Up Files, it was fun because it was so far from the “real world.”
When I present this question in a workshop, everyone murmurs in delight, even though it’s ridiculously fantastic:
How big of a lawn would you need so that when you finished mowing you’d have to start over because the grass has grown?
Likewise, this prompt always gets a reaction, not because it’s realistic, but because it’s so darn interesting:
How long would it take to drink an Olympicsized pool with a straw?
Are any of these “real world”? Nope. But they’re highly engaging because they’re interesting and out brains simply love figuring interesting problems out.
Dan Meyer calls this Real World vs Real Work. Is the work interesting? Then it doesn’t matter how realworld it is.
So don’t be tricked when students ask “when will I ever use this?” They’re really begging for something engaging, not a strained realworld example.
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