When I was teaching I set, as homework, for my year 4 class an open ended task for them to do. It was the perfect ‘differentiation by outcome’ activity in that they took the question in whatever direction their thinking let them to whatever level they could manage. They were all talking about it during the week they had it set. They were swapping ideas, asking their parents opinions and some, which I found very funny, became secretive as they didn’t want to share their ideas. They wanted to win. The task was an easy one; I asked them all to find a matchbox at home – it had to be the small ones to make it fair for the whole class but some did have different sized ones but they all accepted that in life you can ask for something but it doesn’t always happen. The rules of the task were very simple, you couldn’t change the shape of the box, it had to still work as a matchbox but you could decorate it anyway you wanted to, if you wanted to at all, but the important challenge was one simple question;
Who could fit the most in their matchbox?
The first couple of days meant there was excitement in the classroom each morning as they chatted to me about what they had fitted in their box. Some wanted further clarification of ‘the rules’ to make sure they had stretched them as far as they could go but I stuck to the one simple question about fitting ‘the most’ in their box. Eventually the day came, a week later, when they had to bring in their boxes and tell us all what they’d got in them. They sat at their tables with huge smiles on their faces and there was an air of expectation in the room.
Some had scoured their houses for the smallest things they could find and proudly showed me all the tiny things they had in their box. Some wrote lists of all that they’d put in. Some did decorate their boxes but most didn’t and some sat there listening to others go before them with smug, satisfied smiles thinking that they had beaten everyone. I was amazed at how many small things that size exist and as each box was opened new surprises, well.., surprised me!
One boy, one of the larger smiles, opened up his box in triumph with a ‘ta da!’ look about him. He had filled his box with rice. He said he hadn’t counted every piece of rice but he was certain he had ‘the most’. We were all shocked and in awe of him and at that point I thought he really had won. Then another box was opened and this boy had filled his box with sand. The rice box owner groaned in a ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ kind of way. The sand box owner clearly had it. He had the most in his box.
Or so we thought…
Another, quieter boy sat in the corner and said could he open his box so they all quietened down and were all confused as he took out one piece of paper. I must admit to being confused myself as he seemed very self-assured. He told everyone ‘this is a cheque for a million pounds’ I quickly went over to see it and although it wasn’t signed and in fact you couldn’t sign it as it had been scribbled on he was right, this was a cheque that had been made out for a million pounds. He’d won surely he had ‘the most’ in his box?
This led onto an amazing debate in the class about what ‘the most’ actually meant. They realised they could take it literally and try to put as many physical things in the box as would fit but they also learned that other things can represent amounts just by the meaning of written words. In a curriculum that likes right or wrong answers this was a difficult one for them to grapple with as being competitive, they wanted a winner to the challenge but being thoughtful meant that they realised that there wasn’t really a perfect answer. It wasn’t like a spelling test where you could rank them, it wasn’t like a maths problem that had the perfect and right solution no, this was a question that made their brains ache for days (weeks with some of the very clever children) and they found that difficult and annoying. They thought about it, came back for more discussions, went away and thought about it some more but eventually they seemed to learn, or accept, that some questions are big questions and although they have many opinions, they don’t always have an answer…
I bought more matchboxes to try this with my sons today. Ollie will rush off and stuff things in the box as I know he’s a VERY competitive boy and the words ‘challenge’ and ‘most’ is what he’ll take out of the questions. Henry may think a bit more but he might be swayed by Ollie’s fevered activity. Tobes will do his own thing as he always does so I’m interested to see what they do. They are much younger than the children I taught but being open ended it will still be interesting to see which way their brain takes them. Have a go yourself with your own children. Give them a box, explain the rules and stand back. I literally mean stand back too. Leave them alone to use their brains and don’t fuss them or give them any ideas at all (yes, I’m talking to you!) watch them, encourage them but give them the control and power to think, make decisions, evaluate these decision and change their minds. What you are teaching them here is to formulate their own opinions and what greater thing to learn to do is there?
In this worryingly materialistic society our children have been born into where competition prizes focus on how much the prize is worth (‘Win this TV worth £2,000!!!’) children need to be helped to see the vast difference between so called ‘worth’ and actual cost. This matchbox activity is a great introduction to this as they have to think about how they define ‘most’. Let me know how you get on as I’d be fascinated to hear…
Please make sure the match boxes are empty before giving them to your children. Please make sure all matches are stored away properly away from young children. x