it is meant to be the hook that gets
students invested in the problem. This
is also where students identify the
question they’d like to explore. Once
they have a question to answer, the
teacher moves to Act 2, which requires
students to gather information and
decide what information they need
to answer their question. Act 2 also
involves students actively working
toward a solution in small groups (the
bulk of the work during the task).
Act 3 is when students present their
findings to the class, often showcasing
multiple solutions and strategies. Students argue their points and critique
the reasoning of others. In the end, the
teacher shows a final video or image
that definitively answers the question
and provides a satisfying resolution to
To understand the power of three-act tasks, it’s helpful to see how they
unfold in the classroom. The following vignette is from an elementary
school where I have been working as
a consultant and professional learning
provider. The purpose of this visit
was to engage the students in a three-act task I created so teachers could
observe how these tasks unfold with
students. As you read, I encourage you
to reflect on the following questions:
What is the role of the students? What
is the role of the teacher? How does
this experience differ from a classroom
where students are given worksheets
with division problems?
The Money Roll
I was invited to work with K– 8 stu-
dents on problem-based learning
tasks in a school district in western
Massachusetts. One day, I set out a
three-act task for a group of 21 4th
graders. For Act 1, I played a short
video that showed me holding a roll
of bills (fig. 1) before I stepped back
and unrolled the bills across the floor
in one long line (fig. 2). (View the
video and all other media for this task
I then stopped the video and asked
the students what they noticed and
recorded their responses on chart
JESSIE: You had a lot of money.
TEACHER: What makes you say that?
JESSIE: When it was all rolled up, it
looked like a lot.
EFRAN: Yeah, and it rolled across the
TEACHER: What else did you notice?
KIARA: They looked like dollars.
QUINN: I think there are different
kinds like one dollar, five dollars . . .
TEACHER: So, there might be other
kinds of bills besides one-dollar bills?
QUINN: Yeah, because you can’t see
them all when they’re rolled up.
I then asked the students to share
questions they had about the video
and recorded their responses on
another piece of chart paper.
KADE: How much money is there?
MIKAL: How long is it [the whole roll
JESSIE: I wonder why you even did it?
TEACHER: It does seem strange, right?
JENNA: Is it your money?
D’MARION: How did you get them all
to stick together?
KEISHA: How many dollars are there?
JESSIE: We already asked that.
TEACHER: I think that’s a similar
question, but it seems like Keisha
and Kade might be asking two different questions. Kade asked about
how much money there is, and Keisha
asked how many dollars are in the
whole thing. How might these questions be different?
ALLI: Oh, I get it! So how much
money is like, how much it’s all worth.
FIGURE 1. I showed a roll of bills in the
Act 1 video.
FIGURE 2. I then unrolled the bills in the
Act 1 video.
FIGURE 3. Eight cubes cover the dollar
bill, with a small section left uncovered.
The roll is
FIGURES COURTESY OF MIKE FLYNN