4 Great Ways to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving Using Break the Code Activities

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4 Great Ways to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving

Engaging Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving with Break the Code

I have no doubt that you’ve heard about (and probably used) break the code activities with your upper elementary students. I have been engaging my students in collaborative problem solving using crack the code activities for several years now. By incorporating reasoning skills and strategic thinking, you can provide an interactive and enjoyable experience for your students. Join me for a look at the benefits and delve into 4 great ways to engage students in collaborative problem solving using break the code activities that can enhance your students’ math education.

4 Great Ways to Engage Students include number talks, using paper copies, using Google slides, and teaching in small groups
4 Great Ways to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving – Number Talks, Paper Copies, Google Slides, and Small Groups

4 Great Ways to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving

I started using break the code activities on a regular basis in 2021. I taught 4th grade from my dining room the entire 2020 – 2021 school year. That year, I only used Google slides and students worked on solving the problems independently. I recall using a few for number talks, as well. From the fall of 2021 to the spring of 2023, I generally used paper copies and encouraged students to work together, differentiating by providing clues when necessary.

This year (2023 – 2024) is my first year in 3rd grade since 2011 and I thought, “I guess I won’t be using my good ole ‘Break the Code‘ activities this year. They’ll be too hard.” I’m happy to report that I was WRONG! My 3rd graders BEG for monthly crack the code slides. I’m using slides this year so they can collaborate and I can assign the slides as students ask if they can give them a try without running constantly to the copier! Working with small groups on collaborative problem solving is also an effective approach.

Students in the photo are engaged in a number talk.
One Great Way to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving is Through Number Talks

Using Break the Code Slides for Number Talks

Number talks offer great opportunities for students to work together, use accountable talk, and actively listen. One of my favorite Google slides (pictured below) in my break the code bundle has only symbols. It’s ideal for a number talk because there are at least a couple of different solutions. One answer combination is 4, 5, 25, 16, and 20 and another possible answer is 3, 4, 16, 9, and 12! Find the set here.

4 Great Ways to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving Using Break the Code Activities

Students absolutely delight in this type of challenging problem solving and being able to bounce ideas off of each other in a number talk. With this slide, the teacher can pose questions such as, “What if the leaf is 5?” or “What if the flower is 4?” after students have had time to turn and talk and/or work out possible solutions on scratch paper or on white boards if they’re stumped. As I’ve mentioned before, you can find some great number talk ideas on Steve Wyborney’s site as well as in this blog post.

The image features a page of a print copy for New Years. The colors are light purple, purple, teal, blue, and pink.
One Great Way to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving is with Paper Copies

Using Paper Copies with Your Whole Class

When I assign break the code activities to my whole class, I usually make paper copies. One reason is because it adds the component of coloring for my students who enjoy that. Paper copies are less cumbersome than digital copies (because students aren’t lugging a laptop around), so students can move around the room to cooperate with different peers as they solve the problems. As they work together to explore variables in equations, students sharpen their problem-solving abilities, share strategies, and develop a deeper understanding of algebraic concepts.

The image features a laptop with a picture of a slide that shows a break the code example.
One Great Way to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving is Through Using Google Slides

Using Digital Versions

There are few great reasons to use digital versions of break the code. First, as I mentioned in the second section, you can assign them for virtual or distance learning if that’s ever necessary again but they also make great long term projects for younger students who are early finishers. I assign them on Schoology and, if my 3rd graders express interest in trying them out, I can modify the assignment and add students as they request to join in on the fun. In this way, students gain hands-on experience with variables in equations. By deciphering codes, they observe how variables affect the outcome of equations and learn to manipulate them to find solutions. My students love to work together to solve the equations. Digital versions also save paper which is a huge motivator for me!

The image features a picture of a teacher instructing a small group in math on a light purple background with purple, light blue, and teal accents.
One Great Way to Engage Upper Elementary Students in Collaborative Problem Solving is in Small Groups

Breaking the Code in a Small Group!

If you know me, you know that my classroom runs on small group instruction. I have a flipped math classroom, so the bulk of our math block is spent working in small groups. (I run 3 – 4 per day!) In a small group, I like to give the students one page to solve with my support. We can use manipulatives (seasonal mini erasers are our favorite, but blocks or other small items work well, too) and write on the table to test out different number combinations for the variables before committing to writing on the paper.

Conclusion

Break the Code activities provide an exciting and rigorous approach to exploring variables in equations. By incorporating reasoning skills, critical thinking, and strategic problem-solving, students are motivated to actively participate in their math education. Digital and printable versions give teachers options for implementation of the activities. Join my email list (below) for a free sample for January. If you and your students enjoy it, you might want to grab this incredible resource that will transform your classroom into a hub of interactive learning and mathematical discovery. See my Break the Code bundle in action on YouTube.

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