Instructional Routines

Aspects of Mathematical Modeling

What: In activities tagged with this routine, students engage in scaled-back modeling scenarios, for which students only need to engage in a part of a full modeling cycle. For example, they may be selecting quantities of interest in a situation or choosing a model from a list.

Why: Mathematical modeling is often new territory for both students and teachers. Opportunities to develop discrete skills in the supported environment of a classroom lesson make success more likely when students engage in more open-ended modeling.

Card Sort

What: A Card Sort uses cards or slips of paper that can be manipulated and moved around (or the same functionality enacted with a computer interface). It can be done individually or in groups of 2–4. Students put things into categories or groups based on shared characteristics or connections. This routine can be combined with Take Turns, such that each time a student sorts a card into a category or makes a match, they are expected to explain the rationale while the group listens for understanding. The first few times students engage in these activities, the teacher should demonstrate how the activity is expected to go. Once students are familiar with these structures, less set-up will be necessary. While students are working, the teacher can ask students to restate their question more clearly or paraphrase what their partner said.

Where: Classroom Activities

Why: A Card Sort provides opportunities to attend to mathematical connections using representations that are already created, instead of expending time and effort generating representations. It gives students opportunities to analyze representations, statements, and structures closely and make connections (MP2, MP7).


In the Estimation routine, an image is displayed for all to see. Students silently think of a number they are sure is too low, a number they are sure is too high, and a number that is about right, and write these down. Then, they write a short explanation for the reasoning behind their estimate. A few students share their estimates, and then the actual amount is revealed. Finally, the class has an opportunity to reflect on how accurate their estimates were.

The purpose of an Estimation warm-up is to practice the skill of estimating a reasonable answer based on experience and known information, and also help students develop a deeper understanding of the meaning of standard units of measure. It gives students a low-stakes opportunity to share a mathematical claim and the thinking behind it (MP3). Asking yourself “Does this make sense?” is a component of making sense of problems (MP1), and making an estimate or a range of reasonable answers with incomplete information is a part of modeling with mathematics (MP4).

Estimation warm-ups are intended to improve students' number sense over time, and aren't necessarily connected to the work in the lessons in which they appear.

The Estimation instructional routine was inspired by the work of Andrew Stadel at

Math Talk

What: In these warm-ups, one problem is displayed at a time. Students are given a few moments to quietly think and give a signal when they have an answer and a strategy. The teacher selects students to share different strategies for each problem, asking, “Who thought about it a different way?” Their explanations are recorded for all to see. Students might be pressed to provide more details about why they decided to approach a problem a certain way. It may not be possible to share every possible strategy in the given time—the teacher may only gather two or three distinctive strategies per problem. Problems are purposefully chosen to elicit different approaches, often in a way that builds from one problem to the next.

Why: Math Talks build fluency by encouraging students to think about the numbers, shapes, or algebraic expressions and rely on what they know about structure, patterns, and properties of operations to mentally solve a problem. While participating in these activities, students need to be precise in their word choice and use of language (MP6). Additionally a Math Talk often provides opportunities to notice and make use of structure (MP7).

Notice and Wonder

What: This routine can appear as a warm-up or in the launch or synthesis of a classroom activity. Students are shown some media or a mathematical representation. The prompt to students is “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” Students are given a few minutes to think of things they notice and things they wonder, and share them with a partner. Then, the teacher asks several students to share things they noticed and things they wondered; these are recorded by the teacher for all to see. Sometimes, the teacher steers the conversation to wondering about something mathematical that the class is about to focus on.

Where: Appears frequently in warm-ups but also appears in launches to classroom activities.

Why: The purpose is to make a mathematical task accessible to all students with these two approachable questions. By thinking about them and responding, students gain entry into the context and might get their curiosity piqued. Taking steps to become familiar with a context and the mathematics that might be involved is making sense of problems (MP1). Note: Notice and Wonder and I Notice/I Wonder are trademarks of NCTM and the Math Forum and used in these materials with permission.

Poll the Class

What: This routine is used to register an initial response or an estimate, most often in activity launches or to kick off a discussion. It can also be used when data needs to be collected from each student in class, for example, "What is the length of your ear in centimeters?" Every student in class reports a response to the prompt. Teachers need to develop a mechanism by which poll results are collected and displayed so that this frequent form of classroom interaction is seamless. Smaller classes might be able to conduct a roll call by voice. For larger classes, students might be given mini-whiteboards or a set of colored index cards to hold up. Free and paid commercial tools are also readily available.

Why: Collecting data from the class to use in an activity makes the outcome of the activity more interesting. In other cases, going on record with an estimate makes people want to know if they were right and increases investment in the outcome. If coming up with an estimate is too daunting, ask students for a guess that they are sure is too low or too high. Putting some boundaries on possible outcomes of a problem is an important skill for mathematical modeling (MP4).

Take Turns

What: Students work with a partner or small group. They take turns in the work of the activity, whether it be spotting matches, explaining, justifying, agreeing or disagreeing, or asking clarifying questions. If they disagree, they are expected to support their case and listen to their partner’s arguments. The first few times students engage in these activities, the teacher should demonstrate, with a partner, how the discussion is expected to go. Once students are familiar with these structures, less set-up will be necessary. While students are working, the teacher can ask students to restate their question more clearly or paraphrase what their partner said.

Why: Building in an expectation, through the routine, that students explain the rationale for their choices and listen to another's rationale deepens the understanding that can be achieved through these activities. Specifying that students take turns deciding, explaining, and listening limits the phenomenon where one student takes over and the other does not participate. Taking turns can also give students more opportunities to construct logical arguments and critique others’ reasoning (MP3).

Think Pair Share

What: Students have quiet time to think about a problem and work on it individually, and then time to share their response or their progress with a partner. Once these partner conversations have taken place, some students are selected to share their thoughts with the class.

Why: This is a teaching routine useful in many contexts whose purpose is to give all students enough time to think about a prompt and form a response before they are expected to try to verbalize their thinking. First they have an opportunity to share their thinking in a low-stakes way with one partner, so that when they share with the class they can feel calm and confident, as well as say something meaningful that might advance everyone’s understanding. Additionally, the teacher has an opportunity to eavesdrop on the partner conversations so that they can purposefully select students to share with the class.

Which One Doesn’t Belong?

What: Students are presented with four figures, diagrams, graphs, or expressions with the prompt “Which one doesn’t belong?” Typically, each of the four options “doesn’t belong” for a different reason, and the similarities and differences are mathematically significant. Students are prompted to explain their rationale for deciding that one option doesn’t belong and given opportunities to make their rationale more precise.

Where: Warm-ups

Why: Which One Doesn’t Belong fosters a need to define terms carefully and use words precisely (MP6) in order to compare and contrast a group of geometric figures or other mathematical representations.