Rather than planning three different tasks for your class, put your energy into one great task with a low floor and a high ceiling. One that’s easy to get started with, but scales for your most interested students.
The floor tells us how easy it is to get started with the task. Low floor = simple starting point. Everyone can get on board. A low floor is inviting!
Tic-Tac-Toe has a low floor, while chess has a high floor. Even the youngest kids can start playing Tic-Tac-Toe pretty quickly, whereas I know many college-educated adults who cannot play chess. Its floor appears too high, so they never got started. A high floor is a barrier. It’s intimidating.
We want low floors so students can get started without worrying about the task’s complexity.
If the floor’s too high, some kids can’t get started. They get frustrated.
But that doesn’t mean we want simple tasks! No no. We must pair that low floor with a high ceiling.
The ceiling is the room for a task to grow. If a student finds something intriguing, how far can they go with it before they bump their head on the ceiling?
Tic-Tac-Toe has a very low ceiling. It’s simple to master. Play someone with any skill and you’ll always end with a tie.
Tic-Tac-Toe has a low floor and a low ceiling — the board game equivalent of a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet. Very few people over the age of six want to play Tic-Tac-Toe. There’s no room for strategy and unexpected drama. Low ceilings are boring!
Now, chess has a very high ceiling. You could play chess for 60 years and still be learning. You see retired folks battling it out on a chessboard at the park. They are continuing to explore the game’s nuances. With its high floor and high ceiling, chess is rewarding… as long as you can get past the high floor.
We want a high ceiling. It gives students room to explore an idea before getting bored. High ceilings mean you don’t have to worry about “early finishers” because no one finishes chess early!
Don’t like chess as an example? Well, most activities that adults enjoy have high ceilings and low floors. Do you play basketball or the guitar? Do you sew? Do you paint? These all have high ceilings. You can keep learning and learning.
We Can Lower Floors
So we always start with a high ceiling, but we want to make sure the early stages aren’t too intimidating. That’s where we, the teachers, 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.
If I told you that you had to teach first graders how to play chess, I bet you could figure out a way to make it happen. Heck, my first grade teacher even ran a whole chess tournament for us. (I won the second grade tournament!) Lowering the floor is all about scaffolding.
Here’s how you’d scaffold chess so that 5-year-olds can play:
- Modeling: you’d show how each piece moves – not just verbally explain it. You’d model many sample turns. You’d give students a chance to watch you play.
- Guided Practice: you’d give kids a chance to practice with each other with your input. You won’t jump right into a full game! We’d practice a couple of moves with a partner.
- Start Simple: you’d try to reduce the complexity early. Start with simple examples. In the case of chess, there’s no reason you can’t play with just a king, a queen, and a couple of pawns on a smaller board. Then, once the student “gets it,” bring in another piece. Build towards the full set. Build towards a full game.
- Proximity and Immediate Feedback: if you give kids a chessboard and then go sit at your desk, they’ll get confused, frustrated, and give up. When you stay close to correct mistakes, give advice, and gently guide the players, the chances for success increase.
A highly complex game like chess can be scaffolded so that any learner can begin playing! Anyone can start! Then we can remove the scaffolds until they eventually play the full game.
We Naturally Scaffold… Outside of School
Parents with zero background in education are good at scaffolding. They don’t invent separate games for their 5yo, their 8yo, and their 12yo. All the kids do the same activity, just adjusted as necessary.
- ⚾ Kindergarteners play baseball! We just scaffold it down. Same game, but make the field smaller, the game shorter, add a tee, and so on..
- 🎳 My 3-year-old can bowl! We just add bumpers and find a smaller ball.
- 🎻 In 4th grade, I learned the violin. My first instrument was smaller. My instructor added tape so I could finger the notes.
We don’t have to create three entirely different versions of chess or baseball or bowling or the violin. We just scaffold the real thing down as needed – and remove scaffolds as soon as possible. This is why I never start with a grade level when planning a lesson. I always aim way higher.
That last part is key! Scaffolds are designed to be removed.
Low Floor AND High Ceiling
So, my goal is to develop tasks that all students can get started with but also scale up for students who are ready for more. This is the easiest way to differentiate.
My friend Lisa has a fantastic piece of differentiation advice:
Plan for your highest-ability 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 something complex. You can always scaffold down (this is what teachers are good at!) – but you can’t always raise the ceiling.
So start high and then scaffold down as necessary.
Yes, this means you don’t start with “grade level” standards. Standards are minimum expectations for average kids. You have higher expectations than that, right? RIGHT!?
“More” Doesn’t Cut It
No matter how many times you play Tic-Tac-Toe, it doesn’t raise the ceiling. In fact, it’s one form of hell to be forced to play Tic-Tac-Toe 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. It’s just more.
Aiming High Benefits Everyone
When you aim high and scaffold down, it gives everyone an opportunity to go somewhere interesting. You never know who will take advantage of that high ceiling. Kids will surprise you.
When we offer a high ceiling to all of our students, we open the door for unexpected students to go further than we might have expected.
What To Look For
|👎 Low Floor but Low Ceiling||👍 Low Floor and High Ceiling|
|one answer||many right answers, including answers you’ve never seen before|
|one, already-known way of getting the answer||many ways of getting to an answer, including pathways you’ve never thought of|
|kids who are good at it can go really fast and get 100% (leaving you with “early finishers”)||kids who are good at it can keep going deeper|
|no need to ask for or check an explanation||the explanation is the most interesting part|
|a robot can check it||an intelligent human needs to see it|
|you’re bored when you’re checking this task for the 5th year||you’re interested to “see what this class came up with”|
And with High Ceiling, but High Floor (👎): your kids will struggle to even get started.
Examples of Low Floor, High Ceiling
Is the floor still too high for you to create your own ideas? Not sure where to even start? I’ll lower your floor (😉) by providing more specific examples below:
- Problems where you can tell kids, “Find me three more ways of doing it” or “Find 15 different answers.” Here’s an article on this.
- Write divergent – not just convergent – questions.
- Create inductive learning experiences in which students form Big Ideas given a bunch of concrete Details.
- The examples at Which One Doesn’t Belong? are perfect for this.
- Here’s my favorite example of giving kids a task with both a high ceiling and a low floor. We simply ask them what would X think about Y?. Bonus: it takes like 3 seconds to plan.
- And, if you subscribe to Byrdseed.TV, there are literally hundreds of pre-planned High Ceiling, Low Floor lessons that are ready for you to use directly with students.