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Morris Family Math Games – Featuring Instructional Coaches Michele and Peter Morris

April 11, 2014

Michele and Peter Morris are two of our outstanding instructional coaches. They just so happen to be married. Interestingly enough, they’re also married to gamifying math instruction. We were so inspired by their fun approach to learning math that we asked them to write blog posts on our behalf about some of their games.SET1

Today’s Edition: SET by Peter Morris (a game that helps teach MP1, MP6 and MP7)

SET is perhaps my favorite commercially produced game for the math classroom.  The classic mode of play is a fast-paced card game of logical reasoning and visual perception.  However, it is because of its versatility and effectiveness in promoting strategic thinking that the deck of SET cards has become a staple resource in my classroom.

The SET deck is comprised of 81 cards, each card displaying a different combination of 4 features; color (red, green, purple), symbol (squiggle, diamond, oval), shading (solid, striped, open) and number (one, two, three) of symbols.

Playing SET:

To play by the prescribed rules, 12 cards are placed face-up on the table and players call out “Set!” when s/he sees three cards in which there’s a predetermined “Set” (ex. all cards are the same color, all cards have the same symbol, all cards have the same shading, etc.)

If correct, the player collects the set, the vacant spaces are filled with three new cards, and play continues until one player has found a predetermined number of sets.

There are a plethora of variations that I won’t discuss here (links to a few are provided below).  Instead, I’d like to share two of the ways I use SET cards to promote logical reasoning in my students.


How I Use SET:

While relevant content is, of course, a vital component of math education, I believe my most important objective as a math educator is to help develop students’ thinking and reflection. (the coaches’ too!).  This is why, though they are both essential, I place greater emphasis on the Math Practice Standards than the Math Content Standards.  I believe that how we teach is of even greater importance than what we teach.

I use SET in my classroom to help develop students who can think strategically.  The ability to think strategically and reflectively (metacognitively) is a critical skill for students if they are to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them (MP1).

When introducing SET cards to kids, I begin by having them sort the deck in as many ways as they are able so we may identify and define the different attributes.  In analyzing the attributes of the cards, identifying commonalities, and organizing the cards in different ways, students are honing and applying their ability to look for and make use of structure (MP7).  If students create a group other than one of the attributes defined above (such as “not green”), I encourage them to create groups that can be defined by a single word.  That said, I only explicitly identify each attribute by name after students have structured their groups accordingly.  I want them to discover these attributes on their own.  At the same time, I recognize the need to provide them with the expected vocabulary (the symbol and shading attributes are particularly difficult for students to describe), so they have the tools necessary to communicate with clarity and precision (MP6).  I make an effort to hold students accountable for communicating using these naming conventions.

The following activities can be done individually, in pairs, or in small groups. (I have several decks of SET cards around to enable some flexibility).  These activities can also be done with a set of attribute blocks or other set of attribute pieces.  It is important to note that during these activities, I ask students questions that help focus their thinking, but I avoid explicitly teaching them strategies for accomplishing these tasks.  The benefit for students is in using their own reasoning and becoming more efficient over time as they make new connections and gain new insights.


To make a chain, start with any card and place it face up on the table/floor.  This is the first link of the chain.  The next card (the second link) to be placed must have only one difference from the first card (i.e. 3 attributes must be the same and one attribute must be different).  The third link in the chain must then have only one difference from the second link.  I challenge students to try to use the whole deck of cards to create a one-difference chain.  An added challenge is to create a chain where the last link can connect back up with the first link because there is only one difference between the two.

When students have mastered the one-difference chain, I have them create a two-difference chain in which two attributes change (and two remain the same) between each link.


To create a matrix, students need to form an array where the cards within each row and column share a common attribute.  I have students begin with a 2×2 matrix and work their way up to a 6×6 matrix (at which point the six columns and six rows would together use all twelve values).

Play SET in your classroom today!

On CC.BetterLesson, we have several lessons aligned to MP1, MP6 and MP7 taught by Master Teachers all over the country. Our coaches, like Peter, support the Master Teachers in “sharing what works” through their lessons. Coaches work virtually with teams of teachers all across the country to surface the “what”, the “why” and the “how” of their daily instruction. Thanks, Peter, for sharing a staple resource of your classroom and how you use SET to help develop students who can think strategically!



Further Exploration with SET:

While I use SET cards to promote logical reasoning in elementary classrooms, the deck is rich with opportunities for higher level mathematical investigations.  A selection of articles exploring SET’s potential applications in the classroom can be found on the SET website. Among the articles found here include:

SET Variations:

Articles on Thinking and Reasoning with SET:

Articles Exploring Middle and High School Applications for SET:

Additional means of playing SET include:

  • The SET iPad app for a fast and convenient way to play.
  • The daily SET Puzzle featured in The New York Times Crosswords and Games section.
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