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The 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge

I’m excited to introduce you to the 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge. On Sunday morning, Nancy Swank tweeted me a link to a puzzle on NPR’s website.  

5-4-3-2-1 Challenge

This shouldn’t come as a surprise because Nancy is the entire reason why NPR spent an entire day in my classroom in 2014.

Nancy Swank Tweet about 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.

I followed the link and started reading the puzzle.  Within about a minute, I knew I HAD to do this puzzle with my students this week.  

Here’s the link to the puzzle from NPR so you can check it out yourself.

I’m naming this puzzle the “5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.”

Instructions to 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.

Use the digits 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. The digits must remain in that order. Place the four arithmetic signs – plus, minus, times, and divided by – between the digits and as many parentheses as you like around the digits.

How many numbers from 1 to 40 can you get?

In the same style as my Yearly Number Challenge Posters, I made a set of 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge Posters.  After students find a solution and get it checked, they can write the solution on the poster and sign their name next to it.  

To keep things organized, I pre-typed the 5 4 3 2 1 part of the solution.  Students will only have to write in the mathematical operators and parentheses.

Since the challenge is to find as many numbers from 1 to 40 as possible, I designed the posters to hold the solutions to 10 numbers each.  

These posters are designed to print on 11 x 17 cardstock.  I use this cardstock for so many posters in my classroom!

Poster to Write Answers on for 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.
Poster to Write Answers on for 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.
Poster to Write Answers on for 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.
Poster to Write Answers on for 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.

To help students solve this puzzle, I decided to design a template for students to slide into their dry erase pockets.  This lets them draw and erase and repeat over and over and over as they work through the puzzle.

If you don’t have a classroom set of dry erase pockets, you could also use heavy duty sheet protectors. But, I highly recommend investing in a classroom set of the pockets since they are so much more durable.

5-4-3-2-1 Challenge Instructions and Page for Dry Erase Pockets.

The cheapest way to get dry erase pockets for your classroom is to search Amazon for “shop ticket holders.”  These let you slide any sheet of paper inside and instantly turn it into an interactive activity!

Student working on 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.


dry erase pockets

I cannot imagine teaching math without my dry erase pockets! They instantly make any activity more engaging and save me countless hours at the copy machine since I can use the same class sets of copies year after year.

Here are my current go-to recommendations:

If you don’t have dry erase pockets, I also made some 5-4-3-2-1 strips that could be printed and laminated.  Then, students could write directly on them with their dry erase marker.

5-4-3-2-1 Strips for Dry Erase Pockets.

By the time I had made all of these resources, I decided I wanted something to help me keep track of all of my solutions.  

I had started working on this puzzle briefly while waiting for Sunday School to start, but my answers were just jotted on random paper in random order.  I needed a way to figure out which numbers had solutions and which didn’t.

Student working on 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.

So, I came up with this:

5-4-3-2-1 Challenge Answer Sheet.

I printed one sheet off for me and one for my husband.  He didn’t ask for one, but I know he can’t resist a puzzle.  If I was going to be tortured by this puzzle, I was going to bring him along for the ride, too!  

So, after lunch on a Saturday afternoon, we sat on our respective couches and tried our hands at this puzzle.

I don’t want to spoil the puzzle for anyone because I hate when somebody does that to me.  But, I will confirm that I was NOT able to find solutions for all 40 of the numbers.  

Is that what should have happened?  I think it is.  Here’s the exact wording from Will Shortz and NPR:

Screenshot of Will Shortz 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge.

It says, “What number or numbers can you not get?”  I will say that Shaun and I arrived at the exact same solution, so we are pretty confident in it.  

But, at the same time, I wouldn’t be too surprised if someone showed me that my solution was wrong in some way.

I guess I’ll have to wait a week for the solution to be posted…

Digital Version of 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge

Ms. Tish has created a Google Sheets version.

Tweet with Link to 5-4-3-2-1 Challenge in Google Slides.

Puzzle Solutions

I intentionally do not make answers to the printable math puzzles I share on my blog available online because I strive to provide learning experiences for my students that are non-google-able. I would like other teachers to be able to use these puzzles in their classrooms as well without the solutions being easily found on the Internet.

However, I do recognize that us teachers are busy people and sometimes need to quickly reference an answer key to see if a student has solved a puzzle correctly or to see if they have interpreted the instructions properly.

If you are a teacher who is using these puzzles in your classroom, please send me an email at with information about what you teach and where you teach. I will be happy to forward an answer key to you.

anola heck yes!

Saturday 10th of November 2018

Full answer here

There is no answer tor 39


Wednesday 26th of February 2020



Tuesday 17th of April 2018

The files are no longer available to download. Would you be able to email them to me?

Jahn Ghalt

Monday 31st of October 2016

By Sunday afternoon I got all but a handful of the integers in the 30s. Will Shortz stated that all are possible except 39. Will you be posting solutions? I tried a "systematic" approach (instead of an unrelated series of trials, which did not pan out. To post a system would be interesting.

Mike Lum

Sunday 30th of October 2016

Will's wrong BTW: ((4*2)+5)*3*1


Monday 31st of October 2016

Order must be 5 4 3 2 1

Nancy in Indiana

Saturday 29th of October 2016

It was fun watching this take off on the #MTBoS! (P.S. I use heavy duty sheet protectors for inexpensive dry erase pockets - they work well!)

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