Maximizing Math Talk in the Classroom
Low-stakes, high-reward discussion practices you can bring to your math classroom.
Most teachers I know recognize the importance of discussion in their classrooms, but often struggle with how to best facilitate student-to-student discussions, particularly in a content area classroom like math.
As a former elementary educator, I was responsible for teaching all subject areas — Reading, Writing, Math, Science and Social Studies. Math was always my most reluctant subject. When it came time to teach math, I was guilty of sitting in front of the whiteboard, doing practice problem after practice problem with my students, asking if they had any questions, and then sending them off to their desks to do more practice problems in their workbooks. I could tell they were bored (heck, I was bored), but I was unsure how to shift my teaching to make it more engaging and student-centered.
I was compelled by the idea that practice makes perfect, right? So the more problems they practice, the more likely they’d be to get it. But the drill and kill approach is not adequate, especially in classrooms today, and as we think about the necessary skills of students in the 21st century. We know they need much more to acquire skills and knowledge that will serve them in real life. They need to be able to talk about math, reflect on their processes, and collaboratively problem-solve.
What is Math Talk?
One of my recent areas of focus and interest is helping math teachers incorporate more discussion in their classrooms and move away from the often well-intentioned chalk and talk approach.
“Math Talk,” while a rather new term, is gaining in popularity, as research suggests that when students talk more about their math thinking, they are more motivated to learn and they learn more. It is one of the mathematical practices of the NGS that supports students in clarifying their thinking and understanding, constructing mathematical arguments, developing language to express math ideas, and increasing opportunities to see things from different perspectives.
How can teachers promote this challenging yet crucial mathematical practice in their classrooms? What I share below are three simple, yet effective strategies that can promote math talk in meaningful and manageable ways.
Turn and Talks
Turn and talks are a well-known and commonly used strategy. They support oral language, speaking, and listening skills in a low-stakes way. Math can often promote a lot of fear, and fear of getting it wrong. But because students are talking to a partner, there is often less hesitation than if they had to speak to a larger group. Turn and talks can be a great entry point to promoting discussion.
Gallery walks are another simple yet meaningful technique to support discussion. These support students in being actively engaged as they walk throughout the classroom, and they can be highly effective in problem-solving within a math classroom.
Similar to a turn and talk, a gallery walk could be the focus of the Do Now, as part of guided practice in preparation for independent work, or it can serve as the independent work after some explicit instruction.
Think - Pair - Share
Think-Pair-Share can support students in working together to increase understanding and explore multiple perspectives. Like turn and talks, it is a partner strategy that can be a nice entry point to promoting discussion as its low-stakes and a bit easier for the teacher to manage participation of students. It can be done as part of a Do Now, to review a particular skill, to assess work that is already completed, or as part of independent practice as students apply what they’ve learned.
By no means do I consider myself a math expert; however, I do have extensive experience in promoting discussion in all disciplines. While these strategies are not new or revolutionary, I have witnessed how even small moves can shift instruction to allow for more student interaction and application. I hope you find them helpful as you consider how you can maximize discussion in your classroom, and remember that any of these can be a starting place — as you boost your confidence and experience success, I encourage you to consider your own twists and share them with others.