Updated: Feb 11, 2019
How many of us have tried having a class math discussion with the hope that students engage with each other – the conversation naturally popcorning around the room with students sprinkling in questions, claims, and counter arguments to each other? Unfortunately, most class discussions fall flat like undercooked soufflé.
Which is so unsatisfying! Especially when there is growing evidence from research that students learn more when they engage in mathematical discussions.
The topic of mathematical discourse is a rich one and we would hate to stuff you with information and rush the experience. Instead, we thought we'd break it down into a four course meal. But first, let's set the table...
Create the Ambiance
We often expect students to know how to converse with each other and yet conversational competency is rarely explicitly taught. Conversations fall flat in elementary, middle, and high school alike.
Students may not know what it looks like, sounds like, or feels like to be a good conversationalist. Have you ever stepped back to and looked at how students engage with each other during a pair-share? Are they turned towards each other? Are they making eye contact? Are they coming from a place of curiosity and really listening to each other's ideas?
In the video below Karen reminds her 3rd grade students about class expectations for having class discussions. (While the video below is of an elementary student discourse, the same reminders work for middle and high school students, and for adults too!) Note how she touches on subject of body language & tone. Also note that this video was taken during spring semester – Karen has been using these reminders and building student discussion habits all year long! Students need daily reminders of discussion expectations and they should be celebrated when modeling them.
Another quick way to model conversationalist skills is by using role playing scenarios. We have seen teachers model being a good listener and being a not-so-good listener to help generate classroom discussion norms with students. One teacher picked a student (an outgoing one) and asked them to tell him about their weekend in front of the class. In one scenario he acted like a bad conversationalist – he didn't make eye contact, he fiddled with his nails, and never responded to what was shared. In the second scenario, he turned his body towards the student, made eye contact, and asked a follow up question. He then had students practice with a non-content related question and he gave feedback on what they did well or could improve. Then he gave them an open ended math context related question to practice again. When visiting this teacher a few months later he continued to pepper in feedback to students about their conversational skills throughout class. “Manuel, thank you for turning your body towards Melissa when speaking to her.”
Sentence frames also help all students engage in academic conversations and can be a helpful point of reference during classroom discussions. Charlotte and Grace, two 6th grade teachers in MAIC share the following sentence starters with their students and actively remind them to use them during classroom discussions.
Matome: Good teaching is good teaching, so if you have a strategy to share that has helped to create a culture of discourse in you classrooms please share with us! Some of the most innovative dishes have come from the fusion of cuisines. We would also love to hear your discourse dilemmas to help us with our future newsletters.
Brightspot: Congratulations to Sarah Strong and the lesson study team for hosting the very first, and certainly not last, public lesson study! Cue wild applause & confetti!!!
We once heard that teaching is like “brain surgery” and we agree! (Except there are 30 patients all getting brain surgery at the same time! And they're not sedated!) The intricacies of student centered/discussion based teaching are often hidden and can look seamless in a well orchestrated lesson. What makes public lessons powerful is that they pull back the curtain and surface the intentionality behind each element of the lesson – from the wording of the problem, to the board work representing student thinking. Thanks so much to the lesson study research team and Sarah for nourishing our community as we grow in our understanding of this complex work.