Communicating in the Math Classroom: Part 2
Shelby Strong, posted July 18, 2016 –
last post, I emphasized the importance of discussion in the classroom.
Middle school students desperately want to be heard, but on their own terms.
Several years ago, I was introducing the Pythagorean theorem to my students.
From the back of the room, I heard a student repeatedly interrupting; loud
enough to be heard by his classmates, but not by me (or so he thought). “A squared plus B squared equals C
squared.” Over and over again. Finally, I stopped and asked him to elaborate.
“That’s it. That’s the
“Okay, but what does it mean?”
“The sum of the legs squared
equals the sum of the hypotenuse squared.”
“Okay, but what does that
To him (and in all fairness,
to many people), that was the extent of it. What more could I possibly want? He
was eager to be heard, and wanted to contribute his knowledge. This is about as
far as many of our students go because too often we don’t ask them to dive
So, what does discussion
sound like in the math classroom? I make a point to say “discussion,” because
the kind of communication we want among students is so much more than simply
answering questions or reciting procedures. Are these important? Absolutely!
However, there’s no engagement. Just like in any other context, discussion
involves the exchange of ideas and challenging preconceived notions. For this
to happen, teachers need to take a giant step back and let students get their
hands dirty with math. One strategy is to give students a difficult problem
that is just out of their reach. Give sufficient independent struggle time, and
encourage students without giving anything away. Next, allow small groups to
talk about the problem. Many students are often reluctant to participate in
small-group discussions because they fear embarrassment at being wrong, or not
getting as far as their peers. The important thing here is to let students know
that you’re not asking them to discuss answers: They are just discussing the
problem itself, including any struggles or difficulties they encountered. That
way, students aren’t discouraged from contributing from the conversation.
I know that there are times
when it’s especially hard for me to resist the urge to swoop in and rescue my
students from their mistakes. Instead, I redirect that feeling back onto my
other students, and make a habit to regularly ask the class whether they can
support or disprove a claim. At the same time, many of my students think
“debate” is synonymous with “argue,” and I don’t want them shouting each other
down. My role as facilitator includes establishing boundaries and reminding
students that disagreements should be rooted in facts and logic.
The easiest way to get
students talking is with four simple questions.
Repeat these questions, and
hold students responsible for answering. With time, students will slowly start
to include explanations in their answers without prompting, and respond to one
another in meaningful ways.
None of this can be
accomplished without a classroom culture that makes students feel safe and
unafraid to make mistakes. In part 3 of this series, we’ll talk about making
time for student discussion, and creating an environment where students want to
Strong is a middle level math educator in Jefferson Parish,
Louisiana. She is passionate about mathematics, and currently serves as a
Louisiana Teacher Leader. She is an active member of Twitter Professional
Learning Communities, and has presented on improving mathematical instruction
at the district and state level.