Blogstitute Post 6: Teaching Through and For Discussion

July 3rd, 2014

Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz are the authors of Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. They join us for our Summer Blogstitute with a post about the power of discussion to build a positive, supportive classroom environment. Please be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books from all of our participating authors — including Elham and Allison!

We wrote Intentional Talk because we know facilitating classroom discussions is something many teachers want to get better at and something that can be inherently challenging. We believe that teaching children to participate in genuine discussion is worth the effort—not just because it can be engaging for students to learn from one another, but also because the health of our society depends on our ability to engage each other’s perspectives and come to new understandings through dialogue. We want to teach through discussion but also for discussion.[1] And it never fails that when we are in discussion with children, we learn something new!

Our book describes different kinds of goals that teachers may have when planning and leading a mathematical discussion. In an open strategy sharing discussion, the goal is to get many different ideas out on the table. We contrast that with targeted discussion, which has a more focused goal around a particular idea. For example, a targeted discussion may occur when it’s time to really make sense of one strategy, investigate where an idea is going awry, or slow down and make use of a particular mathematical tool. Teachers will find examples and planning templates for these different types of discussions, and we encourage our readers to think about when these discussions might be most useful as a unit unfolds.

We all know that leading productive discussions is dependent not only on the teacher’s planning but also on how students participate. Helping students learn what it means to be part of a genuine discussion is a tall order. We think taking the time to cultivate productive norms in the first six weeks of school is vital to how well students take up listening to one another and also take risks in sharing new ideas.

One way to gain insight into what students think about participating in discussions is to ask them. Their responses can be great fodder for what we explicitly bring into our norm-setting conversations at the beginning of the year. What would we learn from students by asking the following kinds of questions?

  1. Have students draw a picture of themselves during math discussions. Ask: What did you draw, and why did you draw it?
  2. Why should we have discussions in math class? Why not just sit at our desks and do our own work?
  3. What’s the difference between a discussion and just getting a chance to give answers?
  4. How does it feel when the teacher calls on you?
  5. When your classmates are sharing their ideas, what are you thinking about?
  6. What does it mean to be good at math?
  7. What makes it challenging to share your ideas in math class?
  8. What do you think you learn from hearing how someone else solved the problem?
  9. What does it feel like when someone listens to your ideas and understands your thinking?

Classroom communities become places where students thrive when they feel invested, known, and connected to each other. If we want to have genuinely rich mathematical conversations, listening first to our own students can give us good ideas about how to create positive learning environments.


[1] Parker, W. C., & D. Hess. 2001. “Teaching with and for Discussion.” Teaching and Teacher Education 17: 273–289.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,math

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Francine Hewett  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 11:15 am

    I can’t wait to read Intentional Talk! This post was wonderful. It made me think of Peter Johnston. I heard him speak a few months ago, and he introduced the idea of genres of talk to me. Your book will help me grow in this idea. I especially appreciate the thoughtful questions listed in this blog entry! Thank you!

  • 2. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 11:58 am

    I love this list of questions. What a clever, and fresh, way to self-reflect on learning at the end of a math lesson. I can imagine how much information I would get from my students to help facilitate future discussions. As a second grade teacher, encouraging math talk and discussions can be a challenge. Kids seem to already have the idea that math strategies are right or wrong. I work hard to stretch their thinking. I’m looking forward to using these questions in the upcoming school year.

  • 3. Lisa C  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Great ideas! I’m always trying new ways to help my students improve oral communication skills.

  • 4. Janet D''silva  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    I really enjoyed your article Allison and am looking forward to reading your book. Please check out //www.smore.com/mwmwm to see how we have explored strategy sharing in the classroom. Will take your list of questions with me- wish I had them when I was interviewing students.

  • 5. Matt Renwick  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    I appreciate how focused this text appears to be a specific mathematical practice. This resource would seem to make for a great book study at a grade level.

  • 6. Julie  |  July 4th, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Hi Elham, Allison, & Everyone — What a fantastic post! “We want to teach through discussion but also for discussion” especially struck me. I believe that we learn, clarify, and revise through conversation and that listening is a crucial skill to teach. I work with my students throughout the year to model, practice, and use conversations for learning in a variety of formats (conversation partners, class meetings, problem solving pairs, etc) but have never asked questions like those listed in the post. I will certainly incorporate those questions and others to provoke self-reflection and discussion. Thanks.

  • 7. Jill  |  July 7th, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    I love the list of questions to ask students about discussions. I just started this book today and can’t wait to read more.

  • 8. Janet  |  July 8th, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for the video/chat ladies. It was very informative. I have asked our principal to get the book for our staff to have some real conversations about our number talks and CGI work. I love your format and the templates. Very useful! For me, one of the trickiest things is to move the discussion from invented strategies and modeling their thinking, to models for thinking and “formal” structures and strategies. This will be useful with parents too. Thank you!

  • 9. Desiree Lancaster  |  July 19th, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    Just ordered one and looking forward to delving into before school starts! This book fits my style of teaching from what I can tell.

  • 10. Desiree Lancaster  |  July 19th, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    Just ordered one and looking forward to delving into before school starts! This book fits my style of teaching from what I can tell, very socratic.

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