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. 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?
- Have students draw a picture of themselves during math discussions. Ask: What did you draw, and why did you draw it?
- Why should we have discussions in math class? Why not just sit at our desks and do our own work?
- What’s the difference between a discussion and just getting a chance to give answers?
- How does it feel when the teacher calls on you?
- When your classmates are sharing their ideas, what are you thinking about?
- What does it mean to be good at math?
- What makes it challenging to share your ideas in math class?
- What do you think you learn from hearing how someone else solved the problem?
- 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.
 Parker, W. C., & D. Hess. 2001. “Teaching with and for Discussion.” Teaching and Teacher Education 17: 273–289.