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Should Students Talk During Math?

Yes! Here are 4 ways to make it happen in your classroom

Melinda Villalovos

Arizona students learn from each other during a fishbowl activity during a math lesson.

Student discussion might seem obvious for ELA. But why is conversation so important in math? Quite simply, it activates more areas of the brain and helps deepen a student’s understanding of a mathematical concept.

How rich discussion helps math learning

As you know, children think about and solve problems in various ways. One child’s strategy may be totally different from another student's. Yet when students share their work and compare the similarities and differences, they’re having a rich mathematical conversation. This activates more areas of the brain compared to just listening and copying a teacher’s solving process step-by-step.

Math classroom set-ups are changing around our country. Students are no longer quietly sitting in rows, copying down a problem solved by their teacher. In schools throughout our country, many of the classrooms are set up in a group format. This allows for collaboration, productive struggle, and rich student-to-student discourse.

Working with hundreds of teachers as a K-8 math coach, I have seen many of them successfully implement these changes. When moving forward many teachers want their students to have rich mathematical conversations, but they’re not quite sure how to make it happen.

Here are 4 strategies I recommend that work in small-group or whole-group settings.

4 ways to encourage student-to-student discourse in your classroom

1. Whole-class Fishbowl (5 minutes): This works great when you want to discuss solving methods for a challenging problem or as part of a lesson.

First, have the class circle around a small group of students. The inside group is the fish. They share their solving strategies for a problem. The outside circle is the observer group. They watch, listen, and learn. With younger children we have them put their hands behind their back and ask that they listen quietly. This allows for the inner group—the fish—to discuss their solving process. Once the inner group is finished, the outside group can ask the inner group questions. There are a few ways to do this, though one way is to discuss similarities or differences in solving strategies. This keeps the pace and engagement high throughout the lesson.

You can see what I mean in the picture below.

Melinda Villalovos

2. Mini Fishbowls (5 minutes): Once students understand the expectations of a whole-class fishbowl, you can progress students to mini fishbowls. This allows you to have multiple mini-fishbowls going on at the same time across the classroom. You can have each mini fishbowl do the same problem or different problems (see below).

Melinda Villalovos

3. Send a Spy (1 minute): This works great when students are struggling with getting started on a problem. Allow one student from a group to quietly spy/observe what another group is doing. Then have the spy return and share with their own group what he or she learned on their mission.

4. Send an Expert (time varies): Give your quick problem solvers something to do by sending them as an expert to other groups or to individual students. This gives the expert an opportunity to share his or her thinking processes and solving strategies. You can also send an expert to find different strategies to add to his or her own problem-solving collections.

How do you enhance engagement and excitement in your math classroom? Share ideas by sending us an email!

Want more elementary math education tips and news? Check out Scholastic's archive.

Melinda Villalovos (@MmVillalovos) works on DynaMath and is currently the District Math Coach for Deer Valley Unified School District in Arizona.

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