Series: Ideas at Work

5 Steps to Take to Have a Successful Math Class Discussion

Math is often taught as a step-by-step process: add up the columns, carry your twos, and hope you don’t get confused on the way. While learning procedures is vital, presenting math in a less rigid manner can also be beneficial to students.

Facilitating class discussion is a particularly powerful method for teaching mathematics. It challenges students to put their solution strategy into words, which improves language skills. It promotes communication between students, which strengthens the community in the classroom. It also highlights any unclear steps that may have been glossed over otherwise.

At the 2014 Innovations Celebration, Innovations Coach Lisa Ferguson and Assistant Director of Instruction Lisa Ginet described five steps to take to lead a powerful math class discussion, with ideas taken primarily from the journal article “Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussions: Five Practices for Helping Teachers Move beyond Show and Tell.” In this particular case, they were looking at a lesson in which the teacher had students solve a problem in small groups, then report back to the whole group with their process and results.

  1. Anticipate problems.

    With less teacher guidance, some bumps in the road are inevitable. Anticipate where students might stumble, and have suggestions ready to help them get back on track.

  2. Monitor students’ work.

    Be proactive while students are working. Walk around the classroom and observe what strategies they are using. Take note of their math language and vocabulary. See what is challenging to them and what comes more easily.

  3. Select particular students.

    When coming back together for a whole class discussion, picking students at random to explain their work might not yield the most productive results. Choosing two students who used the same method to reach their answer, for example, eliminates an opportunity to compare and contrast solution strategies. Instead, while monitoring student work, look for variety, as this will likely result in the most fruitful conversation.

  4. Sequence strategically.

    When calling on students to present their thinking, select them in an order that makes the main point of the lesson as clear as possible. You might consider “working up” to the optimum solution strategy, comparing the efficiency of each as you go.

  5. Connect students’ responses to the key ideas.

    Rather than simply restating the main point of the lesson at the end of the class discussion, revisit your students’ personal responses. Associating their answers with the main idea of the lesson can be seen as a compliment to their work and demonstrates to the class that mastering these concepts is within their reach.