Talking in class: improving discussion in maths and stats classes

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Maths is right or wrong – end of discussion  – or is it?

In 1984 I was a tutor in Operations Research to second year university students. My own experience of being in tutorials at University had been less than inspiring, with tutors who seemed reserved and keen to give us the answers without too much talking. I wanted to do a good job. My induction included a training session for teaching assistants from throughout the university. Margaret was a very experienced educational developer and was very keen for us to get the students discussing. I tried to explain to her that there really wasn’t a lot to discuss in my subject. You either knew how to solve a set of linear equations using Gauss-Jordan elimination or you didn’t. The answer was either correct or incorrect.
I suspect many people have this view of mathematics and its close relations, statistics and operations research.  Our classes have traditionally followed a set pattern. The teacher shows the class how to do something. The class copies down notes and some examples into their books, and then they individually work through exercises in the textbook – generally in silence. The teacher walks around the room and helps students as needed.

Prizes can help motivate students to give answers in unfamiliar settings

Prizes can help motivate students to give answers in unfamiliar settings

So when we talk about discussion in maths classes, this is not something that mathematics and statistics teachers are all familiar with. I recently gave a workshop for about 100 Scholarship students in Statistics in the Waikato. What a wonderful time we had together! The students were from all different schools and needed to be warmed up a little with prizes, but we had some good discussion in groups and as a whole. One of the teachers  commented later on the level of discussion in the session. Though she was an experienced maths teacher she found it difficult to lead discussion in the class. I am sure there are many like her.

It is important to talk in maths and stats classes

It is difficult for many students to learn in solitary silence. As we talk about a topic we develop our understanding, practice the language of the discipline and experience what it means to be a mathematician or statistician. Explaining ideas to others helps us to make sense of them ourselves. As we listen to other people’s thinking we can see how it relates to what we think, and can clear up misconceptions. Some people just like to talk, (who me?) and find learning more fun in a cooperative or collaborative environment. This recognition of the need for language and interaction underpins the development of “rich tasks” that are being used in mathematics classrooms throughout the world.
I have previously stated that “Maths learning should be communal and loud and exciting, not solitary, quiet and routine.”

Classroom atmosphere

One thing that was difficult at the Scholarship day was that the students did not know each other, and came from various schools. In a regular classroom the teacher has the opportunity of and responsibility for setting the tone of the class. Students need to feel safe. They need to feel that giving a wrong answer is not going to lead to ridicule. Several sessions at the start of the year may be needed to encourage discussion. Ideally this will become less necessary over time as students become used to interactive, inquiry-based learning in mathematics and statistics through their whole school careers.
Number talks” are a tool to help students improve their understanding of number, and recognise that there are many ways to see things. For example, the class might be shown a picture of dots and asked to explain how many dots they see, and how they worked it out. Several different ways of thinking will be discussed.
Children are encouraged to think up multiple ways of thinking about numbers  and to develop discussion by following prompts, sometimes called “talk moves”. Talk moves include revoicing, where the teacher restates what she thinks the student has said, asking students to restate another students reasoning, asking students to apply their own reasoning to someone else’s reasoning (Do you agree or disagree and why?), prompting for further participation (Would someone like to add on?), and using wait time (teachers should allow students to think for at least 10 seconds before calling on someone to answer. These are explained more fully in The Tools of Classroom talk.
Google Image is awash with classroom posters outlining “Talk moves”. I have been unable to trace back the source of the term or the list, and would be very pleased if someone can tell me the source,  to be able to attribute this structure.

Good questions

The essence of good discussion is good questions. Question ping pong is not classroom discussion. We have all experienced a teacher working through examples on the board, while asking students the answers to numerical questions. This is a control technique for keeping students attentive, but it can fall to a small group of students who are quick to answer. I remember doing just this in my tutorial on solving matrices, when I didn’t know any better.

Teachers should avoid asking questions that they already know the answers to.

It is not a hard-and-fast rule, but definitely a thing to think about. I like to use True/False quizzes to help uncover misconceptions, and develop use of statistical language. I just about always know the answer to the question, but what I don’t know is how many students know the answer. So  I ask the question not to know the answer, but to know if the students do, and to provoke discussion. Perhaps a more interesting question would be, how many students do you think will say “True” to this statement. It would then be interesting to find out their reasoning, so long as it does not get personal!

Multiple answers and open-ended questions

Where possible we need to ask questions that can have a number of acceptable answers. A discussion about what to do with outliers will seldom have a definitive answer, unless the answer is that it depends! Asking students to make a pictorial representation of an algebra problem can lead to interesting discussions.
The MathTwitterBlogosphere has many attractive ideas to use in teaching maths.
I rather like “Which one doesn’t belong”, which has echoes of “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong, can you guess…” from Sesame Street. However, in Sesame Street the answer was usually unambiguous, whereas  with WODB there are lots of ways to have alternative answers. There is a website dedicated to sets of four objects, and the discussion is about which one does not belong. In each case all four can “not belong” for some reason, which I find a bit contrived, but it can lead to discussion about which is the strongest case of not belonging.

Whole class and group discussion

Some discussions work well for a whole class, while others are better in small groups or pairs. Matching or ordering paper slips with expressions can lead to great discussion. For example we could have a set of graphs of the same data, and order them according to how effective they are at communicating the aspects of the data. Or there could be statements of possible events and students can place them in order of likelihood. The discussion involved in ordering them helps students to clarify the nature of probability. Desmos has a facility for teachers to set up card matching or grouping exercises, which reduces the work and waste of paper.
Our own Dragonistics data cards are great for discussion. Students can be given a number of dragons (more than two) and decide which one is the best, or which one doesn’t belong, or how to divide the dragons fairly into two or more groups.
It can seem to be wasting time to have discussion. However the evidence from research is that good discussion is an effective way for students to learn mathematics and statistics. I challenge all maths and stats teachers to increase and improve the discussion in their class.

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