April 28, 2016

By Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast

Earlier this month, I attended the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference in San Francisco with nearly 9,000 math educators. At a math conference, you would expect the emphasis to be on numbers, but in many ways, NCTM 2016 was all about words.

Now, the focus has shifted onto how students are thinking about and discussing math.  It is more about the process—not the correct answer. This new shift is happening in large part because of NCTM’s 2014 pioneering publication Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. The book lists specific teaching practices that are necessary for providing high-quality math education for all students. These guidelines were spotlighted at many of the conference sessions, especially those surrounding the mathematical teaching practices of facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse, supporting productive struggle, and posing purposeful questions.

Here are some of my key takeaways from the conference:

Talking about math

Literature classrooms have long employed discussions in the learning process, and they prove valuable in math classrooms as well. It is a way of inviting people to the “math party,” especially those who feel as if math is not for them. Discussions help students understand the problem and the math principles as relationships within the problem. Also, it is helpful for students to hear the various ways their peers are approaching a solution to a problem.

Two methods

So, how do we start a math conversation? A great way is to ask students what they notice and wonder about a math problem.

  • Discussion can reduce students’ anxiety and slow them down so they can connect others’ ideas to their own thinking. Everyone has something they notice or wonder about!
  • Give high and low boundaries to solve the problem to prevent students from giving up.
  • Most importantly, allow the students to voice their own discoveries about the methods of solving the problem. Try to keep yourself from giving away answers students should bring up on their own.

Another fun activity is to present a group of four shapes, graphs, or numbers and ask students which one doesn’t belong and why.

  • You and your students will discover that there are many different ways of selecting the one that doesn’t belong.
  • Students discuss process of elimination, and how there can be more than one way to solve a problem.
  • This creates a safe space for students to make mistakes and share thoughts without the pressure to solve a problem quickly.

Session is full!

The desire to learn how to get students talking about their mathematical thinking was evident throughout the conference, including at Peg Smith’s session about purposeful questions and meaningful discourse. As I arrived, there was a line out the door—I couldn’t believe it! I was in awe—over 200 people eager to make math social. The conference volunteers were kind enough to keep the doors open so a group of us could listen and snap photos of the slides through the doorway.

Struggle can be a good thing

For many teachers and their students, it is liberating to realize teaching math and doing math are not solely about getting the right answers—they’re about the process as well. It’s time to move away from spoon-feeding our students. It’s not necessary to tell them everything before they solve a problem. When students are given enough time to struggle with difficult problems, it helps generate a growth mindset where they see effort as a path to mastery.

The benefits of arguing

The rock star of the conference, Dan Meyer (the line into his session twisted and turned into the hallway 30 minutes prior to his presentation), left us inspired to change math classrooms for the better. He said that simply putting math in a real world context doesn’t make it engaging—it must be relatable. If you can ask questions and argue about it, then it’s in your real world. So, let’s start a math fight! It’s healthy to have students argue about math by modeling respectful debate.

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