6 Tips for Creating a Classroom Culture for Math Talk

So now that many of us have sketched out our year and have done some thinking about the sequence of instruction, resources we have at our disposal, and so on--it's time to start considering the "feel" we want our classroom to have.  This is a little less tangible than writing things down on a calendar, so I have a little food for thought as you ponder this idea.
Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop, growth mindset

1. Accountable Talk

One of the things we need to do to make sure that students actually have the LANGUAGE to communicate about math is to explicitly teach accountable talk strategies.  If this is a new topic for you, essentially accountable talk refers to the idea that we need to help students with the language to respectfully and meaningfully communicate with other--it helps students share their thinking, reflect on their learning (and the learning of others), and communicate both their understanding and MISunderstanding. 

We know that we want students talking about their work through academic discourse, and we have talked for years about increasing students' depth of understanding.  I think--especially at the elementary level--that we need to take the time to give students to the tools to do this.  It requires the language piece, a growth mindset (below), modeling (below below), and a culture where this is supported.

I have a few tips on how to get started if this is new for you!

1.  Post sentence stems somewhere that students can easily access and you can point to for support.  This is the display in my room...I just printed big letters  (two per page) to spell "accountable talk" and then made the speech bubbles.  You can grab them for free HERE if you want.  I have another set of posters for free in my store by clicking HERE.  Hopefully one will work for you if you need something like this!
Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop

2.  Focus on partner talk and then move to bigger groups.  I love using my "talk starters" to help students learn to listen, ask follow up questions, piggy back off ideas, and so on.  You can easily make these on index cards, but I like to have a big set at my fingertips, so I created THIS SET so I can work discussion practice into my daily routine--not just in math class.
Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop
3.  Point out examples of good collaborative talk or areas for growth.  By noticing things like "Malinda did a nice job of piggybacking off your comment.  Does anyone else want to add on?" or "Remember, if you don't understand her explanation, you can say things like 'Could you please repeat that?' or 'I didn't understand the part about...'".  Sometimes bringing these examples to students' attention helps make it all more clear.  Also, this really contributes to the climate in your classroom.

2. A focus on growth mindset

In order to nurture this climate for accountable talk, students need to truly understand and internalize the idea of having a growth mindset.  I think this phrase is thrown around a lot these days, and students can often parrot the phrase "I need to have a growth mindset" and so on...but are we planning experiences to help them really understand what a growth (and, for that matter, a "fixed") mindset truly is--and at a grade-appropriate level?  When students don't have an understanding that learning is a journey--a journey that will have hills and valleys, it is harder for them to be willing to take risks with their participation.  They need to see that hard work and effort pays off, and that mistakes are a part of the deal.

This all takes time.  It takes picking meaningful books to read that highlight a growth mindset.  It takes telling stories (one of my favorite things to do!) about examples in OUR lives.  It takes pausing during challenging times and recognizing and labeling examples of a growth mindset.  It takes giving students the language and tools to be able to speak about mindset in a way that makes sense to them.  Jo Boaler has some great video clips on Youcubed.org, and if you haven't signed up for this, you are missing an amazing resource!  Her book "Mathematical Mindsets" should be required reading, in my opinion (I'll put my affiliate link at the bottom of the post if you are interested...a great book at a really reasonable price).

If you want to see more about some of the activities I do, HERE IS A LINK to a blog post where I talk about this a little more...and the image takes you to my growth mindset toolkit in my store.  It isn't anything fancy, but it really helps me get my students talking about mindset, using the language, and internalizing the concept.
Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop, growth mindset

3. Modeling, modeling, modeling

Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop

In order for students to get better at talking about their thinking and talking about their math, they need examples of this done well.  As teachers, we were trained to model...and I don't think it's any surprise that showing students what to do helps them do it.  What I think we sometimes miss is the explaining "why"...and the thinking behind the doing.  Again, this takes time.  The way I was taught math looked a little like this:

We corrected our homework.  The teacher told us what we were going to do that day.  S/he showed us several examples on the board.  We then tried some on our own.  If you needed help, you raised your hand.

Anyone else?

Modeling is much more than this.  Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are trying to create a culture where math talk and math learning is everywhere.

  • Show how to DO math is less important than showing how you approach math and the decision making you go through when doing math.
  • Showing how math concepts are related to each other is as important as modeling each concept alone
  • Remembering that the TEACHER is not the only one who should be modeling is critical
  • Students model with each other when doing collaborative tasks.  As teachers, we need to circulate and listen for great math thinking...coach where needed to get it to that level...and then have them share out with others.
  • Using a document camera or a whole-class meeting is a great way for students to share discoveries, strategies, and more
  • A "fishbowl" is a great way to showcase great modeling--of thinking and math work
  • Remember, modeling doesn't have to be for the entire class.  A student can model their thinking for one other student who is struggling--or one small group can pair up with another to showcase great math.
  • And more!

4. Number talks and math warm ups

Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop

Many of you may be familiar with "Number Talks", an amazing book by Nancy Parrish (I'll add the affiliate link at the bottom of the post as well).  It's pricey--but super worth it.  Number talks--when done in their purest of fashion--are an amazing way to get math talk going in your classroom.  Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of people lose the true intention of the number talk, and there are many things out there CALLED number talks that truly aren't.

Anyhoo...using a true number talk or other type of math "warm up" is one of my favorite ways to get students talking about math and setting up the climate for the rest of the math class.  I thought I'd share a few of my favorite "discussion inducing" warm-ups below.  I may be missing some...but this is a good starter list.

  • Number talks
  • A writing prompt...give students a few minutes to write, then a few minutes to share, then a few more minutes to write after hearing the ideas of others.  (For example, "What do you know about equivalent fractions?" or "What are some patterns in multiplication?" or "How can you explain the difference between prime and composite numbers?").  I love that it gives students time to think--and then time to listen and process--and then time to add on to their own thinking. This is an example from my big fraction unit...it led to GREAT writing and discussion!
Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop, teaching fractions, fraction activities
  • Partner problem solving...and I'll get more into this in my next challenge!
  • A debate...for example, "It is impossible to draw a triangle with two right angles."  or "Any time you divide a number by 4, the answer will be even."  Again, I would encourage you to give some individual "think time" before the discussion or you will find the same students participating.  Just slowing down to get more students on the playing field makes a huge difference.
  • Studying, continuing, and discussing patterns.  I do this throughout the school year.  I have a few different things I do, but I did put together a set of pattern task cards that has been a life-saver for me!  I keep them right by my document camera and about once each week I use one as a discussion starter.  I also have some pattern work in my"More Than a Math Center" resource.  There are all sorts of things online that you can find, but I know I do better with things when I don't have to go searching, so I get all my supplies organized and in one place for easy access.
  • Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop, patterns, teaching patterns
  • Finally, one of my favorites is below--and I felt it deserved its own heading!

5. My favorite mistake

I've seen it called "My Favorite No" and other things...but over the years as I have strived to get my students CELEBRATING mistakes instead of hiding them, one of my favorite activities is to look at "My favorite mistake".  It's a flexible strategy, and I use it in a few different ways.

  • Sometimes I find mistakes on a formative assessment (or even summative!) that I think would make a worthy discussion. (more on this in an upcoming challenge!)
  • Sometimes I hear students SAY something that shows a misconception.
  • Sometimes I find careless errors in daily work or other activities
  • Sometimes I find examples of precision and accuracy errors (like not lining up the decimal point when adding decimals)
Anyway, when I find mistakes students are making and I feel the discussion will benefit the entire group, we study them.  If it's a student's work, I always ask permission (once that culture is set, students LOVE to have their mistakes showcased!).  Other times  I will create a similar problem with a similar error to look at and then have students go check their own work to see if they can find it.

Creating a climate to celebrate mistakes is such a critical piece of making your math classroom productive, safe, and fun.  Seriously--when you hear students calling out, "Hey--I made a cool mistake!" or "I made that mistake too, but I caught it!", it makes my heart sing.

6. A culture to collaborate--not to compete

When I was in school, I definitely felt the pressure to compete.  To "win", one might say.  I wanted my sticker on the multiplication fact chart posted in front of the class.  I wanted to get 100%.  I wanted the "A+".  I never even considered what this might have been like for students who struggled--how embarrassing, frustrating, or defeating that must have been.

I think the time has come to realize that access to good math instruction needs to be available to everyone.  If we can help students see that math is a process where creative thinking, perseverance, and collaboration are the center--ALL students can and will learn.

So now it's your turn!  Download the freebie and start to do some reflecting on YOUR classroom culture and math talk.  What is your "current state" and what is your "preferred state"?

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After you do some work, make sure to stop over to the Facebook group and share your thoughts and findings!  Not a member yet?  CLICK HERE to join (don't forget to answer the screener questions!)

Miss the other blog posts in this series?

Click HERE for the introductory post.
Click HERE for Challenge 1
Click HERE for Challenge 2
Click HERE for Challenge 3
Clich HERE for Challenge 4


Here are those book affiliate links if you are interested...


Rather pin this for later? Here you go!
Creating a classroom culture where math talk and discourse is prevalent takes work!  Check this post for tips on incorporating more math talk, growth mindset, and other culture-building pieces to help students learn and talk math!  third grade math, fourth grade math, collaborative math, accountable talk, math talk, classroom culture, problem solving, back to school, math freebie, accountable talk stems, cooperative groups, math workshop



1 comment

  1. Such useful information! Thank you! I am using https://qanda.typicalstudent.org/ for the same type of content.

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