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Facilitated discussions about math can help kids learn. PanyaStudio/

Why students need more ‘math talk’

Test scores, school report cards and Facebook posts complaining about homework problems often drive critiques of how math is taught in schools.

Amid the debates, it has become increasingly clear that one ingredient is necessary for success: opportunities for students to talk about math. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in U.S. classrooms.

We are both math education researchers. While we focus on different levels of the K-12 span, a common theme across our work is the role of talk in math classrooms – what talk can sound like, how talk impacts student learning, and how teachers can support math talk.

Want to support your student’s understanding of math? Talking will play a critical role. And a good place to start is to talk about math yourself.

Why talking matters

For some educators and researchers, learning math means coming to know and use terms and procedures in order to quickly solve problems. Others may prioritize learning the range of ways to solve a given problem. Others, still, point to the value of skills to solve problems that may come up in “the real world.”

Those are all important aspects of mathematical proficiency, but we believe that learning to communicate about the subject is an equally important goal.

By “math talk,” we mean sharing, analyzing and making sense of math. Students might discuss their strategies for solving a problem, explaining not only what they did but also the reasoning behind their work. They can also make observations, pose questions and express uncertainties.

It’s also key for students listen to their peers – to understand what they did and respond with a comment or question. In the process, disagreements or errors might emerge. These are not things to avoid; rather, they are opportunities to extend learning. Engaging in math talk helps all involved understand the ideas at hand.

Research, such as the work led by education researchers Suzanne Chapin and Beth Herbel-Eisenmann, has shown how math talk supports learning. It can improve memory and understanding; aid the development of language and social skills; and boost confidence and interest in math.

Learning math is not a process of acquiring a set of facts or procedures, but a process of becoming one who participates in a community that does mathematical work. People use math to collaborate and communicate with others. They make sense of problems that are interesting and complex. They justify their ideas and work to convince others of the validity of those ideas. They make sense of the justifications posed by others to understand, critique and build on their thinking. These skills are not reserved for mathematicians or engineers, but apply to wide range of careers.

How to support math talk

The classroom in which math talk is not supported is a familiar scene: desks in rows, a teacher presenting a new procedure, and students working individually, focused on copying problems, getting an answer, and doing so as quickly as possible.

There are many ways in which a teacher can foster a classroom rich in opportunities for math talk. One recommendation, from research in cognitive science, is the use of “worked examples” – problems that have been worked out by someone else, perhaps a hypothetical student – to improve student learning. For example, students can be presented with two different but correct strategies to a problem and be asked to compare and contrast them, looking for the benefits and drawbacks of each approach. As a class, students can compare their ideas and raise new questions, all facilitated by the teacher.

But math talk is not just something that can happen in a classroom. In our positions, we each often get asked by friends and family about how to help their children in math. Our answer? Talk more about math – and preferably not just about homework assignments.

Math can be found in anything in ways that are appropriate for different ages. Say you are out shopping: How many people are in the store? How high is the ceiling? How many beach balls would it take to fill up the room? How do you know? Taking the time to engage with your student around any of those questions is math talk.

Many of these questions might not have a readily available answer, and that can be a good thing. Talking about what you would need to know or do to find an answer is just as valuable, and likely even more valuable, than time spent with flash cards and apps with math “games” that only focus on speed with procedures. Blogs and social media have become spaces to share the ways in which you can be “talking math with your kids” (#tmwyk on Twitter).

Whether in second grade or in an AP calculus classroom, mathematics achievement will continue to lag without value placed on math talk.

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