The role of teacher in our children’s early math education is shifting. No longer does classroom instruction consist primarily of lecturing to students who are sitting at their desks, quietly taking notes, and dutifully memorizing math facts. Rather, students are talking, describing, discussing, and communicating about math with their teacher and classmates in number talks.
Whether a child is a fast or slow learner, an ELL or from poverty, a purposeful, brief conversation can lead to the development of more accurate, efficient, and flexible math strategies. It sounds simple. However, creating intentional conversations about math can be tricky, especially in the younger grades.
Here’s a list of elements that must be in place to ensure number talks produce the maximum results.
A safe environment.
Children should feel free to offer their ideas, question their strategies and those of their classmates, and explore new strategies. This can happen only in a risk-free environment where students understand it really is okay to be wrong. To establish such an environment, all ideas and solutions must be accepted and not judged and wrong answers must be viewed as simply misconceptions, not mistakes.
Our youngest learners have the shortest attention spans. It is vital teachers keep these conversations short. They are not intended to replace existing curriculum—but rather to enrich it. In fact, teachers can spend only 5 to 15 minutes to reap the full benefits of a number talk.
Problems that all learners can access.
While the problems and models used will differ for each number talk, one thing remains the same—all levels of learners must be able to solve them. This requires careful planning to design the right problems for students. Problem can be presented in different ways using dot cards, word problems, or ten frames. This will bring all learning styles into the learning experience.
Everyone’s thinking is valued.
To demonstrate acceptance of all ideas, teachers should listen to all answers with a blank face, rather than express disagreement or agreement. This may call for a role change among teachers who are accustomed to declaring “right” or “wrong.” Rather than serving as the source of all knowledge, they must transfer ownership to the students while equipping them with the tools to defend their thinking.
Adequate wait time provided.
During a number talk, students must be given time to think and solve the problem. Silence is a good thing. They must be encouraged to not wave their hands when they think have found “the” solution, but rather keep working on finding other approaches. This gives students the time and opportunity to discuss and clarify their solution, build a collection of possible solutions, consider whether other strategies make sense, and—most importantly—think.
Number talks that focus on student-led problem-solving may feel uncomfortable for teachers at first. But they can more easily make the required shift to facilitator by following students’ thinking with questioning. In fact, questioning is a critical component of number talks that engage all students in meaningful discussions. Teachers can help students reason mathematically by asking such questions as: Does it make sense? Might there be another way? Do you want to revise your answer? Re-think it?
The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics defines computational fluency as having efficient and accurate methods for computing. But timed tests aren’t the answer. Number talks are. By making number talks a routine part of the day, teachers can help children learn to reason numerically and build a solid foundation for future math learning.
Start creating purposeful conversations about numbers that can help your students compute more accurately and efficiently. SDE offers a webinar that goes into more depth about how to get started. Check out Building Math Fluency with Number Talks (Gr. K–2) by veteran teacher Ricky Mikelman.