Q: Why is discussion such a big part of math class?

A: There is a large body of research indicating that talking about math can help students learn math (Chapin & O’Connor, 2012; Chapin, O'Connor, & Anderson, 2009; Chi and Bassok, 1989; Cobb, Wood, and Yackel 1993; Renkl, 2002; Webb, 1991; Webb, Troper, & Fall, 1995; Webb & Mastergeorge, 2003). The mechanisms via which talk supports the development of mathematical understanding are varied. First, talking about math wakes our brains from “standby” mode. Whereas lectures and teacher demonstrations put students in a passive role, class discussions require students’ brains to become more active in processing information. When students explain their thinking in class, they engage in effective learning practices including recalling prior knowledge, connecting ideas, and examining faulty conceptions.  Second, student talk can also help them learn more mathematics by providing the teacher with a "view" into students' internal constructs. As teachers listen to students talk about what they know and don’t know, teachers can adjust their instruction so that it adheres closely to the needs of individual students. Finally, classroom discussions can help students learn more math by providing models for students’ thinking. As students practice giving explanations in class, they learn how to apply and connect skills and ideas to formulate convincing justifications and engage in productive debate. In turn, the tools they use to talk to each other about their thinking can inform their own work as mathematical thinkers - even when working individually.

Nancy Anderson, EdD

Mathematics Teacher ~ Author ~ Consultant