Change the subject. We know our students love to talk, just not about math. So get them talking about something light and unrelated at the beginning of class. For example, have them talk to their groups to determine who has the shortest hair, most vowels in their first name, or the longest pinky. This breaks the ice a little bit for them. Then when you pose a math question for them to talk about in their groups, you can say, ‘I want the person with the longest pinky to talk first’ and use that light topic as a bridge into the math conversation.
Present a situation, not a problem. For too long, math class has simply been about finding the right answer. This can be intimidating for students who struggle with math. It also discourages discussion since students just want to get to the right answer. How many times have you asked students to talk about how they solved a problem and one student simply turns to the group and blurts out the answer? To start combatting this, take the problem you want them to solve and delete the problem/question. Then have them talk about the situation with their group without the risk of them just jumping to figuring out the right answer. Then add the question/problem in after they’ve discussed the situation so more students will have the confidence to talk about the solution.
Change your questions. To get kids thinking mathematically, but not just about the answer, ask open questions like, ‘What do you notice?’ Or ‘What patterns can we find?’ Or in their groups, have them come up with 3 observations they can make about the situation. This gives students multiple opportunities to think and talk about math in ways that help them gain a deeper understanding without the fear of wrong answers when tasked simply with finding the final answer.
Offer sentence starters. If you ask students what they notice about a math situation, follow it up with some think time and then something like, ‘Partner 1, you’re going to speak first and I want you to start with, ‘I notice…’’ With a sentence starter students automatically have a running start and something to say. Inevitably, math will follow.
Praise the thinking. As students answer questions that aren’t about the final answer to the problem, praise their thinking and their observations as often as possible. Praise is vital to boosting their confidence about math and making them feel increasingly comfortable taking the risk of sharing their math thinking.
Build group trust. Especially if we teach in larger schools, there’s a good chance that when we group our students, they’re sitting with people they hardly know. And in small schools the chance of them being grouped with someone they have an awkward or bad relationship with is high. Build in time for students to do ice breakers, quick get-to-know-you activities, and the occasional bigger team building activity in their groups to make sure they’re developing a level of trust that allows them to comfortably discuss math, take risks, and make mistakes together.
For more math tips, try 5 Strategies to Help Struggling Students Master Problem Solving.