Monday, October 21, 2013

Let's Discuss Discourse

Student discourse is not just students talking about a topic. It is the ability to discuss a topic and go deeper within that conversation to find out what students know and to identify any misconceptions. Once a misconception is identified, the next step is to have the class work through the misconceptions in a meaningful way.

In mathematics, students need to be discussing math with each other whether it is in small groups or with the whole class. These discussions can happen through various means like

problem solving, game play, whole class activities or a student asking a simple question. Another way is to have questions ready for a math discussion. These questions should be carefully written in order to promote deeper thinking and conversation. During these conversations the role of the teacher is facilitator, asking good questions and helping students work through their thoughts.

In order for discourse to happen, a classroom culture needs to be created for students to feel comfortable discussing what they know or don’t know about a math topic. They need to be able to disagree with one another or elaborate on each other’s ideas. Teachers need to be good listeners allowing students time to think through their math reasoning and allow students to talk to one another. One way a teacher can try to promote students talking to one another is to write down what students are saying during the conversation. By doing this, a teacher will be looking down at a notebook or computer which will help to avoid eye contact with students. Now I know that this might sound odd, but students are conditioned to talk to the teacher, if she is looking away they might be more inclined to address the class.

Another behavior students are conditioned to do is raise their hands to speak. My son will raise his hand at the dinner table sometimes when he wants to say something. I thought it was kind of funny at first, but now I view it differently. I recently read an article that pertains to promoting discourse. It was called “Changing the Rules to Increase Discourse,” by Lisa Brooks and Juli Dixon, published in NCTM’s journal Teaching Children Mathematics. They suggested that in order to keep discussion flowing students have to break the rule of raising their hand to speak. It allows the students to talk to one another by adding or elaborating on

the topic or learning to disagree with each other and supporting their reasoning with evidence. Before an iLearn class, which are classes for teachers after school, I had the teachers read this article for discussion. I happened to be in front of the class and asked them what they thought of the article. The first thing that I observed was multiple hands being raised in the air seeking permission to talk. I thought that it was ironic that we were talking about an article regarding raising your hand and now here are all these teachers with their hands raised. See how we are all so conditioned! After calling on a few I thought, Wait... this not how I wanted to discuss this article! We stopped, grabbed our chairs, and moved to the back of the room in order to form a circle. We continued the conversation, but the whole dynamic changed... No more raised hands, just discussion. It became more natural and more interesting as the teachers went on supporting each other in discussion and elaborating on each others thoughts.

Two of the main topics we talked about were how to build that culture and how to practice so students can get the hang of it. A few of the focus points included learning how to take turns, adding to other’s points, knowing how to disagree appropriately or ask a question of one another when you don’t understand and giving each other time to think. This all won’t happen the first time you try it. It takes time to build those skills, but it’s worth the practice. Students will begin to feel comfortable revealing their misconceptions, which will make it easier to address as a class. So the next time you want to promote discourse in your class try some of these practices. You never know what you will find out about your students’ knowledge.

Any questions? - Was your first thought to raise your hand?  :)

Contributed by Karen Wilson, STEM Coach


Brooks, L.A. & Dixon J.K. "Changing the Rules to Increase Discourse." Teaching Children Mathematics. September 2013, Vol. 20, No. 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment