Math Engagement is a real problem and one way teachers can re-engage students is by using math discussions. This post will give you 5 tips to engage students in math discussions tomorrow. Because when you get students talking, it not only helps them love math (because what kid doesn’t love talking about themselves?) it also helps them understand more deeply. Through discussions students learn skills vital to problem solving like reasoning, effective strategy selection, and communication. Let’s talk about a five ways you can engage your students in math discussions.

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Why Math Discussions?

If you haven’t read 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions you need to. This is basically the mecca of math discussions. Published by NCTM in 2018 it addresses how you can implement math discussions in your classroom.

So, let’s chat about why we need math discussions? Read this quote below about how globalization has changed the demands on the types of thinkers we need in the job force.

why math discussions

The thing is jobs used to allow for people to use basic skills, but now in today’s world we need critical thinkers. We need our students to be able to think, reason, and problem solve. Especially, as the quote says, girls and minorities. So, I ask you…

What opportunities are you giving your students to develop these critical skills needed to be successful in today’s world?

How do you support and engage your students in opportunities to engage with complex problems?

So, now let’s get clear on what we want our students to be able to do. What does it actually look like in a student? Read the quote below.

why math discussions

We want our students to be able to explain and justify with evidence their math thinking! We want them to be able to reason through their ideas and the ideas of their peers. In addition, we want our students to be able to provide evidence and rationale for their math ideas that demonstrates their deep understanding of mathematics. Friends, this can happen… in fact it can all happen through math discussions.

What do you mean ALL Learners Engaged in Math Discussions?

But first, I just want to clarify what I mean by all learners. I mean…


I’m not trying to be dramatic… okay, maybe a little. But I’m serious, we have to believe that every single child can achieve, be engaged and understand deeply. So, yes. Your learners that are shy, energetic, resistant to math, those that learn differently or take longer to process. Every single learner can be engaged in math discussions.

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5 Tips forEngage All Learners in Math Discussions

#1 Choose a worthy Math Task for Math Discussions

Math discussions

In order to engage your students in a math discussion they need something to talk about. We know there are a few kids in our class who could carry on a discussion about anything. However, we want to use this math discussion to move their understanding of math concepts forward. So that means we must choose a worthy math task. One that has a “low floor’ meaning it allows for students to access the problem with a simple first step. Then, a “high ceiling” in which all learners are challenged within the task. Low Floor High Ceiling tasks are open in nature which allow students to approach problem solving in any way that makes sense to them. If you want to know more about the research of low floor, high ceiling tasks this video from Jo Boaler is helpful.  Find out more about my favorite math task- Problem of the Day at on this post. 

#2 Turn & Talks Engage Students in Math Discussions

Using turn and talks are a great way to get students talking in math discussions.  I suggest using a turn & talk at the beginning of the math discussion to engage every student. It might go something like this…

Be sure to set up clear expectations and procedures for your turn and talks. You don’t want to loose valuable minutes managing student behavior during the turn and talk.  So spend the time at the beginning laying the foundation of a solid procedure & expectations. Then, practice! I like to turn and talk to get to know each other first to practice our procedures and meeting expectations!

#3 Use Opened Ended Prompts to Engage All Learners in Math Discussions

I always start our math discussion off with an open ended question. I LOVE “What do you notice?” or “What do you wonder?” These open ended questions allow students to drive the thinking and discussion. This is also a great prompt to give students for a turn and talk. Be sure you listen closely as students share what they notice. This is the perfect time to do a quick check for understanding and decide the direction you’ll take the math discussion.

#4 Accept All Answers in Math Discussions

Students are often nervous about what to say or how to say it in math discussions. I urge you to accept all answers in math discussions. That will allow students to see that it is safe to share a response that is incorrect. If students are discussing flawed reasoning or a misconception point them to the models to use evidence to explain & ask then to clarify their thinking. It is important that the job of reasoning and explaining stays on the students.

#5 Give Students a Way to Opt-Out in Math Discussions

As you continue to build your students ability to participate in math discussions it is important you give them

a way to opt-out. It is so important we teach students real world skills, and the truth is sometimes you’re not ready to share. I like to make an anchor chart of a few phrases students can use if they aren’t ready to participate. It usually includes, “I need another minute to think.” “Could I get some help please?” “Could you come back to me please?” This allows the classmates to jump in and help and the door open for us to come back to the student.

I do want to note it is important this is not interpreted as lowering the expectations for students, but instead accommodating students until they are ready. I continue to encourage students to participate and remind them participating is the best way to learn. We discuss our expectations for discussions every time we start, so students know they are expected to participate. This approach of allowing students to “opt out” helps build community and develop a sense of belonging in the students. It is my hope they know that we want them to participate when they are ready and there are supports in place to help them become ready.


Looking for other Discussion Resources?

math discussions

Here is a blog post on discussion stems. 

Check out this blog post about 3 number talk ideas to improve your students’ fact fluency!

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