Talkin’ Math Talk

PULLMAN, Wash.–Linda Cooke wants her students to talk in class.
A teacher of seventh-grade math at Pullman’s Lincoln Middle School for
17 years, Cooke didn’t start out encouraging that kind of behavior.
“In the traditional way I taught, everybody taught, math was the old sit-and-get,” she explained. “The students sit, get instructions from me, and complete problems on their own papers. No talking in class. Then along came Steve and Verna, and then the new standards, and I learned how to include student discussion in my classroom.”
Steve Williams and Verna Adams, both faculty in mathematics education at Washington State University, brought the idea of encouraging and videotaping classroom discussion. When Williams moved, Adams took over the project in 1992. She wanted Cooke to try something new: student-centered discourse about mathematics to replace teacher-centered lecturing.
At the same time, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) released new standards that also emphasized communication between students.
“The researchers from WSU helped us encourage and evaluate communication in class,” Cooke says. “It was Verna’s idea to look at what she calls classroom discourse, what I call math talk.”
In Cooke’s classroom, where walls are filled with signs urging students to “justify,” “pursue your hunch,” and “communicate,” Adams explains that getting middle-school students to talk to their peers about solutions to math problems is not easy. One way to build math communication skills is to have students work on problems in groups–with the goal of having everyone in the group be able to justify the solution to the class while displaying it on an overhead projector.
Cooke smiles as she remembers the hours spent learning this new way of teaching. “We spent the summers analyzing videotapes with Verna. Little by little, we incorporated math talk and learned its value.”
Their three years of continuing research, funded with $344,000 from the National Science Foundation, culminated in publication of their findings and a presentation by Cooke and Adams at the NCTM national conference last year. Their research partnership concluded with agreement that whether it’s called discourse or math talk, getting students to explain how they solved problems is best.
“I’ve seen significant growth in the students,” Adams says. “Discourse is critical to learning mathematics in a diverse society, where not everyone learns math in the same way, but virtually everyone can benefit from math discourse.”
“Math talk is vital to students’ understanding of math,” Cooke agrees. “It has been exciting to be involved with something that really works, something that I want to share with other teachers. I’m not going back to the traditional way of teaching math. To do that would be cheating my students.”
Especially the girls. Math talk, both agree, helps girls overcome the aversion to math that traditionally develops with puberty.
“Discourse in the classroom makes math more accessible to all students and lessens the difference between boys and girls in understanding math,” Adams says.
“Math talk builds confidence. I’ve seen the girls improve in math after math talk came in,” Cooke agrees.
Both educators are continuing their commitment to math discourse.
Partly as a result of her research partnership experience, Cooke was selected as Washington’s 1997 Christa McAuliffe Fellowship teacher of the year. The $34,000 award will allow her to take a sabbatical year to work with Washington math teachers on student communication and problem-solving, as well as other assessment and essential learning issues.
While incorporating her experience with classroom discourse in the college’s preparation program for teachers, Adams has established a classroom partnership with Judith Lancefield, third-grade teacher at Pullman’s Sunnyside Elementary. Adams brings her students into Lancefield’s class, so the future teachers can try the discourse methods with children.
“We want to build our students’ understanding and to give the third-graders some good problem-solving experiences,” Adams says. “We would like to continue that partnership to build a model program for effectively teaching mathematics in a diverse society.”