Math Talks- Sorry, not sorry

In college, I heard, “Using a jigsaw is a great teaching strategy to help students learn content deeply and remember more of the material! Too bad it won’t apply in a math classroom…” As a teacher at professional development sessions I’ve heard, “Almost anyone can use think-pair-share in their class. It’s okay math teachers… You guys just keep doing what you’re doing.” When I first learned about Math Talks (dot talks, number talks, pattern talks, cube conversations, etc.), I thought this would be one more of those great ideas that anyone but a math teacher could use… until I looked further. I was shocked to discover how easily Math Talks fit into my routine and how much they help my students.  Sorry English teachers. Sorry history teachers. Sorry science teachers. Sorry, not sorry.

A Math Talk is a structured discussion centered around numbers, mathematical literacy and communication of multiple strategies. Students silently work a problem in their heads and try to discover different ways to come to an answer. They then present their solution and method to the class.  I was so excited to try this in my class since I have a lot of students who are completely dependent on a calculator and can’t explain their thinking.

I decided to start Math Talks off with relatively easy dot talks and work them up to the harder, more conceptual number talks. This gave me a chance to help my students get used to the instructional process and jump start their communication. I noticed a great deal of excitement when we were doing dot talks, but once we started to use numbers they completely lost interest and began just going through the motions. We have all see those signs of disengagement before: distractedly looking around, putting their thumb up too early to have really thought about the problem, not wanting to participate, saying “I solved it the same way Johnny did.”

I needed a new plan. I decided to try a pattern talk with my senior class. It was a relatively simple problem to understand, but a much harder problem to solve. I asked the students to determine how they saw the pattern growing. They had a chance to analyze the pattern silently, then I led a class discussion about their thinking. The task involved determining how many toothpicks would be in the 4th, 5th and 43rd figure of the pattern shown. I let them struggle for quite a while before giving hints and bringing out manipulatives. It was amazing to see them work and discuss math for 30 or more minutes without giving up or getting distracted.

Having this new-found enthusiasm in my class, I began to look at lessons differently. I had logarithms coming up, and I know that students typically struggle with the concept. I decided to present logs as a pattern talk/pattern puzzle that the teams had to solve. I showed the class the slide below and let them discuss the puzzle in their groups.  They had a few examples and some prompts to get their brains flowing. I have never had a group of students pick up the log pattern so quickly. Students were so excited when they figured out the pattern and enjoyed explaining it to their team. Some groups were able to create their own log expressions and even describe in words how to find log(x)=3.

I have discovered that Math Talks are a great tool that I can use in my classroom to engage my students, supplement an idea or introduce a concept. Now that I am more comfortable with Math Talks, I have noticed that there are a lot of lessons that can be presented using this classroom structure. I think Math Talks are a great resource to use when students are not communicating well as a team and to get teams to think about problems from different points of view.

I encourage you to give Math Talks a try. Get started by reading Jo Boaler’s explanation at, then give it a shot in the classroom. I think you will also be pleased with the results.

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