Making Whole Class Discourse Visible

For most of my twenty-five years of teaching middle school math I have struggled to facilitate great whole class discussions. It seems like as much as I tried to ask good questions and encourage student responses and ideas, I seemed to get the same few students willing to share. This past July I had the pleasure of meeting with the CPM Teacher Research Corps. where we selected topics and formed teams. I was so excited to be placed on a team researching class discourse (with Mollie Siegel and Penny Smits). As the three of us reflected on the challenges of facilitating class discourse, many questions came to mind. Here are a few:

Why don’t more students raise their hands to share?
What are the obstacles that hold students back?
If students don’t raise their hands, are they still participating?
What can teachers do to encourage participation?


It seems sort of silly now, but in all my years of teaching I had never asked my students these questions. It occurred to me that I teach students all of our classroom routines; how to enter the classroom, work in a team, turn in work, take a quiz etc., but I have not communicated my expectations for whole class discussions. Maybe I needed to clarify them for myself first.

This fall I surveyed my students and asked questions about participation. I shared my teacher goals for discussion and frustration with only hearing from a few students during a discussion of our important math learning with my classes. Talking to students about it seemed to make participation an expectation and gave them a window into the thinking behind my teaching.  Below are several survey questions with data and sample responses (unedited):

In past math classes are you the one who is quick to raise your hand to share or have you been more hesitant to share or maybe somewhere in between?  Why do you think this is ?

Survey Results ( 38 Eighth grade students) and sample responses:

Quick to respond      5% 

I usually raise my hand if I know the answer.
I think I am really confident. Quick because I usually just know the answer.
I don’t know why. I feel that I want to get this question so I raise my hand because after awhile if I still don’t get it I shut down. But if I get it, I am on it.

Hesitant                    63%   

In the past I never really raised my hand because I thought if I got it wrong I would be embarassed.
I don’t like raising my hand to ask questions or make comments.
Hesitant because I am shy and don’t like to be in front of people

In between                32%

Sometimes if  I know the answer 
In between because sometimes it takes me longer to figure it out, but sometimes it comes easily.
In between because I am not sure that I am right.

As you might be able to tell, many of my students have a lot of anxiety and are hesitant to speak in class. Probably yours do too. Our TRC team decided to define participation more broadly to include different ways students might participate in hopes of finding less “risky” ways for students to be more involved. We created a discussion participation card to help students reflect on their own participation and set goals for improvement. Even students who frequently add to a discussion have areas where they can improve. In my classes, many of my frequent participators need to work on listening to others. 

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I started talking to my students about participation before we discussed the math. The script I used was as follows:

       Today we are going to discuss ___________. There are many ways you can participate in this discussion.  You can add your ideas to the discussion, ask a question, add to someone else’s work, listen intently to someone’s idea, justify your thinking, challenge someone’s idea, track the speaker, write a question or comment on a sticky note, or process the information and relate it to your life.

Here are several examples of participation records created by students:

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Of course, before you try this, you need to teach students the skills to participate in these specific ways. I have used the participation card with students several times so far this year and the results have given me some valuable insight into student thinking about goal setting and participation.

Asking students to participate in a variety of ways and set participation goals has changed my whole class discourse. Students are aware of their participation and more students have participated recently and in new or different ways as compared with years gone by. I hope that by continuing to make participation visible to my students and teaching the skills of participation, including listening, justify thinking and challenging others’ ideas that our math class discussions will continue to improve.


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