Better Whole-Class Discussion Follows Good Team Discourse

During the 2019-20 school year, my fellow TRC collaborators and I set out to support stronger whole-class discourse in our high school math classrooms. My TRC group believes supporting better listening and speaking during the whole-class setting will lead to better learning. After reflecting on our own experiences during past years, we agreed that better discourse at the whole-class level follows good participation at the team level. If you are just starting out using collaborative teams or have shrugged them aside because they have not been going well, I encourage you to invest the time and foster richer class discussions.

My reasoning for supporting teams is buttressed by feedback from my students. I asked them to provide thoughts on their own class participation through an open-response student survey. I found many students directed themselves in their responses to “talk more,” “ask more,” and “share more” in order to learn more.


\What feedback do you give yourself about your participation in class?

Teams provide constructive opportunities for students to do more. I can listen in to monitor, select, and sequence responses when it is time for the whole-class discussion. 

The responses from my students, seen above, did not surprise me. We have worked on growth mindset and goal-setting in my classroom culture from day one. I’ve made it clear that I value responses like these. Although I do believe many of my students have bought into the idea of doing more, I wondered about the barriers that stop them from following through while working in teams. It is difficult to select responses that move the learning forward if they are not being vocalized. Maybe this happened in your own classroom when you tried teams, too. 

Surely there are many complex facets that go into creating discussion barriers for students. One significant factor each teacher in my TRC team has observed is an issue of student psychological safety. If the student does not feel that they are safe to share their thinking without negative consequence, then it follows that the student will not share despite having the desire to do so. Manifestations of negative consequences include feelings of inadequacy, impending ridicule or low math status. Varied confidence levels may explain why some students participate more than others. 

So what does growing confidence look like in my classroom? I found the answer in this response from one of my more timid students:

Did you notice the underlying conditional statement this student made? If the student is “comfortable,” then she will do more. I have many students who share the same sentiment. Do you? I’ve noticed that when a student is disconnected from her peers, participation is hindered, which ultimately slows her learning. But here is the good news: I’ve watched this student settle into the class over time, growing significantly from a student that preferred to sketch in her notebook while other team members spoke to a student that volunteered to explain her team’s work under the document camera in front of the whole class. 

I believe this student’s success was a result of tackling the barrier she named “getting comfortable.” I achieved this by leveraging how her peers interacted within the team context by providing opportunities to practice speaking and listening. My research team has found that the more practice a student has with sharing in a small group, the more comfortable they are likely to be in whole-class discussion. 

There were many decisions I had to make in building a classroom that fostered strong team dynamics: How should I arrange the room? How should I set up the groups? How often should I include icebreakers? What low stakes and high stakes opportunities to share will I take advantage of? What roles do I expect my students to take in different activities? For me, the fundamental question necessary for all subsequent decisions was, “Who are my students?” Understanding my students’ backgrounds is not only vital for me, but fostering that understanding among the students themselves allows for them to thrive in teams. 

To accomplish this, I started by asking myself if the students in their teams know one another’s names, can pronounce them correctly, and know that my expectation is that they use them. Taking action to fix this was the start to better teamwork and ultimately whole-class discussions. 

As a new routine this school year, I assigned study teams in groups of four at the start of each new unit. With every unit change, I took the first five minutes of class to do a team warm-up. I found that this opening activity set a tone that helped students feel more comfortable working together. I set a timer for students to independently complete the following sentence frame: My name is ____ and I believe math is _________.  Next, I provided another minute for students to share their responses with their team. Finally I instructed all students to introduce a partner. Groups of four introduced in pairs. Groups of three took turns introducing the person on their left. 

Below is the slide I used to introduce the activity:

I explained to my students that they needed to introduce themselves, whether they are speaking to someone they have known since kindergarten or for the very first time. I asked them to share out in their teams first, then stand and introduce their partner using the frame, “This is ___________ and they believe math is _____________.” During the sharing, I coached students to listen quietly without comment. I made sure to show that I accepted every answer by recording each word as it was presented. I chose to record the words as they came, adding a check mark for duplicates. There are fancier word cloud options, like Wordle, but I found having a pen and a projector to be the simplest to set up. 

An example of my 3rd block’s word cloud is here: 

This activity gave my students practice speaking and listening to one another. It also taught my students more about their study teams. Both of these benefits improved whole-class discussions in my classroom. 

I have found that the start of the unit is a good time to re-establish norms of respect, especially as students are sharing. My students are generally more comfortable sharing their ideas in an environment where others are not calling out or talking over them. I think it can feel embarrassing to have students immediately react to what you say. It also can encourage silly, non-productive attention seeking responses. 

My research plans for the months ahead will include how to vary this activity purposefully for the start of subsequent units. I have tried it with the sentence frame focusing on their team role and what they plan to do to support their team: “My team role is __________ and I will ____________.” One adaptation I made was to have students write down their sentences on their daily agendas for a frequent reminder of their goal. Because this response was slightly wordier than the initial “math is” activity, I worried momentum would be lost if I orchestrated this lesson in the same way. The change I made was for students to share their responses at the team level, and then “look to the front when finished.” I signaled for everyone to focus on the front of the room when I felt like it was time, and asked for a volunteer to share out their example for each team role before moving on to the lesson. 

I have been brainstorming other possibilities for the sentence frames to try including:

This is ___________ and 

  • their favorite animal is _________________. 
  • they plan to _____________ to improve their teamwork.
  • they thought __________________ was a memorable moment from last class.
  • they wonder _____________. 
  • something they already know now about today’s learning objective is _________________. 

If you try this in your classroom, please let me know how it went. I am also looking for more ideas for sentence frame variations.  

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