By popular demand-Number Talks

Across New Mexico, our CORE Coaches and Specialists collaborate with teachers everyday on topics ranging from differentiating instruction, to better understanding our Common Core standards, to close reading strategies, to facilitating classroom discourse, and so much more.  This year, New Mexico teachers are particularly interested in the number talk routine to build student communication and problem solving skills, and we don't blame them!  Our CORE Team has spent the last few years studying this routine, and we are happy to share that experience with you! 
What is a Number Talk?
Have you ever stumbled upon something, a product or simple strategy, that yields amazing results?  This past year, for us, it was the number talk routine.  This short 5-15 minute snippet of our day has transformed students into mathematical communicators, capable of speaking about their conceptual understanding, constructing arguments about their problem solving, questioning and critiquing the reasoning of others, and eventually, using this foundation to write about their thinking.

A number talk is a daily routine in which students have a chance to deepen their mathematical thinking.  For teachers, number talks are a great way to quickly and informally assess understanding while helping students transition from ineffective to more effective and efficient problem solving techniques.  During number talks, a problem is posed, students solve the problem individually using their mental computation skills, then students discuss their problem solving while the teacher records their method. In the primary grades, number talks focus on developing number sense, building fluency with small numbers, subitizing, and making tens.  In the intermediate grades, number talks still focus on deepening number sense, but also develops place value understanding, builds fluency, strengthens properties of operations and helps connect mathematical ideas.  Number talks provide a big bang for your buck!

Where do you even begin?!

As with any new routine,  it's all about consistency and implementation.  First, decide what mathematical idea you want the students to consider.  Is it strategies for adding multi-digit numbers?  Building equal groups from a set?  Or determining a quantity of counters on a ten-frame?  The beauty of number talks is that they can be modified and adapted to address almost any mathematical concept depending on the needs of your students. 

Next, set the purpose for your students and introduce the routine.

In many classrooms, a problem is posed, students silently solve the problem mentally, then they give a "secret thumbs-up" (thumbs-up in front of their body) to let the teacher know they have solved the problem.  When the majority of thumbs in the room are up, the teacher can begin to cold-call students to share their thinking aloud with the class.  Another common modification is to allow students to "pair-share" their strategies while the teacher listens intently for problem-solving methods they want to highlight. As they share, it is the teachers job to ask questions to help clarify and solidify their understanding.  Over time, students will begin to ask questions of each other as their curiosity grows.  Modeling good questioning and providing students with thinking stems is key in promoting student-to-student interaction.  Simple stems like "How did you know to..." or "Why did you choose to..." and "I'm curious about the way you..." can promote a spirit of inquiry, which strengthens understanding for the student explaining, as well as those listening.   

Since our intention is to build problem solving skills, it is crucial to emphasize the thinking behind the problem solving, as opposed to the correct answer.  And because of that, mistakes will be made.  But guess what?  There is power in mistake making.  One of our favorite mathematicians, Jo Boaler explains it: 

Allowing students to work through the thinking behind their mistakes has proven to be extremely powerful in many classrooms.  Of course, the environment in which students have a sense of safety to be able to take risks without fear of being labeled a failure is crucial in developing the growth mindset that Jo mentions above.  

So, what does it look like?

Number talks look different in every classroom, and as a teacher, you modify it to meet your students learning styles and needs.  Youtube has tons of sample number talk lessons that teachers have shared from around the country.  

Students love the number talk routine, and their teachers love the impact this small routine has on deepening student understanding, developing mathematical communication skills, and building confidence in our learning.  We will definitely continue to number talk across New Mexico. 

If you're interested in learning more about number talks, we encourage you to check out Number Talks by Sherry Parrish, or contact your CORE Coach for more information.

So what about you?  Do you number talk?  What has your experience been?

Note: This post was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for content and comprehensiveness. 


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