Number Talks as a Tool for Equity

June 9, 2022


Written by Elly Blanco-Rowe, Senior Educational Consultant

There is a misconception that mathematical learning must have a constant relationship. However, with mathematical learning, the process is much richer, deeper, and complex. As we engage students in the learning process, we build number fluency by  grounding students’ math learning with a deep understanding of rich concepts and supporting them to form stronger mathematical identities. We no longer live in an era of, “I’m just not good at math,” but ‌“everyone is a mathematician.”

Students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics is key to knowing how to best support their learning. Unfortunately, with the restrictions placed on our learning modalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been challenging to deeply assess the understandings and misconceptions that come up for students. During remote or hybrid schooling, we had to rely on completed student work products to understand student meaning, which counteracted how we want to teach mathematics.

Our mathematics education system is evolving. Our learning models consist of in-person, hybrid or remote learning. In addition, we are embracing technology as a strong tool to support student learning. No longer can we rely on worksheets to gauge students’ mathematical understanding but we are expanding our toolkit to include methodologies that improve upon the ways students learn math, communicate their math thinking and think strategically to solve problems. When we infuse culturally responsive teaching into our practice, we not only engage students in their learning journey, but we use their cultural experiences to enhance everyone’s learning experience. 

As we create culturally responsive learning environments in mathematics classrooms, how often do we reflect on the questions below?

  • When leading a math lesson, how many times do teachers facilitate learning experience for students rather than monopolize talk time?
  • After prompting students to respond to a check for understanding, do teachers listen to student responses, but don’t actually hear what they’ve said? 
  • How often is a teacher’s own bias deterring them from understanding a student’s response in their own words, while looking for the “right” answer? 

These questions lead us to deeply reflect on our role as mathematics teachers; particularly when leading a whole group discussion, do we listen to understand or are we looking for the “right” answer? As Stephen Covey states, one of our biggest communication problems as humans is that we listen to responses and still don’t understand. In many marginalized  communities, storytelling or sharing oral traditions is a core foundation of how history and knowledge are passed down through generations.

According to Zaretta Hammond, “This means their primary ways of knowledge transfer and meaning-making are oral and active. African American, Latino, Southeast Asia, and Pacific Islander communities all have strong oral cultures. Each of these cultural groups uses the brain’s memory systems for turning inert information into usable knowledge. They use memory strategies to make learning sticky, like connecting information to a rhythm or music or by reciting it in interesting ways.” 

So, how do we use oral traditions to connect with students across cultural, mathematical, and social emotional lines? An often-overlooked component of mathematical instruction is Number Talks. Number Talks are short routines that invite students to lead the learning and express their understanding of mathematical concepts and strategies through verbal expressions. Number Talks provides a platform that levels the playing field for all students to share and use their background knowledge to apply it to mathematical concepts.

During a Number Talk, students use their thinking time to process several strategies for solving problems. When they have determined a solution that best aligns with their problem, the class community comes to a consensus for a solution and then students are able to defend their strategy.

Number Talks (download a how-to guide here) combines the use of conceptual mathematical understanding while providing equitable access to the content. The teacher serves purely as a facilitator to push student thinking, asking them to verbalize their strategy and scribe the various answers and methods students share. During this meaningful exchange, students are invited to share their thought process without interruption, judgment or fear. During a number talk, all answers are accepted, and the community decides what the optimal solution is. Number Talks provide students with the opportunity to engage in equitable math practices because:

  1. Students have individual thinking time and aren’t rushed through their process.
  2. Students access strategies that best meet their thinking process.
  3. Students ground their math content in knowledge taught and mastered.
  4. Students explain their process verbally, allowing for more freedom of expression that can be limited on paper.
  5. Teachers serve as facilitators and no longer hold authority as part of the learning environment, so students who are culturally aware of the power of authority can step into their own power.
  6. Teachers are able to assess mathematical knowledge in ways that account for social and emotional needs of students.
  7. Student-teacher relationship is restructured from receiver to provider of knowledge.

As educators, our role in the classroom is greatly impacted by how we perceive the world. An individual’s positionality in the world affects their perspective on mathematical ability.

"Positionality is the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world. In this context, gender, race, class, and other aspects of identities are indicators of social and spatial positions and are not fixed, given qualities. Positions act on the knowledge a person has about things, both material and abstract. Consequently, knowledge is the product of a specific position that reflects particular places and spaces.” -Luis Sánchez, Positionality (entry in Encyclopedia of Geography).

Although we traditionally bring up the idea of Number Talks into the K-2 mathematics classroom, this is a tool that can be used at any grade level. Teachers have an opportunity to invite students into making the learning meaningful. By welcoming students’ ideas, experiences, and strategic thinking, we co-create a culturally relevant learning experience for all students. Rather than being the giver of knowledge, we flip the script when using Number Talks to emphasize the point that all people in the classroom are both givers and receivers of knowledge.

Interested in learning more? Connect with us today to discuss how our math coaches can support your school and teachers.

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