Noisy Classrooms and Student Discourse

Article by Kathleen Jones

Noise and lots of it. A cacophony of young voices speaking at once. It is a room full of 2nd grade math students; students who are oblivious to my presence and engaged in conversations with their peers. What, though, is all the chatter about? Recess? Video games? Gossip? Not even close. These students, sitting in groups of 2 and 3, are sharing their ideas about whether the sum of two odd numbers always produces an even or odd number. This topic, it turns out, was posed as a question by one of the students in the class. The teacher, in turn, instructed the class to discuss this in small groups. While viewed as an amazing environment to some, others might wonder what the big deal is all about. Moreover, why take up valuable time having students, especially this young, talk about math? Why not simply reveal the solution to them and move on? Why? Students’ creativity and inquisitiveness must be recognized and valued as a necessary tool for learning. We must foster nurturing classroom environments that are rich in collegiality and student discourse.

Student discourse is much more than random ramblings of students. It is a focused discussion of, in this case, a mathematical topic. To ensure the productivity of the activity, though, the teacher must create the supportive learning environment. To this end, students must actively practice appropriate listening and speaking skills. They need to practice “tracking” the speaker in the room with their eyes. Students of all ages can use sentence-starters as an aid for productive conversations.

To Agree To Disagree To Clarify To Add On
My strategy is like yours because… Here is how my strategy is different… How did you… Another strategy…
That answer makes sense because… I have a different idea… What would happen if… This reminds me of…
I agree with you because… I disagree with you because… Can you explain… I want to add…


Teachers can ensure that students have productive dialog in a variety of settings, whether whole-group, small group, or peer-to-peer. Teachers do this by orchestrating the discourse in a way that maintains the focus of the discussion. This simply means that he or she helps keep the conversation going in class by utilizing nudging and/or probing types of questions. These questions can also serve to re-direct conversations.


Nudging Questions Probing Questions
I wonder how your understanding of ______ can help you with this situation. Does this strategy always work?
Is there another strategy you could try? How is your strategy like your partners?
Is it possible that there is more than one solution to this problem? What other math can you connect this with?
Can you convince yourself, a friend, and a skeptic? Can you explain why your strategy worked?

Imagine a classroom environment that encourages healthy debate, promotes student discourse, fosters the use of multiple strategies, and is a catalyst for developing the ability to critically analyze one another’s’ thinking. Hmmm. That’s a classroom where students can thrive!

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