Arrive at the start of a maths lesson at my school and you are likely to come across groups of pupils chatting about maths. Not necessarily, or even usually, about number or calculation, but rather about the maths of everyday life.
You could catch pupils talking about the maths in a packet of biscuits, a glass of water, a map, or a photograph, to name just a few examples. The more cross-curricular-minded teachers may even have a topic focus, such as a Viking longboat or Greek pot for their maths chat.
In fact, the focus could be anything at all, as long as pupils are engaging in maths-related discussions with each other.
These "chatty maths" sessions, as we have named them, are a key feature of our approach to maths teaching and learning and the impact has been huge.
But wait, this is nothing new, you may say. And, partly, you would be right. As teachers, we know that dialogic teaching underpins good classroom practice. There is much evidence to support this view and entire publications are devoted to developing maths talk.
However, there is a subtle difference between chatty maths and the talk you may encourage in your maths lesson. The use of the word "chat" rather than "talk" is the clue: chatty maths interactions are informal and friendly.
Chatty maths is not aimed at answering questions, reaching conclusions or justifying opinions. It is not adult-led, nor are there right or wrong answers. It is simply chat about maths, which is accessible to all and inclusive of all.
So what purpose do these chats serve?
It was not so very long ago that, as a school, we identified a lack of passion for maths. Mindsets were fixed with maths considered by many pupils – and, dare I say, in some cases, by teachers – as a subject that you either could or couldn’t do. Lessons were dominated by those who "could", leaving a significant number of passive learners, many of whom were bound by maths anxiety and would rarely contribute in class, let alone see the relevance of maths to their own lives.
Passion for maths
Chatty maths is one initiative we used to tackle this. The usual format for starter activities tends to be high stakes with a focus on fluency and speed. Although such activities can have a place, they do little to engage the anxious mathematician, as even activities that aim to include all pupils through recording answers on whiteboards to wave in the air still demand right or wrong answers.
Also, without skilful management, such activities can soon become a competition between pupils to be quickest or the most frequently correct.
Instead, chatty maths provides a low-risk start to learning in which every pupil can participate. There are no answers. Pupils are simply required to chat about the chosen focus, which can range from a picture, a pattern, an everyday object or a mathematical resource, such as a bead string or Cuisenaire rods. Any pupil can comment on the number or shape of something, for example, while others will extend themselves by using more demanding vocabulary.
These five minutes of chat encourage connections to be made between maths and the world our pupils know in a non-threatening and non-competitive atmosphere.
Chatty maths isn’t a new initiative – it is simply a shift in focus away from the pressure to find an answer to open discussion.
How to get chatty
To get started, teachers need to model their own thinking until pupils are ready to manage their own small group chats: “The book is rectangular in shape”, “There are 324 pages”, “It cost £5.99”.
Teachers can also use questions to stimulate discussion: “What do you notice?”, “What is the same and what is different?” and “Where is the maths?”
After that, teachers can sit back and eavesdrop on conversations. The temptation to use Bloom’s taxonomy questions or speaking frames – both important learning tools – should be resisted. Remember, the objective is to create a non-threatening atmosphere for an informal and friendly chat.
What impact should you see? A chatty maths lesson start highlights the presence and importance of maths in a range of contexts. It creates a positive learning atmosphere, builds confidence and gives a maths voice to those who would normally remain silent. It sets the tone for the learning that follows.
Deborah Harris is assistant headteacher at Wormley CE Primary School, Hertfordshire