We were introduced to a protocol called “Talking Points” by Elizabeth Statmore (@cheesemonkeysf). Participants take turns agreeing, disagreeing, or expressing uncertainty about a list of statements. Each response must have a reason, and no commenting is allowed. The process occurs a second time with the same statements, and final opinions are tallied during the third round.
The protocol got me thinking, ‘What does it take for students to talk and listen to one another?’ No single reflection can do this question justice, so I’ll just go through two thoughts, one about talking and one about listening.
1: Students won’t speak if they’re rarely given the chance, and even if given the chance, they’ll rarely take it unless they think their thoughts are worthwhile. That’s why Elizabeth Statmore’s Talking Points and Ilana Horn’s ideas about competence have been so valuable in helping us think critically about our practice. Student talk requires space and intention. Protocols like Talking Points give students the opportunity to speak and a framework for structuring their thoughts, while surfacing our students’ competencies (like being willing to take risks or highlighting the strengths of others) make it more likely that our students will exercise them through dialogue. Recent posts by Dylan Kane (who makes a compelling distinction between getting students to feel competence and getting to students to recognize their competence) and Deb Barnum (who makes a great point that such protocols can “keep our conversations grounded in evidence”) resonate with me in these respects.
2: Listening to someone else’s ideas about math is different from listening to someone else’s ideas about other subjects. Because of the high stakes people feel about their own math abilities, it’s hard to accept an idea that’s different from your own because it may mean your idea was incorrect or incomplete. To paraphrase one teachers’ comment: you’re not going to listen to someone else’s thought if that would mean yours is wrong.
I wonder if this makes listening to mathematical ideas less about hearing what another person says and more about being willing to be influenced by them. How someone sees mathematics is closely tied to this issue. If math is mainly about being right and wrong, a person’s own thoughts are more likely to be a barrier from those of others. As teachers who want our students to become not only better talkers but also better listeners, we have an obligation to normalize for our students the idea that doing math requires making mistakes and revising our thinking. This is a necessary step toward ensuring that receiving feedback doesn’t get in the way of recognizing ones own competence. But this is also multi-dimensional work, and so helping our students form a healthy understanding of math is merely one aspect of designing a classroom that takes into account how students position one another and themselves. But it’s a step in the right direction.