Scaling Meaningful Discourse – Recap

Our workshop at this year’s System Thinking Institute focused on how to increase the adoption of meaningful discourse within math lessons. As we noted in our last post, recognizing that a practice is effective is not enough. If we want to see widespread and sustainable adoption, the practice must be part of a larger solution that solves a real problem for teachers.

To understand how we might do that, we teamed up with Danielle Robinson, the Math Interventionist from Brown Street Academy.  Danielle lead the group through an exploration of their hopes and fears around introducing meaningful discourse into the classroom.  In the afternoon, we used that to guide a discussion of the factors that drive the decisions teachers make as they plan their lessons.

After the first day’s session ended, we sifted through everything we heard to construct a profile, written from a teacher’s perspective, that summarizes how they think about meaningful discourse, and what that means for their planning.  Day 2 began with a discussion of this profile. You can view the complete profile here.

Moving Towards a Solution

With our profile in hand, Danielle led us through a look at factors that drive or hinder quality math discourse in the classroom.  That set the stage for us to identify four key problems teachers face as they seek to introduce discourse or Number Talks in their classrooms:

  • Number talks are new to me and I’m not comfortable trying them out on my students
  • I don’t know how I will assess how my students are doing when I use a number talk as part of a lesson
  • I worry about being to reach all students in my class
  • I don’t have the resources (tools, time, support) to do number talks well/get good at doing so quickly

Using a version of the Lean Startup Canvas we’ve adapted for looking at programs within schools, we had the group sketch out what a solution might look like.  You can see the canvas we put together here.

The approach we arrived at equips classroom teachers with tools, resources, and support to drive quality discourse in a way that allows it to take root, and commit to seeing that it does.  Here’s what that looks like:


  • Set of common terms/behaviours to be used by teachers working on meaningful discourse
  • List of sentence starters teachers can use to guide students
  • Quick Checklist for Number Talk lessons, that identifies strategies students might use in the exercise as well common misunderstandings. The checklist should provide an easy way for the teacher to make note of the strategies and/or misunderstandings of individual students. It should also indicate how the lesson relates to standards (MTAP?)
  • Best practice anchor charts for Number Talks
  • Use Reflection Journals to have students reflect on their own learning/approaches
  • List of ideas for math challenges teachers can use to check understanding


  • In-building math specialist who is available for in-classroom modeling of meaningful discourse and ongoing support/mentoring as teachers develop their skills in leading math discourse.
  • In-building cohort of teachers working to integrate meaningful discourse into their lessons, and support each other in doing so.
  • Cross school network of teachers working to expand the use meaningful discourse in their schools.
  • Peer-based professional development that respects the voice of teachers.
  • Schedule changes that would allow teachers to observe/provide feedback to each other.


  • Overt support from building leadership for teachers who elect to integrate meaningful discourse into their math lessons.
  • Permission from district administration for teachers to deviate from the pacing guide based on their students’ needs.

Next Steps

We treat everything on the canvas as a hypothesis to be tested.  The key assumption to validate first is that the problems we identified are issues for teachers beyond those in our session. There is no point investing time and money in a solution if we aren’t focused on the right problem.

We had a number of Danielle’s colleagues from Brown Street in our session, but as a first step, we’ll look to review the list of problems we came up with to confirm that these are important to a wider group of teachers at her school.  Assuming these teachers see the same set of issues, the group identified a series of actions we could take both before the end of this school year as well as over the summer to lay the groundwork for a strong start in the fall.

  • Converting a CAB to a number talk
  • (continue to) Provide intervention to students that need extra instruction
  • Practice Number Talk procedures
  • Establish a common language for Number Talks (“turn and talk” vs “shoulder partners”)
  • Create prototypes for tools– sentence stems, anchor charts, checklist

We’ll review were we landed at the next meeting of our Middle School Math workgroup. We don’t want to lose momentum coming out of the workshop, so we’ll continue to work with Milwaukee Succeeds and Danielle and her colleagues from Brown Street Academy to move this forward.

Middle School Math Workgroup – February 26th Recap & Notes

The focus for our workgroup is now shifting to explore how we can speed the adoption of meaningful discourse/Number Talks within schools.  If we want to scale an effective practice, we need to get beyond simply asking (or telling) teachers to use the practice because it is effective. As teachers plan their lessons, they need to balance a number of competing forces. For Number Talks to be part of their solution, we need to understand those forces, and set up the conditions where the regular inclusion of Number Talks becomes the easy choice for them to make.  This will be the focus of our two day workshop at the Systems Thinking Institute next week.

Our February workgroup meeting was a chance to start down this path.

We began our session with a clip from Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who coined the term “disruptive innovation”. In this clip, he describes work he and his colleagues did to get a handle on why so many milkshakes are sold to commuters in the morning.  The key insight was not to look at the demographics of the buyer, but asking what problem they were buying the milkshake to solve — the “Job to be Done”.  In the case of this group of commuters, the Job to be Done was to give them something to do on a long commute, not leave them hungry by 10:00 in the morning, and not make a mess on the way.  As Christensen puts it, by understanding the requirements of the Job to be Done, we can craft solutions that allow customers to pull the solution into their lives.

To start down the path to understand the forces that guide the decisions teachers make when planning a lesson, Danielle Robinson, the Math Interventionist for Brown Street Academy led our group through an exploration of the hopes and fears they hold around Number Talks.

Our big question: How can we facilitate meaningful math discourse in our classroom?

What do you hope will happen when you implement math discourse in your classroom?

  • Kids help teach each other, and are excited about learning
  • Increased conceptual understanding
  • Increased student to student relationships
  • Build confidence in their math identity
  • Teachers would have better understanding of math learning process
  • Evidence-based conversations
  • Students make their own connections
  • Increased student engagement
  • Students learning multiple strategies from each other
  • Disagreement and testing new ideas
  • Teachers utilize feedback/take in student reactions
  • School-level, better attention paid to increased comprehension of math principles
  • Collect evidence
  • Inter-grade coherence
  • Raises the visibility of ah-ha moments for students
  • Coherence between subjects
  • Equity
  • Build community (students feel safe enough to share their thinking)
  • Students build relationships with each other
  • Learn to disagree respectfully

What do you fear will happen when you implement discourse in your classroom?

  • Non-stop discourse
  • Students get off-topic
  • If a teacher can’t properly define meaningful/productive discourse
  • Teacher will not value discourse/only values certain students discourse
  • Loss of Equity of voice
  • Teacher compliance vs. fidelity
  • If a principal wants discourse in a building, but how do they support
  • Fear of lacking support in the school
  • Students not becoming fluent in skills
  • Discourse time inconsistent with test time, basically how do you test learning
  • Difficult to measure the results of math discourse
  • Grading can be difficult, in terms of what a teacher values

Danielle asked the group to pick key hopes and fears for meaningful discourse and graph how they expected what they hoped for/feared would change over time.  Across the group, the top fears centered on classroom management issues. The top hope was that students would share their thinking rather than just their answers.

Testing this process with the workgroup has given us a sense of what we might expect in our Institute Workshop. In that longer session we’ll be working with Danielle to further explore the factors that drive teachers’ decisions around the practices they incorporate.  We’ll look for common themes and identify measures one might that can make meaningful discourse a solution teachers want to pull into their lesson plans.



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