• Alex Box

Busting myths about maths - how do number talks help?

Updated: May 16

I recently stumbled on this page in the Victorian Mathematics Teaching Toolkit. The list of common myths about learning maths caught my attention. Being an avid number talks nerd, I made some connections. There's so much to delve into with each of these myths - these are just a handful of my own reflections in relation to number talks. I'd be curious about any related thoughts or insights you have too.

Number talks emphasise depth over speed. They're a collaborative learning approach.

The Gene Myth

"You either have a maths gene or you don't"

Number talks are a whole class routine. Number talks bring together students of all mathematical experiences to share their varying perspective on one problem. They're inclusive, not segregative, and they principally value all strategies equally.

The Gender Myth

"One gender is better than another at maths"

Number talks involve equitable learning and teaching practices. In the book Mathematical Mindsets (the Equitable Strategies chapter), Jo Boaler shares research about what engages girls and helps develop positive mathematical identities. Among these were:

a connected approach to mathematics in why they can pursue questions of why, when and how methods work.

Number talks are all about how different methods work to reach an answer. Instead of modelling methods for solving, the teacher models curiosity about why the students' strategies do or don't work. Through this process, mathematical connections in number come out naturally through the conversations.

The Speed Myth

"Ability in mathematics can be measured by how quickly a problem is solved"

Number talks emphasise depth over speed. A number talk begins with the teacher revealing a prompt to think about. It might be a visual prompt where students work out how many. Or it could be a written number problem to solve.

Students are given wait time. It's not a race to answer. Instead there's an expectation that once students solve the problem one way, they extend themselves by looking for other ways to solve the problem. Some groups use subtle hand protocols in front of the chest, instead of hands up, to indicate to the teacher where they're at with their thinking. This helps to make visible the de-emphasis on speed.

The Memory Myth

"Maths is only about memorising facts, rules and procedures"

Number talks emphasise methods instead of the answer. You may have noticed that number problems are written horizontally in a number talk. This nudges away from the vertical algorithm procedure toward taking a more cognisant look at the numbers. Big ideas like place value become relevant and students work with these authentically as they work to solve the problem.

The big question that number talks centre on is How do you know? You can't escape the job of reasoning mathematically in a number talk! For this reason, number talks are a great routine to start creating a culture where mathematical reasoning is embedded - where students are supported to develop habits that support them to make sense and to be precise.

The Creativity Myth

"Maths is not a creative pursuit as there is usually one right way and one right answer"

Number talks involve students generating their own strategies, or 'way', to solve a problem. While number talks pose problems which technically have one right answer, they do emphasise the different ways that students come up with to solve them.

There is no explicit teaching or modelling of a particular strategy by the teacher in a number talk, or an expectation that every one use the same strategy. Students are given the time and space to think creatively about the numbers in front of them and to share that thinking.

The Perfection Myth

"Mathematicians never make mistakes"

Number talks help to normalise and value mistakes. They also acknowledge that maths-anxiety is a real, culturally embedded problem in our society. Number talks tread carefully in this space. As a recovering perfectionist, and having seen plenty an anxiety attack from people of all ages related to their perfectionism, careful reflection and thoughtful execution around this is important. Here are some of the ways number talks address this myth:

  • The poker face - when collecting answers during a number talk, the teacher/leader All answers are collected without judgement, no matter how off they may be!

  • Freedom to change answers - no answers given are set in stone. Students can change their answer if and when they wish.

  • Flexibility to finish without consensus. Sometimes students who've volunteered incorrect answers early on, aren't yet comfortable in publicly changing their answers. Wrapping up with more than one answer remaining on the board is something we can learn to be comfortable with.

  • Cautious curiosity about mistakes. While individual students are not called upon to explain their thinking (it's an approach where students volunteer their ideas), it can be powerful to model curiosity about how mistakes might have come about and really treat them as a learning opportunity. Here's a tip page about how to make space to explore mistakes in a non-threatening.

These are just a few of my thoughts! There'd be plenty more on how number talks help to bust damaging myths in mathematics. If you've any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

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