“Darla, as you were comparing 2/6 and 2/4, I heard you mention that 2/4 equals 1/2. Can you tell me more about your thinking?”
Are you curious about what Darla, a third-grade student, might say next? Are you wondering if Darla intends to apply her knowledge of equivalent fractions to this problem in order to compare each fraction to 1/2? I was curious too and couldn’t wait to learn more about Darla as a mathematician.
As educators, when we hear the word conference, we often think of one-on-one meetings with students to discuss how their writing is developing. But conferring has an important place in the K–5 math classroom as well. Math conferences, like this one with Darla, help us to uncover student understanding and provide an opportunity to nudge students toward deeper understanding. Math conferences are a surprisingly versatile addition to every math teacher’s tool kit.
What Is a Math Conference?
A math conference is a conversation with students as they are engaged in problem-solving. The purpose of this type of conversation is to make students’ strengths transparent to them and their classmates and to use those strengths to nudge students forward in their mathematical understanding.
Are you wondering how you could ever fit anything else into your math block? Great news! Conferring occurs during the time already reserved for students to work on problems or tasks, and each conference can be done in roughly 5 minutes.
Choosing a Conference Strategy
While all conferences are conversational and should feel natural, having a structure can help make conferences predictable for you and your students. Here are two structures you might try.
Conferring within the task: As the name suggests, during this type of conference, the nudging that you provide for students stays connected to the task they are currently working on. These are the four parts of this type of conference: notice and understand, uncover student thinking, name and reinforce, and invite sharing. Try asking questions such as “Tell me about what you have written in your notebook. Why did you decide to do that? What does your representation or model show?”
Next, you will name one specific strength for students and describe how that choice or strategy is useful. For example, imagine that a first-grade student has explained that they solved the problem 8 + 6 by thinking of the problem as 10 + 4. You might name and reinforce this strategy by saying something like, “I see. So, you decomposed 6 into 4 and 2. Then you were able to make 10 with 8 and 2. Knowing that you can decompose addends into parts helps you to think flexibly and make creative decisions about how to solve addition problems.”
Finally, the conference concludes by inviting students to share this idea or strategy with their classmates.
Conferring beyond the task: A second conferring structure you might try has similar components, but it concludes with an invitation for students to think about the math beyond the current task. After naming and reinforcing a strength, consider nudging students to think beyond the task and then inviting conjecture and sharing.
To encourage students to think about the math beyond the current problem, you might say something like, “Decomposing addends into parts seemed to work well for this problem. You were able to make 10, and then you knew 10 and 4 is 14. I wonder if decomposing addends works for all addition problems. I also wonder if this is something that works for subtraction. What do you think?” These types of questions get students to consider the mathematics concepts beyond a specific problem or task and work toward making generalizations.
As students ponder these questions, you nudge them further by inviting them to develop conjectures, or ideas about how they think the math concept works. Conjectures can be explained to students as something they believe to be mathematically true. Before sharing their conjectures with their classmates, students should be encouraged to test out their ideas so that they can justify their thinking with examples when sharing with the math community.
Both within- and beyond-the-task structures support students to dig deeper into particular math concepts. As a teacher, you can move flexibly between these conferring structures. It is important not to reserve a beyond-the-task conference only for students who you feel are ready for a challenge. Both structures are appropriate for all students at any point in their mathematical understanding. Choosing a conferring structure is a decision best made in the moment by determining whether or not exploring the math within the current problem will lead to a deeper level of understanding.
3 Goals for Math Conferences
1. Conferring to build relationships: Sharing ideas with others can be intimidating for some students, especially at the start of a new school year. Conferring regularly with students helps build strong relationships between you and your students and among your students. This practice of listening to students and encouraging them to share their thinking helps them to see value in their ideas and the ideas of their peers.
As conferring becomes a regular practice in the classroom, you may notice that students begin to share and collaborate with one another without prompting. You may even notice students questioning one another and justifying their thinking—a sign of healthy relationships where students’ mathematical thinking is challenged and extended through conversation with their peers.
2. Conferring to deepen students’ mathematical understanding: Conferring has the power of putting the math front and center for students. Through these conversations, students are guided to shift their focus from completing assignments to thinking about and making sense of the math they are being asked to do.
Listening, observing, and nudging your students forward in their thinking gives students opportunities to consider how the math works, when it works, and how it might be applied in other contexts and situations. Most significantly, this practice encourages students to be active participants in the classroom math community.
3. Conferring to foster an authentic math community: The term math community is used often to describe a classroom of math learners, but in an authentic math community, students are positioned as creative decision makers with ownership of their ideas and their work. In this type of learning environment, students work alongside one another, recognizing that each person in the community offers something valuable to consider.
Conferring helps foster this type of authentic community because each time you nudge students to share with their peers, you make clear that they are the center of the community, rather than the teacher. The more you confer with your students, the more they will realize that sharing their ideas, strategies, and conjectures is part of their work as mathematicians. And this type of work is all their own.
Sometimes implementing a new teaching practice can feel overwhelming, but conferring is a practice that can be incorporated into your math block slowly over time. In fact, you might consider starting with one a day.