George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Teach Math as a Social Activity

A master math teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, establishes a cooperative-learning environment in an upper-elementary classroom. More to this story.
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How to Teach Math as a Social Activity (Transcript)

Chris: Oftentimes we have private think time before we share our visual models in math, Matthew.

Narrator: Chris Opitz is a master teacher at Bowman Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska. He views math as a social activity, and believes taking time to impart the skills required for cooperative learning can lead to calmer classrooms and more rigorous studies.

Chris: Why is private think time important before we have our discussions? Sadie, what are you thinking?

Narrator: This fifth grade math class was recorded during the first month of the school year.

Chris: At the beginning of the year, we establish a set of working agreements that I provide four categories, I provided speaking, listening, thinking and behavior, and that's really, social emotional learning. Then we did an exercise where the kids thought about, and kind of imagined a great classroom, like, the best place where they could possibly be learning, and what would that look like in each of those categories? And so we took all of those ideas and we developed what's called our working agreement. And then kids look at that consistently and set goals from that, and then they rate themselves. You know, today I did a great job, and they provide an explanation and evidence of their rating in terms of those goals. Also we do a lot of discussion, and that's another area. Kids did the same thing, they worked together, and thought of what a great discussion is. It wasn't kids raising their hands, it was kids bouncing ideas off each other. I personally believe, when kids have some say in making those rules and those routines, and those working agreements, they're going to own them more.

So I'm going to give you your first model. We're probably going to go around and do a fish bowl, where we stand around the outside, and we're going to watch and really think about what a good discussion looks like, how we talk and how we listen, how we ask questions, all of those good things that you guys do very, very well. So here's your first model. Please honor the private think time. Want me to read it with you? Mike has eight dollars, Kelly has twice as much as Mike. Do you know what that word twice as much means? Hey, Riley, could you and Laura work together as a team on this one? Would that be okay with you?

Riley: Sure.

Chris: Okay.

Riley: So Mike has eight dollars. Is this Mike?

Laura: Yeah.

Chris: In any classroom, anywhere you go, you're going to have an incredibly broad range of kids, socially, academically, all across the spectrum, and so how does a single person, as a teacher, as a manager, teach, you know, 20 to 30 kids in a single classroom, when that ability range is so wide? I personally believe that the social skills and more importantly, students building social skills to help them work together, to talk about math, to explain their thinking, to offer help when another student is struggling, and just as importantly, for that child to be able to accept help. That's a really difficult part of that equation. All of those skills are part of the social arena that we're working in, and without them, I don't know how you could teach a classroom with such a broad range of abilities.

Riley: How do you want to make this model?

Chris: Kids' ideas matter.

Thank you for sharing your idea.

When we pay attention to their ideas, not necessarily saying, that's a good idea, or that's a bad idea, but we say, thank you for your idea. They're more willing to share it, they probably care a little bit more, it probably feels a little bit safer to share that idea, because no matter what I say or try to push, unless kids own it, it's not going to matter.

I took your ideas about discussions, what makes a really great discussion, and I wrote them on the board for today. And so when we go to fish bowl, we're going to choose a team like we do. We're going to go around and we're going to make these observations, and your job as an audience, is to listen very closely to see if every voice is heard at that table. I want you to listen for thoughtful questions, and look for this evidence. You ready? Okay, remember, give them space. Give them space, and if you're in front, what can you do to let everybody see? Audience, our voices are off, we're just going to look for evidence of a really great discussion, and then we're going to talk about that afterwards.

I began using the fish bowl, having kids really closely observe other kids in discussion, identifying particular types of language, ways to ask questions, how to use manners when disagreeing, how to choose-- as simply as how to choose who speaks first.

Student: I'll start.

Chris: In a fifth and sixth grade classroom, we wouldn't expect that, but boy, it can derail a classroom instantly, if they don't have those basic skills and once that foundation is built, then the academics can be so much more thoughtful, so much more intense, and that's what we're shooting for.

Student: So Mike started with eight, Kelly had twice as much as Mike, and Joe had half as much as Kelly.

Chris: Every teacher out there has probably said, at some point in time, turn to your neighbor and talk about this idea. Look at your teammates and talk about this idea.

Student: Actually, I'm not quite getting, why did you do those shapes?

Student: Because it looked cool.

Chris: And really watch, and if they are talking about the topic that you've asked them to talk about, if they're actually listening to each other, and using that language and those social skills, then all of a sudden, you have an environment where 30 kids are all learning at the same time.

Student: And how would you get three, even if you did the half of eight? That's four.

Student: Is that right?

Student: I don't know how I got three.

Chris: It's not going to happen at the beginning of the year, but in my opinion, the efficiencies that you'll gain later, by far outweigh the time you spend at the beginning, teaching those basics.

Caleigh, I was standing behind you, and I kept hearing a lot of questions coming your way. How did that make you feel?

Caleigh: I don't know.

Chris: I mean, sometimes when people ask me a lot of questions fast in a row, I get kind of nervous. Do you know what I mean, and I can't-- my thoughts, I kind of lose my own thinking. Does that happen to anybody else, when somebody says, Hey, Riley, hey, Riley, did you-- what's the answer? But do you know what I mean?

Riley: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah. And you get a little nervous but that's all right, that's part of our learning. And so I want you to feel comfortable with that. That's okay to feel that way.

Right now, we're going to have-- the observers are going to discuss a little bit and make some comments. Audience, what are some things that you noticed, okay?

Riley: I kind of have a comment, but I think next time, Braden, because maybe you should spread it out, because when you first had, like the red right there, and then the green right there, it kind of looked like it was just 32.

Braden: Well, I was thinking of it, from, like, a side view, so if you're like down-- but I mean, if-- still, you can kind of somewhat see from my angle.

Chris: Say we provide a math problem. Many students can find the answer very quickly, but can they explain the process that was happening in their mind? Can they explain it to somebody that doesn't understand it? You take a really gifted kid, for example, and you have them try to explain a multiplication problem, a very basic one. They know the answer like that. And try having them explain it to somebody that it doesn't come so quickly to. It's an amazing activity to watch, to see them think through the process, oh, well I know that three times four is three groups of four, or four groups of three, and here's how I see it, and here's what it looks like visually, and that's how I get to this answer. It's an entirely different skill to be in tune with your own thinking, and so, in order to do that in the classroom, those social skills need to be in place.

Okay, for closing today, you're going to go to your math journals, and you're going to write--

By spending some time developing these routines, and helping kids learn social and emotional skills, where they can manage themselves and their interactions with others, the classroom will be a better place to be, and the academics will also be-- have the opportunity to be more rigorous, and thoughtful. And I've seen it work in my classroom, and I believe it can work in other classrooms.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Cal Coleman


  • Karen Sutherland

Comments (71) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

[quote]I think this video is an example of good teaching. However, I really do believe that a teacher needs to be working for more than one month to be considered a "master' at his or her craft.[/quote]

I should clarify: Chris Opitz has indeed been teaching for many years, it's just his first semester at the school shown in the video. The narration is a bit confusing, sorry about that!

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

[quote]Where do we still see this kind of cooperative teaching in action at the high school level math (or other) classes? Perhaps even in inner city schools? Can you point me to any videos I've missed?[/quote]

Hi Nicole,

Thanks for your interest! The best video example I can offer that shows cooperative learning in a math classroom at the HS level is one from our archives Applying Math Skills to a Real-World Problem. It's not a fishbowl, as described here, but has students successfully collaborating in groups on a project.

Another good example, from an Econ class, is Developing Minds: Learning How to Rebuild a Town.

There are certainly a new set of challenges at the high school level!

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I was wondering the same thing Amy, thanks for the clarification.

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Great news for those of you who teach HS -- we've just published a video where high school teachers are being trained to use a fishbowl:

How KIPP Teachers Learn to Teach Critical Thinking

Professional development at KIPP King includes setting up "fishbowl" classroom configurations, assigning student roles, and other techniques for facilitating successful Socratic discussions.

Hope it's helpful!

cheryl Best's picture
cheryl Best
Fifth Grade Teacher from Bunker Hill,IL

I really beieve in what he is saying. I would like to see more.

Jacqueline Pizzuti Ashby's picture
Jacqueline Pizzuti Ashby
Learning environment researcher

Collaborative learning in math is so important in the learning process. Great to see an example of it in action. Thank you for sharing.

Susannah Skyer Gupta's picture

Thank you for sharing this. I am fairly new to teaching and anything in this vein (social-emotional, discussion strategies, classroom management) is useful to me. I will think about how to incoporate this into my 21-student gifted STEM enrichment class.

Kathryn's picture
2nd Grade, Maryland New to Teaching

As a new teacher in the field of education I really loved watching this video. My question however is how would you transition this type of instruction from a fifth grade classroom into a second grade classroom? In other words how would you make this type of discussion work for a second grade classroom environment?

Wade Colson's picture
Wade Colson
Professor @ The University of Missouri

Kids these days are definitely smarter than when I was their age. In my opinion, this is primarily due to better teaching programs like this that allow kids to absorb information easier.

am805's picture

I noticed several beneficial educational tactics in this video, starting with the exercise in which children were asked for their opinion on what constitutes the best classroom environment. I thought this was a highly constructive exercise because it recognizes the child's voice, so that the child feels that his or her opinion matters. I think this strategy is effective in increasing the students' self-esteem and self-efficacy, because they learn that their teacher regards them highly enough to ask for input on an issue that usually the teacher has full control over. Another great point about the exercise was that it forces children to rate themselves based on their standards for their ideal classroom, and self-evaluation is an important tool that can be easily learned in this situation. In regards to the wide spectrum of abilities and personalities that exist within the classroom, I thought this teacher took a very practical approach in creating opportunities for students to provide help to, and more importantly, accept help from one another. In my opinion, this type of learning environment promotes self-confidence and healthy peer relationships. It was especially worth noting that all student voices were heard, and that students were told that being nervous is normal, instead of feeling ashamed and harboring self-doubt.

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