Number Talks

Learning Landscape Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Many people look at the way Maths is taught today and think ‘this is so different from the way I learnt in school’. Schools have traditionally taught the one ‘best’ way (usually an algorithm) to solve a given problem. This approach also fostered the belief in children that they were simply either good or bad at Maths, an impression that often lasted all through school and into adulthood. But today it is very different. Students are encouraged to experiment with many different ways to solve a problem. This scope deepens their understanding of both maths concepts and number sense. Students learn to see the value of mistakes in their learning and these are celebrated as learning opportunities. A growth mindset and flexible thinking are now essential ingredients to both engagement and achievement in mathematics. 

Number Sense

Number sense is the ability to have a deep understanding of number and number relationships so that you can be flexible in your problem solving. It means moving beyond being bound by traditional algorithms. For example, a student with number sense could look at a problem such as 29+5 and change it to 30+4 for easier calculation. Professor Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University describes number sense as the foundation for all higher-level mathematics. 

How do we promote number sense at Living Faith?

Students from Prep to Year 6 participate in short number talks several times a week. Number talks are an important way of building up students’ number sense and helping them see that there are several ways to solve a problem. Participation in these talks is a great way to challenge old beliefs that Maths was about speed and black and white thinking. Number talks are also a great way for students to learn that there is no such thing as a ‘maths brain’ and that we all have the potential to grow, improve and learn. 

What does a typical number talk look like?

At the beginning of a Maths lesson, the teacher poses a Maths problem. Students then solve the problem and share with the group how they went about solving it. The teacher writes up several of these processes and solutions as the student is explaining and the board becomes a grid of several different ways the problem can be solved. Incorrect answers are also unpacked so that everyone can learn from each other. In lower primary, the problems and student responses are more visual and tactile, yet still provide an opportunity for students to creatively problem-solve to get an answer. For example, ‘show me how we can make seven’ - some students may raise five fingers on one hand and two on the other. Some may show three fingers and four fingers. As students become more familiar with number talks they try to ‘think outside the square’ more often thus gaining a deeper understanding of number relationships. 

If you would like to learn more about number sense or number talks, below are a few links to short videos from Professor Jo Boaler from Stanford University. 

- Bianca Ravi, Director of Learning