Teaching Math with Number Talks | Montana Behavior Initiative Summer Institute 2017

When I was at (Montana Behavior Initiative Summer Institute 2017) MBI in June of 2017  the first workshop session I went to was called Teaching Math with Number Talks and it was presented by LeAnne Yenny and Becky Burg. These two exciting and enthusiastic master teachers were a dynamic duo! They delivered an incredible amount of content using concrete examples and visuals enabling teachers k-12 to implement into their classrooms by the time they left the room that day. I felt like I walked out with a whole new shelf for my mathematical teaching toolbox.

Number Talks for Parents and Families as well as Teachers

Number talks can help parents and families as well as students. I have created the following videos to help you see how number talks should work and how your students should behave while others are sharing.

Computation Strategies include

  • efficient
  • flexible
  • accurate

Poker Face

You never hear the teacher say “Your thinking is incorrect” Many times it takes a poker face to keep from being too excited when a student has correctly identified the strategy you have been teaching or when they come up with an extremely advanced idea and also to encourage a wrong answer so the students find their own mistakes.

Awesome Teaching Tactic

Students put fists over heart to represent your brain and thinking time

One of the coolest tips I picked up was this procedure for thinking time. Students were instructed to put their fist over their heart to indicate thinking after the question was posed. This not only enables the teacher to see where students are at in their thinking process but it keeps students from distracting others by yelling I’m done! Raising their hands up and waving them around! Keeps them working.

She follows this by saying Show me a thumbs up when you have an answer. when you have your answer, think about how you would explain what strategy you used. When you have your answer and your strategy, show me your first finger. Then see if you can come up with another strategy. Put your second finger out. When you have 3 strategies figures out pick the most effective one.

A number talk with kindergarteners would be a bit simpler then a number talk amongst middle schoolers.

Students need to be able to give a verbal explanation of their strategy.

So the first problem was 70-34.

This is something we taught in my classroom this year and a concept many many of my students struggled with.  Especially in the beginning.


MATH is not about Memorizing Rules

Students need to know WHY the rules and algorithms work. They need to be able to Visualize math and solve problems in a variety of ways. Students need to know how math is applied in real live. Common Core Enables all learners to understand.

Students who learn the procedure without understanding how the math works have nothing to connect it with. If teachers just say do it this way you’ll get the answer they are going to struggle in middle school with algebra etc.

Mistakes have to be valued!

If students say I don’t understand ______ ‘s strategy, it’s good for the teacher to ask “Can someone explain?”

Classroom community and environment of classroom discussions

The teacher’s role is to guide students through purposeful computation problems

It’s about understanding concepts not just the standard algorithm.


Essential Tips and Procedures:

  • Select a Designated Location

Either by the calendar on the rug, beneath the smart board, even turning seats around can make student understand that it is a special time.

  • Provide Appropriate Wait Time

    Allow enough time for most students to assess problem. This is where allowing them to come up with multiple strategies with their fist over their heart is magical!

  •  Accept All Answers

    Respect and consider all answers. Keep a poker face on.

  • Encourage Student Communications

    Students learn to discuss different strategies and defend both right and wrong answers. When I taught my students I made these little partner practice papers. My coach said don’t have them fill them out, just use them for talking cues. But my students loved to fill them out with dry erase markers.

Procedural vs Conceptual Fluency

Procedure: What to do – often just has one method.

Conceptual – What to do – which method to choose and why

Traditional approach favors rote performance over problem solving.

Our students deserve more then just rote drill and kill practice.

Stanford Professor Jo Boaler

Most effective learn math facts working on problem that they enjoy rather than thru exercises and drills they fear.

Speed pressure timed testing and blind memorization damage kids experiences of math

Commit to ten 0 15 minutes everyday


# talks fall flat after a week, kids can’t explain. Make sure you don’t quit. It takes a long time to build a foundation for number talks to still be effective come spring. Push through and keep your number talks going each week and you will find your students amaze you with their ability to discuss mathematic strategies and practices academically.

If you’d like my cheat sheet for building number sense subscribe to my email here.


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