We confer with our students in reading and writing, but why isn’t it as common in math?
Today on the podcast, we’re joined by Jen Munson, author of In the Moment, and Faith Kwon and Mary Trinkle, teachers from East Palo Alto California in whose classrooms Jen conducted much of her research for the book. Jen, Faith, and Mary believe that talking to students about their work, while they work, is a powerful way of supporting learning. While conferring in math takes ques from reading and writing conferences, its structure is unique.
So we wanted to know: Why is conferring in math important?
Below is a full transcript of the conversation!
Jen: So, conferring is one of the most differentiated forms of instruction that teachers can engage in. They elicit student thinking and they figure out where students are right now, and they act on that information immediately, so students get the opportunity to have their thinking pushed at precisely the moment and place where they are. So, conferring is incredibly important for this need for differentiated instruction, but it also provides simultaneously in the moment feedback for teachers about where their class is. As they collect that information around the room, they get a strong sense of what the trends are, where student thinking is, and what the students collectively might need next.
One other thing that I think is really crucial is that conferring offers us an opportunity to promote equity and inclusion. A lot of voices don't get heard in classrooms. Sometimes students are simply quieter and they don't want to participate in whole class discussions. Other times, that quiet masks misunderstandings and other challenges. It might even mask being excluded from a partnership and having difficulties socially with your peers. Conferring creates a small setting for talking about what each student is thinking, and how they're thinking together, and gives teachers the opportunity to pull each student into the mathematical work and into equitable collaboration with their peers.
Lauren: How is conferring in math similar to and different from conferring in reading and writing?
Faith: I would say that they are quiet similar, and I think that especially for teachers who are new to the practice of conferring in math, there's so much that you can draw on from your expertise in conferring in reading and writing that is really going to help you immerse yourself in this new kind of supporting students in the math classroom. Similar to when I'm conferring in reading and writing, I'm trying to elicit student thinking. I'm seeing where they're at, what they're showing me. I'm asking probing questions, in case I have questions about what they're doing, or if I'm confused about what they're doing, or I want more evidence to see where they need to go next.
And then, I'm making a decision about what they need in the moment. What's going to be the highest leverage teaching point for them? And then, I'm going to make that instructional decision, and give them an opportunity to practice that in front of me.
Lauren: So do you often ... you're having math conferences with students, and then, you're thinking in that moment, like, "Oh, this is how I need to shift my math teaching tomorrow," or is it further out? Are you playing a longer game in that kind of way? Like, is it that sort of next day move, or maybe it's both? I don't know.
Faith: Yeah. Thank you for thinking I'm so planful. I would say that typically, I am really wanting to follow the students, so I'm giving myself that opportunity to be flexible, and I'm not trying to be hyper planful, because ultimately, if I keep trying to anticipate what they're going to say, I'm not actually going to be taking their lead and meeting them where they're at. And something that Jen says a lot, which is really true, is that children are constantly surprising you, and you wish they would say something, and they say something completely different, or they really surprise you with some sort of emerging understanding that you didn't expect from them.
And so, I do think that it feels messy. Conferring can feel messy, because it doesn't actually always behoove you to be very planful, and over-anticipate what might happen.
Mary: I agree with Faith that there's a lot of similarities in the way we pull up next to kids. I'm more curious about what they're doing, and more really listening to their ideas and their thinking, both in reading and writing, and math. But, I think with the literacy conferences, there's more structure to it, and I oftentimes will be thinking about the big picture of the unit, and I'll be thinking about what I taught that day, or the day before, or where I'm going to next. And so, I think I'm a little bit more strategic in reading and writing than I would say I am in math, whereas in math, I'm really supporting the students, like Faith said, to go with what they're showing me in that moment, and to build their thinking wherever they're at.
And so, I think that there's similarities in it, but I think that math is a little more open in that we're really ... or it feels open to me, just because I'm going with where the students are. And then, I am, of course, thinking about the unit, and where I want them to be by the end of the year, but it seems more specific to the strategy they're using, or the conversation that they're having with their partner, versus in reading and writing, they are working by themselves. And so, it's a little bit more oriented to specifically what they're doing.
Lauren: So when you're conferring students in math, are they always acting collaboratively?
Mary: For me, it's, I would say, most of the time. This year, I have a specific group of students that are extremely strong in their ability to work with each other, and they've gotten to a place where they've realized they're too dependent on each other. So, when they're doing an assessment on their own, or when we're thinking to the big tests that are coming up, they lose confidence in themselves. And so, this year, I've had to kind of re-work my way of structuring math, because they've asked for more work on their own, because they really want to build their thinking by themselves.
But, I would say for the most part, in my classroom, I would say like 90% of the time, they're working in partnerships or groups.
Lauren: How could I get started conferring in my math classroom?
Jen: So, I think the most important entry point is just eliciting student thinking and trying to learn to pay attention to it. I think nudging student thinking forward is really powerful, but it's built on a foundation of eliciting student thinking, and understanding what students are doing right now in the moment. And that in and of itself takes lots of practices, because students don't tell us everything upfront. And what they tell us, they often tell us out of order. They might say it with lots of half sentences. They might do so circularly. They might couple their words with motions and manipulatives.
And because of all the complexities of the ways that kids communicate, figuring out just what they have already done is very complex work. And it's the place to start. Just ask some questions. What are you doing? What are you trying? And continue to ask questions until you as the teacher really understand what kids have done, the sense they're making, and why they did what they did. And if you don't yet understand, then there's more to ask and to feel comfortable asking more.
One of the important parts here is that when teachers are learning to confer, students are learning to confer with their teachers. So as we are asking questions, students are also trying to figure out, "Well, what is it that you're looking for from me? What kinds of answers are you hoping I'll give?" And they're practicing making their thinking public, just as you're practicing trying to ask the right questions. So you have to think of it as a collaborative project, where you're both working on making thinking visible at the same time, which means that it's often really difficult at the beginning for both parties.
Teachers will ask a question, and they might ask it, "How are you doing?" And kids say," Good." And then there's nothing more, because they haven't figured out yet what it is you want from them. So, you have to ask more questions, and they give you a sentence, and they might give you one more sentence, until they become accustomed to the idea that actually, you want to know everything. And if you can maintain a stance of curiosity and just be fascinated by what kids do, they'll learn to show you more, because they love to make us happy, right?
And if they see just telling us what they're doing makes us fascinated by them, and makes us thrilled, they'll show us more and more and more. So, we want that space of talking about thinking to feel comfortable and exciting. We want them to be thrilled that you came to sit down and talk about their thinking. And that in and of itself is a good place to start, before you try to do anything with student thinking.
Mary: I think one of the things that I heard you say, Jen, that I agree with is that we have to train ourselves to sit and listen. I think oftentimes in education, we're taught to listen for something, a specific thing, and the kind of conferring that we're talking about is really listening to what the students are saying, and looking at what they're doing. And so, we have to kind of retrain ourselves to be active in what the students are saying and doing. And so, at the very beginning, I felt like I would just sit down and ask the questions, like Jen said, like eliciting questions, and then just be like, "Okay." And then move on, because I was purposely trying to train myself to not push them to the point that I thought was important, that I saw as the next step.
Because the point is to support them to figure out what the next step is for them, and that takes some undoing on the teacher's part.
Jen: Yeah. One of the things I'm constantly amazed by is the patience that it takes to do this kind of work, because students communicate more slowly than we do as adults. We might fire off a rapid question, and then the need to wait for students to think about how they might answer it, sometimes we get impatient. So, just practicing the patience of you asked a serious question of a child, and they're organizing their thoughts, and if they want to give you a serious answer, it's going to take a moment.
And so, you have to sit patiently, and not just ask another question into the silence.
Jen: Letting the silence stretch a bit so that kids can gather their thoughts, and sending them the signal that, "No, I'll wait, think."
Jen: That's what we're here for.
Lauren: Because they're also less experienced in communicating, so-
Jen: All of it.
Lauren: It's not just the math understanding. It's the knowing how to put words around their thoughts in that way.
Jen: I think silence sometimes makes us nervous as teachers. It makes us feel like maybe we asked the wrong question, or we've maybe confused a child. We certainly don't want to make kids uncomfortable, but the silence is actually, typically, a sign that they're thinking and taking it seriously, and we want to take them just as seriously. So, that kind of patience takes a lot of practice, and just allowing that to stretch a little bit. Most teachers won't go much more beyond 3 seconds. If you'd just stretch it to about 8, you'll get a lot more.
Lauren: I think it's really interesting how you've all, in some way, seem to have expressed that there is less structure to the math conference than a reading or writing conference, and I think a lot of people might think of it as the opposite way, because we think of math as so much more structured and problem-driven, and right and wrong answers, and black and white, which we hope isn't the way that math education is today. But, I just find it fascinating because it seems like the opposite assumption, the opposite of what the assumption might be.
Jen: Well, I think there's a difference between conferring, where you're conferring around the math, versus conferring around the child. Right? And then when you're conferring around the child's thinking, well, they're still working on structure. So, we have to let them ... we're sort of following them, rather than imposing upon the conversation our structure, or the structure of mathematics. And that can feel like uncomfortable territory for everyone until you get into a routine where all we're doing is talking about your thinking.
And if you, the child, are telling me about what it is that you're doing, then we're doing the right thing right now. Right? Just telling me about your thinking, and us exploring that together, that's the central activity. It's not getting the right answer, or me searching for the right thing to push, right? It's actually the process of engaging and talking about thinking.
Faith: I also think that the process of eliciting student thinking in math can sometimes be messier than when you're trying to do it in literacy, and I think sometimes the challenge is, for example, like when I'm doing a writing conference, their writing is right in front of you. So, even if they're not verbalizing everything, you have multiple sources of data that you can collect from a lot faster.
You can see here, like, "Oh, I can do a teaching point on stretching the sounds out, and really checking it under your finger when you're spelling a word you don't know." And that's really visible here. And so, even if the elicitation via conversations is perhaps not as rich as I'm hoping, I have these multiple sources that I can draw from, and I think math, a lot of the times, primarily in my experience in a primary grade classroom, sometimes what you're seeing on the paper is absolutely not helpful at all. And you have to spend a lot more time asking questions and really mining for information that's not quite as visible.
Mary: I think what you're saying too, I see it in my 4th grade class as well, is that our assumptions around the student work that we see is oftentimes wrong. And it's oftentimes not the path that we would have taken as a math learner. And so, when we see our students work, we make assumptions around what they're doing. And when we ask questions, we're like, "Oh no, that wasn't their path." And so, I think you're right in that in literacy, there is very much kind of data that we can take and use. And in math, we do need their thinking to understand more about what it is that they're doing.
Lauren: You've all touched on this somewhat, but how is a conference also feedback for the teacher, and how do you use that information to make shifts in your teaching?
Faith: It's my primary source of data for when I'm thinking about next steps, or even steps in instructional moves in the moment. And even as I'm doing a larger scan of the room, considering what's going to be highest leverage for the group as a whole moving forward, conferring has been really critical in my practice for collecting data, making formative assessments, considering next steps. This is definitely true in primary grades, but probably also true in the upper grades, is if you have them write something down, and you collect it and look at it, that's going to give you just the smallest fraction of what their thinking actually is, or their understanding actually is.
Really engaging in that conference is going to get me the most bang for my buck in terms of seeing where my students are at and what they need.
Mary: Yeah. Conferring is the way that I figure out my next step, my next day, what I'm going to to do at the end of the work time when we debrief the work that day. That's the information that I use to make a decision on where we're going with the task, where we're going with the mathematical concept. And it's definitely true that when you look at the student work, we can't get all the information that we need to make a strategic decision on the next step for that unit. And so, conferring is where I get all of my data to really keep the unit going, or to keep us moving the real concept that I know that they need a lot of work with.
And it's how I know where every student is. It's how I know where their communication skills are. It's where I get all of my information for the most part, except for the end of the unit assessment. But yeah. The conferring is what keeps the math work going in the classroom.
Lauren: And with your students, are you always looking for that connection, or sort of light bulb moment, to tell you you've gotten somewhere with the conference, or can you often get in there and do your questioning, and walk away with some information that's somewhat unresolved? Like, how do you know when to end the conference? What are your cues to feel like okay, I've gotten there, and we'll get there more tomorrow, or-
Mary: I think it's when we've launched into the next step, like when there's been a slight movement, a nudge, into something, whether it's moving their strategy, or moving their representation, or their collaboration. They're like actually engaging with each other. And so, it's when there's been like a slight movement into what's next, and they're ready to try the work on their own, because the point is that we support them to move a little bit further, so that they can do the work a little bit further on their own. We're not lingering around to make sure that they've got it.
We are giving them the next step, or supporting them to move to the next step, so that they can continue their thinking.
Jen: Yeah. One of the things that I'm thinking about is, do they know what to do now? Even just now, in this moment, and if they have something to do now, that makes sense, to me, to mathematics, and to them, then it's time to stand up and say, "Give it a try," and walk away. It's not about moving them toward the answer, toward achieving a standard, toward something that's polished. It's just about did we untangle some small misconception so that you can move forward in sense making, or did we figure out a next thing for you to try? Maybe a representation, or a new strategy that you might compare to the one you used.
There's just one small thing, so that if I stand up, I'm leaving you knowing full well that you have an idea of what you're going to do next, and it's your idea for what to do next. I think that we get ourselves in trouble, it stops being conferring and it starts being small group instruction, when you stay for 20 minutes, and you want to watch them do that, and then talk to them about the next thing that they might do, and you watch, and you talk about the next thing that they might do.
Jen: And then, I think we've stepped out of conferring. So, if they have one thing to do, then it's time to go talk to someone else.
Mary: Right. And we want them to be productively struggling.
Mary: Because if they're not, then they're not learning, right? Then it's too easy for them. And so, the point is that we get them to the next step, so they can then continue to struggle, to grow.
Faith: And sometimes it's a nudge as simple as trying a different tool out, and maybe in your head, you're like, "That's not the tool I would have picked," or, "That's not really going to get them there in a quick way." But, they're making a decision. They're noticing something. They're trying something else out. But, you're leaving them to try that. They have a tangible next step. They're going to be busy engaged in math work, and that's where you want to leave them, with just like a thought to try something, or a tangible next step, and then you're going to leave them to do that.
And I do think that there is sometimes this pull to want to watch them finish that work, and want them to experience success the way that a lot of classrooms and teachers and practitioners define it. But, I do think that something that Jen talks about is these nudges really being incremental, and really thinking about the long game that you're not trying to get this all done in 5 minutes, and that's just not going to happen.
Lauren: What sorts of questions do you ask your students that help them reveal their thinking?
Jen: We ask lots of questions, like, "What are you trying right now?" I like that question because it's pretty safe. There's no claim that what you're doing is working. It's just what I'm trying right now. Or, "How did you get started? Tell me about what you're doing. Tell me about what you're thinking." These kinds of openers are great, and the more students have practiced responding to them, the more they're going to offer you, because they're learning what it is that you want from them. But, they're always going to offer you some degree of partial thinking.
There will be aspects of their reasoning that are still not visible. There will be aspects perhaps of their process that's still implicit. And it's the follow-up questions that make them visible and explicit, and those are the ones that are hard to plan for, because it really depends on what's left out, or what's incomplete about the particular words that they offer to you, and how that connects with the paper that's in front of them, or the Unifix cubes, or whatever.
They may say, "Well, we've just used tallies to do this," and you look at the paper and there are no tallies, and you think, "Did you really use tallies?" "Wait, show me." And so, even though the explanation may sound lovely, if it doesn't somehow coordinate with the other evidence, it leaves you with more questions to ask, and those are not the ones that we can write down for anyone in a list. They sound things like, "Where did this 2 come from? What does this part mean?" And touching the paper, and really saying, "This curly thing on the margin of the paper, is this part of the math work?" Because it might be.
I have misinterpreted student math work. And I still do. It's never going to stop, because when we give students the authority over math to decide how mathematics is going to be represented, and how it's going to be explored, they are going to do divergent things, and there always will be surprises. They're the best part of what we do. And so, I'm happy when I uncover like, "I think this is a doodle on the margins," and I realize actually it was central to your mathematical work that you keeping track of counting somehow with these spirals, and look how inventive that was.
And I'm so glad I asked. But, those are not the questions we can script. We have to be really paying attention, and thinking about, "What's still a little incomplete," or, "Where am I having to make an assumption about what you meant to make an interpretation?" And I should question that assumption in some way by asking a follow-up question. Sometimes it's as simple as, "So, are you saying that," or, "I think I hear you saying this," and revoicing it back, in which case you'll often get, "No, that's not what I'm saying," and then at least gives them a place to clarify, or even just finding the very specific parts of their explanation that you want to probe into.
But, those are hard questions to formulate in advance. They really have to be responsive to what kids are saying.
Mary: Yeah. I like to use like curious language, like, "Oh, I'm really interested in this," or, "Can you tell me what's happening here?" Or, "I'm wondering this," because I think it helps them to open up, and it helps to kind of communicate that you're really interested in actively listening to them. But, I agree with Jen that it really relates to what's happening.
So a lot of times, I'll orient the kids back to their work, and have them support me in understanding what's happening on the page, or I'll ask them questions about their collaboration. Like, "How are you working together? Who did what?" Kind of trying to understand more about that process as well. So, it's hard to list questions-
Mary: Because it really is dependent on what the kids are saying, and where I'm confused because oftentimes, I am confused, and I'm like, "Oh, interesting. Not sure at all what that meant." And then I have to figure out a way to elicit that thinking to understand more, because I know that there is mathematical thinking there.
Jen: I think one of the things that's really important about what you've said, and I think there's this well-intentioned trap we sometimes fall into as teachers, that students will offer their thinking, and it's not entirely clear, because it rarely is. And we want to honor them somehow by not challenging them. We say, "Oh, isn't that interesting?" Even when it's not entirely clear, and we move on. We do this in whole class conversations quite a lot.
But, it's actually more beneficial to everyone to say, "I'm not quite sure I understood this part. Can you tell me more about that?" It allows children to practice articulating themselves. It might uncover something unexpected, a confusion, or a misconception that you didn't know was there, but also, for the partner listening, they may have been wondering, "What did he mean when he said that?" And so, you're actually doing a favor to the other listeners by asking for a little more detail and clarity.
We don't honor kids by allowing them to go misunderstood.
Faith: Absolutely. And I think when I'm probing with questions, I find myself getting confused when the communication isn't clear. That's generally a point where I have to pause and really think, like, "Am I understanding what they're saying? Is their partner understanding what they're saying?" And something that has been a nice question to get more information is asking them to represent it in some way, because sometimes, the students need the tools, not just to engage with the math, but also, there are tools that help scaffold them in explaining what they're thinking.
So, even something like, "Can you draw a picture to explain to me what you mean by that?" Or, "Can you show me with this tool that you're using?" Or even calling on their partner sometimes is a way to get more information, because sometimes their partner understands better than you do. Actually, a lot of times, their partner understands more than you do. And even getting that is, again, a great way to collect data, but also a powerful question to ask, as you're doing that probing.
Jen: Yeah. I think one of the keys is that everybody in the math classroom should feel like they have a right to understand, right? And the teacher has a right to understand what the students are thinking. The partner has the right to understand. And then, our questions, as long as we don't approach them as interrogation, if we approach them as curiosity and that it's important that I understand you because your thinking is valuable, right?
Your thinking is important to me, and I really want to make sure I understand you. And I have said that to children many times. If I feel like I'm getting to the point where I'm making a child nervous by asking additional follow-up questions, and that we've stepped into a space where they may feel grilled by me, I can say, "I know I'm asking you a lot of questions, but I really think your thinking is important, and I really want to understand." I can reassure them and say, "So, here's what I think I understood. So you started with a 2, and then you built a 4, and you put those things together. Why did you do that, or what came next?"
And I can try to revoice, and connect a trail of reasoning for them, that they can add onto to help me make sense out of their thinking. But, the core of it is that we all have the right to understand the mathematics in one another, and so that all of our voices matter, and it's better to make that statement and continue to push than to accept a difficult to understand and parse explanation, and simply move on.
Mary: And I think that when we are really listening, and not listening for something, but just actively listening to students, questions come up, because you're actually curious. And I think that that's something that we can lean more into of the space of like, "No, I really am interested. This question came up." And it's something where at the beginning, it is helpful to have a list of questions, to help us to internalize that process. But then, as you get more comfortable, you realize like, "Oh, just being curious helps me to ask questions that lead to finding out what the kids are thinking."
Jen: So, I think that one thing that's sort of been touched on a couple of times in our conversation, but we haven't really said it explicitly, is that one of the central differences between reading and writing and math is that kids are collaborating with one another, and that because they're collaborating, it actually becomes much more dynamic learning for them as mathematicians, but much more complex discursive work for us as teachers.
Engaging in interaction with children around the mathematics, if you think there's the teacher engaging with the child, and the child's engaging with the teacher, the child's engaging with mathematics. But then you throw a partner in there. And you add all these different layers and connections that are happening simultaneously. It becomes really complicated. However, this is where really rich learning happens, because children are connecting their disparate ways of understanding the math together to making something new and even more elaborate and exciting.
And so, one of the things that I think is just really important is that we have to be listening not just for all the mathematics, and not just for how this child is understanding, but how the children are understanding each other, and how each child is understanding, because they do have individual understandings as well, so that we can be mindful of issues of equity.
We don't want to just confer with the loudest child in the partnership, and allow somebody else to be marginalized. And we don't want to just confer with the student who has the most understanding, or is the most verbal, or who's the most outgoing, and allow somebody else to sit in confusion, because that gives us false formative assessment data. And we've also supported the marginalization of another child. So, the track there is you may approach a pair of kids, and you may say, "What are you thinking?" And one of them just says these beautiful things, and all you want to do is chase after that thread.
And you may have to pause and pivot to the partner, and say, "And what are you thinking?" Before you run down the rabbit hole, as gorgeous as it may seem, with this other partner, you need to check in and ask, "Is this a shared understanding, or is this one partner's thinking while the other is on the outside?" So, it increases our responsibility, and the opportunity to promote that kind of equity.
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Jen Munson is a postdoctoral fellow in learning sciences at Northwestern University, a former classroom teacher, and a professional developer who works with teachers and school leaders across the U.S. to develop responsive, equitable mathematics instruction. Jen received her PhD in mathematics education from Stanford University. She is also coauthor of the Mindset Mathematics curriculum series.