3 Steps to Building a Math Learning Community in Your Classroom

3 Steps to Building a Math Learning Community in Your Classroom

As teachers we spend a lot of time setting rules and expectations, but there is more to that when we want our students to look like, sound like, and blossom into mathematicians. As you begin focusing your learning community on mathematics you can try these simple first steps.


Step 1: Build A Mathematical Community of Learners

Begin by asking students about what they think a mathematician does. Use their ideas to create a list of the important things that they will do as mathematicians this year. This can take the form of a list of agreements that the students create and wish to follow and achieve throughout the year. Some of the ideas that may arise are:

  • Look for more than one way to solve the problem.
  • Meet and share ideas with other mathematicians.
  • Give feedback to others to improve and expand ideas.
  • Look for new ideas in other people’s thinking.
  • Listen to other ideas and work hard to make sense of them.
  • Take risks, make mistakes, and learn from your experiences.
  • Be willing to take a risk and share a partial idea.
  • Support each other.
  • Fight for sense-making.

(for a complete list see chapter 6 in Mathematical Discourse: Let the Kids Talk!)

As you begin to make a list of student-created agreements, make sure they are phrased in the positive, using student language that shows what to do rather than what not to do. Always celebrate risk-taking and student-to-student discourse, and revisit your classroom agreements daily.


Step 2: Explore How Mathematicians Use and Manage Tools

Continue building your discourse community with a discussion about how mathematicians use and manage mathematical manipulatives and tools strategically to enhance their thinking, sharing, and understanding of mathematical ideas. You might ask them questions such as:

  • What do you know about this tool?
  • How can we use this tool to explore math?
  • Where should we store this tool? 
  • How will we share this tool?
  • What will it look like to use these tools?
  • What will it sound like to use these tools?
  • How will using tools help us be mathematicians?

Add agreements to your charts that will remind students about their personal role in this daily activity. This is the time to begin showing students how their choices will help them work hard to become independent learners and think mathematically.


Step 3: Engage in Mathematically Accountable Talk

Ask students what it looks like and sounds like to be engaged in a conversation with a friend. Practice it with a simple conversation about a favorite food or place to visit. Have half of the class watch while other students engage in the conversation and then switch. What did they notice? What were their eyes doing? How do they know that the students were listening to each other? How does it look different when talking to a partner, versus talking in a small group, or engaging in talk in a whole-group discussion? Add to your community agreements what “accountable” talk should look like, sound like, and feel like. Some of the ideas that might arise are:

  • Make eye contact with the person speaking.
  • Make gestures with your hands and eyes, and use facial expressions.
  • Ask thoughtful questions that you genuinely are interested in.
  • Ask challenging and clarifying questions about ideas presented.
  • Use positive body language.
  • Think about how you could add ideas to your peer’s ideas.

As teachers when we take the time to build a mathematical community of learners and frequently revisit what that looks like, sounds like, and feels like, we are setting and maintaining high expectations for every learner in our classroom. This lets every student know that all ideas, thinking, and strategies are honored and respected by every member of the community. We can learn more with our community than by ourselves. By using these three steps, you are setting the beginning stages for a discourse-rich community in your math classroom.


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Author bio

Barbara Blanke, Teacher

Barbara Blanke, Ph.D., is a teacher, teacher educator, and an enthusiastic advocate for mathematics education. After teaching 25 years in K-12 classrooms and earning her Ph.D., she became a pre-service and in-service teacher educator for Cal Poly’s School of Education. Currently, she is an international educational consultant and speaker, providing professional learning workshops and on-site coaching for teachers, coaches, and administrators. Her major research interest has been studying how teachers effectively promote student-to-student discourse in their K-12 classrooms. She advocates that the whole school community can deeply understand the beauty of mathematics when working together as a cohesive team that can produce passionate life-long mathematicians. She currently lives in San Luis Obispo, CA, with her husband Dan, and their two golden retrievers, Ellie and Kala.