Discussions: A Structure that Supports Equity in the Elementary Math Classroom

by Megan Murray and Karen Economopoulos
May 22, 2024

Whole-class discussions are an essential feature of the elementary math classroom. They provide students with the opportunity to articulate their ideas and consider the ideas of others, develop mathematical language, and compare and connect ideas, representations, and solutions. However, “classrooms that are rich in mathematical discourse and discussion are…high-risk for reproducing patterns of racism and marginalization.” (Ball, 2019, slide 11). It is important to think about and plan for how to make participation in such discussions equitable and how to establish an environment where students share their thinking and listen thoughtfully to the ideas of others.

A third grade teacher facilitates a whole class discussion with a diverse group of students. He sits at a table with two children. The rest of the students are on the rug or in chairs. Many have their hands raised.

As A Framework for Reflecting about Equity in the Elementary Mathematics Classroom explains, “Equitable participation in [a math] community means that all students are invited to express their ideas, to revise and build on them, to have others respectfully listen to and engage with their ideas, and to be seen as mathematical thinkers who make meaningful contributions to classroom conversations. This is true whether they are working alone, with a partner, in a small group, or as part of a whole class discussion. Having one’s ideas taken up publicly and considered seriously supports students’ developing identities and agency as mathematicians.” (Russell, et. al., 2023, p. 5)

The following factors, in bold, are important to consider in working to make discussions an opportunity to develop students’ mathematical identity. In the italicized bullets, you’ll find questions you can discuss with students as you reflect on whose voices are being heard, whose work is being shared and discussed, and whose ideas are not yet present in math discussions.

Organizing the Physical Space

The set-up of the classroom should encourage students to participate in whole class discussions, as both a contributor and a listener. Being able to see each other’s faces, and any work being shared, helps students focus their attention and encourages them to speak directly to each other. Ask students to share ideas about how to make discussions good learning opportunities for everyone.

  • What helps you stay focused during a discussion? What makes it hard to stay focused?
  • Are there changes we could make to how our seats are arranged that would improve our discussions?

Supporting Students’ Interactions

Productive discussions require the interaction of the various participants. Signals that indicate a student would like to share a thought, build on an idea, or ask a question of or disagree with a classmate, support students in conversing with each other. Gather ideas from students about sharing ideas, and about listening and responding to the ideas of others.

  • When someone is sharing, what helps you really listen to their idea?
  • How can you show that you are listening to other peoples’ ideas?
  • How can you respond to someone else’s idea? (ask a question, add on, agree, disagree) How can you disagree in a respectful way?

Using Targeted Facilitation Moves

Targeted facilitation moves (e.g. turn and talks, asking students to rephrase someone’s idea or to share a partner’s idea, sufficient wait time) can support students in participating and in listening to others. For example, a “turn and talk” offers every student the opportunity to express their thinking and to listen to the thinking of a peer. For turn and talks to be successful, students need to know how they will partner, what’s expected of them, and practice. Encourage students to reflect on what makes for a “good” turn and talk.

  • What does a turn and talk look like in our community?
  • What does each person do in a turn and talk?
  • How does talking with a partner help you during a discussion?

Using Mistakes as Opportunities

Mistakes are important opportunities to revisit and clarify math thinking, and to learn. This stance requires a community that carefully considers the ideas of others and can ask questions and offer different ideas. Discuss ways to comment on others’ work and to disagree respectfully.

  • If you think your partner made a mistake, what could you say? What are helpful ways to talk with someone about a mistake?
  • Someone solved this problem this way. [Share a mistake.] What do you think they were thinking? What suggestion could you give them? How could you express that in a supportive way?

Supporting the Participation of All Students

Productive and equitable discussions invite and acknowledge the contributions of each and every student. Consider how to support students who are reluctant to participate. For example, when selecting work to discuss, use this as an opportunity to position students who do not share often in the whole group. Explain why you would like them to share and ask if they would like to “rehearse” with you beforehand. If students are hesitant, ask if you can share their work or if you could do it together. The class should know that you want different approaches to be shared during discussions, and that you want everyone to have an opportunity to explain their thinking over time.

  • What was it like for you to share your work today?
  • How did rehearsing ahead of time help you? (for students who did)
  • What would help you feel comfortable sharing your work/ideas in a future discussion?
  • What might make help you share an idea you’re not sure of yet?

Making Equitable Participation Explicit

Creating an equitable math learning community is not just the work of the teacher. Engage students in working together with you to achieve equitable participation.

  • How can you invite people into the conversation? Make room for others to contribute? Are you aware of how often you are speaking?
  • What might help you share your ideas or work? What doesn’t help?
  • How can we as a community support each other during discussions?

While the beginning of the school year is a natural place to lay the foundation for discussions in which all students are engaged and encouraged to share their thinking and listen to the thinking of others, it is important to continually revisit and reflect with students on how they are experiencing discussions. For support thinking about how to develop equitable math discussions, see the Teacher Reflection Tool: Equitable Participation in Whole Class Discussions.


Ball, D. L. (2019, April 4). The power of teaching [PowerPoint slides]. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/577fc4e2440243084a67dc49/t/5ca76 a3b90b1e600012f7c7c/1554475585731/040419_NCTM_lead+speaker+presentation.pdf

The Math Equity Forum at TERC. (2024, April). Teacher Reflection Tool: Equitable Participation in Whole Class DiscussionsForum for Equity in Elementary Mathematics.

Russell, S.J. et al. (2023, September). A Framework for Reflecting about Equity in the Elementary Mathematics Classroom. Forum for Equity in Elementary Mathematics.

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