Every time the bill arrives in a restaurant ‘maths anxiety’ kicks in with a chorus of, ‘Don’t show me the bill – I’m rubbish at maths’. It fascinates me how often this is announced. And almost with a sense of pride. The meal didn’t start with proud exclamations of, ‘Don’t show me the menu – I’m rubbish at reading!’ So why maths?

The bill was $290 – there were 12 of us.

Who’s got a phone? (digital technologies, interpreting answers, rounding decimals)

Is service included? (percentages)

I think it’s about $24 each (estimation and division)

Will that be enough? What are 12 24s? (inverse operation, multiplication)

This question threw most people – after all, we only rote learnt up to the 12 times table in school.

We settled the bill – and, of course, we didn’t have enough. How does that always happen?

I took the problem back to my Grade 4 class. Not one of them was intimidated by the question. They were all happy to give it a go. Nobody was ashamed to use their fingers or scribble down notes. And certainly nobody shut-down or announced that they were rubbish at maths. Their methods were varied and demonstrated a good number sense. And this seems to be where most adults stumble – many lack any fluidity or flexibility with numbers.

So what can we do to ensure our students develop good number sense?

A strategy I have found very successful is to build number talks into my daily schedule.

Number Talks in my classroom

I first introduced number talks to my students during our addition and subtraction unit. Whilst the students were enjoying the routine, I found they were struggling to articulate their mathematical thinking. They were starting to become frustrated with not being able to communicate a strategy that seemed so clear to them in their heads. They were also finding it hard not to fall back on picturing the written algorithm in their head (a valid but not always efficient strategy). So we took a step back and spent some time analysing mental strategies for addition:

  • I filmed adults in school explaining their strategy for 48 + 19
  • We watched the videos and I transcribed each strategy
  • Together we translated the strategy into numbers and symbols
  • Students gave feedback on each strategy
  • Students created a success criteria for an efficient mental strategy for addition
  • We then focused on addition number talks until the students were comfortable with the routine, as explained in this video from Jo Boaler

Such has been the success of number talks with calculations, we have extended to patterns, images etc. My intention is always that these daily conversations are around 10 minutes. However, the teachable moments, questions and wonderings that arise often drive the rest of the maths lesson. Many ‘talks’ have developed into week long inquiries.

If you want try number talks in your classroom some great resources to get you started can be found here:

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