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A collaborative

classroom, an open-
ended problem, and
a what-how-who
structure can build
students’ reasoning
skills and allow
teachers to recognize
all classroom
Kelley Buchheister,
Christa Jackson, and
Cynthia E. Taylor

What, How,
202 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019

K Kyra and Jamea closely examine the

numbers and letters in four rectangles
(see fig. 1). They point to differ-
ent areas, share what they notice,
and—without prompting from their
seventh-grade teacher, Ms. Boyana—
make conjectures about what their
observations mean.

Kyra: The Q just has a letter and no

numbers. All the others have
letters and numbers.
Jamea: Maybe it means there is just
one. But, there is a 1 next to the
N in the other square.
Kyra: Maybe because it has other
letters and numbers in it?
Jamea: Maybe Q means “questions”
because we do questions in here
and P means “people.” Do we
have 25 people?

Kyra: [Counting] No, we only have 19.
Jamea: Maybe it’s days for D and
nights for N. Like one of these is
2 days and 1 night and another one
is 6 nights.

Kyra: But that doesn’t make sense.
Q doesn’t fit. What other things
start with Q? Queen? Quiz?

Mathematical Question? Quarter? Quail?

Jamea: Wait! Quarter? A quarter is
25 cents! But, that doesn’t fit.

Discourse There’s no C.
Kyra: [Takes the paper] Cents are
pennies, so maybe the P is pennies.
Do you think the other ones are
money, too?

Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL 203
Copyright © 2019 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.
All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.
Fig. 1 Students were asked to analyze to share ideas, clarify understandings, the what-how-who structure while
these numbers and letters in the first develop convincing arguments, and giving students opportunities to make
“What Do You Notice?” task. advance the mathematical learning of sense of mathematical ideas within a
the entire class” (Smith, Steele, and social context.

Raith 2017, p. 123). In other words,
teachers must carefully consider what WHAT TASKS STIMULATE
Q tasks provide meaningful opportuni- MEANINGFUL DISCOURSE?
1N ties to explore ideas, generate hypoth-
eses, and promote questions within
One of the greatest contributions to
students’ opportunity to learn is the
a collaborative environment. Then, selection of tasks (Lappan and Briars
teachers need to consider how to struc- 1995). Mathematics teachers must

6N 25P ture the activity to encourage discus-

sions and incorporate responses that
analyze the standards to determine
what content to teach and identify
contribute to understanding specific which tasks embody the desired con-
mathematical objectives. Additionally, tent and skills because different tasks
teachers must select who will speak to promote different kinds of thinking
With an increased focus on using “advance the mathematical storyline (Stein et al. 2000). Thus, to provide a
social discourse to enhance students’ of the lesson” (NCTM 2014, p. 30). strong foundation for what mathemat-
mathematical thinking and reason- By intentionally focusing on these ics students will learn (Hiebert et al.
ing (NCTM 2014, Staples and King elements in mathematics instruction, 1997), it is imperative that teachers
2017), teachers are looking for discus- middle-grades teachers can develop a intentionally identify what tasks
sion strategies that encourage middle- classroom culture that not only em- (a) provide relevant connections to

level students to make sense of mathe- phasizes sense making but also values students’ funds of knowledge,
matical concepts. However, structuring the intellectual capacity that students (b) stimulate meaningful opportunities
these valuable discussions is complex. bring to the classroom (Gutiérrez to explore mathematical situations,
“Mathematical discourse should build 2013; Lemons-Smith 2008). In this (c) encourage students to generate
on and honor student thinking, and article, we describe how teachers can questions, and (d) promote sense mak-
provide students with opportunities promote meaningful discussions using ing through collaborative discussions.
An open-ended task, such as “What
Do You Notice?” discussed in the
opening vignette, is a logical format for
removing barriers (Sullivan 2003). By
providing multiple entry points, each
and every student can gain access to
and engage in discussions of math-
ematical content. The task, adapted
from Danielson’s (2016) book Which
One Doesn’t Belong? prompts students
to investigate the similarities and dif-
ferences among each representation
and discuss their observations in a so-
cial context. For example, after making
several observations and hypotheses to
make sense of the letters and numbers,
Kyra and Jamea concluded that the
initials related to money: Q repre-
sented quarters, P symbolized pennies,
and the N and D represented nickels
and dimes. Finding this connection

204 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019

Fig. 2 In this second “What Do You variables represent quantities; and to HOW DO WE STRUCTURE
Notice?” task, only numbers appeared. solve simple equations (CCSSI 2010). TASKS TO ENCOURAGE
This example can also be extended DISCOURSE?
into problem-solving explorations The variable nature of open-ended
that can last the entire class period. tasks can stimulate mathematical
9 16 “What Do You Notice?” can be
extended to (a) justify an “imposter”
conversations and allow students
to negotiate a shared meaning and
by identifying which representation understanding of the mathemat-
does not belong (Danielson 2016; ics. However, it is the teacher who
Wyborney 2015) and (b) create takes an active role in purposefully
new problems containing multiple facilitating activities to promote social
25 43 “imposters.” When Boyana inte-
grated an extension with her seventh
discourse. Applying the “wonder”
component to open-ended problems
graders using the numbers-only task like “What Do You Notice?” serves
(see fig. 2), new conversations and as a pedagogical strategy. It can pique
mathematical discussions emerged. students’ curiosity and encourage new
prompted the students to generate Students discovered that there could questions and inquiries as students
additional observations: “All the coins be multiple reasons why different make sense of representations with-
make 25 cents except this one; it’s numbers did not belong. During out risk of failure. For example, when
30” (i.e., 6N represented 6 nickels, or small-group discussions, she encour- Boyana gave her students figure 2,
$0.30), “the quarter is the one that aged continuing investigations, such she overheard them ask their partners:
makes 25 cents with the least number as identifying how each number “Are these numbers supposed to all fit
of coins,” and “6 nickels is the only one could be the “imposter,” which then together?” “I wonder why they are all
with an even number of coins and an generated additional questions refer- together. Do they follow a pattern?”
even number of cents.” Not all students ring to mathematical relationships She then asked her students to take
identified that the letters represented (e.g., “Does 25 not fit because it’s the two to three minutes to examine the
coins and their values. Some students only number that can be represented four numbers closely and write down
speculated that the letters were ab- with a single coin?” “Is it because 25 as many observations as they could.
breviations, whereas others argued that is the only number in the set that is a Once time was up, she asked the stu-
they were variables. Some students factor of 100?”). Structuring class- dents to turn and share with a part-
also noted the lack of numbers in the room activities using open-ended ner. Some students noticed that 9 was
Q frame or noticed the color of the tasks provides a flexible foundation the only single-digit number and the
coins—“pennies are the only [coins] that can positively contribute to only number with digits not totaling
that are not silver.” developing discussions that enhance 7. They also noticed that 16 was the
Such open-ended tasks not only students’ mathematical reasoning. only even number. As students shared
provide access for a diverse group of their observations, they clarified their
students to engage in conversation thinking and generated questions to
but also offer flexibility to teachers to negotiate meaning of the mathematics
adapt them to a range of mathematical Teachers must embedded in the task.
concepts, such as number sense (see consider what tasks Presenting tasks by first asking
fig. 2) and geometry, and use them at provide meaningful students to make individual observa-
different times. Implementing a task tions allows them time to make sense
during the initial phase of a lesson
opportunities to of the representations. Following
can also serve as a formative assess- explore ideas, generate the individual reflection, students
ment, review, or introduction to a new hypotheses, and can discuss their observations with
concept. For example, the opening promote questions. partners or in small groups. Students
task could be used to introduce the in Boyana’s class willingly shared
differences among coefficients, ab- their observations. By first prompting
breviations, and variables; to show how students to record what they noticed

Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL 205
highest levels of mathematical success observations, such as “there are four
Fig. 3 A student generated this “What
Do You Notice?” task.
(NCTM 2014). Thus, teachers must numbers and they are all different,”
be cognizant of who answers questions, allowed students to feel more com-
solves tasks, or shares mathematical fortable in the social setting because
strategies while implementing instruc- each response was valued. Boyana not
tional decisions that recognize a variety only valued students’ voices but also
of students’ contributions. empowered students by exploring
The design of the problem allows student-generated questions. As the
students to take risks because they class continued to share, one student
recognize that all contributions are noticed the equations 3 × 3 = 9,
valued and that each and every voice 4 × 4 = 16, and 5 × 5 = 25 on a peer’s
is heard. While listening to her stu- paper. She exclaimed, “I did that,
dents’ conversations during the num- too! Three squared, four squared, and
ber-only version of “What Do You five squared are all perfect squares!
Notice?” Boyana heard one student I wonder if 43 is a perfect square,
share that 16 was the age of her sister, too?” Boyana encouraged students
and another student commented that to work in small groups to explore
25 was his favorite number. At the this question. Michalla stated, “Well,
other end of the room, she overheard 6 × 6 is 36 and 7 × 7 is 49, so no.
another student wondering about the Forty-three can’t be a perfect square.”
about the numbers in the task, she relationships among the numbers as Boyana asked Stefan if he agreed with
provided a safe environment in which he noticed characteristics such as 43 Michalla’s conjecture. Stefan said yes.
students were more comfortable shar- being the only prime number and She continued to push Stefan’s think-
ing their thoughts without extensive 16 being the only even number. She ing and asked why he agreed. Stefan

pressure on identifying a solution. asked each student to share one obser- replied, “Well, 43 is between 36 and
Approaching tasks by first mak- vation with the class. Sharing simple 49, and those numbers are perfect
ing observations, then sharing what
questions emerge encourages students
to construct mathematical knowl-
edge through social interactions with
meaningful problems. 

Such tasks as “What Do You Notice?”
allow teachers to engage students in
meaningful conversations that “develop
language to express ideas, represent
evidence, and clarify their reasoning”
(Staples and King 2017, p. 38). There-
fore, it is critical that each and every
student is given an opportunity to en-
gage in the classroom’s social discourse.
Without explicitly and purposefully
attending to whose voice is represented
in classroom conversations or valu-
ing the out-of-school knowledge that
students bring, teachers are not giving
students the support, confidence, or
opportunities necessary to reach their

206 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019

task to share with the class to further by 3 because then people will
She not only encourage and validate each and every really have to wonder where we
valued students’ student’s voice. got this number.
voices but also Christy: Oooo, that sounds so good.
empowered students J. T.: Remember when all of the digits OK, so, the last number would be
added to 7? What if we make a 81.2791827135 [see fig. 3].
by exploring grid where the digits add to a Trevon: Awesome. Ms. Boyana, we
student-generated different number, like 9? are ready!
questions. Christy: OK, what numbers will
work? I like 18, 27, 63, and 90. Although this student-generated
But in the first problem, we did example demonstrated creativity us-
not have any three-digit numbers. ing single-digit multiplication, it also
What if we add 108? caused confusion because students
squares. But, you would have to square assumed the pattern followed the
a number between 6 and 7 to get 43.” The group initially decided to use the traditional multiplication algorithm.
By first identifying and sharing what numbers 5, 18, 45, and 63 but were Because the example stumped the
students noticed, and then explor- not satisfied with the task they created. entire class, Boyana chose to discuss
ing the questions students generated, Trevon commented, “This will be way this task more in depth and asked
Boyana provided valuable opportuni- too easy for them because they just did students to analyze and make sense of
ties for students to negotiate meaning the other problem.” The group finally the underlying mathematics.
as they analyzed the reasonableness decided to use pi because they thought Allowing students an opportunity
of different mathematical arguments it would be more challenging for their to create their task can elicit richer
(Staples and King 2017). peers to figure out the pattern. conversations. Developing this culture
Finally, Boyana extended the of learning enhances sense making
activity by asking students to create J. T.: So, pi is 3.14, right? and motivates each and every student
their own “What Do You Notice?” Christy: Remember, we should use to remain engaged in creative brain-
3.1415 [erases boxes and records]. storming while discussing similarities,
Trevon: OK, what if for the number differences, and relationships among
in the next box we multiply pi by the observations.
Christy: No, let’s make it harder. Let’s FINAL THOUGHTS
multiply each digit by 3. “Mathematical discourse is a criti-
J.T.: I don’t get it. What do you mean cal practice through which students
each digit? develop mathematical communication
Christy: Well, if we take 3 × 3, that is and argumentation skills and
9. Then 1 × 3 is 3; 4 × 3 is 12; the ability to critique the reasoning
1 × 3 is 3; and 5 × 3 is 15. So, the of others” (Staples and King 2017,
next number would be [Christy p. 37). Boyana developed a culture of
writes and reads] 9.312315. discourse using the what-how-who
Trevon: That’s cool. So, if we take 3 structure by attending to “what” tasks
times each digit in that number she selected, “how” she structured the
Christy just said, we would get classroom conversations, and “whose”
something like 27.936945. voice was heard during the discussion.
J. T.: [Looks at Trevon’s paper] I don’t Open-ended tasks, similar to “What
see how you got 45 at the end be- Do You Notice?” allow teachers to
cause 1 × 3 is 3, and 5 × 3 is 15; so, facilitate mathematical discourse us-
shouldn’t it be 27.9369315? ing the what-how-who structure and
Trevon: No, I like it where we take the empower students to explore math-
last two digits and multiply them ematical content within a social

Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL 207

context. By integrating this structure Olivier, and Piet Human. 1997. Meaningful Mathematical Discourse.”
into mathematical activities, middle- Making Sense: Teaching and Learn- In Enhancing Classroom Practice with
level teachers can build a classroom ing Mathematics with Understanding. Research behind Principles to Actions,
culture that not only emphasizes sense Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. edited by Denise A. Spangler and
making but also recognizes the intel- Lappan, Glenda, and Diane Briars. Jeffrey J. Wanko, pp. 37–48. Reston,
lectual capacity that all students bring 1995. “How Should Mathematics Be VA: National Council of Teachers of
to the classroom (Gutiérrez 2013, Taught?” In Prospects for School Math- Mathematics.
Lemons-Smith 2008). ematics, edited by Iris M. Carl, Stein, Mary Kay, Margaret S. Smith,
pp. 131–56. Reston, VA: National Marjorie A. Henningsen, and Edward
REFERENCES Council of Teachers of Mathematics. A. Silver. 2000. Implementing Standards-
Common Core State Standards Initiative Lemons-Smith, Shonda. 2008. “Dr. Asa Based Mathematics Instruction: A Case-
(CCSSI). 2010. Common Core State G. Hilliard III: Trumpeter for the book for Professional Development. New
Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM). Academic and Cultural Excellence of York: Teachers College Press.
Washington, DC: National Governors African American Children.” Review Sullivan, Peter. 2003. “The Potential of
Association Center for Best Practices of Educational Research 78 (December): Open-Ended Mathematics Tasks for
and the Council of Chief State School 908–20. Overcoming Barriers to Learning.”
Officers. http://www.corestandards National Council of Teachers of Math- In Mathematics Education Research:
.org/wp-content/uploads/Math_ ematics (NCTM). 2014. Principles to Innovation, Networking, and Oppor-
Standards.pdf Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success tunity, edited by Leicha Bragg, Coral
Danielson, Christopher. 2016. Which One for All. Reston, VA: NCTM. Campbell, Georgina Herbert, and
Doesn’t Belong? Portland, ME: Smith, Margaret S., Michael D. Steele, and Judith Mousley. Proceedings of the
Stenhouse Publishers. Mary Lynn Raith. 2017. Taking Action: 26th Annual Conference of the Math-
Gutiérrez, Rochelle. 2013. “The Sociopo- Implementing Effective Mathematics ematics Education Research Group
litical Turn in Mathematics Educa- Teaching Practices. Reston, VA: National of Australasia, pp. 813–16. Deeakin
tion.” Journal for Research in Math- Council of Teachers of Mathematics. University, Australia: MERGA.
ematics Education 44 ( January): 37–68. Staples, Megan, and Sherryl King. 2017. Wyborney, Steve. 2015. “Steve
Hiebert, James, Thomas P. Carpenter, “Eliciting, Supporting, and Guid- Wyborney’s Blog: I’m on a Learning
Elizabeth Fennema, Karen Fuson, ing the Math: Three Key Functions Mission.” http://www.steve
Diana Wearne, Hanlie Murray, Alwyn of the Teacher’s Role in Facilitating

Kelley Buchheister,,
Let’s Chat about Developing is an assistant professor at
Mathematical Discourse the University of Nebraska
in Lincoln. Christa
Jackson, jacksonc@
On Wednesday, January 16, 2019,, is an associ-
ate professor in math-
at 9:00 p.m. ET, we will expand on
ematics education at Iowa
“What, How, Who: Developing State University in Ames.
Mathematical Discourse” (pp. 202–8), Cynthia E. Taylor, cynthia.
by Kelley Buchheister, Christa Jackson,, is
and Cynthia E. Taylor. an associate professor at
Join us at #MTMSchat. Millersville University of
Pennsylvania. They are former classroom
Our monthly chats fall on the teachers who are interested in fostering
third Wednesday of the month. equitable classroom environments that
encourage each and every student to
engage in mathematical discourse.

208 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL Vol. 24, No. 4, January/February 2019
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