The Power of “Think-Pair-Share” in Math Class

10 Dec 2022 10:25 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

By: Greg George

Mathematics educators are continuously looking for active engagement strategies that keep students “in the game” of learning. After all, we want more for our students than having them passively watch their teachers do all the talking, the thinking, and the mathematics on a daily basis. While there are numerous instructional routines that enhance student engagement, Think-Pair-Share can be a routine that promotes access and opportunity for all students in math classrooms if planned and used with intentionality.

How does Think-Pair-Share work? It all begins with a well-selected prompt.

Think: Give students 2-3 minutes of quiet, individual time for thinking and writing initial thoughts around the prompt. This is an opportunity for students to draw on prior knowledge and independently engage with the prompt, formulating and documenting “rough draft” thinking. An essential component for consideration, though, is that the prompt must be accessible to all students with multiple entry points and multiple solution pathways. For teachers, this is a formative assessment opportunity for seeing which students are diving in with confidence, which students are pursuing ideas with revisions or restarts, and which students are coming up empty with no thoughts documented whatsoever. The key is giving just enough time for students to fully understand the prompt and get started with ideas, yet not enough time to completely finish.

Pair: Once every student has initial thoughts on paper, now they have something to talk about. Whether it’s with a partner or a table group, give students time for talking about their initial thoughts with others. This is a great place for sentence starters and language frames in supporting academic conversations for all learners (especially multilingual learners). The power behind this phase of the routine is that every students’ voice is heard and contributes to the conversation. This ensures all students actively participate instead of hiding behind those who voluntarily engage in class. This kind of language-rich routine levels the playing field for all students and reduces the dependence on authority and passive involvement by empowering students to independently voice and shape ideas (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). For teachers, this is time for monitoring student responses and conversations, taking an inventory of the responses for what was expected, unique strategies or solution methods, and possible error analysis opportunities. This is a critical stage for the teacher, as the monitoring of responses is providing insights for which samples will be selected for the whole group conversation.

Share: This is not sharing for the sake of sharing in a whole group setting; rather, this is a well-organized and thoughtful display of select student work samples that will promote conversation and shared understanding that aim toward the mathematical learning goals of the lesson. Plus, it’s centered around ideas and solutions from the students themselves, honoring their thinking and providing another avenue for whole group participation. The key is the selecting and sequencing of responses in a way that tells a mathematical story, connecting the responses together. Essentially, this is a culmination of anticipating, monitoring, selecting, sequencing, and connecting, “designed to help teachers to use students’ responses to advance the mathematical understanding of the class as a whole by providing teachers with some control over what is likely to happen in the discussion as well as more time to make instructional decisions by shifting some of the decision making to the planning phase of the lesson” (Smith & Stein, 2018). And never let a common error or misunderstanding go to waste in this moment. Engaging students in error analysis not only increases academic discourse naturally, but it’s engaging student in higher-order thinking and reasoning skills as stated in Standard for Mathematical Practice #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. (Although, when examining responses that contain errors or misunderstandings that lead to valuable teaching moments, it is best advised to use anonymous student work.) After the sequence of student responses is complete, the class is now at a launching point for a new task, direct instruction, or a formal wrap-up of the lesson. Success here is dependent upon intentionality in the moment and knowing the outcome for sharing student responses. The alternative is asking the ever-so-risky question “Who would like to share?” With this question, the teacher has to prepare for anything and everything that comes their way with full awareness that the goals of the lesson could be compromised by a single tangential response or a continuous stream of random and haphazard responses that lack coherence, cohesion, or any form of preplanning.

If the goal is to have learning outcomes achieved by design for all students, we cannot rely on instructional routines that are left up to chance to only benefit some. Think-Pair-Share is one such routine that addresses the following questions:

  • How might we draw on students’ prior mathematics knowledge as an entry point to the lesson and build off those ideas in exploring new content?

  • How might we get all student voices in the conversation and have all students contribute in a meaningful way during the lesson?

  • How might we use student work and responses to drive academic conversations among students, facilitated by the teacher, aimed toward the mathematical learning goals of the lesson?

Think-Pair-Share can be effective in the mathematics classroom as a routine that keeps students and their ideas at the forefront of the lesson through thoughtful and choreographed facilitation.

References

Smith, M. S., & Stein, M. K. (2018). 5 Practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions, 2nd edition. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Stenhouse Publishers.

Greg George is the K-12 Mathematics Coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Schools, serving as a former high school math teacher and a current affiliate faculty member at Regis University. Follow Greg on Twitter @SVVSDMath.

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