By Kristin Klingensmith

IFL Mathematics fellow

Accountable Talk® discussions are discussions that promote learning. They are discussions that have evidence of accountability to the learning community, accurate knowledge, and rigorous thinking.

Engaging in Accountable Talk discussions requires that students listen and respond constructively to others’ ideas and exert effort to explain their thinking with evidence in order to make progress in solving a challenging problem. As a matter of equity, every student in every classroom has the right to engage in Accountable Talk discussions.

Growing and refining the pedagogical practice of facilitating Accountable Talk discussions takes intention, time, and effort. To facilitate such discussions, the teacher must have an understanding of the content being studied, and student thinking related to the content. They must have a learning goal in mind. The teacher must also value the students who make up the learning community and believe that they have worthwhile and relevant thoughts to contribute to the discussion.

Facilitating an Accountable Talk discussion is a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure story where every decision changes the path of the conversation. Regardless of the pathway chosen, though, by the end of the “story” every student has had access to a rigorous discussion through which their understanding has advanced.

Sounds easy, right? We wish. In reality, it is quite complex. So let’s look at classroom scenarios and consider some ways a teacher might respond and the impact of those responses on the discussion.

A fifth grade class is engaging with a high-level task involving grams of sugar and cans of soda. The task is intentionally designed for students to create their own inquiry based on a series of observations and wonderings.

Michael is sitting at a desk positioned away from the rest of the class. He has recorded observations and wonderings. He says quietly to one of the adults in the room, “I wonder if the pack holds 12 or 24 cans?” The adult smiles and says that it is a great wondering and to write it down. He records “12 cans? 24 cans?” on his paper.

A while later, students share their observations and wonderings. They know that one can of soda contains 4.6 grams of sugar and that there is a whole pack of soda. The class establishes their inquiry, “How much sugar is in a pack of soda?” Then one of Michael’s classmates says that there are 12 cans in the pack. Michael calls out, “What? I didn’t see that anywhere. It could be 12 or 24.”

Let’s pause here. There are many ways that a teacher may respond to Michael in this scenario, but let’s focus on just three possible responses and their potential impact on the discussion.

#1 – The teacher corrects Michael for not raising his hand and waiting to be called on before speaking.

While rules like “raise your hand before talking,” and “wait to be called on” are prevalent in classrooms and well intentioned, instructional conversations do not always fit into such constructs. By choosing to correct the way Michael contributed, the value of his contribution is missed. During instructional conversations, teachers must often balance the need to follow the “rules” with the importance of honoring excitement and genuine inquiry.

#2 – The teacher takes up Michael’s comment and turns it back to the student who made the observation that there were 12 cans in the pack.

This move messages that Michael’s contribution is valued and that observations can be questioned. The move also allows the two students to support their observations by removing the teacher as the authority.

#3 – The teacher asks the class, “I wonder how the sugar in 12 cans will compare to the sugar in 24 cans of soda?” and records “12 cans? 24 cans?” on the board.

This combination of moves validates Michael’s wondering while setting up a new mathematical inquiry into the relationship between the sugar in 12 cans of soda and the sugar in 24 cans of soda. When comparing the two solution paths below, students can reason about why the product, the total grams of sugar, doubles when one factor, the number of cans, doubles.

Of these three responses, only #2 and #3 align with features of Accountable Talk discussions, and only #3 illustrates how a student’s contribution can be recognized and leveraged to create opportunities for rigorous thinking about a mathematical relationship for everyone in the community.

When we consider the impact a response to a student contribution has on the discussion, we can gain insight into the complexity of facilitating Accountable Talk discussions. When thinking about and reflecting on the “in the moment” decisions during classroom discussions, it is helpful to consider if the move provides students greater entry into the discussion, holds them to accuracy of their claims and thinking, and/or sets up opportunities to discuss mathematical relationships. Because there is no one way of facilitating an Accountable Talk discussion, it is incumbent upon all of us to be critical friends and colleagues. Through collaborative and engaged discussions with colleagues about our pedagogical choices, and with honest self-reflection, we can move toward providing more rigorous and equitable learning environments and instruction for every student.