Thinking Ahead – Planning for Next Year’s Classroom Culture

I was in Austin all last week training for UT Dana Center (@UTdanacenter) International Fellows
(#UTDCIFF) and Department of Education Activities (@DoDEA) College and Career Ready Initiative teacher workshops happening this summer. A major focus for the week was on classroom culture and how important this is to mathematical learning and student discourse. Everyone at this training was either a current math teacher, a supervisor, mentor, coach, professional development provider, etc., so naturally, as part of the conversation, the following questions/concerns arose:

  1. What is classroom culture and why does it matter?
  2. How do you get students to talk to each other and engage in productive learning?
  3. How do you respond to teachers who say things like, “well, this would never work with my students” or “I can’t get my students to talk about math when we are in groups”…

You get the picture, and I am sure you have either thought these things or heard these from teachers you work with.

The short answer – it takes planning, training, and consistency. If a teacher thinks that they can just put students into groups, give them a problem, and they are going to immediately start talking and working together, they are very quickly in for a big surprise. Especially that first time, and especially if you have never done these types of collaborative learning with your students. Which brings us back to classroom culture.  What is it and why does it matter?

There are many definitions out there of classroom culture. I will give you my perspective. Classroom culture is a classroom environment where students feel safe making mistakes, they are comfortable sharing their thinking process with other students and with the teacher, and all ideas are entertained and acknowledged. Everyone’s voice is heard, everyone gets a chance to participate, and there is respectful conversations and debate about the work being done.  This matters because then students are given permission to persevere in problem solving situations where they may not know the answer, or may have a different approach then someone else or may have a question about something another student or the teacher has shared. It ties into those mathematical practices (#1 & #3, just to name a couple):

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others

But, this type of engagement, discourse and collaboration with and among students doesn’t just happen. Here are what I consider the three basic elements:

1. Planning

Planning entails thinking about the structures you want to use with students (so pairs, small groups, whole class) and the types of discussions and work you want to students to engage in. There is more to it than this, but some things to think about are

  • What task are students working on and what is the goal (a worksheet of 40 problems is NOT going to promote student discussion). Provide a rich task that fosters critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving.
  • How do you want students to engage? Are they talking in pairs first and then sharing with the small group? Does each pair/group need to show some product (i.e. their work, their thinking, the end result).
  • How will you bring the whole class together at the end? Will each group share out? Will you hang work and have a ‘gallery walk’ and come together to share?
  • How will you know that students have learned or reached the goal? What should students be able to do?

You need to think of these things ahead of time, most importantly because without an engaging, rich, though provoking problem, the conversations students have won’t be productive (and can lead to all the issues mentioned previously).

2. Training

How do you get students to talk about math (or any subject?) How do you get students to work in pairs or small groups and stay focused on a task? How do you get students to listen to each other and to provide critiques without insult (i.e. no ‘that’s stupid’ or “you’re an idiot”). It takes training.  I mean that literally. You have to show and model what it is you expect of them and practice, practice, practice.  Again, there is more to this than what I am listing, but here are some ideas:

  • Start those first few days/weeks of school with non-content related activities that are non-threatening, fun, and where everyone feels comfortable sharing (so talk about ‘the best horror movie’ or argue for/against a ‘beach is the best place to vacation’)
  • Set up group norms – i.e. if someone is talking, everyone else is listening; everyone makes mistakes, and that’s okay, you can support them and provide alternatives, but never insult them; everyone must contribute one idea; everyone’s idea should be heard; you can disagree but must provide a reason why; etc.
  • Show them how to get into small groups (so physically moving desks back and forth – it’s fun to do this a timed game); show them and practice how to talk with elbow partners, or face-partners, or the people next to them.  Practice sharing talk-time (a time works here).
  • Show them and practice group ‘roles’ – i.e. timer, recorder, controller, group spokesperson, etc. Switch roles up.
  • Practice different ways of calling on students (so they know they are all responsible at any time) – so person in the group/pair with the shortest hair, or the darkest colored shirt, or blue eyes….really anything works.

There are obviously lots more ways to set up these collaborative processes, but the idea behind training is that there are some expectations for talking, sharing, and working together, and if we practice these and adhere to these, then our time learning is going to be more positive and productive. Practice, practice, practice.  Which leads to consistency.

3. Consistency

I know teachers here this all the time – if you set boundaries for your classroom, you need to be consistent or students will not follow them (heck, this is true for parents as well!). Again – those first few days and weeks of school are where you set these boundaries up and start practicing with students and modeling both behaviors and actions. More importantly, follow through on any consequences. For classroom culture, this means if you have an expectation that students listen when others are talking, whether that be student or teacher, then be consistent.  If you are talking and they are not listening, stop – call it out – and then talk again. Same thing for students talking. Acknowledge when something is not adhering to expectations and call it out and then refer back to your expectations. Students very quickly learn what is expected, and if they realize that you are going to consistently hold them to these expectations, such as listening, allowing for mistakes, everyone’s ideas matter, etc., then they are going to feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their questions and their solutions/ideas. It becomes a classroom where learning is up front and center and ‘we are in this together’ becomes the norm.


I plan to do some more specific posts about classroom culture and provide some resources connected to planning and training. For now, I brought this idea of classroom culture up at the end of a school year because as teachers, you are about to embark on a summer of rest and relaxation. For most teachers I know, it is also a time where we do some personal learning and planning for next year. I would like to challenge all of you to really think about how you want your classroom culture to be next year. You need to start on day one of school creating this classroom culture, so spend some time this summer planning for that. What structures do you feel you could incorporate (i.e. pair work, small groups, etc.) and learn about those structures. What are rich tasks and go find some that would work for the content you teach. What do you want students doing when they are learning together? Go find some tips and ideas for how to create those collaborative discussions and problem-solving environments.

Only YOU can change the classroom culture in your own classroom – so think about what you want that to look like and sound like, and spend some of your summer learning and finding ways to foster this culture in your classroom when school starts in September (or August).

Creating a Classroom Culture That Encourages Student Discourse

I just spent two days earlier this week working with middle school math teachers. Our focus was on the 6 – 8 Common Core Geometry standards, and how they build on elementary geometric concepts and continue to build that understanding that students need when they get into high school geometry. As part of our work, we also focused on the Math Practices, because it’s the intentional alignment of practices and content to create engaging mathematics activities that really help students develop the deeper understandings. By that I mean you shouldn’t be teaching the content standards in isolation – they should be combined with helping students make sense of the problems, choosing appropriate tools to explore and apply the standards, and really explaining and justifying the conclusions they make.  Practices and content go hand-in-hand.

In our many collaborative discussions these past two days, as we really dived into both practices and content, what was very apparent was how important it is to create a collaborative, safe, classroom. Mathematics classrooms should constantly focus on vocabulary use (by both teacher and students), modeling, discussing your thought process (in many ways – spoken, written, pictorally), explaining and clarifying your thinking, asking questions, and really focusing on all types of communication. Mistakes or misconceptions that students have should be expressed freely, without fear of embarrassment, and students should be free to try multiple pathways to solutions and multiples ways to express their understanding. Students are not going to talk about mathematics if they feel they will be laughed at or considered ‘stupid’ – and that requires a classroom culture that fosters real communication between students that involves listening, ‘arguing’ against someones responses in a constructive, polite way, and a sense that it’s okay to make mistakes because we are all in this together, learning.

What the teachers expressed as their “ah-ha” from our days together was that in order to create these types of classrooms and math learning, you have to start the process right at the beginning of the year, during those first weeks of school, when students are new and class is unknown, and math concepts are relatively familiar since we are starting, in theory, where we left off at the summer. Those first couple weeks of school are the perfect time to create that collaborative classroom culture.

My suggestion was to start, day one, creating the idea that in this class we will be talking with each other, sharing ideas, and learning together, but we need some guidelines. So day one, don’t go over your rules – students know the rules. Instead, start having conversations – putting kids in small groups, and practice how to work and talk together using something non-math related to help foster the idea that in your class, communicating and listening are encouraged. For example, small groups of 2-3, and each group must decide what the best and worst movie they saw this summer was and give reasons for both.  Then have groups share out, using some simple group share out routines like the person in the group with the longest hair tell us about your groups best movie.  Be very explicit in how they communicate – ie., one person talks, everyone listens; write down your ideas, so one person records, etc.  Day two, do the same thing, but this time maybe use a simple math concept – i.e., in your groups, explain why a square might be a rectangle, or why is a circle different from a square?  Something appropriate for your grade level, but something that you know most of the students are familiar with.  Again – the idea is to learn how to communicate in the classroom – how to create that culture of collaboration, listening, and justification.  Day 3 – maybe introduce a math tool students will be using this year – like a calculator, protractor, compass, ruler, software, etc.  Have students explore and write down things they notice (give them simple things to do), things they have questions about.  Have other students explain what they found or answer each others questions.  Model the use of the tool (s) yourself. Lot’s of options, but the point being to get kids thinking, talking, listening, and understanding that if they have questions or concerns it’s okay to voice them.

Do a little bit each day – change the groups up, do it whole class, do it with partners. The idea is that you are helping students learn to talk to each other constructively so that when you get into the real learning of new math concepts, they are already comfortable with each other, with some of the learning tools they will be using, and understand that in this math class, we work together and listen to each other and support each other.

Learning is not an isolated activity – we, as teachers, are there to facilitate learning and help students become active, productive, problem-solvers. This happens in classrooms where it is okay to communicate, it is okay to make mistakes, it is okay to have your own approaches to problems but that requires justification of those approaches so others can learn from them.  The more you create this type of learning environment, the more your students will persevere in tackling those tough learning moments.