Why Use Mathematical Think Alouds?

Students often hold misconceptions about effective thinkers. They may believe that these people never struggle; that they never second-guess their ideas; that “they get it right” immediately. Think alouds can help dispel these misconceptions by opening up discussions about self-talk and enabling all students to access mathematical thinking.

Self-talk is simply what we say to ourselves when we think. It can be covert or overt but regardless of the form it takes there’s a direct correlation in educational research between effective self-talk and strong metacognition skills. If we want our students to become strong thinkers, we need to ensure that they are aware of how their own self-talk directs their learning. It has been documented that learners who struggle often lack effective self-talk. If we need to improve our thinking skills, we need to have some awareness of our own self-talk—you can’t improve something you’re not aware of. What we say (or don’t say) to ourselves has an impact on our decision making, mindset and learning process.

As teachers we often use think alouds in language arts to help our students become aware of the different kinds of self-talk that take place when someone reads or writes a text. You may think out loud and share your self-talk as you write or read a text. The goal is to ensure that all of your leaners have access to what effective readers and writers are thinking as they engage in a specific activity. Think-alouds in language arts help our students become stronger readers and writers by simply enabling them to understand what effective self-talk is and how they can use it to direct their own learning. So why don’t we use think alouds in mathematics?

Mathematical think alouds, like think alouds in language arts, reveal the self-talk that leads to specific decisions and actions. Through the use of self-talk, students navigate thinking and make decisions. For many students who struggle, mathematical think alouds pull back the curtain on learning processes and allow them to access parts of thinking that are often inferred but invisible to them. Think alouds render this powerful thinking more concrete and accessible.

In mathematics, we often invite students to share their thinking and describe their mathematical ideas to others. We may also invite students to share their solutions as part of a whole-class discussion. These are critical learning experiences. When students communicate their thinking, they have opportunities to rehearse/edit their ideas and those of their peers. This process deepens mathematical understanding and also helps students to appreciate that mathematics is indeed a social activity.

What I believe is missing in our work is the exploration of the self-talk, which is what takes place before final solutions/strategies are shared. I’m not referring to someone describing, after the fact, what they thought as they completed an activity. I am referring to the raw, messy self-talk, in quotations, that takes place in our brain as we navigate the complex journey of thinking. In my book, Teaching Math with Meaning, I explore examples of self-talk. In some cases, there may be several self-talk statements that might fall under the same category, based on how they’re used.

Modelling a short, one-minute think aloud as you do a math activity enables students to have access to the part of thinking that they often don’t hear (or see). It’s helpful to include the reasons for the thinking you share in your think aloud. For example, if I state, “I think I should model this using pattern blocks” it’s helpful to add the reason for my decision (which is also part of my self-talk): “because this will help me see the area of the shapes more clearly.” This helps students make connections between our thinking and the actions/decisions we make.

Thinking is messy! Mathematical think alouds can enable our students to have a better understanding of this messiness. The goal of implementing think alouds is not to provide them with a script to follow, rather it is about helping our students become aware of their own self-talk and understand how it can help them to become strong mathematical thinkers.

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