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Teaching students flexibility and efficiency in math through Number Talks

October 11, 2017

GUELPH, Ontario – Teachers in the Upper Grand District School Board are helping to change the way we talk and think about math.

In classrooms across the district, teachers are leading students in Number Talks – and it’s changing the way a lot of people think about math instruction.

Gone are the days of believing that someone is simply good or bad at math or that there is only one way to solve a problem. They help learners to realize that, while there may only be one right answer to a math problem, there are many strategies they can use to reach that answer.

What Number Talks Look Like

Number Talks are short, daily exercise that ask students to think through different strategies for solving a math problem, visualize their solution, and develop flexibility and efficiency in their number thinking.

During a Number Talk, students put their pens and paper away and sit as a group. The teacher writes a problem on the board and asks students to quietly solve the problem on their own. When a student has an answer, they quietly place their thumb up on their chest and waits for others to come up with a solution.

The teacher will then ask students to provide their answer and writes all of the answers on the board. Students will take turns explaining their method for reaching their solution – all the while the teacher writes down on the board all of the steps the student used.

In going through the different ways students solved the same problem – whatever strategy they happen to use, like friendly numbers, decomposing numbers or the give and take method – students realize there are many ways to get the answer. And in telling the teacher how they solved the problem, they are communicating what and how they are thinking.

Another interesting thing that happens, is that when students talk through their strategy and visualize different methods for solving the problem, they often realize where they made a mistake and can easily then come up with the correct answer.

On Sept. 27, 2017, Rickson Ridge PS held its first-ever Family Math Night.

Changing Attitudes Around Math

Learning from mistakes is another important aspect of Number Talks and a critical part of developing a growth mindset – realizing that making mistakes and overcoming challenges helps your brain grow.

Much of the shift that happens with changing attitudes around math starts with adults, the parents and teachers who were raised to solve math problems strictly using an algorithm, or who were raised to think that certain people simply aren’t good at math or that math was too hard.

And so, Number Talks began in the UGDSB last year, as Math Coaches visited schools and introduced the concept to staff. Those teachers began leading their classes through Number Talks.

Staff were also offered the opportunity to take the ‘How to Learn Math’ course, led by Jo Boaler, which aims to transform students’ experiences with math by teaching new ideas on math learning and mindsets.

Number Talks in the UGDSB

Number Talks continue to be a focus in the board this year. In September, all Math Leads in the board were invited to a professional development day dedicated to math instruction and Number Talks. They ran through Number Talks as a group and left with the task of leading the staff at their school through a Number Talk on the next PD Day.

As the excitement around the shift in math instruction grows, schools continue to introduce more Number Talks into their daily instruction.

Recently, Rickson Ridge Public School held a Family Math Night, which focused on developing critical thinking in children, Number Talks and growth mindsets. As part of the evening, parents/guardians and their kids were led through a Number Talk, Mental Math strategy of growth mindset lesson by Rickson Ridge teachers. Parents left that night with a booklet containing information on leading their children through Number Talks at home. 

Parents and guardians who would like to learn more about Number Talks are encouraged to view this video featuring Jo Boaler on

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