Math Seminar Full of Wonder

Imagine a whole class of fifth graders having a conversation about something that is hard to understand, a conversation in which there are differing approaches to the subject, a conversation during which children listen to one another, think about one another’s thoughts, and sometimes change their position.  Imagine that this is a Paideia Seminar about Math.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to watch a group of fifth graders comfortably and skillfully engaged in this kind of genuine conversation about a math problem titled “The Waiter” (for a HS version of the seminar plan, see ).

The teacher was in the seminar circle, and posed questions for the children to consider, but they shared their thoughts with one another rather than directing them to the teacher. They explained their own thinking and justified themselves. They were excellent listeners, sharing and yielding talk turns, agreeing and disagreeing respectfully, and eventually it became clear that some were changing their thinking based on others’ comments. Students were heard to express that they originally thought one thing, but after considering someone else’s thoughts, they now think differently.

Paideia Seminar teaches the skills of conversation – difficult skills – because it systematically approaches conversation as collaborative intellectual dialogue. On this day, from the very start of the seminar, students’ differing approaches to the text were evident, and they began a very interesting discussion about the relative importance of the various components involved in the problem, and explained the logic behind their interpretation of the information. Later in the conversation, the teacher asked students to turn to a student sitting close by to explain their thinking, and then to convey a neighbor’s.

Students later commented that this conversation had really “started their brains going” and expressed the satisfaction of having collaboratively worked to arrive at a point of mutual understanding.

This learning will be helpful to these students in years to come. It will serve them well as they grow to adulthood. This is preparation for learning over the course of a whole lifetime.  Imagine this kind of powerful learning taking place on a regular basis.

–Wendy Ikoku (Paideia National Faculty Member)