Reasoning: Create Opportunities for Students to Reason Together

Part of the new role for educators is to provide rich opportunities for students to reason together about things that matter. That last phrase—“about things that matter”—is important. Many of us learned that putting students into small groups is a good idea, and small group work is indeed central to this approach. Simply putting students into small groups, though, is not sufficient to achieve the gains we desire for our students. Group time is too often spent on task management rather than shared analysis of ideas, and ELs are given passive roles as listeners or as scribes for those who take more active roles in the processing of ideas. Our approach is designed for ELs to join their classmates as initiators of ideas and to share in the analysis of complex challenges and ideas. As shown in the spiral on the home page, when students collaborate to construct new meaning together, their collaboration strengthens both their content knowledge and their language.  Language serves as a tool for meaning-making, and learning is intimately connected to shared activity and to students’ need to construct meaning together.

“For all students, the emphasis should be on making meaning, on hearing and understanding the contribution of others and on communicating their own ideas in a common effort to build understanding ….”

(Lee, Quinn, & Valdés, 2013, p. 3).

Meaning is not stored language, but stored experience. Language can express what is known, but it does not, in and of itself and absent experience, create or contain meaning. To learn what things mean, then, and what language means—to create meaning--requires immersion in experience.

(MacDonald & Molle, 2015, p. 42)

How do we construct rich opportunities for students to reason together? What are some hallmarks of effective meaning-making activities?  Students should be challenged with finding several approaches to working toward a solution and then analyzing why each method works and explaining why they think some ideas are better than others. Spiraling through ideas at these deeper levels of analysis provide important opportunities for students to reason together and to strengthen the language they need to explain their complex thinking.

The website for both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and for the National Science Teachers Association have helpful resources for designing activities to stimulate students’ reasoning, and additional resources for finding possible activities are listed on the Resource page. A seventh-grade algebra teacher in our project reported that it’s gotten easier to find relevant activities. She simply does an internet search for “meaning-making activities for seventh grade algebra”! Suggestions from others include looking at the activities at the end of a chapter, often labeled as extension activities. Using those at the beginning of a unit, rather than at the end, can stimulate a lot of curiosity and jump-start students’ sense-making. This Focus Bulletin from the WIDA Consortium offers additional suggestions for setting up productive group work with ELs.

“I had my students working on something I thought was pretty simple, but it turned out they needed 20 minutes to figure it out together. It just about killed me to give that much time to something ‘so simple’, but in the end, it was the right thing. They needed time to think it through. I was wrong—it wasn’t really simple—and now they understand it.”

seventh-grade teacher


This video also demonstrates student moves in science.

Creating Opportunity for Collaborative Reasoning in Math