How noisy is your classroom? The importance of social interaction in the mathematics classroom

Along with curriculum, characteristics of classroom environments can influence student engagement with mathematics. Research has found that learning is not solely an active personal construction of knowledge, but is strongly influenced by the social environment within which it takes place, with social interaction an essential element in supporting the development of understanding (O’Toole & Plummer, 2004). As well as delivering the curriculum, it is the teacher’s role to help construct the classroom social environment by creating norms and rules for student social behaviour in the classroom and providing explicit messages regarding students’ interactions with their classmates (Ryan & Patrick, 2001). In terms of mathematics, “Every mathematician works within a mathematical community. Mathematicians are social on both a local and global scale” (Ricks, 2009, p. 3). Yet in many cases, students are required to work in isolation and sometimes in silence when engaging with school mathematics.

Students’ perceptions of the mathematics classroom can influence their beliefs about themselves and their schoolwork, impacting on their level of engagement in academic tasks. In an investigation of the social environment, or classroom climate, elements of teacher support, peer support, and the promotion of mutual respect were described as having a strong influence on the motivation of students towards academic engagement (Patrick, Ryan, & Kaplan, 2007). Environments characterised by support, respect, and widespread student interaction encourage a focus on mastery goals and a focus on personal improvement with learning being seen as an end in itself. Students’ perceptions of their environment are a critical link in understanding how the environment influences motivation and engagement (Patrick, et al., 2007).

With substantial literature stating social interaction within the classroom is an important contributor to positive learning outcomes, it appears mathematics classrooms are sometimes regarded as an exception to this. The often individualistic nature of mathematics lessons seems extremely unusual, causing some students to view mathematics classrooms as ‘other-worldly’, with no relationship to their own lives and perhaps no connection to other academic areas (Boaler, 2000). The traditional practices of individualised work in the mathematics classroom discourage meaning, engagement and understanding. “Students within mathematics classrooms regard themselves as a community, whether teachers do or not, and it is antithetical to the notion of any community that it should inhibit communication between participants, and that dominant practices preclude meaning and agency” (p.394).

Student interaction and the use of cooperative learning within the mathematics classroom appear to support adolescents’ need for social interaction while encouraging the development of mathematical understanding. “Students do not just learn methods and processes in mathematics classrooms, they learn to be mathematics learners and their learning of content knowledge cannot be separated from their interactional engagement in the classroom” (Boaler, 2000, p.380). In a study of 76 students learning mathematics in six English schools, Boaler found many students claimed their relations with other members of the group to be “the single most important factor influencing their predilection towards mathematics” (p.387). Many students found it more helpful to ask other students for help rather than the teacher, suggesting that the relations formed between students were formative at an important point in their learning.

Students placed their relationships with others and the interactions they experienced as central to their learning of mathematics (Boaler, 2000). This finding has since been confirmed by Australian research exploring teaching strategies to build understanding, conducted across nine metropolitan and country schools. Social interaction was identified as critical in supporting the development of all students (O’Toole & Plummer, 2004). Interactions between students and teachers, and students with students allowed construction of meaning and assisted students in building deeper understandings of mathematical concepts. Similarly, it is claimed that an “inherent connection exists between external influences and internal mental functions” (Blair, 2004, p.37). Allowing students to discuss their mathematics and collaborate to solve problems leads to faster progress and the adoption of more flexible strategies than individual work. Working with others assists students to view themselves as mathematical learners, providing opportunities for clarification of tasks, to test ideas, make conjectures and engage in mathematical discussions and arguments (Anthony & Walshaw, 2009).

In summary, research has found that social interaction is an important element in the learning of mathematics that has a direct impact on students’ engagement with mathematics. Encouraging positive interaction within the mathematics classroom provides opportunities for students to meet social needs and increase their depth of understanding of mathematical concepts.

References

Anthony, G., & Walshaw, M. (2009). Effective pedagogy in mathematics (Vol. 19). Belley, France.

Blair, A. (2004). Peer interaction. Mathematics Teaching(186), 36-38.

Boaler, J. (2000). Mathematics from another world: Traditional communities and the alienation of learners. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 18(4), 379-397.

O’Toole, T., & Plummer, C. (2004). Social interaction: A vehicle for building meaning. Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 9(4), 39-42.

Patrick, H., Ryan, A. M., & Kaplan, A. (2007). Early adolescents’ perceptions of the classroom social environment, motivational beliefs, and engagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 83-98.

Ricks, T. E. (2009). Mathematics is motivating. The Mathematics Educator, 19(2), 2-9.

Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents’ motivation and egagement during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 437-460.

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