Fostering Participation in the Math Classroom: The Power of 'Shush'

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Think of a recent mathematics class you have taught or observed where the focus was on problem solving or inquiry and the class was engaged in a discussion about a problem. This class could have been at the elementary, middle, or secondary level.

How was the solution to the problem shared with the class? More and more often, the solutions are coming from the students rather than the teacher, and this is truly promising. In many classes I observe, if the problem is challenging, the first student to share may not have the correct answer. The second and third may not either. However, when the student with the correct answer is eventually called on, that student provides the response in its entirety. The teacher then responds with some sort of affirmation, often by nodding and smiling and possibly even saying, “That’s correct!” Then the teacher turns to the class and asks if there are any questions.

This seems like a good teaching scenario. The students worked on the problem. It was challenging enough that the class did not immediately solve the problem correctly. And a student shared the correct answer rather than waiting passively for the teacher to provide it.

This scenario actually describes a missed opportunity.

The problem was clearly challenging, evidenced by students first responding with incorrect answers. While it is good that the teacher didn’t give away the answer when students struggled, it is a missed opportunity that one student provided the solution in its entirety.

Consider this alternate scenario.

Just as in the first scenario, the students are discussing the problem, and the first two students provide incorrect answers. The third student begins to provide the correct answer, but the teacher interrupts the student mid-sentence by saying, “shush!” The student immediately stops talking and the classroom is silent.

Now, that’s pretty rude. After all, it is inappropriate to interrupt. Or is it?

When done well, “shushing” the student actually provides others in the class with the opportunity to participate rather than waiting for the student who so often offers the correct answer to do the work. The “shushed” student serves the role of providing the hint, or scaffolding, to the class so they can re-engage in the sense making.

The first time you “shush” a student in your class can be tricky. You need to choose the student carefully so that you do not upset him or her. You may even warn the student in advance that this could happen. But don’t warn all the students, as this ruins the fun. It doesn’t take students long to catch on to why you shush. Eventually, students will grin when you shush them, obviously feeling good that they were just shushed because it means they were on a correct path. Others will listen for the “shush,” knowing it is a way of identifying a useful hint for a problem solution.

This strategy ultimately increases your focus on the student-centered classroom, with students taking the role of offering some “just-in-time” support to their peers. I have found that students also become more engaged in the lesson, happy to offer suggestions and listen more carefully to one another’s contributions during whole class discussions.

It is, after all, the power of “shush.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Dr. Juli K. Dixon is an author of Into Math. Learn more about the HMH program for K-8 students here.

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