“Math is actually fun now,” Joshua said to me, as he and his math partners skipped back to their classroom. “We get to yell at each other!” Any teacher would like the first part, right? But the second part…

The second part was the key to everything.

They weren’t yelling at each other. But they were talking, about math, with genuine emotion. They were excited. They were drawing out diagrams showing how 1/3 of 24 looked just like 24 ÷ 3, connecting new concepts about division with fractions to earlier work with division of whole numbers, and trying desperately to convince each other—without calculating—that 4.3 x 0.99 would result in a product less than 4.3.

These three students hadn’t particularly cared for math. They forced themselves through lessons, listening for what to do so they could complete their worksheets. They hadn’t even been friends before this, and never would have chosen to work together. So much had changed.

“Math joy” gets a lot of play these days, for good reason. To grow mathematicians, we need students to be motivated to do the work of learning mathematics. We hope they see it as a fascinating topic, filled with knowable relationships. What a beautiful realization to see that you can figure new things out. The power of reasoning inspires joy.

But the “yelling” was also pretty important. Joshua and his two partners were well matched. No one of them held greater status over the others. Each was recognized as someone who could share ideas worth considering and as someone worthy of being convinced. Even better, they grew confident enough to demand that math make sense—that it match the structures they understood already.

Watching this small group work together has been a real pleasure. It’s the best evidence for the kind of math instruction I believe in. The funny thing is that most of the time I had the weird feeling like I was doing nothing to make it happen. But that’s only true if you see the teacher’s role as the holder of knowledge. My job here was more important than that: I made the partnership, chose the tasks, briefly framed questions, and stepped back. Every once in a while I might remind them of what they already knew. But it was their job to prove their ideas correct or not by connecting other ideas they had about the structure of mathematics.

And guess what? When you learn math that way, it’s actually fun.