A Thinking Classroom Origin Story



“So my goal in thinking classrooms has always been not to build and find engaging tasks, but to build and engage students that can then be pointed. And then you point those engaged students at any content, and they will think and engage, and make meaning” 

- Dr. Peter Liljedhal, Math Moments Podcast #21


Math Moments Podcast #21 featured Dr. Peter Liljedahl who for the last 15-years has been developing the concept of the Thinking Classroom. This blog will touch on the main points of the episode, discuss the origin story of Peter’s groundbreaking teaching methodology, and provide you with the steps for getting started with a Thinking Classroom.


Who is the founder of ThinkingClassroom?


Dr. Peter Liljedahl is a professor of mathematics education at Simon Fraser University, BC, Canada, who has been researching ways to get students to become resilient problem solvers through ideas such as,


  • Using vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPS) 
  • Visible random groupings
  • Selecting tasks with evolving complexity

    A teaching method he calls the Thinking Classroom.


    Spotting Patterns


    When Peter was in grade 8, he began to outpace his math class and to compensate for this, his teacher started giving him the next years' textbook to learn on his own. This was where Peter learned that he could spot patterns and visualize the solutions in the textbook without additional help. He also realized that the teaching system was set up so that you were either a math person or not. Luckily, he was a math person, but the idea that there must be a better way to teach began to take hold inside of him.




    Conceptual Learning and its Shortcomings; the road to Thinkingclassroom


    When Peter began teaching, we came to the realization that saying the solution more clearly just wasn’t going to get the job done so he set out to try a different approach to problem-solving. One example of this was using a unit circle superimposed on a sheet of graph paper for teaching trigonometry. Using this visual method, he never had students asking, "Was this an inverse sine? Or should it be sine?" as it was obvious when seeing it conceptually.


    This visual approach to problem-solving looked promising, however, Peter gave them a problem that was derived from some other concepts they had learned and was surprised that no one in the class could answer it. Furthermore, when he told the class they could work together to solve it, they were still stumped. It was at this moment that Peter realized he’d been spoon-feeding the kids the answers.And despite the fact that they should know how to solve the problem, no one in the class could answer it. Even though he was approaching problem-solving conceptually, he was still showing them the step-by-step process and then leaving them in this position where they didn’t know how to solve any unfamiliar problems.


    A Better Way: The 14 Rules for Building a Thinking Classroom


    Peter continued to develop his teaching method and came up with 14 rules for setting up a Thinking Classroom (https://www.edutopia.org/article/building-thinking-classroom-math). He believed that the institutionally normative structures of schools were probably holding kids back and that making one of two changes wasn’t going to get it done. Part of Peter’s research revealed that schools need to create a new norm for students early on, and this is where vertical non-permanent surfaces (https://wipebook.com/products/flipchart), random groups, and rich tasks came into the equation.


    The Science of Standing Up and Teamwork


    Peter’s research clearly showed that getting students to stand up and work in groups at a whiteboard mounted on the wall lead to an increase in eagerness to participate and overall perseverance to problem-solve. It is known that communication is mostly non-verbal, and as it turns out, it’s easier to gesture when you’re standing up. Furthermore, giving groups only one marker to work with leads to better teamwork and communication at the VNPS. These reusable surfaces also create a safe environment to make mistakes and allowed students to forge ahead into problem-solving without hesitation and fear of making a mistake.


    One of the surprise findings was learning that standing up is good BUT sitting is worse. When students are sitting at their desk they can feel anonymous. It’s easy for students to hide behind a desk and their classmates, but when standing up at the board, students don’t feel anonymous anymore. Standing students, conversely, are all oriented to the task and as such it gives them the ability to walk around, look at other student’s work, and share ideas.




    Creating Choice Rich Environments through ThinkingClassroom 

    One interesting result of students having the ability to walk around and share ideas was that students were not just stealing answers and copying work. This was due to a non-curricular approach where the goal was not for students to finish a set of questions but to truly understand the work they were doing. When students are told to finish a set of ten problems, the goal becomes to finish the ten problems, not necessarily understand the work. HOWEVER, when students are encouraged to think their way through rich problems, they use the resources around the room to help them understand the problem they are solving and get to the next step.


    Using Rich Tasks to Create Question Labyrinths 


    Rich tasks are ones that have evolving complexity. The further students get into rich tasks, the more complexities reveal themselves. Peter also calls these non-curricular tasks because the goal is not to get through the curriculum. What these tasks do is get students into the habit of anticipating the next complexity and when needed, working with other groups to get to the next level. Students really enjoy being in that space where they are learning more, and more, and more, with continuously evolving tasks that keep getting harder, and harder, and harder. What determines whether a task is rich has a lot more to do with the disposition of the students and the environment in which it's done than it does the actual task.


    The Goal of Thinking Classrooms


    Peter’s goal in Thinking Classrooms has always been not to build and find engaging tasks, but to build engaged students. These engaged students can then be pointed at any content, and they will think and engage, and make meaning in the evolving complexity. That's what the goal is. For Peter, the content of the curriculum is just the context. The processes and the competencies are the content.




    How to Get Your Thinking Classroom Started 


    If you’re interested in trying our this method, Peter has developed a set of 14 rules for setting up a Thinking Classroom ("https://www.edutopia.org/article/building-thinking-classroom-math), but he also suggests that teachers may want to consider starting with problems that are non curricular in nature in order to build that culture of thinking in the classroom, prior to building in the curricular focused tasks. It is really important to begin with building that culture in a classroom to create the right environment for students to learn.


    Peter suggests that to help students apply this type of learning, they need to start early on in their education. So starting early is best, but starting today is better than starting tomorrow.


    To help with the material requirements of the Thinking Classroom, Math Moments has partnered with one of Peter's recommended providers of VNPS gear, Wipebook ("https://wipebook.com/collections/all-products"), to provide a discounted starter pack of reusable Flipchart sheets.


    If you’d like to listen to the full podcast you can do so at the link below, 



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