Book Study: Building Thinking Classrooms by Peter Liljedahl

14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning


In 2003, Jane, a veteran middle school math teacher, needed assistance with a new curriculum that emphasized problem-solving, a subject she had never taught before. Despite her reserved nature, she agreed to allow Peter Liljedahl to provide problems while she taught. The initial attempts were chaotic and frustrating, with students feeling confused and discouraged. However, Jane’s persistence and determination were evident. Observations of her traditional teaching methods revealed a deeper issue: although students were busy, they were not truly thinking, a pattern that was consistent across other classrooms as well.

Over the next 15 years, Peter's collaboration with 400 K-12 teachers led to experiments that broke institutional norms to foster deeper student thinking. Through his work, 14 key factors were identified, and optimal practices were developed and refined across various settings. The result was the creation of thinking classrooms where students actively engage in meaningful learning.

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1. What Types of Tasks We Use in a Thinking Classroom

Providing tasks that require and encourage deep thinking is crucial to fostering student thinking. In mathematics, the right task can stimulate critical thought. Practical problem-solving tasks should get students stuck, prompting them to think, experiment, and apply their knowledge creatively to get unstuck. These tasks are non-routine and rich, requiring a diverse application of mathematical knowledge, unlike routine tasks that often lead to mimicking rather than genuine thinking.

Initially, Peter’s research focused on finding and designing engaging tasks that encourage thinking. These included highly engaging thinking tasks, mathematical card tricks, and real-world problem-solving tasks, all drawing students in and making them think. These tasks are engaging and often non-curricular, making them effective in building a thinking classroom. To shift students from mimicking to thinking within the curriculum, it's essential to first prime them with non-curricular tasks that foster a habit of thinking, creating a foundation for deeper engagement with curricular content.

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2. How We Form Collaborative Groups in a Thinking Classroom

Research has shown that effective student collaboration significantly impacts learning. While many teachers use groups in their classrooms, engagement levels and participation often fall short of expectations. Traditional grouping methods, whether strategic or self-selected, often lead to mismatches between teachers' goals and students' social preferences, resulting in disengagement. Strategic grouping tends to place students in roles based on perceived abilities or behaviour, often reinforcing passive participation. On the other hand, self-selected groups usually reflect social dynamics, with students preferring to work with friends, leading to unproductive collaboration.

Random grouping is highly effective in addressing these issues. Students are more likely to engage actively by assigning groups randomly and frequently, as they enter each group without predefined roles. Using visible methods such as drawing cards ensures students perceive the process as random. This approach increases engagement, breaks down social barriers, and promotes knowledge mobility, as students are more likely to interact and share ideas across different groups. Implementing frequent, visibly random groupings fosters a collaborative environment where students are more willing to think and participate, improving learning outcomes and classroom dynamics.

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3. Where Students Work in a Thinking Classroom

Finding the optimal workspace for students is crucial in creating and sustaining a thinking classroom. Traditional methods, such as having students sit at desks and write in notebooks, often lead to passive and mimicking behaviors rather than active thinking. Research shows that non-permanent surfaces (VNPSs) like whiteboards, significantly enhance student engagement and thinking. Students who work on whiteboards can quickly erase mistakes, reducing the risk of trying new ideas. Standing and working at vertical whiteboards fosters better posture, enhances non-verbal communication, and increases knowledge mobility, leading to more dynamic and collaborative problem-solving.

Traditionally, installing large whiteboards in classrooms has been expensive and cumbersome, often inaccessible for schools with minimal budgets. Wipebook Flipcharts provide a flexible solution, allowing VNPS surfaces to be set up all over the classroom. They can utilize existing spaces such as windows, cabinets, and doors to increase the working area for students. Due to these advantages, Wipebook Flipcharts have become the most popular option for incorporating vertical non-permanent surfaces in classrooms, ensuring that interactive and engaging learning environments conducive to active thinking are accessible to all.

These modifications to a student's workspace improves student engagement and thinking across various settings. Controlled experiments reveal that students working on vertical whiteboards start discussions, make notations faster, persist longer, and collaborate more effectively, enabling teachers to better assess and support student progress. Despite logistical challenges like limited classroom whiteboard space, affordable alternatives such as windows, shower boards, and commercial products can be used. Adopting VNPSs with visibly random grouping strategies supports active thinking, transforming the learning experience.


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4. How We Arrange the Furniture in a Thinking Classroom

A thinking classroom is characterized by how students engage in activities and how teachers facilitate them. However, the physical organization of the classroom also significantly impacts student thinking. Research shows that either too organized or chaotic classrooms hinder thinking. Highly organized classrooms give students the impression that learning must be orderly and precise, which is not conducive to the messy thinking process involving risk-taking and trial and error. On the other hand, overly chaotic classrooms can distract students from thinking. Thus, a balance must be struck to create an environment that promotes thinking.

The arrangement of furniture in the classroom sends a message about expected behaviours. For example, desks in straight rows or symmetrical arrangements signal orderliness and a teacher-centred approach. Conversely, defronted classrooms, where desks and chairs are arranged non-linearly and face different directions, encourage student collaboration and active engagement. Defronting the classroom changes student behaviors and influences teachers to talk less and facilitate more, fostering a more dynamic learning environment. The optimal setup involves flexible furniture arrangements that support group work and access to vertical non-permanent surfaces, creating a space where thinking is encouraged and supported.

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5. How We Answer Questions in a Thinking Classroom

The effective use of teacher questions to direct student thinking is well-documented, but less attention is given to how teachers answer student questions and their impact on student thinking. Research shows that teachers often spend significant time answering questions, hindering students' thinking. On average, a teacher answers between 200 and 400 questions daily, which can detract from encouraging students to think independently.

Students typically ask three types of questions: proximity questions (asked when the teacher is nearby), stop-thinking questions (like "Is this right?"), and keep thinking questions (which help them continue engaging with the task). Answering proximity and stop-thinking questions often stops students from thinking. Teachers should focus on answering keep-thinking questions and use strategies to avoid answering the others, such as responding with questions, encouraging students to think further, or simply smiling and walking away. This approach encourages students to take responsibility for their thinking and reduces their reliance on the teacher for validation.

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6. When, Where, and How Tasks Are Given in a Thinking Classroom

The effectiveness of thinking tasks in the classroom relies on the quality of the tasks themselves and when, where, and how they are given. While rich tasks are abundant online, the real challenge lies in how they are implemented to engage students effectively. Teachers often underestimate the importance of the delivery method, which can significantly influence student engagement and thinking.

When tasks are introduced at the beginning of a lesson, students engage more actively and energetically compared to when tasks are introduced later. Additionally, students' physical position during the task introduction—standing in a loose formation around the teacher rather than sitting at desks—affects their engagement and energy levels. Verbal task delivery, supplemented with necessary written details on the board, has been shown to generate deeper and more sustained student thinking. This method reduces the cognitive load and fosters a more interactive and engaging learning environment.

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7. What Homework Looks Like in a Thinking Classroom

Homework is common among teachers, but its effectiveness often falls short. Students' engagement with homework varies greatly, with some not doing it at all, some cheating, some seeking help, and others trying it independently. Many students do not do their homework because they are busy, forget, or don't know how to do it. Cheating can range from copying from friends to more elaborate schemes. When students seek help, they often focus on completing the work rather than truly understanding it. Those who attempt it on their own usually mimic examples from notes or textbooks, which limits genuine understanding.

To address these issues, the concept of homework needs to be rebranded. Calling it "check-your-understanding questions" shifts the focus to self-assessment and learning from mistakes rather than merely completing assignments for grades. This approach encourages students to do the work themselves, enhancing their understanding and engagement. Students can independently verify their work by providing answers and later worked solutions. This method fosters a more thoughtful approach to learning and aligns with the goals of building a thinking classroom.

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8. How We Foster Student Autonomy in a Thinking Classroom

A thinking classroom differs significantly from a traditional one. Students work in groups, standing instead of sitting, and the teacher provides verbal instructions while minimizing direct answers and traditional homework. This setup demands greater student independence, fostered by granting them more autonomy over their actions. This autonomy encourages students to engage more actively with their learning environment, interacting with other groups to seek help or verify their work, enhancing their responsibility and easing the teacher's role.

In thinking classrooms, teachers relinquish some control, allowing students to self-manage and interact passively (observing other groups) and actively (discussing with peers). This dynamic fosters knowledge mobility, where students independently seek and share information, reducing the need for teacher intervention. The teacher's role shifts to facilitating these interactions, encouraging students to utilize the collective knowledge within the classroom. This autonomy builds independence and prepares students for collaborative, real-world problem-solving.

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9. How We Use Hints and Extensions in a Thinking Classroom

Teaching mathematics has traditionally involved synchronous activities where all students simultaneously follow the exact instructions, whether writing notes, solving problems, or receiving hints. However, students' abilities and learning speeds vary significantly, making the one-size-fits-all approach ineffective. Asynchronous activities that cater to individual learning paces and needs are essential for effective teaching, allowing for differentiation and personalized learning experiences. This is crucial in a thinking classroom where students work in groups and engage in dynamic learning processes.

In thinking classrooms, fostering student engagement is vital. This involves creating tasks that balance challenges with students' abilities, ensuring continuous engagement and preventing boredom or frustration. Using the concept of flow, where students are deeply immersed in their work, teachers can craft and sequence curricular tasks to maintain this balance. By introducing clear goals, providing immediate feedback, and using hints and extensions to adjust the challenge level, teachers can help students progress through large amounts of content efficiently. This approach transforms traditional curriculum tasks into powerful thinking tasks, enhancing engagement and learning outcomes.

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10. How We Consolidate a Lesson in a Thinking Classroom

Consolidation is a crucial part of any lesson, aiming to unify the different parts and help students form a cohesive understanding of the concepts taught. In a thinking classroom, where student flow and autonomy are essential, consolidation involves gathering diverse student solutions and fostering an environment where thinking remains central. Traditional methods of levelling to the top, where teachers present the most advanced solution, often fail because they create a cognitive gap that most students can't bridge, turning the process into a passive note-taking exercise rather than an active learning experience.

Effective consolidation in a thinking classroom involves starting with solutions that all students have reached and gradually moving through more complex ones. This method keeps all students engaged by validating their efforts and allowing them to see the progression of ideas. A guided gallery walk, where students stand and discuss solutions presented on vertical surfaces, is particularly effective. This approach keeps students physically and mentally engaged and shifts the focus from passive listening to active participation and thinking. Consolidation becomes a dynamic and inclusive process that enhances understanding and retention by carefully selecting and sequencing student work and encouraging peers to decode each other’s solutions.

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11. How Students Take Notes in a Thinking Classroom

Taking notes is a widespread practice in mathematics classrooms worldwide, traditionally seen as a way to create a record for future reference and to facilitate learning. However, research has shown that conventional note-taking methods, such as "I-write-you-write" and fill-in-the-blank, often fail to engage students in meaningful thinking. Many students struggle to keep up with the teacher, copying "dead notes" without truly understanding the material. This disconnect between note-taking and comprehension highlights the need for a more thoughtful approach to notes that encourages active engagement and deeper learning.

An alternative method involves students writing notes to their "future forgetful selves." This approach, tested in various classrooms from Grades 4 to 12, encourages students to document what they deem necessary and useful for future reference, thus making note-taking a mindful activity. Graphic organizers, which help structure and focus students' notes, have proven especially effective, particularly for younger students not yet encultured into mindless note-taking. This method not only makes the notes more personalized and relevant but also aids in consolidating individual learning, enhancing both understanding and retention of the material.

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12. What We Choose to Evaluate in a Thinking Classroom

Evaluating students effectively in a thinking classroom requires focusing on competencies that foster their success, such as perseverance, willingness to take risks, and the ability to collaborate. Teachers should develop rubrics with students to assess these behaviours, ensuring the criteria are clear and meaningful to the learners. This process enhances student engagement and provides a more comprehensive evaluation of their abilities beyond traditional academic skills. By creating rubrics, students understand what is expected and are more motivated to improve these essential competencies.

The design and use of rubrics should be straightforward and avoid overly nuanced language, which can confuse students. Rubrics should be observational, assessing real-time behaviours rather than completed tasks to provide immediate and actionable feedback. The emphasis is on evaluating visible student actions, making the input more relevant and impactful. Through this method, students begin to see the importance of these competencies and are encouraged to develop them further, leading to a more effective and dynamic learning environment.

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13. How We Use Formative Assessment in a Thinking Classroom

The distinction between formative assessment and summative evaluation is often overstated. In reality, all assessments should be formative, and some can also be summative. Practical assessment involves the communication of information to inform both teaching and learning. Traditionally, assessment was seen as the flow of information from student to teacher, primarily for grading and informing teaching. Recently, there's been a shift toward assessment practices where information flows from teacher to student to inform learning. This requires clear communication to help students understand their learning process.

To navigate their learning, students need to know where they are and where they are going. This involves breaking down units of study into subtopics and understanding their levels of complexity (basic, intermediate, advanced). Using navigation instruments, teachers can help students self-assess their performance on specific questions, track their progress, and identify areas for improvement. This method has significantly improved student performance and understanding, especially for those actively engaging with their learning process. By providing clear and actionable feedback, students can better navigate their learning journey and achieve higher levels of mastery.

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14. How We Grade in a Thinking Classroom

Thinking classrooms emerged from efforts to break traditional educational norms, aiming to foster and sustain deep thinking, especially in mathematics education. Despite some institutional constraints like fixed schedules and the need to report grades, innovative practices have been developed that encourage continuous thinking and learning. However, reconciling these practices with traditional grading systems can create tension. Students often work collaboratively in thinking classrooms, but their individual performance on tests may not accurately reflect their capabilities, leading to a disconnect between teaching methods and assessment practices.

To address this, shifting from a point-gathering paradigm to a data-gathering paradigm is essential. Traditional point-based grading focuses on accumulating points from various assessments, often leading to inaccuracies and inconsistencies. The data-gathering approach, or outcomes-based or standards-based assessment, emphasizes tracking student progress over time and recognizing mastery rather than penalizing early struggles. This method uses precise instruments to record data from tests, observations, and conversations, ensuring a comprehensive view of student learning. By adopting this approach, teachers can provide more accurate and meaningful assessments, fostering a learning environment where students focus on their growth and understanding.

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15. Pulling the 14 Practices Together to Build a Thinking Classroom

Initially, the belief was that the right tasks alone would suffice to get students to think. However, it became evident that while engaging tasks are essential, they are not enough. Without changes in teaching practices, these tasks might frustrate students and teachers. Creating a classroom culture where thinking is encouraged and necessary is crucial. This involves building a thinking classroom by implementing specific practices that foster a conducive environment for sustained intellectual engagement.

Implementing thinking classroom practices requires a strategic approach, especially if done mid-year. The key is to start with practices most impactful in signalling to students that change is needed. For instance, using thinking tasks, forming random groups, and utilizing vertical non-permanent surfaces can significantly alter classroom norms and behaviours. Once these practices are established, subsequent practices can be introduced in a specific sequence to build on this foundation, ensuring that the thinking classroom environment is robust and effective. This structured implementation helps maintain student engagement and promotes deeper learning and thinking.

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