Building Thinking Classrooms

If you've ever attempted to run a math or science lesson and haven't heard about Peter Liljedahl’s research yet, then you definitely need to get up to speed! Based out of Simon Fraser University, Peter Liljedahl works on mathematics pedagogy research that tries to answer one basic fundamental question; how can we get students thinking in class. All too often, students in classrooms aren't actually driven to tackle problems. Too often, they passively sit through lessons, sitting at their desks, mindlessly taking notes, memorizing facts and solving textbook questions.This was one of Peter’s early insights which drove him into a 14 year quest to find a solution for classroom engagement. His new framework is finally taking shape and has the power to change how we think about teaching for years to come.




After traveling the world and examining thousands of classrooms, an interesting commonality started to emerge; classroom structures around the world for the last 100 years have more or less stayed the same. A teacher speaks in front of the class acting as the gatekeeper of knowledge; attempting to diffuse his/her knowledge into a sea of passive students.  Was this really the best way to engage students he though? What if we questioned some of our basic assumptions about the typical classroom structures which are commonly non-negotiable in an attempt to understand what truly gets students thinking? By using a contrarian approach, he started to chip away bit by bit at the things we take for granted in schools like the way lessons are provided, the way students work at problems, the way questions are answered and even how classrooms are furnished. His findings have unearthed some interesting findings which has paved the way for the thinking classroom framework which is now being used successfully by thousands of educators across the world.

The thinking classroom framework approaches teaching as an active process where small random teams of students works on non-permanent surfaces to solve a series of carefully selected problems. Instead of acting as the gatekeeper of knowledge, the role of the teacher becomes that of a facilitator; managing the flow of the activity with a series of practical tool sets. In this article we explore three major forces that shape a thinking classroom.


The first important factor that influenced thinking in the classroom was changing the way students worked on problems. In a typical classroom format, students solve textbook problems in a conventional paper notebook. However, Peter questioned this approach by testing student problem solving using a variety of other tools like flip chart paper & whiteboards on both vertical and horizontal surfaces. The results outlined in the table below were intriguing to say the least:

Overwhelmingly, vertical non-permanent surfaces were much better on a variety of dimensions such as time to task, eagerness,  persistence, participation, etc . The rationale behind this was that when students write on non-permanent surfaces, they risk more because they know they can easily erase a mistake without needing to commit to a single solution. The irony is that most students don’t erase what they write; but the mere fact that they can provides students an enthusiasm to keep attempting the problem. The vertical component allowed  students to easily work on problems in small groups which facilitated participation, eagerness and discussion in a social setting.



The second major factor was having students working in visibly random groups. Too often with group work, educators have a tendency of strategically grouping students to fit their own agenda, which students can often see through. In turn, a large number of students become preoccupied with ‘unfair’ pairings which distracts from the task at hand. Alternatively, if an educator allows students to select their own groups, students will selectively group to fulfill their own social needs, which don’t typically align with accomplishing the task at hand ether. The best way to group students was found to be through a visibly random process which eliminated the weaknesses of the previous two strategies.

Visibly random groups create an environment where groupings were perceived to be fair by students but also had the powerful effect of  breaking down in-group/out-group barriers that emerge when students self select. When educators used visibly random groupings daily, the impacts were even more profound. Students started relying less on educators for help, and relied more frequently on peer support because social barriers between students were less present in an environment where students have an opportunity to work with different students all the time.  


The last major factor that facilitates a thinking classroom was the selection of good problems.  As Peter has put it “There is this myth that if you want students to learn through problem solving, then somewhere lies a textbook with magical problems that you can open up and simply wash knowledge onto the students..” Unfortunately this textbook doesn’t really exist. The best way to select problems was to choose problems that helped foster a sense of collaboration among the students in the initial stages. Then it was a matter of maintaining students in a state of flow by providing a series of problems that had the right level of difficulty for their skills sets. Select a problem that was too hard and students will feel as though the task at hand is unachievable; but select problems that are too easy and students fall into boredom. Textbook problems aren’t bad if they are selected and assigned at the appropriate time and place after students enter an engaging collaborative mode together.




Interestingly enough, no matter the background or socio-economic setting, theses techniques have been found to fully engage students in all settings. However, these three forces are only the first steps in creating a thinking classroom and I highly recommend reading his full paper on the matter which can be found here:

Read more about Thinking Classrooms

If you have an opportunity to see or experience  Peter’s research in action, you’ll soon realize that it is nothing short of amazing. If you’d like to learn more, or get more information, you can visit his website or follow teachers implementing the framework on twitter via #vnps or #thinkingclassroom.


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