How To Get Students To Think (and Transform Your Classroom)


How To Get Students To Think and Transform Your Classroom

After a series of failed attempts at improving students’ problem solving in the classroom, one researcher came up with the idea of building a ‘thinking classroom’ and a research project designed to find ways to help teachers build it.

There are a teaching practices that can break the norms of typical classrooms and build a classroom where students are actively engaging with the course material.

Peter Liljedahl, professor of mathematics education at Simon Fraser University and a former high school mathematics teacher himself, visited 40 classrooms in 40 different schools from kindergarten to Grade 12 looking for patterns and trying to answer the question, "How do we get students to think?" 

Results of more than 15 years of research indicate that there are a teaching practices that can break the norms of typical classrooms and build a classroom where students are actively engaging with the course material. 

What an Engaged Classroom Looks Like

In his book, “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics” Liljedahl explains and explores the elements that work together to build and maintain a ‘thinking classroom.’ His research showed that students are most actively engaged when these components are in place: 

  • Tasks
    • are designed to be collaborative and compel students to talk with each other as they try to solve them
    • instructions are given orally so that groups discuss what's being asked rather than simply read instructions on a page
    • students collaborate in groups (ideally 3 students each) which are visibly random and re-assigned often
  • Classroom
    • workspaces are vertical and non-permanent (such as white boards, chalkboards or even windows)
    • one writing utensil (marker/chalk) at each workspace is passed between group members to further facilitate discussion
    • all four walls of the classroom are accessible to learning and the teacher teaches from a variety of locations within the room  
  • Teachers 
    • only answer what Leljedahl calls Keep Thinking Questions i.e. questions that students ask so they can get back to work
    • other types of questions he calls Proximity Questions -- which are asked because the teacher is nearby -- and Stop Thinking Questions i.e. “Is this right?” are acknowledged but not answered
    • rebrand homework as check-your-understanding questions and offer it as an opportunity rather than a requirement
    • provide hints and/or extensions to keep students in flow or  balance between a challenge and their abilities
  • Lessons
    • enter the picture when every group has passed a minimum threshold of understanding
    • start by engaging students in a discussion about the process and what was learned
  • Assessments center around students’ involvement in the learning process and focus on the processes of learning more than the product

Thinking is a necessary precursor to learning, and if students are not thinking, they are not learning,Leljedahl saysWhen the focus is on the students doing the thinking, both students and teachers reap the benefits: student learning is enhanced and teachers feel less frustration and fatigue.

And you don't have to teach math to see results. “These practices are being enacted in every curriculum now... Language arts, social studies, science," Liljedahl says. What makes up a thinking task will change depending on the subject, but the practices stay the same. Together they create an atmosphere for what Leljedahl calls "learner-centered, student-owned deep thinking and learning" and have the power to transform any classroom.

StepUp Note

Permanent Progress is the first goal of StepUp to Learn. Permanent progress means “learn and remember,” not “memorize and forget." Although the teaching strategies described in this book are for math classes for upper-grade students, we see that the same kinds of strategies described here can also help preschool and early elementary students master fluent basic skills for reading, math and handwriting. In the StepUp exercises we often talk about “learning minutes.” A learning minute happens when the student is doing something that strengthens their neural networks of learning. Active movement and active problem-solving make us practice the basic skills we need for reading, math and handwriting at the fluency speed that we need to use these skills as tools for new learning.
Note by Nancy W. Rowe, MS, CCC/A

Read Leljedahl's research What is building thinking classrooms? An Executive Summary of 15 Years of Research

Listen to a November 2023 interview with Leljedahl on the EdSurge Podcast. 



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