The Thinking Classroom

I have been seeing a lot about the “thinking classroom” recently on Twitter and then again from an article my mom sent me a few days ago. As things like this start to pop up more and more I consider it a sign that I need to read about it and if I agree, start to help implement it where I can. So, I did just that and it turns out, I definitely agree and want to summarize/plan how I can encourage these practices to happen.

The “thinking classroom” stemmed from an classroom observation Peter Liljedahl did in which the issue of students not thinking and not problem solving occurred…a problem I think a lot of teachers face. Ultimately, there was a teacher assumption that students could not or would not think. Too often I hear (and I have been guilty of saying it, too) that students just can’t and won’t problem solve together, that doing ____wont work with my kids, or they just don’t try. But we can’t just assume, or hope, that they are going to “spontaneously engage in problem solving” without creating a classroom culture of such. And therefore, the “thinking classroom” was born. Liljedahl explains that with the “thinking classroom” he wanted to create classrooms that were “not only conducive to thinking but also occasions thinking, a space inhabited by thinking individuals as well as individuals thinking collectively, learning together, and constructing knowledge and understanding through activity and discussion.” (LOVE THIS!!!) So, he and over 400 k-12 teachers developed 14 pedagogies that should be in place to make this happen.

  1. Lessons should begin with problem solving, engaging tasks. 
  2. Tasks should be given verbally (long instructions/diagrams can be posted), but it needs to delivered verbally.
  3. Visible random groups need to be established every day not strategically set beforehand by the teacher.
  4. Students need to work on vertical non permanent work spaces (VNPS) (vertical white boards, windows, etc).
  5. De-front the classroom and address the class from multiple places in the room.
  6. Students ask only three types of questions: proximity questions, asked when the teacher is close; “stop thinking” questions—like “Is this right?” or “Will this be on the test?”; and “keep thinking” questions—ones that students ask in order to be able to get back to work. The teacher should answer only the third type of question.”
  7. Hints and extensions should be given as a way to engage and challenge students.
  8. For student autonomy, students need to talk more with each other when they struggle before the teacher.
  9. The teacher should pull the students together for debrief when all students are ready to participate.
  10. Students should write notes to their future self about their work/other’s work.
  11. 4-6 practice questions should be given for self-evaluation.
  12. Formative assessment should be frequent and inform students where they are and where they are going.
  13. Summative assessments should be on what you value and about the process of learning.
  14. Report out on data.

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With the image above, Liljedahl explains that these can be implemented in three different stages and interestingly, as I was reading them, I thought exactly the same thing (I love when I’m in line with researchers!!) I can more easily start with a few of the more concrete pedagogies before rolling out the others. He suggested, and I agree, starting with #1,#3, and #4. #1 (Engaging tasks) does require extra planning and thought, but it will definitely increase the engagement of the classroom. I am wondering when we can find the time to discuss and create these. Does this happen during PLC…ideally I think so to help teachers have the ownership and excitement for it? Is there time? Or do we do some for teachers at the district curriculum and instruction level? Or do create some when we are working on our redesigned curriculum with UbD? I’m still thinking about this…so let me know if anyone reading this has ideas! I’m excited to try #3 (visible random groups) and #4 (VNPS) as they are concrete and immediate actions we can take. I fully believe in the power of group work for communication and understanding. But, I know a lot of teachers are still nervous of grouping students for various reasons. I understand the challenges, but I think knowing how to structure and use groups is important to the effectiveness of them. According to the research, within 2-3 weeks the results of using visible random groups were incredible:

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How amazing would it be to break down social barriers, enable kids to work better with anyone, and build resiliency with this one change! Now onto #4 (VNPS). I learned about these a bit ago and tried them in action as a participant of a training. Honestly I didn’t give them much thought until reflecting on it now and realizing such a simple change had some really powerful effects on the teacher and students: they allowed the teacher to observe the learning and conversations better as opposed to students writing just at their desks, they gave students the opportunity to look at other student work (this isn’t cheating…why not give them a chance to learn from each other?), they held students accountable to learning and participating, and also held the teacher accountable to facilitating. I’m thinking we can start with big sticky chart paper (is that considered non permanent? Or does it need to be erasable?) and then maybe we can restructure a willing teacher’s room to use the whiteboards/windows. Overall, I think coupled together, #3 and #4 can be so helpful for teachers to monitor learning and ensure students remain engaged, active, collaborative and participatory.

I’m excited I found this and thankful to whatever education power of being that kept putting this concept of the “thinking classroom” out there for me to see multiple times and finally read up on. Let me know if you implement any of these ideas and what other suggestions you have for getting started in building such a classroom!



Purposeful Student Talk

I recently went to a Solution Tree conference (which was awesome BTW. . . if you get a chance to go, GO!) and a powerful quote stuck out to me that connected the idea of student talk vs. teacher talk.

A great teacher is not “one who explains things so well that students understand” but “one who gets students to explain things so well that they can be understood.”


As I reflected on this, I realized this captured a main goal of mine as a specialist in working with PLCs and addressing the second question of PLCs: How will we know students are learning? To answer this question, I think teachers need to implement strategies that empower students to communicate mathematical ideas to prove their understanding and not simply rely on the teacher doing the talking. So, when I got back from the conference I talked with my PLCs and they agreed that this is an important issue and wanted to create time to discuss specific strategies teachers will implement to have students purposefully talk (this idea of purposeful talk also came from a principal I work with. Thank you to that principal!) Since talking to them and thinking of ways in which we could do this efficiently and effectively, I have seen more and more research and ideas supporting this idea of teacher talk vs. student talk. For example, a few days ago I was reading a book by Deb Teitelbaum and she wrote, “the rule of thumb for calculating the amount of direct instruction your students can handle is to take their age in years plus or minus three.” That means freshmen students need a break from direct instruction/teacher talk about every 11 minutes. Then today I was tagged in this video (thank you to that AP) which explains this idea of teacher talk and gives the shocking research that on average, “teachers ask an average of 200 questions per day and students ask an average of 2 questions per student per week.” After seeing all these supporting claims, it was reconfirming that what I’m doing is important and necessary work. So, I decided I needed to finally finish this post and here’s how we’re making this purposeful student talk happen.

At one school, the team of teachers is taking every Tuesday to look at the week ahead and plan out one strategy per day that they can commit to doing. We started this week and it was a really successful and engaging experience. We are drew from Lead4ward and 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom strategies. Each teacher has the Lead4ward App (if you don’t have it, download it now!) and almost all have been to a training I did on the 7 Steps. So it was a great way to not reinvent the wheel and instead, turn to these resources that have been proven to be successful as a quick way to align strategies to instruction. I typed up their ideas in a Googledoc where their lesson plans are housed as they wrote them on the physical notes/practice papers that they had already planned for the students that week. I loved how it gave the teachers a broad overview of the week while also zooming in on specific strategies to increase student learning and communication each day. This week those teachers are using total response signals (7 Steps Strategy), sentence stems (7 steps strategy), and a summarize response (Lead4ward). I think this conversation of stopping the teacher’s instruction and allowing students to process, talk, and do was really powerful! It also helped teachers process how they wanted students to be grouped and when in the lesson they would be purposefully talking.

Next week, I plan to do a similar task with my other school, but instead we will use a Chalk Talk protocol to generate strategies together. I am looking forward to how this method of discussion flows and seeing the teachers engage in this meaningful planning.