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  • Writer's pictureDeb Stetson

Using Building Thinking Classrooms: Inviting Independent Thinking, Autonomy & Joy

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Have you read or listened to Peter Liljedahl's book, Building Thinking Classrooms? I have. I am so excited (are you hearing the Pointer Sisters?) at how the 14 practices resulting from his research are in line with our Math Project philosophy, with my thinking, and my 35 years of teaching experience. Our Math Project at Sacramento State has been about providing students with opportunities to think and reason, to lift and positively reinforce their thinking by offering them problem solving activities with enough challenge that students recognize their own progress. Liljedahl offers specific classroom tested moves to assist with allowing students to let go of classroom roles they think we want, and replace them with actively thinking and learning how they each learn best.

I am excited and very hopeful about the classroom tested strategies from Building Thinking Classrooms that will help us disrupt what students expect to do in math class when they walk in the door--and break those expectations of non-thinking behaviors that they walk into class with. This year, I have had the pleasure of working with a few teachers on a book study about Building Thinking Classrooms, and I have been working with a few teachers in Sac City USD who have been implementing. The teachers have been having success with getting their students thinking and talking! One even said it has made the most difference in his classes from anything else he has tried in 13 years.

So many things from the book are consistent with what I have learned over the last 35 years:

  • lift student voice,

  • listening is critical to knowing what they think, and critical for them to know what each other think,

  • get them doing the reasoning together collaboratively,

  • be intentional about how to use student ideas to weave class discussions,

  • work to spread understanding around the room, give options for ways to learn,

  • use problem solving tasks to get them working together, building arguments and having fun,

  • get them to realize they can do math by giving them well chosen challenging tasks,

  • and more.

AND the book is full of different nuances I hadn't considered that build within the students, a sense of power and responsibility for their own learning--they start seeing how to write "meaningful notes" to their future-forgetful-selves to support their own learning. So, they don't automatically put all the responsibility for their own learning on us. This breaks the cycle of dependent learners that Zaretta Hammond talks about in her book, "Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain."

In our Math Project, we have believed that the first week of school is a chance to communicate to students how THIS math class will be different for them. Liljedahl's research found this to be the main problem to overcome--it's the whole precept of his book--to break the norms that kids walk in expecting! Liljedahl points out that teachers are battling norms handed down from generations of an educational system and culture--norms that tell students to keep doing "studenting" behaviors of mimicking, faking and stalling. These are non-thinking behaviors, and students walk into our classrooms believing this is what they are supposed to do to succeed in math. Whaaat?! We have to break these norms in the first weeks of school, and send the message that this is a classroom inviting them to think, and to do so collaboratively and visually using vertical whiteboard stations for every group. Our Math Project has suggested that teachers begin the year with problem solving tasks so kids know this is year will be different, and so you can get to know your kids. Pose questions for them, and don't answer them yourself! Give students the math authority for recognizing what is right--if they ask you if something is right, don't answer! Liljedahl's research speaks to this too--he helps us separate "stop-thinking questions" from "keep-thinking questions" by the students--so that teachers can determine how to respond to keep their thinking going.

There are some of the things I appreciate about Liljedahl and his book.

  • He was a teacher, and he partnered with teachers to figure this out.

  • He speaks like a teacher, not a researcher. (Audio book works for me too.)

  • He used to think all we needed was great tasks, and he learned that wasn't enough--check out his story about Jane in the introduction, a teacher that asked him to assist her with problem solving.

  • He isn't blaming--he has found practices that taken together in chunks, shift the teacher to facilitator, and guide, and the students to teammates.

  • He asks us to try his ideas on for size and recognizes that there isn't a one sized fits all solution.

  • My favorite part (at least until I learn something else) -- picture and hear this in your mind...each group of students is doing their work standing and working surrounding you all 4 walls, while you look from the middle. Each group has one student scribing while the other two offer ideas. They take turns. They get ideas from other students' boards, not to copy and be done, but to discuss those ideas to see if they want to add them to their boards--because they are engaged. There is a productive buzz in the room, as they offer ideas, and discuss. And you are there in the middle noticing what they are thinking, and seeing evidence of their learning. You can decide on your next move as you see what they write and draw and graph, without having to look at 36 papers up and down each row. You can plan which boards to take a directed gallery walk with the class, asking them to talk with partners to make connections between different pieces of work on different boards. Ahhhh..... would that be great!???

  • What Liljedahl found connects so perfectly to WHO math class is working for. Our system has been leaving kids out for generations. This offers those students a different experience, a way for them to have more ownership and power over their own learning experiences. This helps you see them differently, which is so hard in light of all of the assessing we are asked to do--a kid can become a collection of holes in understanding, and we can no longer see the human being in there. Unless we look. This offers the possibility for you to see the kids--as they think and work, all around you. 12 groups of 3's all around you, instead of 36 separate places for you to check.

  • Standing, sharing ideas and and listening to other's ideas, helps students see the value and power in their own thinking. They can see the joy in solving and posing the next question to wonder about!

I am going to learn more about this over this summer and the next year--guessing this is the first of a few posts. When I am teaching, I ask myself as I am planning, and when I am finished, "Who did the math thinking today?" (Thank you David Foster for that question.) Liljedahl's 14 practices give me a chance too ensure that I can see that thinking (Formative Assessment so I can plan my next move), that kids will have a chance to do the thinking because I'll launch the task and set them loose in 3-5 minutes (being less helpful so THEY do the thinking), and that kids become partners in their own learning and will start seeing how our class is all on the same team with a goal for us all to learn as well as we can (Student and Class Autonomy).

That's all for now.

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