Thinking Classrooms with Peter Liljedahl

Today at RoP we had the pleasure of Peter Liljedahl coming in and facilitating a thinking classroom.

The session started with Peter asking each of us to come pick a playing card, and then stay close to him. After everyone had a card, he told us a story (verbally) about two containers. The larger container was mostly full of water, 20 inches tall and 12 inches wide. The smaller container was empty, 18 inches tall and 10 inches wide. As the smaller container enters the larger container, water fills in to the smaller container. The question, then, is how much water is in the smaller container at the end? Once he posed this question, he sent us on to our groups based on our playing cards to think about the program on our vertical surfaces, one marker per group. Roughly 40 minutes later, we came back together and Peter asked us several additional whole group questions, with time to discuss with the people nearest to us. Peter modeled several teacher moves throughout this process; my group kept hearing about Peter checking in with others and realized he did not speak to us the entire time (though, he most likely checked in – we were so wrapped up in problem solving that we didn’t notice).

Peter then had us sit down and took us through the research he did to develop these routines. About 15 years ago, Peter observed a classroom, and noticed that students were not thinking, and the teacher was planning her teaching on the assumption that students wither would not or could not think. “Everywhere I went, I saw the same sort of behavior,” he told us; students in rows, the teacher at the center of the classroom doing the thinking. The classrooms he went to, visiting across all different types and grade levels of schools, looked more alike than they did different, as they all followed the institutional norm, which he described as a non-negotiated norm.

To help make the move to thinking classrooms, Peter and his team created 2 week action research cycles in over 40 classrooms over a 13 year period, aimed to break down those non-negotiated norms and increase student thinking. As a result, Peter categorized 14 opportunities for student thinking along with the optimal practices:

Opportunities for Thinking [Optimal Practices for Thinking]

  1. Problems [Begin lessons with good problems]
  2. How we give the problem [Use verbal instructions]
  3. How we answer questions [Answer only keeping thinking questions]
  4. Room organization [Defront the classroom]
  5. How groups are formed [Form visibly random groups]
  6. Student work space [Use vertical non-permanent surfaces]
  7. Autonomy [Foster autonomous actions]
  8. How we give notes [Have students do meaningful notes]
  9. What homework looks like [Use check your understanding questions]
  10. Hints and extensions [Manage flow]
  11. How we consolidate [Consolidate from the bottom]
  12. Formative assessment [Show where they are and where they are going]
  13. Summative assessment [Evaluate what you value]
  14.  Reporting out [Report out based on data (not points)]

Peter suggested that if we use thinking classrooms, we minimize learned helplessness, which we as teachers help promote by answering all of our students’ questions and robbing students of autonomy.

Of course, when reading 14 idea shifts, it’s good to have a starting point, and Peter has found through his research which order of moves makes the most impact in the first year:

First: Start with good problems, form visibly random groups, and use vertical non-permanent surfaces.

Second: Use verbal instructions, defront the classroom, answer only keep thinking questions, use meaningful notes, and foster autonomous actions.

Third (where the learning really happens):Use hints and extensions to manage flow, consolidate from the bottom, assign check your understanding questions. 

Fourth: Communicate where students are and where they are going, evaluate what you value, and report out based on data.

After sharing this high level overview, Peter took some time to answer questions. One of the areas he focused on that I found of particular interest was his idea of meaningful notes. He showed this visual, which makes me rethink all of the note taking I ask students to do:


He suggests, instead to give students time in class to jot down the key ideas that students are writing for their own, future, dumber self. He also referenced Laura Wheeler’s course packs for her classroom, which are 5 double sided sheets of paper with a box for each key term/skill a student needs to know by the end of the year; students receive their note catcher at the beginning of the year and then fill it out throughout the course. Students are asked to write down notes they find meaningful based on the work done during the class period, and have a few moments at the end of classes to fill in their notes as they best see fit based on the work they’ve done. It’s certainly an interesting idea that I’d be willing to try (also to help minimize paper usage in my classroom!!).

Have you implemented practices from thinking classrooms? What’s your best advice beyond what Peter has shared? 

N.B.: a more detailed description of this post can be found on Peter’s website under any of the “Building Thinking Classrooms” presentation links here (his presentation from today was not up yet).



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