Challenges in Implementing a Thinking Classroom

I’ve spent much of the last year and a half experimenting with Peter Liljedahl’s ideas on creating a Thinking Classroom. He writes:

I wanted to build, what I now call, a thinking classroom — a classroom that is not only conducive to thinking but also occasions thinking, a space that is inhabited by thinking individuals as well as individuals thinking collectively, learning together, and constructing knowledge and understanding through activity and discussion.

One way to summarize this, for me: Most students spend math class trying to avoid thinking. If that is the case in a class (and it is definitely the case for many students in mine), then making drastic structural changes that promote students engaging and actually thinking are worth trying. Below is the current 14-point framework for building Thinking Classrooms, divided into four levels.


I’ve felt largely unsuccessful implementing a Thinking Classroom. When I started, I viewed a Thinking Classroom as a space where I gave students rich tasks, put them in visibly random groups, and had them work at whiteboards. I definitely see benefits to engagement and collaboration in that environment, but it wasn’t the transformative change I was hoping for. I’ve had two insights along the way. Both of them seem obvious, but I think they’re worth sharing because I often see Peter Liljedahl’s work portrayed as synonymous with random grouping and vertical non-permanent surfaces, when there’s so much more.

First, there’s a lot more to Thinking Classrooms than the first level — tasks, groups, and surfaces. I’m working on maybe the second or third level. While tasks, groups, and surfaces are helpful, to build a successful Thinking Classroom I need to have complementary structures in place to maximize engagement, focus student thinking, and create the support necessary to sustain the work over time. One area I’m thinking a lot about now is flow. I want students to get into a space where they feel successful, and feel encouraged to continue thinking. This means finding the right tasks, and I can get students started more effectively through random groups and vertical non-permanent surfaces, but there are a lot of strategies to make sure that thinking continues. Having a few hints ready, encouraging groups to visit another group that has useful ideas, and valuing student ideas when we discuss as a class are all elements that help to create a culture where students continue thinking about problems for sustained periods of time.

Second, the principles of Thinking Classrooms each have a purpose. The purpose of vertical non-permanent surfaces is to increase student willingness to just try something and take risks, and to increase knowledge mobility between groups. But surfaces don’t do those things on their own; I need to make my goals clear to students, narrate when I see the type of thinking and collaboration I’m looking for, and recognize when a certain activity was unsuccessful and figure out why. Similarly, the purpose of hints and extensions and only answering certain types of questions is to manage flow, so that I always have tools ready to keep students engaged and doing purposeful mathematical thinking. I can’t expect a few structural changes to influence my classroom culture if I don’t follow through with making sure I meet the specific goals behind the changes. Peter Liljedahl has written extensively about Thinking Classrooms, and everything there is worth diving into.

I think there’s a ton of potential in the principles of Thinking Classrooms, and I’m excited to continue working on implementing them. At the same time, I worry that it’s easy to oversimplify, as with any idea in math education. Thinking Classrooms are far more than the first level of good tasks, visibly random groups, and vertical non-permanent surfaces. As I continue to work on my Thinking Classroom, I want to work on incorporating more and more complementary elements of the framework, while keeping in mind the broader goals and course-correcting as necessary.

4 thoughts on “Challenges in Implementing a Thinking Classroom

  1. benjamin

    That seems successful from your description. In what way do you feel you haven’t reached the goal yet?

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I have seen glimpses of what these structures can create in terms of engagement with big ideas, but I haven’t been able to meet that goal on a regular basis. Still have lots of work left to do.

  2. Joe Schwartz

    Thanks for this post Dylan. I’m looking forward to following your journey along Liljedahl’s frameworks. Of course Alex Overwijk would be a great resource.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Definitely! And many other folks. And so important to lean on those resources, and not expect changes as simple as having students stand up at whiteboards to do the work for me.


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