The Thinking in Thinking Classrooms

I’ve really enjoyed diving into the Thinking Classroom framework in the last year, and seeing it make the rounds in the Twitterverse. This sketchnote from @wheeler_laura is my favorite, concise way to capture the framework:


I’ve been thinking more about why a Thinking Classroom can be powerful. Here is a quote from a paper Peter Liljedahl wrote on the beginnings of his framework:

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 (p. 2).

Contrast that with what Walter Doyle calls a work production classroom, cited in Lani Horn’s book Motivated:

Content was divided in small chunks, instruction was stepwise, progress through the curriculum was rapid and efficient. In addition, there was often little differential weighting of credit for different tasks. All tasks were equal, and final-term grades were calculated by averaging grades on individual tasks. Finally tasks in production classes were often interchangeable. That is, although there may have been a broad sequence (e.g. addition before multiplication or fractions before decimals), the ordering of tasks for a day or a week was somewhat arbitrary. Decisions about the order of tasks were based, it appears, on management considerations, personal preferences, or perceived motivational requirements, rather than a logical or semantic thread that might have tied the separate tasks together (1988, p.  175) [Horn pp. 48-49].

Horn adds that these classrooms “adapt to the demands of schooling, but they do not fully support students’ meaning making” (Horn, p. 49).

I think this contrast is the heart of a Thinking Classrooms. What structures can we set up that to create an environment where students actually think, rather than going through the motions of schooling?

Thinking Classrooms have lots of moving parts and elements, but they’re not a black box that mysteriously influences how students learn. I see the core of Thinking Classrooms as having two parts: first, students need to be thinking and reasoning during math class, and second, I need to be intentional about what, exactly, it is that students are thinking about.

Each element of the framework plays a different role here. Visibly random groups, vertical non-permanent surfaces, the way I answer questions, and the hints and extensions I have ready are all tools to help students think — to disrupt the ways students have learned to avoid thinking in work production classrooms, and engage with the math in front of them. If students aren’t willing to engage, nothing else matters very much.

But it’s also important students are thinking about math in ways that are purposefully sequenced, that highlight connections and underlying ideas, and that build off of their prior knowledge. Choosing the right problem, taking meaningful notes, leveling to the bottom, and checking for understanding are tools that, once students are thinking, focus their thinking on the essential ideas of a lesson and make sure that student thinking is going in a useful direction.

The idea that Thinking Classrooms are really just about getting students to think seems obvious, but it’s also a useful barometer to use in the classroom. First, I need to create a culture where thinking is the norm. Then, I need to make sure students are thinking about what I want them to think about. I’ve taught lots and lots of classes where students didn’t do much actual thinking. Looking at students each day and asking those two questions is a starting point to figure out if the elements of the Thinking Classroom are creating the culture I’m working toward.

1 thought on “The Thinking in Thinking Classrooms

  1. Pingback: CLOG: Thinking Classroom Intro and First Class – Carl's Teaching Blog

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