By Heather Harbin, MVCA Secondary Math/Science Teacher
“I don’t know how to do this.”
“I need help.”
“I tried it already.”
“I give up.”
Have you ever heard your child utter these words? Perhaps while working on a school project or homework assignment? What about these phrases:
“I can figure this out.”
“Let me think about it for a minute.”
“What if I try this? Does this work?”
My guess is that in most households, the first set of phrases is heard far more than the second set of phrases. Sadly, this is true not only at home, but also in the classroom. In a generation defined by speed, convenience, entertainment, and entitlement, it can be difficult for students to embrace the opposite: slow down, exert effort, tackle boredom, and work hard. Too often, parents and teachers fall into the trap of seeing students stuck on a problem and stepping in to help them before they’ve really labored on their own. Just as much as the students, we sometimes take the quick, easy, and efficient route instead of allowing students to engage in productive struggle. In doing so, we have to ask, are we really helping our students in the way they need it most?
A new book titled Building Thinking Classrooms by educator Peter Liljedahl is making waves throughout the educational scene. Based on over 30 years of research, Liljedahl challenges the notion that traditional classroom practices are as effective as they may seem. He posits that many classrooms produce excellent students – students who are organized, diligent, and attentive – but not necessarily excellent thinkers. Traditional methods of instruction can often encourage mimicking instead of problem solving while gradebooks reward student behaviors rather than assess student mastery. Is that what we want? Well-behaved mimickers? Or do we truly want students who can identify problems, think through problems, and create solutions?
This summer, we teachers at MVCA are studying Liljedahl’s book and reflecting on our classroom practices. We’re closely analyzing what we’ve done in the past and what we can do in our upcoming school year to encourage thinking in our students. You may hear your student come home this fall and talk about some of these different practices that Liljedahl’s thorough research has found to be effective in encouraging deeper thinking. I want to introduce you to three of these practices today.
Visibly Randomized Grouping
While individual problem solving is necessary, there are also times where students need to collaborate. Visibly randomizing students into groups of 3 encourages the most discussion, collaboration, and risk-taking in problem solving activities. Students learn to contribute and encourage their group mates and are less likely to fall into pre-conceived roles of “the talker”, “the writer”, “the smart one”, etc. In addition, students learn important social skills such as disagreeing amicably, taking turns, and valuing others’ contributions. You might hear your child talk about their groups and the grouping system your child’s teacher uses.
We think better on our feet! Problem solving on our feet at vertical surfaces (e.g., marker boards) encourages quicker start times before beginning to solve a problem and longer time on task. Students know they can take a lot of space and erase what they don’t need which reduces the pressure to only write the correct and/or final answer. You might hear your child talk more about working at the whiteboards, writing on a window, or even writing on the wall (via a special wall covering).
Keep Thinking Questions
Students love to ask questions. Teachers love to answer questions. Sometimes, however, we do a disservice to students by answering questions too quickly. Some questions are “stop thinking questions” – questions the student wants answered so they don’t have to think any more. Some questions are “proximity questions” – questions students answer simply because the teacher walks by them. Other questions are “keep thinking questions” – questions students ask because they want to keep thinking about the problem! Teachers are learning to recognize the different question types and the best way to respond to each type of question. Students may feel like they’re not being answered right away because they’re not getting the answer they want. Trust that the teacher is guiding them through the thinking process, challenging them to look at things in new ways, and encouraging them not to give up too easily. Your child isn’t being ignored if they don’t get the answer they want right away – they’re being challenged in a way that might be new for them.
I love the quote, “Problem solving is what we do when we don’t know what to do.” As adults, we have to problem solve all the time. Many of us have used our problem-solving skills to balance budgets, meal plan with rising grocery prices, fix the leaky sink or toilet, identify what kind of pest is eating our garden, and more. We want our students to grow and become problem solvers in their own right – people who are not afraid to think, to try, and to tackle whatever life may throw at them. We look forward to a new year full of thinking classrooms!