Building a culture of thinking in the classroom

Thursday, 16. September 2021

For many students, math can be intimidating. Students often get stuck behind a rampart of seemingly indecipherable symbols and find themselves shut down, convinced that they can not do math.

Warren Schnack, a Math Teacher in the US System, is working to break down these walls and help students think through math, thereby discovering “aha” moments that profoundly change the way students perceive their abilities to do mathematics.

Drawing heavily on the ideas of Peter Liljedahl, a professor of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, Warren is taking an innovative approach to teaching math at the Ecole. Liljedahl‘s book Building Thinking Classrooms presents 14 points that encourage students to think about math which allows deep learning to occur.

The first thing you notice as you walk into Warren’s classroom is a huge amount of energy and sound! The students are working in groups of three, all facing whiteboards or chalkboards, termed Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS), talking with energy and passion about math!

The classroom has also been “defronted” - desks are arranged in random groups of three.

Warren begins his class with a highly engaging math problem - something exciting, challenging yet approachable that gets the students working together. As students work through their problems in groups of three, they experiment on their VNPS - this way their work is visible to Warren as well as to their classmates.

As they work, students are encouraged to share ideas and build on the knowledge of their peers. Groups can mix, borrowing ideas, making suggestions and offering support. Warren wanders around the classroom, offering “keep thinking” ideas, and a judicious use of hints designed to help students along their thinking process, and highlighting key discoveries that students have made.

At the end of the class, Warren may provide a quick self-assessment - he gives the students a problem to solve designed to check the students’ understanding of a particular concept. Here, the intention is to show the students where they are in the learning process.

In Warren’s math class, the positivity and energy are truly palpable. Students are engaging with math, thinking through problems, asking questions, testing hypotheses, and building on one another’s knowledge. They get to experience the true magic of an ‘aha’ moment, proving to themselves that math is the good kind of challenging, that it’s fun to think about numbers, that they can, indeed, do math.

For more from Warren, check out this video