Building Thinking Classrooms by Peter Liljedahl: “How We Answer Questions in a Thinking Classroom”

In my early years of teaching, back in the 90s, I often found myself at the front of the room, dispensing knowledge and hoping it would stick. But over a short period of time, I realized the transformative power of questions in shaping the learning experience.  The concept of a “Thinking Classroom” by Peter Liljedahi is not just a pedagogical approach; it's a paradigm shift. It's about moving away from passive absorption of information to active engagement and exploration. One day, while teaching a lesson on the water cycle, I posed a simple question: “Why do you think raindrops are different sizes?” The room buzzed with curiosity, setting the stage for a lesson driven by inquiry rather than mere content delivery.

During a parent-teacher conference, a parent once asked, “How do you decide what questions to ask?” I responded with three criteria: open-endedness, relevance, and challenge. Questions that check these boxes will likely ignite curiosity and critical thinking. Questioning is nuanced, and not all questions are created equal. 

The most impactful questions are those that don't have a single, definitive answer. For instance, instead of asking, “When did World War II end?” I might ask, “How did the aftermath of World War II shape the modern world?” The latter invites students to think critically, analyze various facets, and explore the topic more deeply.

Connecting questions to students' lives and experiences can make learning more meaningful. Observing a lesson on photosynthesis, I heard the teacher ask, “How do plants in our school garden convert sunlight into energy?” Students were more invested in uncovering the answer by anchoring the question in their immediate environment.

Pushing students beyond their comfort zones is essential. Challenging questions stimulate deeper thinking and encourage students to approach problems differently. In a literature class, instead of asking for a character's motivation in a story, a teacher might challenge students, “If you were in the character's shoes, would you have acted differently? Why or why not?”

The transition from being the primary source of knowledge to a facilitator of inquiry is challenging and rewarding. As educators, our role in the Thinking Classroom is not just to provide answers but to guide students in their quest for understanding. This shift in perspective has profound implications for how we approach questioning. Sometimes, early in one's teaching career, a teacher may feel the need to have all the answers. However, your role is not to be the sole expert but to guide students in their exploration. For instance, observing a lesson on the solar system, instead of providing a detailed explanation of each planet, the teacher posed questions like, “What makes Earth unique compared to other planets?” or “How might life on Mars differ from life on Earth?” These questions encouraged students to research, discuss, and come to their conclusions.

One of the most significant changes a teacher can make (and may find very difficult to do!)  is learning to embrace silence. After posing a question, waiting patiently and allowing students to process and formulate their thoughts is very powerful. This simple practice often leads to more thoughtful and in-depth responses. During one of these silent moments, a student, pondering a question on the impact of technology on society, insightfully remarked, “Technology is like fire; it can warm your house or burn it down.”

Empowering students to take charge of their learning is crucial. Begin to encourage students to pose their own questions, leading to peer-led discussions and debates. This fosters a sense of ownership and cultivates a collaborative learning environment.

Instead of simply acknowledging a student's answer, start building on it. If a student shared an insight on a topic, a teacher could follow up with, “That's an interesting perspective. Can you elaborate further?” or “How does that relate to what we discussed yesterday?” This practice will deepen discussions and make students feel valued.

Incorporating these characteristics into your questioning will enrich classroom discussions and foster a culture of curiosity and critical thinking. It's a continuous journey of refining and reflecting, but the results, seeing students actively engage, debate, and delve deeper into subjects, are profoundly rewarding. 

There are some challenges in questioning. Not all days are smooth sailing. You will be faced with reluctant responders and off-topic answers. In these moments, remember the importance of patience and redirection. There are always students hesitant to voice their thoughts, either due to shyness, fear of being wrong, or other personal reasons. In such cases, creating a supportive environment is paramount. I recall a student, Mia, who rarely participated. By providing opportunities for small group discussions and one-on-one interactions, Mia gradually found her voice and became one of the most insightful contributors. Divergent thinking is encouraged, but sometimes, discussions can stray too far from the core topic. In these instances, the art lies in gently steering the conversation back on track without discouraging the enthusiastic participant. For example, during a discussion on renewable energy, when a student began discussing their favorite video game, the teacher interjected with, “That's an interesting point. Can you think of any energy sources used in that game and relate it back to our topic?”

Feedback in a Thinking Classroom goes beyond right or wrong. It's about the journey of thought. Instead of waiting for summative assessments, a teacher can begin to provide real-time feedback during discussions. This immediate input, whether a nod, a probing question, or a suggestion, helps students refine their thinking on the spot. After a student presented a project on ancient civilizations, the teacher asked, “How do you think their agricultural practices compare to modern ones?” This prompted the student to consider new angles and delve deeper into research.

In a Thinking Classroom, the journey of exploration is as valuable as the destination. Instead of merely grading the final answer, acknowledging and rewarding the thought process, the connections made, and the insights gained along the way. Encouraging students to provide feedback to their peers fosters a collaborative learning environment. By training students to give constructive feedback, classrooms become vibrant communities where learners support and elevate each other. During a science fair, students were tasked with reviewing each other's projects. The insights they offered each other, from project design to presentation, were invaluable. Incorporating self-assessment and reflection is an essential cornerstone. By asking students to reflect on their learning journey, successes, and improvement areas, they will become more self-aware and take greater ownership of their learning.

Embracing the principles of a Thinking Classroom will be transformative. Questions have become the bridge between curiosity and knowledge. As educators, our role is not just to teach but to inspire, challenge, and guide. And in this journey, the right questions are our most powerful tools.


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