May 22, 2023
What I learned from Peter Liljedahl (and what I’m going to do next)
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This Coaching Letter is about some of what I learned from watching Peter Liljedahl in action over the course of four days in April, and what we’re doing as follow up. Peter is a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and his book Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics has taken the world of math education by storm. But he also told me that if current trends continue, every teacher in Denmark will own a copy of his book pretty soon, and they can’t all be math teachers. I’m not a math teacher either, although I can do a convincing impersonation of one. So even if you’re not a math educator, you should definitely read the book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you should read the book even if you’re not an educator—there’s a lot in there about the human psychology of engagement, cognition, and especially Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow.
So three things in this CL: 1. a summary of Peter’s book and how I made sense of it in an earlier CL—scroll down for Excerpt from Coaching Letter #153; 2. what I took away from watching Peter work, as a non-math educator; and 3. what we (Partners for Educational Leadership) are going to do by way of follow up, since there is such a massive amount of interest in leveraging Building Thinking Classrooms (BTC) in schools and districts in Connecticut—and everywhere else as far as I can tell.
In terms of what I learned, I have made some big changes in the way I facilitate groups of people. Specifically:
I was very taken by what Peter said about keeping students engaged—although I think everything he said about students is true about people in general. If you want people to stay engaged, then you have to keep them in the present. But there are things we do that remind people of the future, which causes them to disengage. For example, we give them multiple questions at once, give them an agenda, put up a timer on the screen, post a specific learning intention, and tell them they need to present their thinking at the end of the work period. So I’ve stopped doing these things with groups, and following instead Peter’s protocol of NOT doing any of these things: not telling people how much time they’ve got left, not listing an agenda, and having participants make inferences about others’ work rather than presenting their own. Game-changer.
Also, I’ve been using a lot of the format of Building Thinking Classrooms: putting people into random groups, having them stand in front of non-permanent vertical surfaces, and so on. It definitely changes the energy in the room, and it increases the amount of interaction across teams, by a lot. It makes the whole room more fluid.
To be clear, there are many aspects of what we do that are already in line with Peter’s work—we do little to no “presenting” and get participants talking to one another about challenging questions; Kerry and I almost never use slides when we run coaching workshops, and when Rydell told participants at the beginning of our session at the Carnegie Summit last month that we didn’t have a PowerPoint, people actually applauded. I didn’t see that coming, but I interpreted it as frustration at over-reliance on slides—I was going to say, “in presentations” but it’s probably more accurate to say just in general. We try to focus on meaning rather than definition, and we try to create shared understandings of the ideas we’re working with.
One of the most interesting things that happened during Peter’s workshops was when he asked “what could I have done to make your experience worse”, and to hear teachers and leaders talk about practices that happen in classrooms and meetings every day that they could identify would have pulled them away from the thinking they were doing while engaged in the tasks Peter gave them.
The response of the folks who got to see Peter in person was overwhelmingly positive. And we know that there are many other math teachers who were not at one of the workshops but who’ve read the book and are starting to implement the 14 practices in their classrooms. We want to support these efforts! As a result, here is what we are thinking:
- We have already booked Peter to come back to Connecticut next May.
- Everyone who registered for one of Peter’s workshops has been added to a separate mailing list, and if you are interested in being part of the BTC community of learners, please use this link to sign up. Anyone can add their name. And if you know anyone who is implementing or interested in BTC, please send them the link to the mailing list. You won’t be snowed with emails—you’ll hear from us occasionally when we have something new to share—and of course you can unsubscribe at any time.
- We will keep the BTC website we created updated, and eventually expand it, so that it becomes a hub for relevant information.
- We have created a small advisory group including folks from the state department of education, universities, district central office, and we hope to add a couple of teachers and building leaders.
- Derby hosts a regular community of practice for leaders in a variety of roles—there’s a meeting coming up on June 5th, and we are going to devote that meeting to following up on the BTC workshops. The details (start and end time, for example) have yet to be ironed out, but it will be most of the day, and we can accommodate a large group in the space, the Derby Fieldhouse, which is a wonderful facility. (Shout out to the superintendent, Matt Conway, who has allowed us to use the space on a number of occasions—much appreciated!) If you’d like to join us, register here, no cost.
- We are trying to figure out how to support math coaches in particular, and will be hosting a workshop for them on October 18 at Mercy-by-the-Sea. We’ll keep you posted.
- We know that there are many schools and districts where there is interest in implementing BTC but they don’t have anyone in-district who has any experience with the 14 practices. We would like to create a database of interested folks so that expertise can be shared across districts—we have some design work to do on that, but stay tuned!
Big shout-out to Bridget and Amber for all their work organizing and hosting the workshops with Peter and the attendant events and logistics. It would not have been possible without them. As always, let me know if you have any questions or feedback, or if there is anything else we can do for you. Cheers, Isobel
This Coaching Letter manages to be an extension of two recent CL topics: attribution theory and task design. In CL #152, the most recent, I wrote about how we tend to ascribe causation to a person over the situation in which the person is acting. And in CL #150, I wrote about the work that I was doing to try to get a handle on task design, as part of the work that we’ve been doing on Acceleration in its many forms. And then I read Peter Liljedahl’s book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, which brought those two things—attribution theory and task design—into juxtaposition in really surprising ways. And that’s what I’m going to write about.
OK, I know that’s abstract, so let me tell you about the book.
Liljedahl, a professor of math education at Simon Fraser University, starts by describing what happened when he went to observe a teacher trying a problem-based approach to instruction for the first time—actually, the first three times—and what a disaster it was. He embarked on a research program trying to create what he calls “thinking classrooms”, and along the way he documented what is going on in classrooms where the teacher demonstrates how to do an operation and then says “now you try one.” In an average classroom using that kind of pedagogy, about half are copying what the teacher is doing, some are doing nothing, and some are faking it: they are doing something that looks legitimate, like sharpening their pencils or digging in their backpacks (I once timed a kid going through his backpack for a full seven minutes). And some are actually thinking independently and trying for themselves the way the teachers wants them to. These are behaviors, whether actual learning or not, that Liljedahl calls “studenting”:
“Studenting, a term first coined by Fenstermacher (1986), is the analogue to teaching. As teachers, we do a great number of things that may or may not have to do with the facilitation of student learning. We take attendance, deal with classroom disruptions, make school announcements, collect permission forms, fund raise, and oh yeah, we also help students learn the curricular content and develop some skills.” Liljedahl, 2021, p. 7.
“There is much more to studenting than learning how to learn. In the school setting, studenting includes getting along with one’s teachers, coping with one’s peers, dealing with one’s parents about being a student, and handling the non-academic aspects of school life.” Fenstermacher, 1986, p. 39.
What is really cool is what he did next. He made a list of all the characteristics of a typical classroom environment—in other words, the context in which students are operating—and then he systematically went about upending those aspects of classrooms, one at a time, to see what made a difference. In other words, more than any other researcher I’ve ever read when talking about instruction rather than behavior, he assumes that the context matters; that students are behaving in certain ways because of their mental model of what is expected of them. They pick up signals from the environment—their cues, if we want to extend the metaphor of having a role or playing a part—and they behave accordingly. (This is true of all social contexts; we behave differently at work, at home, at the mall, at a party, or at synagogue—and as educators know, from classroom to classroom, because different teachers create different learning environments with different behavioral expectations.)
Here is the list of 14 variables he distilled from his research that impact thinking in a classroom (remarks in italics are mine, obviously):
- What types of tasks we use. Hallelujah! It would have been pretty discouraging if task never came up, but it’s at the top of the list!
- How we form collaborative groups.
- Where students work.
- How we arrange the furniture.
- How we answer questions. As a coach, reading about this one was just so interesting, because the parallels to our (I mean the Partners) stance on coaching are so clear.
- When, where, and how tasks are given.
- What homework looks like.
- How we foster student autonomy.
- How we use hints and extensions. The parallel here is to how we have talked in our Acceleration work about scaffolding.
- How we consolidate a lesson.
- How students take notes.
- How we choose to evaluate.
- How we use formative assessment. Another connection to the Acceleration Framework, obviously.
- How we grade.
So when I say that he systematically upended the way that classrooms are usually organized, I mean he did things like have students stand up rather than sit down, rearrange the furniture so that it’s not only not in rows but also not even at right-angles, take away the furniture completely, remove the concept of the front of the room, have students do their work on vertical, non-permanent surfaces (whiteboards, chalkboard, chart paper) rather than horizontal (notebook paper). And he kept track of what happened—how much real learning rather than mere studenting each change produced. And the book is the compendium of that research.
I looked at A LOT of books to feel ready to talk about task design at our recent Acceleration-related events—thank you again to everyone who made a recommendation. (It was 23 books, actually, thank you for asking.) Liljedahl’s book was one of the last ones I picked up because I couldn’t afford to focus just on one subject area. But the book is about so much more than math—indeed, I could argue that it’s really a book about creating the context for student thinking, and math happens to be the content area in the frame. So I think you should read it whether or not you are a math teacher:
- Coaches, it will make you think differently about classroom instruction. But it will also make you think differently about coaching. Kerry and I have been talking for a few years now about creating the context for coaching—big shout-out to the teachers, coaches and principal of New Haven Adult Ed for helping us with this—and how coaching, like learning, and like task, does not happen in isolation. What are the equivalents of “studenting” in coaching, and how can we signal that we are not enacting a mental model of coaching that only has the coach telling a teacher what to do?
- Leaders, it will make you think differently about faculty meetings, classroom observations, and teacher evaluation—what are the equivalents of “studenting” in those situations, and how much stalling and slacking is going on during faculty meetings? While I was reading the book, I started imagining what it would look like to make a complete break from the typical faculty meeting or data team meeting, and what teachers would think. And it should also make you think differently about coaching—in many districts, the coaching is being asked to do all the lifting, and would be more effective if leaders were more intentional about creating the context for coaching.
- Teachers, it will make you think differently about everything.
Oh, and for everyone with a view about what good instruction looks like, please don’t say anything else about engagement or “voice and choice” until you have read the book.
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023