Setting up a Classroom to Establish Critical Thinking

As we have discussed previously (click here for the blog post), critical thinking is an essential component of both reasoning through problems and situations and learning. However, as instructor Peter Liljedahl found, teachers often make the assumption that the students either cannot or will not think on their own. Under such conditions it becomes unreasonable to expect that students will “spontaneously engage” in the process of learning.[1]

That motivated Liljedahl to build “a thinking classroom—one that’s not only conducive to thinking but also occasions thinking, a space inhabited by thinking individuals as well as individuals thinking collectively, learning together, and constructing knowledge and understanding through activity and discussion.” Over the years, and with the help of many classroom instructors, he came up with 14 points that he feels are essential to any thinking classroom [although he originally applied them to mathematics classrooms, they are applicable to any subject]. When all are fully implemented, the classroom transforms into a group of highly motivated students all critically engaged in the learning process.

Here is a summary of his 14 points:

  1. The type of tasks used: Each lesson should begin with a good problem-solving task. In the beginning of the school year, these tasks should be highly engaging, non-curricular tasks. Once you have moved in to the curriculum, they should be gradually replaced with curricular problem-solving tasks that encompass the entirety of the lesson.
  2. How tasks are presented to students: Tasks should be given verbally. If data, diagrams, or other media accompany the task, these can be written down or projected on a wall; however, students generally process verbal instructions best.
  3. How groups are formed: At the beginning of each class, teachers should use a visibly random method to create groups of three students who will work together for the class period. This avoids issues of favoritism and encourages students to work with all others in that class, not just their friends.
  4. Student work space: For brainstorming, planning, outlining, and designing media, groups should stand and work on vertical non-permanent surfaces such as whiteboards, blackboards, or windows. This makes the work visible to the teacher and to other groups.
  5. Room organization: The classroom should be de-fronted, with desks placed in a random configuration around the room—away from the walls—and the teacher should address the class from a variety of locations within the room. Middle school teacher Brooke Markle found that, “When given the choice, [my students] overwhelmingly preferred to stand at the counter or stretch out on the floor to complete a task, rather than sit in a traditional desk.” As a result, she converted her entire classroom to a flexible seating arrangement. Her biggest finding was that “Students are taking more responsibility for their own learning as they see me model risk-taking in the classroom, and the flexible seating environment has played a large role in that shift.”[2]
  6. How questions are answered: Students ask only three types of questions: 1) proximity questions, asked when the teacher is close; 2) “stop thinking” questions—like “Is this right?” or “Will this be on the test?”; and 3) “keep thinking” questions—ones that students ask in order to be able to get back to work. The teacher should answer only the third type of question.
  7. How hints and extensions are used: The teacher should maintain student engagement through a judicious use of hints and extensions; this will maintain a balance between the task’s challenge and the abilities of the students working on it.
  8. Student autonomy: Students should interact with other groups as much as needed, both for the purposes of extending their work and for getting help. The teacher should encourage this interaction by directing students toward other groups when they’re stuck or need an extension rather than answering the questions herself.
  9. When and how a teacher levels their classroom: After all the groups have passed a minimum threshold, the teacher should pull everyone together to debrief what they have been doing. The initial level should be one in which every student in every group can participate.
  10. Student notes: Students should write notes to their future selves based on the work posted on the boards by their own group, another group, or a combination of the two. They should have free reign as to what to include in the notes and how to format them.
  11. Practice questions: Students should be assigned several questions to check their understanding of the topic and the process by which they’re working toward completion of the task. They can work on these questions in self-selected groups or on their own, and on the vertical non-permanent surfaces or at their desks. These questions should not be graded or even checked for completeness—they’re meant for the students’ self-evaluation of their progress.
  12. Formative assessments: Formative assessments should be used to focus the students on where they are in their project, where they think they’re headed, and the process they will use to complete their task. The teacher can use many different activities, from observation to “understanding” questions to unmarked quizzes, and she should help the students decode their demonstrated understandings to reinforce positive achievement and make valuable course corrections, if necessary.
  13. Summative assessments: Summative assessments should focus more on the processes of learning than on the end result of the task, and they should include the evaluation of both group and individual work. They should not be used to rank students within the class.
  14. Reporting: Reporting of the students’ performance should not be linked to a point system. Instead, it should include an analysis of the data collected for each student within the reporting cycle. The data should be analyzed on a differentiated basis from where a particular student started out in the process and where they ended up; in other words, they should reflect the amount of learning a student has demonstrated through his or her work.

The object of education should be to engage each student such that they think critically about the topic and take measures to complete tasks that reflect that thinking process. Have you found any additional points that you feel are essential to establishing such a learning environment? Please leave us detailed comments in the section below.



[1] Liljedahl, Peter. (October 17, 2017). “Building a Thinking Classroom in Math.” Retrieved from:

[2] Markle, Brooke. (October 20, 2017). “A 7th Grade Teacher’s Shift to Flexible Seating.” Retrieved from:


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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