I've committed to making my mathematics class a "thinking classroom" this year, and we were off and running on the first day of school!
Liljedahl recommends committing the first 35 days of school (or 35 days whenever one decides to try to make the shift to a "thinking classroom") to, what he calls, noncurricular tasks. Noncurricular tasks involve mathematical and logical thinking, but they are not directed toward a current, curricular learning goal; they're simply tasks that involve numbers and logic and  most importantly  thinking.
Image taken from https://buildingthinkingclassrooms.com/14practices/
Liljedahl recommends three particular categories of noncurricular thinking tasks that he has found to be particularly effective at helping students transition into thinking: card tricks, numeracy tasks, and "good problems." I thought a card trick sounded like an exciting firstdayofmiddleschool experience, so that's what I chose. I opted for the "Four Aces" trick (the video linked is Liljedahl performing the trick himself) simply because it was first on his list, it engaged me, and so I figured it would engage the kids. As a champion of thinking, you will notice that Liljedahl does not reveal to us how to do the trick in his video, forcing us to engage in thinking ourselves if we want to use the task. It took me about 20 minutes to figure out the trick, and another 10 to practice my way to doing it reliably and the appropriate firstdayofschool gusto and drama. I started class with some quick recall practice from fifth grade to kick things off. I started class this way for two reasons. First, I'll always start class off with a few minutes of recall practice, so I wanted to start building that routine on day one. Second, I wanted to contrast remembering and thinking with them. Once they finished the recall practice, I posed the question to them,
"I have a strange question for you. When you were working on the questions you just finished, were you... THINKING?
We had a great discussion about it before I revealed to them that they had not, in fact, been thinking  they'd been remembering. Thinking, I told them, quoting Liljedahl, "is what you do when you don't know what to do." "When you were working those problems, you did know what to do. You just had to remember." "But now I want you to THINK. So I need to give you something to think about." I performed the trick and they were hooked right away. There were literal gasps of awe. I did it one more time so they could attend to the steps, and sent them off to think.
They were hooked, and they really engaged with the task. Considering this was their first day of middle school and they were loaded up with nerves and worry, they still did some pretty impressive thinking!
The first big challenge came at the end of class. No one figured out the trick, and in all three classes, they sat back down... ready for me to reveal how it was done. True to form, they expected to mimic. They had dutifully done what I had asked, and their their payoff, of course, as it always was, would be that their math teacher would simply tell them what to do. So I didn't. There's no time like the first day of a new year at a new school at a new level to send the signal that things might be different here than your experiences in math classes past. With all of them looking to me for their reward, faces shining and bodies adorned in brand new firstday outfits, I said:
"Incredible thinking. It was just your first day and I can't thank you enough for being willing to think SO hard about something SO challenging. I really feel like many of you are close to figuring this trick out and being able to perform it yourselves. So here is the link to another teacher performing the trick, and your homework tonight is to share your thinking with a member of your family and to see if a little more thinking gets you to the answer. We'll keep thinking about it in class tomorrow."
They were outraged.
But they were happy. And they went home and shared the trick. Some of them figured it out at home and came in on top of the world to show me the next day. A few had willingly spent hours on it, I was told. Once a few had it down, the solution spread on day 2. I gave hints (one of Liljedahl's practices), and the kids ran to watch other groups who had it figured out or who were close (another of Liljedahl's practices). Once we consolidated (another practice, and one I'm the least clear on how to do well), most of them were dying to go practice. We even got to have a lesson on showmanship as a magician. Their homework on day 2 was to DO the trick for a member of the family (if they had cards). Several asked me to borrow cards even though not having any would have gotten them out of a homework assignment. One student, his mother told me, was on Zoom performing the trick for family members IN ARGENTINA. Another mother told me playfully, "I wasn't expecting ANY homework on the first day of school, much less this. If she ends up joining the circus, I'm holding you responsible!" It was evening, it was morning. The first (and second) day of a new creation  a "thinking classroom."
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About MeI'm an awardwinning teacher in the Atlanta area with experience teaching at every level from elementary school to college. Categories
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