Critical Thinking

5 Ways to Stop Thinking for Your Students

Too often math students lean on teachers to think for them, but there are some simple ways to guide them to think for themselves.

December 8, 2022
martin-dm / iStock

Who is doing the thinking in your classroom? If you asked me that question a few years ago, I would have replied, “My kids are doing the thinking, of course!” But I was wrong. As I reflect back to my teaching style before I read Building Thinking Classrooms by Peter Liljedahl (an era in my career I like to call “pre-thinking classroom”), I now see that I was encouraging my students to mimic rather than think.

My lessons followed a formula that I knew from my own school experience as a student and what I had learned in college as a pre-service teacher. It looked like this: Students faced me stationed at the board; I demonstrated a few problems while students copied what I wrote in their notes. I would throw out a few questions to the class to assess understanding. If a few kids answered correctly, I felt confident that the lesson had gone well. Some educators might call this “I do, we do, you do.”

What’s wrong with this formula? When it was time for them to work independently, which usually meant a homework assignment because I used most of class time for direct instruction, the students would come back to class and say, “The homework was so hard. I don’t get it. Can you go over questions 1–20?” Exhausted and frustrated, I would wonder, “But I taught it—why didn’t they get it?”

Now in the “peri-thinking classroom” era of my career, my students are often working at the whiteboards in random groups as outlined in Liljedahl’s book. The pendulum has shifted from the teacher doing the thinking to the students doing the thinking. Do they still say, “I don’t get it!”? Yes, of course! But I use the following strategies to put the thinking back onto them.

5 Ways to Get Your Students to Think

1. Answer questions with a refocus on the students’ point of view. Liljedahl found in his research that students ask three types of questions: “(1) proximity questions—asked when the teacher is close; (2) stop thinking questions—most often of the form ‘is this right’ or ‘will this be on the test’; and (3) keep thinking questions—questions that students ask so they can get back to work.” He suggests that teachers acknowledge “proximity” and “stop thinking questions” but not answer them.

Try these responses to questions that students ask to keep working:

  • “What have you done so far?” 
  • “Where did you get that number?” 
  • “What information is given in the problem?” 
  • “Does that number seem reasonable in this situation?”  

2. Don’t carry a pencil or marker. This is a hard rule to follow; however, if you hold the writing utensil, you’ll be tempted to write for them. Use verbal nudges and hints, but avoid writing out an explanation. If you need to refer to a visual, find a group that has worked out the problem, and point out their steps. Hearing and viewing other students’ work is more powerful.

3. We instead of I. When I assign a handful of problems for groups to work on at the whiteboards, they are tempted to divvy up the task. “You do #30, and I’ll do #31.” This becomes an issue when they get stuck. I inevitably hear, “Can you help me with #30? I forgot how to start.”

I now require questions to use “we” instead of “I.” This works wonders. As soon as they start to ask a question with “I,” they pause and ask their group mates. Then they can legitimately say, “We tried #30, and we are stumped.” But, in reality, once they loop in their group mates, the struggling student becomes unstuck, and everyone in the group has to engage with the problem.

4. Stall your answer. If I hear a basic computation question such as, “What is 3 divided by 5?” I act like I am busy helping another student: “Hold on, I need to help Marisela. I’ll be right back.” By the time I return to them, they are way past their question. They will ask a classmate, work it out, or look it up. If the teacher is not available to think for them, they learn to find alternative resources.

5. Set boundaries. As mentioned before, students ask “proximity” questions because I am close to them. I might reply with “Are you asking me a thinking question? I’m glad to give you a hint or nudge, but I cannot take away your opportunity to think.” This type of response acknowledges that you are there to help them but not to do their thinking for them.

When you set boundaries of what questions will be answered, the students begin to more carefully craft their questions. At this point of the year, I am starting to hear questions such as, “We have tried solving this system by substitution, but we are getting an unreasonable solution. Can you look at our steps?” Yes!

Shifting the focus to students doing the thinking not only enhances their learning but can also have the effect of less frustration and fatigue for the teacher. As the class becomes student-centered, the teacher role shifts to guide or facilitator and away from “sage on the stage.”

As another added benefit, when you serve as guide or facilitator, the students are getting differentiated instruction and assessment. Maybe only a few students need assistance with adding fractions, while a few students need assistance on an entirely different concept. At first, you might feel like your head is spinning trying to address so many different requests; however, as you carefully sift through the types of questions you hear, you will soon be comfortable only answering the “keep thinking” questions.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Math
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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