Mark Vasicek’s Thinking Classroom encourages engagement and critical thinking in math.

Burlington High School’s Room No. 228 is sparsely furnished, occupied by only a podium and a single desk atop which sits a box of carefully crafted geometry problems waiting to be solved.

Using a deck of playing cards, Mark Vasicek randomly assigns his students into groups of three as they file in from the neighboring classroom, where the class spends only the first and last five minutes of each period for a crash course and review of the steps needed to solve a problem.

It is inside Room 228 that the real thinking begins.

The student groups select a small laminated piece of paper before heading to one of the many whiteboards lining the classroom’s walls. There, they work together to determine and solve the proper equation for the problem on the paper.

Standing beneath geometric shapes hanging from the ceiling, the students talk quietly within their groups to figure out how to tackle the problem, taking turns using the dry erase marker to write their work.

“They’re all engaged,” Vasicek said. “It’s not that standing up is so great, but sitting down is so bad on so many levels. It causes anonymity and people can hide. They can be on their phones, they can be on their computer, they can do something that they’re not supposed to be doing. When you’re standing, I don’t always see everything, but I can see everybody.”

Several students said standing also helps them focus on the task at hand.

“This classroom, it helps you think when you stand up and move around, and you can have connections with people you don’t really know,” junior Lakyla Kuyro said as she and her peers waited on Vasicek to check their work.

Vasicek flits from group to group, asking the scholars to explain their methodology. Once a problem is solved, the group selects a new one from another pile. Each is designed to be slightly more difficult than the last.

“The hard part for me is to come up with the questions in the right order that’s sliced thin,” said Vasicek, who has written a geometry book and whose Desmos problems are used by teachers in schools throughout the state. “If I give you a problem, the next one’s going to be just a little bit harder.”

When students get stuck on a problem, Vasicek will assist, but only so much, forcing them to engage in what he calls productive struggle, something that ultimately builds both their problem-solving skills and confidence.

“If the kid asks me a ‘stop-thinking’ question — is this on our test, is this right — if I answer that for them, then they don’t have to think anymore,” Vasicek explained. “What I’ll do is I’ll look at them, I’ll smile and then I’ll walk away, and that’s unnerving to some of them at first, but then they realize he’s not going to answer that.

“If they ask me a ‘keep-thinking’ question — how to do a square or cubed root on the calculator — usually I’ll stop and ask them a question like show me what you’re thinking here or how did you come up with this. Then they get to explain their reasoning … It’s to jump-start their engines, not tow them to the finish line.”

Sometimes, he will allow for collaboration between groups as it gives the students the ability to teach, thus reinforcing what they’ve learned. It also offers a fresh perspective on the problem at hand.

Students in Vasicek’s first period geometry class indicated they prefer the Thinking Classroom to traditional math classes.

“I feel like it’s better because we can just communicate better as a classroom,” sophomore Grace Eden said.

Fellow sophomores Hudson Jones and Blaze Dochterman agreed.

“It’s better than sitting down because we’re collaborating,” Jones said.

“We can learn from other people,” Dochterman said. “If we don’t know what you’re doing, somebody else shows you how to do it.”

Building a Thinking Classroom

Vasicek, who has taught math for nearly 20 years, is in his third trimester of utilizing a Thinking Classroom.

Everything about it — from the size of the paper upon which the problems are displayed to the use of whiteboards and lack of seating — is by design.

“They’re whiteboards. These are non-permanent vertical spaces,” Vasicek said. “We tried this with white paper before I got the whiteboards that I had Mrs. Knickerbocker’s husband make for me, and it takes them about 10 minutes longer for them to write something down, because it’s permanent. Even though you’re going to throw it away, it’s permanent.”

Similarly, delivering the math problems on such small pieces of paper prevents the students from writing on them.

Vasicek decided to implement the Thinking Classroom after attending a conference this past October featuring keynote speaker Peter Liljedahl, author of “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics.”

“This guy went to 20 schools over 15 years, spoke to 10,000 students, 400 teachers and they tried different things in the classroom,” Vasicek said.

Using that research, Liljedahl developed a 14-point plan for encouraging students to deeply engage with math content rather than rely on mimicry to pass a math class.

“What the kids do is they mimic, and mimicking delivers the product you want up to the point that … the curriculum becomes more demanding than what mimicking can do, but (mimicking) has been institutionalized, it’s been non-negotiated,” Vasicek said.

Formerly having worked as both a petroleum and machine engineer, Vasicek long had been searching for a way to teach math in a manner that engages critical thinking and therefore could be applied to real-world problems.

“You walk into a plant and they don’t say two plus two equals four. They say make us money,” Vasicek said. “Thinking like an engineer is not intuitive, but you have to do the thinking. You come to the classroom and you want them to be thinking.”

Vasicek left the conference feeling inspired. He approached instructional coach Michael Carper about putting Liljedahl’s plan into action at BHS, perhaps the next trimester. Carper, however, told him to start it immediately.

Vasicek ran with it, learning as he went. The most difficult parts, he said, were finding the right progression of problem difficulty and effectively delivering lessons in a five-minute window.

Thus far, he has been pleased with the results. He’s seen students who in the past showed little interest in class engage and learn to the point where they were able to teach their peers. He’s also see students who formerly earned average grades work their way up to an A in his class.

“This is a game-changer,” Vasicek said. “We’re busting norms.”

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