SFU professor wins $100,000 for innovative mathematics program

The Building Thinking Classrooms program is meant to combat passive learning


By: Aliocha Perriard-Abdoh

SFU professor Peter Liljedahl was awarded the $100,000 Cmolik Prize last month by the faculty of education for a revolutionary new approach to mathematics education. The Cmolik Prize for the Enhancement of Public Education in BC is awarded biennially to individuals whose work focuses on innovations in public schools in the province.

After 10 years of research, Liljedahl is being recognized for his work in the classroom. His Building Thinking Classrooms program has sought to implement problem-solving exercises in mathematics classes.

“Since the project has culminated to the Building Thinking Classroom[s] framework, it has been enacted in every single type of class in school,” he said.

Liljedahl first noticed a need for a new approach to mathematics following his experiences in K–12 classrooms. “I was observing two sorts of troubling things: one was that students were spending the majority of their time not thinking — not thinking in critical, creative, thoughtful ways. It was more automatic work that they were doing,” he explained.

“The second thing that I observed is that teachers were planning their teaching on the assumption that students couldn’t or wouldn’t think. So from that was born this issue, this project to try and find ways to help teachers initiate thinking.”

According to professor Liljedahl, these classrooms stand out. “If you’re walking down a hallway and you walk past one of these classrooms it would catch your attention,” he said.

What is so extraordinary of a ‘thinking’ classroom compared to the traditional classroom? Is it that students are no longer sitting at their desks in neat rows? That students are no longer just taking notes as the teacher gives simplistic instructions to guide the students through the course content?

The main difference is that the students are all standing up and working on whiteboards. They are talking amongst each other so the classrooms are significantly louder and more lively as the level of interaction between the students increases, according to professor Liljedahl.

The amount of direct instruction by the teacher decreases and students begin their own problem-solving almost instantaneously, he continued.

The program is in action here in BC, as well as in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario, and ranges as far as Australia, Sweden, and Chile. Professor Liljedahl has his sights set even further.

“The nice thing about [receiving] the award is that I think it might get the word out and get even more impact happening and more spread,” he concluded.