Beyond Vertical Spaces: Creating Thinking Spaces

Published: Oct 4, 2023

Garfield Gini-NewmanAs in many facets of life, change is a constant in education. Each year students change grades and teachers greet new classes, and new technologies are continually being introduced into the classroom. Some changes are cyclical, while others are ephemeral, and a few make a deep and lasting impact on student learning. What distinguishes the degree of impact that educational change has on learners? Some changes have the potential to contribute to meaningful change but come up short when they fail to engage students as critical inquirers. Change that has a fleeting impact is often more of a mirage, merely repackaging existing practices. Consider, for example, the impact of interactive whiteboards on classrooms. Millions of dollars were spent to install the boards in thousands of classrooms. Yet the existence of interactive boards did little to improve the quality of learning and in some cases undermined the teaching and learning we claimed to value. After several years, the interactive whiteboard fad has faded and schools have embraced other forms of change, often with limited impact. Change that has a deep and lasting impact challenges existing transmissive practices by truly putting student thinking at the core of learning.

Students in classroomOver the past few years, there has been a rush to use vertical spaces in classrooms. While the use of vertical spaces should be welcomed in schools, much like the blackboards that used to be on several walls in a classroom, merely having students work in groups at a vertical space will do little to create rich learning opportunities or improve the quality of thinking for all students. Even math teachers who are intrigued by the potential uses of vertical spaces in their classrooms remain perplexed at how to know that each student has developed a deep understanding of the concept groups were exploring. Herein lies the problem—how do we ensure whatever spaces we use, vertical or horizontal, are in fact “thinking spaces”?

Spaces Need to Invite Students to Think

Sending students to work in groups at vertical spaces does not automatically ensure better thinking. In the absence of a genuine invitation to think critically and collaboratively, students may either simply share their retrieved knowledge or defer to the strongest in the group to arrive at the “correct” answer. For vertical or horizontal spaces to be effective, students need to be engaged with questions for which there is no existing answer and for which there could be a variety of sound answers. The provocation must also allow for diverse contributions to enrich the group’s response, so that everyone’s voice has value in arriving at a sound response.

We must also bear in mind that vertical spaces are not always the best spaces for encouraging thinking. Consider, for example, exploring what is most important for living “the good life.” In this case, a placemat activity would serve well. During a placemat activity, a large piece of chart paper is put on a table around which four students sit. A rectangle is drawn in the centre of the chart paper, and around the rectangle the chart paper is divided into four sections, giving each student their own personal space to write. Students are invited to list all the factors that contribute to living the good life in their section. After two minutes, each student shares their ideas. Once all students have shared, the group reaches a consensus as to the four most important factors for living the good life, which are then placed in the rectangle in the centre of the chart paper. This exercise is a terrific way to engage students in collaborative thinking to develop a sound response and is most definitely better done horizontally than vertically.

Spaces Need to Use Provocations and Criteria

Evidently, the key to creating true “thinking spaces” is not jumping on board the latest trend in education. Rather, it lies in creating authentic invitations to engage in thinking and allowing students to sit with a problem over time. They need to be able to test out their thinking and be invited to affirm, revise, or extend their thinking as their learning grows. This happens through the use of provocations that initiate thinking and the use of criteria to guide that thinking. The use of “Learning Launches,” which invite an initial response, can be a highly effective way for students to show how their thinking changes over time as they delve more deeply into an issue and learn with their peers. Placing dashboards, ranking ladders, thermometers, and so on around the room allows both teachers and students to see how students’ thinking changes over time.

As a new school year gets under way, let's strive to create the optimal conditions for deep learning through thinking, by recognizing there are several ways to create critical, creative, and collaborative classrooms. So, to summarize: use vertical spaces when appropriate, but also consider creating your entire classroom as a thinking space where students engage with meaningful provocations through a sustained and iterative inquiry. Help students to feel safe in testing and revising answers as their learning progresses and to see the value in their own thinking and the thinking of others.

Garfield Gini-Newman is a senior national consultant with TC² and associate professor at OISE/University of Toronto. He is the co-author of the TC² publication Creating Thinking Classrooms.