Building Thinking Classrooms in History

Thijs Risselada, Arjan Moree
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In his book Building Thinking Classrooms , Canadian mathematician Peter Liljedahl argues that too little thinking is done by students in the average lesson. Often, instruction is given by the teacher, practised together and then copied independently by students. All thinking steps are thereby made by the teacher; students often only imitate.

According to Liljedahl, this can be done much better: by using large white boards and sheets that require standing collaboration and thorough thinking about solutions to problems. Liljedahl’s book was written for maths teachers, but his ideas can also be used in other subjects. We therefore saw opportunities for our subject, history, to apply the principles introduced by Liljedahl and start working with maths boards. In our view, this approach also has great potential in other (business) subjects.

Building Thinking Classrooms

Two historians, Arjan and Thijs, are sitting in the staff room reading a maths book. It sounds like the setup of a bad joke, but it turned out to be a recipe for success! We had heard of Liljedahl’s book and tasted enthusiasm about his ideas, but it was still maths education, not history. Still, we ventured into the book and soon saw possibilities.

Liljedahl has his students solve problems in threesomes – standing at a non-permanent vertical surface (or: a fixed whiteboard and  ‘erasure sheets’ as we like to call them) and using only one marker. This change of setting immediately invites collaboration. Especially when Liljedahl also adds the rule that you can only write down what someone else says. To master this process, he starts with mathematical puzzles. But how do you do this with other subjects, such as history?


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Image 1: Student working at a non-permanent vertical surface


Independent thinking

For our subject, the independent collaboration and feedback between students particularly appealed to us. We were busy preparing our students for the final history exam. In doing so, we expect quite a lot from students: a lot of knowledge, all kinds of complex skills, and also that they are independent enough to assess how best to prepare for this in their own time. “Good luck everyone, we’ll see you in the exam hall!”

So for this final exam to be a success, students need to be able to give feedback to themselves pretty well. For example, they need to be able to question themselves: ‘What exactly is expected of me in this subject? What do I already master well and what do I still need to work on? And how do I tackle that, if my teacher can’t help me with that?” Fortunately, there are quite a few ideas on how you as a teacher can guide your students towards that independence, for example by using a feedback process. But Liljedahl’s ideas require quite a different way of working, which made us curious.

We therefore decided to each try this out in our own classes and make answering exam questions central to working with erasure boards and sheets. For groups of around 25 students, for Thijs this meant – in addition to the fixed whiteboard – sticking seven loose erase sheets scattered through the room to the walls. Arjan, with a fixed, private classroom, had a better deal: he mounted eight fixed whiteboards on the walls! And what happened next? The following is a sample of our lessons, with the me-person alternating between Arjan and Thijs.

A sequence question

Every history exam starts with a sequence question, so I show six numbered events on the IWB asking, “What is the correct chronological order?”

  1. Young people opposed to consumer society regularly slept on Dam Square. Older Dutch people were annoyed by this.
  2. After the German occupying army officially surrendered, German soldiers opened fire on the celebrating crowd in Dam Square.
  3. Napoleon put a definitive end to the Batavian democratic revolution by appointing his brother Louis as king. Louis chose the town hall on Dam Square as the royal palace.
  4. Only after citizens expelled the Roman Catholic administration from the old city hall, the city switched to the Protestant camp during the Revolt.
  5. When Hotel Krasnapolsky opened, its electric lighting and conservatory constructed of iron and glass made it a paragon of the new, industrial era.
  6. During the Golden Age, the Koopmansbeurs was built so that merchants could meet and do business in the products from Asia and America.

Students are randomly divided by me into groups of three (or four), confer with each other and also use the erase sheet as a notepad. Soon there were scribbles like: A. 1960s, B. WWII and C, 1800s. In other threesomes, there was a lot of deliberation, but only slowly an answer appeared on the board.


Not immediately showing the right answer

Now, of course, as a teacher, you can simply show the correct answer. That will produce euphoria or minor, but much more important than this result are the thinking steps made by the students. How do you tackle such a question as a group of three? Why does some groups only show the answer “6-4-3-5-2-1” and others a whole list of years and other scribbles?

What emerged: answering the question became a lot easier for the students who used the erase sheet as a draft paper than for the group who tried to keep all six events in memory. So this already provided valuable and useful insight for the students who did not use this answering strategy before. Useful for during your next test or exam!


Working with sources

Another very important skill in history is working with sources. In an exam, students can score around 70% of the points on source questions, and perhaps more importantly, being able to assess aspects such as reliability, representativeness and perspective of text and image sources and their creators also develops an important form of critical thinking in students in the long run.

Each trio is therefore given one source, for example a propaganda poster from Nazi Germany, along with the question, “What characteristic of National Socialism can be seen in this source?” To answer this properly, it is necessary for pupils to know which characteristics fit National Socialism.

So the first task I give to the groups of students is to list these characteristics. Students are given two minutes to do this. Only then do we ask the question of what it is actually about and I give students three minutes to formulate a good answer.


Walking around and observing

There is busy discussion in the trios and occasional peeking at the other boards. The first group quickly finishes and is satisfied with naming one characteristic: “leader principle”. In another group, I hear a very critical conversation. “We need to formulate this better, because now we don’t mention the source,” I hear them say. Meanwhile, I walk around and look at what is being written down here and there.

After the three minutes, I stop their work. The students now have to move to the next board and are given a different colour marker to correct their neighbour’s answer. They are given two minutes to do this and again animated conversations ensue. Curlicues and stripes appear on the boards. Some groups are very satisfied, others very critical.


The feedback is running out

Since the feedback seems to be “running out”, I choose not to include another round of feedback between students, but now discuss the assignment in class. I look around the class at the different groups. “Which answer is the best?”, I ask the group, “And more importantly, why do you think so?” In the conversation that ensues -and looking at the erase sheets- I find out:

– there are two groups that did not find the right feature;

– three groups found the correct attribute but did not use the resource properly; and

– two groups formulated a completely correct answer.


Developing a sense for quality and self-regulation

Attention focuses on one of the completely correct answers. “What makes that answer from group 6 correct?” I ask the students. Slowly but surely, students complement each other: they name the correct characteristic of National Socialism, the clear reference to the source and the linking of the answer to that which is asked as elements of a correct answer.

In this way, students develop a sense for quality. What does a correct answer meet? How do you build it up, what does it look like? The different levels of the group answers -from very good to a lot less- are thus immediately visible in the classroom.

Perhaps equally important is the fact that the answers are quickly wiped out again afterwards. The mistakes that had been made do not haunt the students: in this way, we create a safe practice ground.


Practising answer strategy

“Why did I actually start with the first question, the brainstorm on characteristics?” I ask.

A student: “That way, you are actually already thinking about the question that comes next.”

Me: “But you hadn’t seen that question at all, had you?”

Another student: “No okay, but we needed that information for that second question, even though we didn’t know it beforehand.”

Sometimes students think they get stuck when they see a difficult resource and skip the question. By including an intermediate step like this, students can prepare themselves for such a question and gather the knowledge they need. If this is clearly listed, the follow-up question becomes a lot easier.

Of course, they can use that answer strategy very well during a test or exam! Thus, working with erasure sheets and discussing assignments afterwards also potentially contributes to students’ degree of self-regulation.

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Image 2: Students work in threesomes on erasure boards and sheets on a practice question for the history exam (Apeldoorn, The Netherlands, April 2024).


What are the benefits?

Besides improving students’ answer strategies, working with erasure sheets also brings other potential benefits.

1. Learning from each other

“I really learn a lot from this” and “It is quite insightful to speak to people you never speak to otherwise” are frequently heard reactions from our pupils after working a few times with erase sheets. By discussing a lot with each other, listening carefully to each other and asking specific questions – after all, you can only write down what someone else says, and so you have to make a good translation – pupils constantly hone their knowledge and skills.

2. Focus on growth

“I keep getting better at this!”, jubilated a senior student after the erasure sheet exam training. This was not misguided self-congratulation: she really did get better at analysing sources and formulating answers, a more than satisfactory final exam showed.

Because “wrong” answers never haunted her but she could start and deliberate with a clean slate -and a new group- on each assignment, she taught herself step by step more quality awareness of good answers and ways to get there. So a large part of her worries were taken away by herself, without the need for a teacher!

3. Welcome variety

“Finally something different!” may not be a strong substantive argument for working with erase sheets, but the variety in terms of form is often very welcome to pupils. Standing and working in groups is sometimes even perceived as a relief among all the individual, seated and silent forms of work.

As a teacher, however, you can also get a little too carried away with your enthusiasm… As one student said: “Yes, sir, those sheets of erase paper are nice once in a while, but we really don’t need them every lesson”. So try to find out at which moments you think working with sheets of erase paper adds value to the learning process and when it does not.

Practical tips

Now suppose you got excited by this story: where do you start?

1. Choose whiteboards or erase sheets

Now, not every classroom can be furnished with multiple whiteboards on the walls. We have no shares, but a simple solution would be rolls of whiteboard film: static sheets that stick to almost any surface. These work best on smooth surfaces: on a brick wall or other rough walls you will get very crooked handwriting.

2. Ensure a safe working atmosphere

Besides suitable material, working together in threesomes or foursomes also requires a safe and work-oriented atmosphere. In the beginning, there is a lot of looking around and there are often groups that think they can chat a bit without getting down to business. However, this becomes immediately (painfully) obvious when discussing the assignments afterwards and focuses a lot of uncomfortable attention on the group that actually wanted to duck away. In our groups, by the second assignment, this was enough for those students to start working in earnest anyway!

3. Give clear instructions

Give students clear instructions on how to work on the boards or erase sheets, at least these:

– there is one marker that rotates;

– only write down what others say;

– you may delete only after consultation.

This way, you emphasise the need to work together and learn from each other.

For some (follow-up) assignments, “check with other groups and discuss” or “shift 1/2/3 groups for the next assignment” are suitable supplementary instructions.

4. Start simple

Start with a simple brainstorming task where students can write down many examples. This way, there is busy deliberation, the marker rotates and the board fills up. In this way, you quickly learn the principles of working on the board with an assignment that requires some thought, but is not that complicated. Later, you can introduce more complex assignments, for instance with sources and/or multiple questions.

Do our students and we now stand by the erase boards and sheets for the whole lesson? Certainly not! After all, we’re still  history teachers who also love to tell a good story and take our pupils to other times. But the presence of the erase boards and sheets also reminds us that it is not always about our story, but mainly about what the pupil does with it. In doing so, we make our class not only a listening, but also an active and focused thinking group of students.


Liljedahl, P., Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K-12: 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning (2021)



  • Thijs Risselada

    Thijs Risselada is a history teacher. He wants to share his positive experiences with formative action in the classroom with other teachers and schools. Thijs is therefore also active as a trainer at The Formative Action School.

    View all posts
  • Arjan Moree

    Arjan is a history teacher, and also a trainer at The Formative Action School.

    View all posts Arjan Moree


  • Thijs Risselada

    Thijs Risselada is a history teacher. He wants to share his positive experiences with formative action in the classroom with other teachers and schools. Thijs is therefore also active as a trainer at The Formative Action School.

    View all posts
  • Arjan Moree

    Arjan is a history teacher, and also a trainer at The Formative Action School.

    View all posts Arjan Moree

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