Higher Order Thinking · Techniques & Methodology

Levels of Understanding

I’ve spent a lot a time talking about Bloom’s Cognitive Domains lately. This is largely because I’ve been invited to speak at a number of institutions about Critical Thinking, and in every instance so far, the teachers have informed me that, in one way or another, their institutions encourage them to “use Bloom’s Taxonomy”. When I ask participants to elaborate on this, tell me what they mean or what is expected of them, things tend to get vague and uncomfortable.

As such, I have been using that as a foundation and building my materials from there. As I have travelled from city to city, institution to institution, my concept has developed each step of the way. Here I’ll lay down the basic principles of my materials and invite any comments or discourse you might have in response.

A Common Problem

As with many things, almost all of the institutions I visited had loosely appropriated the terminology but had demonstrated a very shallow understanding and a very superfluous application of the actual theory. It seems that somebody at the head of the institution would be made aware of the value of the model—perhaps through a set of materials / curriculum they had purchased or else from a seminar—and would then decide that they should implement it at their institution; however, this seemed to amount to little more than simply telling the teachers to use it and perhaps giving them a handout or two and some new paperwork to fill in.

As a result, when I started asking the teachers what they knew and what they were doing, I mostly got rather incomplete answers. Usually, through a group effort, they would be able to name the six domains, and occasionally they would be able to loosely describe what some of them meant, though never very confidently. When I asked how they were using it, the responses would be very empty ones: we use it in our lesson plans; we use it when we write tests; etc.. To press the issue by asking what “use” meant was to be met with stuttering confusion.

This is a widespread problem that I meet all over, empty terminology that teachers have heard and are fond of repeating but cannot explain in detail much less put into practice. And, by the way, it’s not really their fault; I blame the institutions for placing such vague requirements and the professional development programmes for being so shallow.

A New Way of Thinking 

Here in Indonesia, the importance of developing critical thinking skills is just now being recognised. Throughout the formal education system, it is tragically neglected. The standard approach to learning here is heavily dependent on rote-memorisation and lots of copying from the board. Many students graduate from school without the ability to think for themselves.

As mentioned above, the go to solution for many institutions has been some attempt at using Bloom’s Taxonomy, particularly the Cognitive Domain, as a guide for developing critical thinking skills. I certainly don’t think that this is a bad starting point, however I ultimately think that this model is not particularly useful to teachers. It is useful to cognitive scientists, perhaps, to people who simply want to study the different ways people think and the ways they engage cognitively with the world or to people who want to categorise different mental exercises by the cognitive power they require. These are valuable endeavours, indeed, but they are not the goals of the teacher.

The goal of the teacher is to assist her students in learning, and learning is a process. We might not know much about exactly how learning works, but if I’m certain about one thing, however basic it may be, it is that learning is a process; that it involves changes in the brain as it encounters, computes and manipulates data of various kinds. As such, a taxonomy is not the right tool for the job: a taxonomy is static, merely a set of boxes to put things into. The teacher needs something dynamic, a series of stages to work through to reach a goal.

With this in mind, I have taken the Cognitive Domain put forth in Bloom’s Taxonomy and have reshaped it into processes and objectives. It is my hope that teachers can use this new approach to a well-established theory to guide them in lesson planning and syllabus design. Later, I shall incorporate this into a larger piece I am writing on the various processes involved on multiple levels in learning.

What do we want to achieve?

I started by grouping Bloom’s initial six categories into three broader sets as follows: Remembering and Understanding I labelled Basic Understanding; Application I labelled Applied Understanding; and the remaining three categories, Analysing, Evaluating and Creating (I shall favour the term Synthesise of Create for the rest of this article, and I shall clarify my reasons later) I labelled Critical Understanding.

The three items in the Critical Understanding group I shall refer to as Higher Order Thinking Skills, a term that has now become so popular as to have its own acronym—which I shall not be using.

I realise that all I have done thus far is create a taxonomy with fewer categories, but this is only a starting point, and I have a reason for it. It is also worth pointing out that this article follows the chronology of the development of my ideas on the matter, and when I first delineated these three amalgamated categories, I hadn’t got as far as looking for processes yet.

The chief value I see to having these three sets is that it helps us identify some fundamental objectives. Specifically, I assert that what has been the practise of education systems and school teachers for a very long time, namely to focus on maximising their students’ Basic Understanding—which consists of amassing endless lists of facts, details, rules and theories to cram into the students’ minds, largely so that this wealth of knowledge can be demonstrated in a series of formal exams and then in the majority case, never be used again—is no longer sufficient.

Instead, I firmly believe that the bare minimum a teacher should be aiming for in each learning encounter is Applied Understanding. I suggest that any understanding that has not been applied is effectively of little value to the students. It exists as abstract or theoretical knowledge in their heads, ready to be regurgitated during examinations but unable to be deployed usefully in The Real World. Further, I suggest that anything on a syllabus that seemingly has no application is ‘useless knowledge’ and thus should not be taught (but don’t worry, this is somewhat a fallacy as I don’t actually believe there is any knowledge that has no application).

In fact, I think that the three cognitive acts that make up Applied Knowledge, i.e. Remembering, Understanding and Applying, naturally co-exist. Remembering barely even need be mentioned, because if at any point we fail to remember something, then all of our understanding disappears. Ergo, one might ask, what is it to understand but to remember various facts, ideas and factors about a given topic? And can one truly be said to understand a thing if they cannot apply their understanding? Does that not suggest that their understanding is lacking? The diagram above demonstrates this.

This also ties in with the core elements of a learning objective, which I wrote about in this post previously and which also explores in more detail the concept of applied understanding.

Two Cycles for Developing Critical Understanding

The principles above lay the foundation for the learning process that I have extracted from Bloom’s Taxonomy. The process comprises two cycles of development, one short term for developing applied understanding of each new item and a second one longer term for developing critical understanding over time.

The first step is Understanding. As explained above, I begin with understanding rather than remembering because I consider remembering to be simply the vessel for understanding. Understanding, I believe, is effectively the remembering of details about the subject; the more details catalogued, the more complex the understanding. As such, understanding consists of knowing the relevant names and terminology of a subject, the definitions and meanings of those, and the rules and usage of the principles involved.

Once one has this understanding, one can apply it to the real world. Note, to step back for a moment, that without knowing the rules of usage of the principle, one cannot apply it; therefore, true understanding naturally leads to application. In order to apply understanding, one must take a number of actions. First, one must observe and analyse the situation. This means to observe what is happening around you, identify the circumstances and decide what knowledge needs to be recalled to respond appropriately.

In this process, contrary to the order of the domains in Bloom’s model, analysis is already required for application. Further analysis is then required for the following stage, Evaluation, where one assesses the effectiveness of the application: what was the outcome; was the application successful; what were the weaknesses; what could be done better in future? Asking these questions and making a detailed evaluation of our actions allows us to strengthen our understanding with new knowledge of the usage and outcomes. This better understanding from our evaluations means that next time we apply the understanding, we should see better outcomes.

This is the first cycle, and the more times we go through it, the more our understanding deepens. Eventually, we can step off from a deep understanding of multiple concepts and initiate the second cycle.

The Second Cycle

The second cycle that I have extracted from Bloom’s pyramid shows the process of implementing and further developing the higher order thinking skills. This cycle is a longer term process that builds upon multiple completions of the first cycle, so while we might expect to complete the first cycle in every lesson (more on that later) the second cycle is an ongoing process spanning several lessons, multiple units, even an entire course/semester.

This cycle initiates after a deep enough understanding has been developed through the first cycle. Once the learner has a deep understanding of multiple related areas, he or she will then be able to bring together this broad knowledge and the various methods of application and the evaluations he or she has performed and with all that develop new ideas based not only on what has been presented by others—teachers, seminars, textbooks, etc.—but also new assumptions, deductions and hypotheses from the individual.

This Synthesis is something that takes time to achieve: beforehand, the learner must amass enough understanding and enough experience from application and must also hone his or her analysis and evaluation skills. Arguably, it is evaluation rather than synthesis that is the first creative act in the two cycles, because the conclusions drawn from the evaluation and the lessons learned from weaknesses and failings come not from teachers or other outside influencers but from the individual internally. By developing this skill, the individual will be more capable of effective synthesising.

Once a new idea has emerged, even though it has arisen from higher order thinking, it is in itself only basic until it is applied. Ideas that exist only in the mind have no real world value. The individual must now try out the newly synthesised theory, test the hypothesis, and then go on to evaluate the results, which in turn deepens understanding, strengthens the theory, leads to new hypotheses. Thus the second cycle continues.

As I have described these cycles thus far, I suggest they give a good outline for the general process of developing these skills as a learning individual, whether a student or just a person seeking to self improve. However, I would also like to give some suggestions on how teachers might implement the processes in the classroom.

Teaching to Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills

As I have said above, I believe that a teacher’s absolute minimum objective every lesson should be to achieve applied understanding with the students, as anything less holds no real-world value. However, I also think that developing the higher order thinking skills should be an ongoing objective for all teachers too. The difference is that developing the students’ higher order thinking skills might not be explicitly written into the lesson plan, and also that developing critical understanding of a topic might not be necessary in every single lesson.

The first cycle should be a guideline for every lesson. Students should be facilitated to learn and apply something new every lesson and then also encouraged to evaluate their performance and progress at the end of each lesson. This might be as simple as introducing a new grammar point or lexical set, completing some drill and practice activities and then asking the students to use the target language in a real-life task before reviewing the lesson.

By conducting every lesson this way, we ensure that our students are developing the knowledge and skills that they will require when they leave school and move on to further education or into the professional world. We can be confident as teachers that what we are doing in our classrooms is truly beneficial to our students’ futures. However, without also developing the higher order thinking skills, i.e. completing the second cycle, while we are preparing our students to be productive members of society, we are not giving them the skills they need to be leaders in their fields.

Secondary Learning Objectives

Developing higher order thinking skills is one example of what I refer to as secondary learning objectives. Others include collaboration skills, communication skills and leadership skills. There are many more, and they are all extremely important; I refer to them as secondary skills not because they are less of a priority but rather because they are not derived from the subject being taught, That is to say that being a good leader is not an obvious learning objective on an English Language syllabus, but English Language teachers should still be trying to achieve it with their students. And while communication skills might be a primary objective in English Language, it would not be in Science, yet Science teachers should also be striving to develop their students’ communication skills. I shall write more about secondary skills in a future post.

Another reason I prefer to construe Bloom’s pyramid as these cycles as opposed to the original pyramid is that the pyramid gives many teachers a sense of progression, whereby they think that the first domain should be addressed first at a certain age and then later the second and so on until students can develop the upper domains at high school age. In fact, all levels should be developed from as early as possible.

Developing the higher order thinking skills at early ages is as simple as asking students questions like “why” and “how” rather than just “what” and encouraging them to ask questions about the things they see. In the elementary years, this is enough; it helps establish an inquisitive and explorative approach to the world that will lay foundations for experimentation and more depth later on. If this groundwork is not done early, it becomes very difficult to begin from scratch once students are already mature, and this is a very apparent problem that we see here in Indonesia with college age students who are only confronted with a need for these skills as they enter higher education.

I have already suggested above how evaluation skills can be developed by encouraging students to self-evaluate, reviewing their own efforts and progress at the end of each lesson and each unit. Again, this can begin early by giving students certain points to think about and questions to respond to and can then be developed further later by allowing students more freedom to think in their own terms.

Synthesis in the Classroom

Synthesis is not necessarily something that will be addressed every lesson. Instead, you might task students to complete a project after several classes or at the end of a unit that requires that they combine the skills they have developed over a period of time. This way, you can show your students the real life value of what they are learning while also teaching them to use multiple skills in concert to achieve their goals. You might, for example, ask them to write an essay but before hand research the topic, requiring that they comprehend and evaluate what they find, or perhaps conduct a survey, which would see them formulating the questions first and then analysing the results later. All of this would then culminate in the writing task, which would need good organisational skills as well as application of the appropriate language. These things would all be taught through the course of the unit.

A similar set of instructions could instead lead to more speaking oriented output, either with students putting together a presentation or some kind of report. Also, these project based activities are a great way to develop collaboration skills too. If you ask students to work in groups on these projects, instruct them to first assign roles so that every member of the group is active and participating. It might take some time and a few attempts for this to work as hoped, but eventually students will be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and support one another to produce the best results. Again, these are skills that adults need more and more in the modern professional world but are often not well developed in school.

Just as we will see our students deepen their mastery of these skills over time, so too will teachers be better at incorporating them in lessons the more they try. Eventually, it will come naturally to have these elements built into most if not all lessons, whether explicitly or implicitly.


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