Flipping the model upside down
Pushing students to higher-order thinking everyday, in every assignment
HIGHLANDS RANCH – While many parents fight a nightly battle with their children, trying to get kids to do their homework, Shannon McPherson has another problem. She sometimes has to struggle to pull her sixth-grader away from his homework, when it is bedtime.
I have to yank the computer out of his hands,” McPherson said with a laugh. “There were nights that I would be like, ‘buddy, it is ten o’clock at night, we are getting up at 6 o’clock for violin. You have to go to bed.”
He has become consumed by a project about natural disasters, spending every waking moment researching information about invasive species and their impact on the environment.
“He wants to finish his invasive species project because it is super important to him,” McPherson said. “He is doing homework, but he doesn’t realize it. He would rather do that than play Minecraft.”
McPherson says her son’s experience is representative of a much larger picture at his school, Cougar Run Elementary in Highlands Ranch. As the school’s Professional Learning Specialist (PLS), she has seen student engagement peak following the implementation of Project Based Learning (PBL).
“You cannot pull them away,” McPherson said. “I had to tell a group [of sixth-graders in a speech and debate class] three or four different times: ‘you guys need to get to your next class.’ I couldn’t get them to leave, because they did not want to separate from their task.”
She credits PBL and its focus on student empowerment and higher-order thinking for the change. She says students are encouraged to construct their own learning through projects on a daily basis.
“We practice everything with high levels of inquiry,” explained McPherson. “Whether they are a kindergartner or sixth-grader, our projects have that high-level of inquiry embedded within it.”
In the speech and debate class, for instance, students are working to craft arguments around subjects they are passionate about.
“They are choosing topics that are important to them, but then they are evaluating multiple pieces of evidence, which is one of our World Class Outcomes,” McPherson said. “They then get to decide which pieces of evidence are going to support my side of the argument, so they’re analyzing the evidence and making decisions about whether it is something that is important and how it supports their argument.”
What is higher-order thinking?
In the 1950s, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom and a group of researchers created a model for how learning should be structured and supported, which is now known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy.”
The original model captured the thinking at the time, with a focus on knowledge or the memorization of facts.
Once students had a foundation of ‘knowledge’ and ‘comprehension,’ the theory was that students could climb to higher levels of thinking. Eventually, a select few would reach ‘evaluation.’ This perfectly matched the needs of industry, where only a few individuals were chosen for management and the rest were sent to the assembly line, where they would largely only need to follow instructions and accomplish basic, repetitive tasks.
“If you think back, we were developing those kids into workers. We wanted factory workers,” McPherson said. “The majority of the students were being trained to put the bolt in the hole, put the bolt in the hole, put the bolt in the hole.”
The model was updated in the 1990s, infusing the model with action verbs.
The focus, however, remained on ‘Remember.’
“I remember being 22 years old and in my first classroom. I taught in Greeley and it felt like the expectation was more about classroom management, memorization and lower level skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy,” explained McPherson.
“We were in the standardized testing era. My very first year was the first year of CSAP, so we were teaching to the test. All of that was such low-level thinking,” McPherson added. “It was painful. As a teacher, you felt like a robot.”
In 2012, however, a teacher suggested a revolutionary change. Shelley Wright suggested flipping the taxonomy upside down for the 21st century learner.
READ MORE: Flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy
Rather than starting with knowledge, she suggested that students should begin by ‘creating’ and that students could then discern knowledge from that effort.
The flipped version of Bloom’s Taxonomy better prepares students for their futures; after all, a lot has changed over the past 50 years. The world’s knowledge can now be held in the palm of your hand and companies are looking for a different kind of employee.
“Now we are teaching and developing our students into thinkers, innovators and creators. Companies are no longer interested in compliance. In fact, they really want non-compliance, because they are looking for candidates that ‘think outside of the box,” McPherson explained. Google is not going to hire a factory worker. They want a brilliant mind, with “Googleness”—as they describe it. They want someone who is going to come in and really shake things up and not be afraid to take a risk.”
READ MORE: A Case for Change
“Today we want students to use their knowledge and skills to innovate, create and be entrepreneurial in their thinking,” DCSD Superintendent Liz Fagen added. “We want them to think critically about a lot of different things -- bringing ideas together from math, science and social studies—the way they will experience challenges in their real lives and careers.”
Higher-Order thinking results in ‘learning that sticks’
Empowering our students to focus on higher-order thinking, including creating and inventing, results in sustainable learning — learning that sticks.
“Brain research has taught us a lot about how the brain learns,” explained Fagen. “We know now that ideas that are taught together with other relevant ideas connect neurons in students’ brains. Ideas taught alone or in isolation don’t. In addition, connecting ideas with skills creates even stronger neural networks. Therefore, if we want learning to stick for a long time, or be sustainable, we must teach concepts together and in context, and we must develop skills like critical thinking, inquiry, and creativity alongside ideas or concepts being developed.”
Change is never easy, but Fagen says the benefits are worth it.
“It’s been challenging because we have felt like we had to cover everything and now we have freed ourselves and understand that is no longer what our students need,” Fagen said.
She says the evidence is clear – sustainable learning is beneficial for our students.
“We want our students to be using important information
In fact, research shows, as a result of these practices, less remediation is needed from grade-to-grade and when students go to college.
“We know that if we ask our students to ‘know’ or ‘understand’ information, thinking skills that are at the very bottom of Bloom’s higher order thinking taxonomy, they are only going to retain 5 to 10 percent of that information. That is not a very good return on our investment,” Fagen said. “If we, instead, ask students to evaluate, create or invent with their knowledge and skills, their long-term retention rate goes up to about 90 percent. This is an excellent return on investment.”
Sustainable learning looks different, increases student engagement
As a result of this shift, visitors to some Douglas County classrooms may not recognize the learning, because it looks different than when they went to school.
“It might seem a little foreign to them,” explained McPherson. “At times we do get push back from parents who ask, ‘What are you doing? Why isn’t my kid memorizing their multiplication facts? How come you aren’t working on cursive?’”
By infusing lessons with opportunities to connect disciplines and expecting higher level thinking, our students are becoming globally aware, financially literate, creative, adaptable and resilient, collaborative, ethical, problem solvers, critical thinkers and communicators in addition to the foundational knowledge and skills we have focused on in the past.
Yes, students will still learn key knowledge, like multiplication tables, but instead of being the primary focus, it is now integrated as pit stops, along the highway of learning.
“Obviously, kids need to know how to read and write, if they’re going to do research and deliver speeches,” McPherson said. “We’ve just shifted the purpose to the students. We are not just writing an essay for the sake of writing an essay. We are writing an essay because we are doing it because we want to present it to this authentic audience.”
So, along the route, McPherson gauges the needs of her students, pausing groups or sometimes the entire class for what they call “off ramps.” These short tutorials impart important concepts that they might be missing or need work on.
“If we are going to stand up in our suits, dresses and heels to present our speech to an audience, we better know what we’re doing,” McPherson said. “The students understand that when they are presenting to educated adults, it is going to be necessary that we up our ante with sentence structures. As a result, one thing we are going to do is talk about compound and complex sentences and how we can learn how to use those.”
Every student should be pushed to higher-order thinking
At Legend High School, Cari Corley and the students in her math classes call these gaps “holes in the bucket.”
“If we can find the holes in the bucket and get them filled, then we can do higher-order thinking,” Corley explained.
Corley teaches students with moderate needs, including those with mental health challenges and other disabilities. She knows from experience that everyone can get to higher-level thinking; some just need a little extra support.
“The key as teachers is being able to scaffold those skills and help students identify what pieces are getting in the way of their creation,” Corley said. “Even my students that struggle love higher-order thinking, but they often need help identifying what their weaknesses are and as we fill those in, it seems to open their capacity to think creatively and think critically.”
Currently, the students are applying math by creating a business plan for a non-profit organization.
“They each have identified a problem and are now working to create a process to solve it. That is our World Class Outcome (Create a Process to Solve a Problem),” Corley said. “Then we are taking the math we are learning and applying it to that business plan, whether it is through data analysis or financial literacy. It depends on the group’s project.”
Along the way students are picking up content, including how linear relationships work. They will use this knowledge as they evaluate and analyze data collected, in hopes of finding a solution that addresses a problem.
“I’ve got one group that has a lot of data around veterans feeling forgotten,” Corley explained. “They are using math to identify the problem and will use it again as they create a solution.”
Corley says her students, despite their challenges, welcome higher-order thinking because it is engaging and challenging, turning them into “lovers of learning.”
“The biggest thing I hear from them are self esteem statements, ‘I feel smart.’ I can tackle this. I can do this.’ There is some belief in themselves which I think is really powerful,” Corley said. “My big passion is that if we become life long learners and we understand that we can grow our own capacity to learn—then we can do anything. We can change the world.”
VIDEO: Watch Cari Corley, the 2015 Secondary Educator of the Year, in action in her video from the Apple Awards.