“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.
Part 18: Starting at the Top
Stand the hierarchy of cognitive functions on its head
by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer
earning to exploit the community and environment for your curriculum can be a confusing process. It can be less confusing if you apply the Learning Curve to the structural concepts we’ve been discussing – dimensions of inquiry, student-centered inquiry, effective work groups, etc. – because learning is a process, a developmental process. For instance, when you first start to develop effective work groups, both you and your students are learning them. Once learned, you’ll find that you have to keep in mind that you’ve got it down so well that it is easy to assume a new batch of students has too. To you, because you assimilated the concept, it seems more like common sense than learned content. The word, developmental, is an important one to remember. Lots of us don’t. We teach as if they already knew.
‘Structural concepts’ is a term that is useful to keep in mind. They help you stay on track in your teaching. I’m sure that, like me, you’ve found yourself in a favorite unit, straying away from the plan because where you’re going is such fun. If we keep those structural pieces in mind, we can attach the curricula we’re delivering to them. Some sheetrock here, a window there, and the deck in just this place.
One structural concept is Bloom’s hierarchy of cognitive function, which contains several levels, named and then described: Knowledge – observation and recall of information; Comprehension – understanding information; Application – use information, use methods, concepts, theories in new situations; Analysis – seeing patterns, organization of parts, recognition of hidden meanings, identification of components; Synthesis – use old ideas to create new ones, generalize from given facts, relate knowledge from several areas, predict, draw conclusions; and Evaluation – compare and discriminate between ideas, assess value of theories, presentations, make choices based on reasoned argument, verify value of evidence, recognize subjectivity.
You might have noticed as you move through the hierarchy, there are more and more descriptors. A clear indicator that more and more of the learner’s brain is involved at each successive level. And, the learnings are more meaningful. Many published materials contain words in question stems like, ‘What,’ ‘How,’ and ‘Why,’ in an apparent attempt to stimulate thinking at the various levels in the hierarchy. In fact, I once attended a workshop where the presentor suggested starting multiple choice question stems with words like these to induce critical thinking. Words in question stems don’t do the work of thinking at the various levels; what students do, does. Starting at higher cognitive levels and inquiry dimensions is doable, and a way to stimulate involvement and investment in new learnings. It’s worth learning how to do.
Much of what education does in the US attempts to move students up the hierarchy, perhaps with the idea that when students have all the facts memorized, they’ll be able to evaluate what they’ve learned. But, most curricula ends at the Application level, or if it does reach true Analysis and Synthesis, it is delivered in a didactic modality. We know the words, but don’t incorporate them into our lives because we haven’t done them.
Here’s an interesting way to engage your own learning curve: start, once you’re comfortable with the concept of dimensions of inquiry, at the top right of the cube (See the diagram in Effective Work Groups: When you know them, they will change your world), reserving the lower left corner for training on instruments, etc. This top-down learning is effective, as students begin in a context, and work their way down the cognitive function hierarchy as they develop needs to know.
For instance, you can use temperature and dissolved oxygen in a stream and a lateral channel to start in the upper right, at least to the Correlational segment of the Experimental dimension. Lead students to the stream and ask them to see where water is. They’ll notice the main channel of the stream, but may take a while to notice a lateral channel. Then ask them where they think temperature and dissolved oxygen are more suitable for juvenile salmon. You move to the lower left corner of the diagram by showing them how to measure temperature and dissolved oxygen. Then they will move themselves almost immediately toward the upper right corner as they explore your question. This is how humans learn.
In the activity described above, you have moved from Application to Evaluation. Instead of starting with Knowledge, moving to Comprehension, then to Application, students start at the Evaluation level of the cognitive hierarchy, then migrate through its levels as they pursue their inquiry. Should you observe them carefully, you’d find they were using pieces of each level as they solve the problem they started out with. They don’t have to move in lock step, in one direction, up the hierarchy. They simply integrate the functions of the hierarchy into their repertoire.
Let’s explore a template that may help you reverse the sequence contained in the hierarchy, and so doing, leads to learning for understanding. The template is called the Learning Cycle, another structural concept, and it starts somewhere near the Unstructured and Inquiry dimensions of Inquiry. Instead of learning all about something before they go into the lab, community, or environment to explore it, students explore first, experiencing the content at a higher cognitive level. Let’s use the temperature and dissolved oxygen activity to demonstrate this.
The concept of the learning cycle has evolved over several decades, has generated a large body of data to support its efficacy, and is generally described as having 3-5 phases. I’ll paraphrase five phases here, and describe what students would do in each. The cycle can be used in any discipline; in our case let’s relate it to the stream and lateral channels activity described above. What the students and teacher did fall into the five phases in the order they were done.
- Engage: in which a student engaging in an activity becomes interested in a topic. Students exploring stream channels, main and lateral, become engaged with the content.
- Explore: in which the student to constructs incipient knowledge in the topic through questioning and observation facilitated, but not directed, by the teacher. When students, facilitated by the teacher, pull experiences together to formulate an inquiry question, they begin to construct knowledge and incipient concepts about the content. (This takes time.)
- Explain: in which students explain what they have discovered, and engage in a discussion of the topic to consolidate their understandings. When students assess their questions and design their investigation, they negotiate the meaning of their new understandings, testing their understanding of them as their plan evolves.
- Extend: in which students apply what they have learned and elaborate these new skills and understandings. As they collect data and analyze it, students are applying what they have learned about measuring temperature and dissolved oxygen in parts of the main and lateral channels they have chosen. As they work, they are elaborating their incipient understandings about temperature and dissolved oxygen in response to readings from the two microenvironments, and are observing and categorizing more details of the two channels. Doing this, they begin to develop incipient conceptual schemata about main and lateral channels They also encounter problems in knowing just where to sample, and are learning new information about how temperature and dissolved oxygen change in the two microenvironments.
- Evaluate (may now be evolving to ‘Create’): in which the teacher and students assess their knowledge, skills, and understandings. Students present their findings to the class. This forces them to assess the coherence and validity of their new learnings. When students interpret their data and ask if it answers their question, they are ground-truthing and clarifying their understandings. As they communicate their findings to the rest of the class, they are observing and correcting themselves, as is the teacher, within a collegial context. (If you’ve never done this, you’ve missed a very powerful experience. Find a teacher who does this and visit when students are communicating findings.
During the trajectory of the stream and lateral channel study, the ownership of the work migrated from the teacher to the student. The teacher must get them into contact with the content, then follow up on their initial findings to assist them to develop a clear inquiry question. After this, they carry most of the load, and you can scope and zoom to learn more about how this kind of learning works. Remind yourself if you forget, a brain is an autonomous learning machine. It starts in the real world, where it evolved, then moves to the abstract, to conceptual learnings. Back at school, those brains will peruse the books to fill in information they need to know. They learn.
Next time, we’ll take a trip from the end of an inquiry to its inception. Working backwards is a good way to nail down understandings.
This is the eighteenth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”