Putting Understanding First

a.k.a. Starting Higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy

In my science courses I am working on re-framing the current curriculum into an inquiry framework.  Often, the emphasis in planning & instruction is placed on the acquisition of background knowledge with higher order thinking being something optional at the end of a unit.  Drawing on the work of Karen Hume, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Cindy Strickland, Faye Brownlie and many others it seems to me that starting with, and emphasizing, higher order questions at the beginning of a unit of study increases student engagement AND not only results in students learning more content, but also having a more meaningful context for learning content.

The following two articles have reinforced this for me.

1) Put Understanding First – Wiggins & McTighe (May 2008)

Rethinking Instructional Sequence

When meaning making and transfer assume greater prominence in the curriculum, the sequence of learning events takes on a new significance. Most high schools, aided and abetted by textbooks that stress acquisition almost to the exclusion of the other two aims, have a propensity to cover lots of content before allowing students to use that content in authentic situations. This approach, based on a climb-the-ladder, step-by-step model of cognition, may be well intentioned, but it reveals a fundamentally flawed conception of learning. Research in cognitive psychology (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2001) challenges the notion that students must learn all the important facts and basic skills before they can address the key concepts of a subject or apply the skills in more complex and authentic ways. And all we need to do is look at how people learn sports, art, or their first language to recognize that this view is flawed.

Sadly, the climb-the-ladder approach may have the greatest negative impact on lower-achieving students. Struggling high school students are often confined to a regimen of excessive teacher talk, rote memorization of discrete facts, and mind-numbing skill-drill worksheets. The unfortunate reality is that some students will never get beyond the first rung of the coverage ladder, with its isolated and uninteresting approach to content; they will therefore have minimal opportunities to engage in and actually use what they are learning in a meaningful way. (And we wonder why these students aren’t motivated!)

Teaching for Meaning & Transfer

If transfer, meaning, and acquisition are all fundamental goals of high school instruction, what is the role of the teacher? To support these goals, teachers can weave together these three instructional approaches Mortimer Adler describes in The Paideia Program (1984)

These three instructional approaches are: Direct Instruction, Facilitation, and Coaching.

2) Do-students-need-to-learn-lower-level-factual-and-procedural-knowledge-before-they-can-do-higher-order-thinking?   Scott McLeod (Feb 2012)

So what?

The problem with taking a sequential approach to Bloom’s taxonomy is that many students – especially those from traditionally-underserved populations – rarely, if ever, get to engage in the ‘higher-level’ thinking work that is critically necessary these days. Instead, they remain mired in the ‘lower-level’ thinking domains, doomed to a steady diet of decontextualized fact nuggets and procedural regurgitation.

What is advocated as a foundational floor instead becomes a rigid ceiling in practice, thus negatively impacting student engagement and interest, knowledge retention and procedural mastery, dropout and graduation rates, workforce preparation needs, and so on.


About J Martens

Educator living in Vancouver and working in SD37 Delta. Supporting Numeracy while learning how formative assessment, literacy, inquiry, and technology serve to improve learning and increase engagement (for teachers & students).
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4 Responses to Putting Understanding First

  1. David Wees says:

    Seymour Papert discussed this same idea. Put the work first, and the students will feel more motivation to learn the skills necessary to complete it. Motivation is such a key idea in learning, and it is so often ignored.

    • David Wees says:

      I should also say that he says that we learn through doing the work, from completing a project. I reread what I posted and it reads like I’m suggesting that the entire purpose of the work is to motivate learning. It’s not. The work is the learning.

      • J Martens says:


        I agree. The work is the learning. I find that educators have two key challenges in making the shift (perhaps you could identify a third or fourth!)
        #1 moving away from content to process and trusting that the important content will be learned as needed for the “work”
        #2 moving away from evaluating the student and moving into ongoing assessment of the process (assessment that moves the learning forward)

        Both challenges require a shift in mindset and focused professional learning.
        Here’s a comprehensive example of what that professional learning could look like –> http://www.noii.ca/PDF/spiral/spiral-2012.pdf

  2. Pingback: Just Saying… | Renovating My Classroom

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