Self-Initiated Cognitive Activity

The education world is full of acronyms for educational practices. I have one that I would like to promote. SICA: Self Initiated Cognitive Activity.

We know that self-initiation is an important quality for everyone to have to be successful in life. We should design activities in school that promote such behavior. Every day we hear about how entrepreneurship is the wave of the future—or is it the present? Every “self-made” millionaire required self-initiation.

And cognitive means thinking. If education is not meant to help students think better, then I don’t know what it is for!

Cognitive learning theory and even recent brain research has demonstrated how learning is enhanced when the learner is actively engaged in their own learning process, rather than being a passive recipient of knowledge from someone else.

This leads us to the obvious conclusion that school activities that are designed with student initiation and that engaging them in heads on, hands on activities, need to be centerpieces of our curriculum.

So, what are such activities you might ask? A simple word for such activities that you may be familiar with is … play! According to the best researchers and psychologists, play engages children—and adults too—in self –initiated cognitive activity in ways that foster their cognitive, social, emotional and even physical development. While most of what you see and read in the literature regarding the role of play in learning is about early childhood education, the truth is it is really almost as important at any age.

Ask any inventor or serious scientist and I bet you they will tell you they used to “tinker” and play around, taking things apart, putting things together, and just “fooling around” with stuff from a young age. I recently read that that is what some companies look for in the scientists or engineers they hire—more than good grades in school—is those tinkerers.

 play

So, if you are a teacher or other educator, find time to allow your students to engage in play, of whatever form. If your supervisor asks you what they are doing, tell him or her that they are engaged in the latest research-based best-practice of SICA.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

On the theme of popular ideas that I feel a need to critique….

Bloom’s taxonomy has been around for a long time as an aid to teachers, presented as a hierarchy of sophistication of thinking. I was first introduced to it when I started teaching in the 1980s. The college where I currently teach asks all of their instructors to keep it in mind when developing and teaching their courses.

I have two central problems with Bloom’s taxonomy, both of which I will discuss. Then I will mention how it can be used positively.

First of all, when I have used Bloom’s list, or the new revised list, to analyze a lesson and to think about which categories are being tapped into, I find it hard to pigeonhole activities or questions. My teacher education students and I often find that we can put the same questions into multiple categories depending on how we interpret them. In other words, real ideas and lessons do not seem to fit neatly into these categories, and getting agreement on categories is not intuitive, making them less useful. For instance the top of the six categories is: Creating, putting information together in innovative ways. But “Applying” (third level from bottom) on one chart I am reading is listed as using the knowledge gained (level 2) in new ways. What is the difference between applying knowledge in a new way and being creative or innovative?

TeachingFads

A bigger problem I have with Bloom’s taxonomy is that they are presented as a hierarchy, and Bloom meant them that way. In this hierarchy the first stage is knowledge or remembering. In other words, rote learning comes first. The next level, understanding, is that then we learn the meaning of what we memorized. Next we learn to apply the knowledge. After that we can analyze it—break it into parts. Then we can judge it. And finally we can use it creatively. For instance, I was told by someone instructing college professors that they would not get to the highest category with undergraduates, but should reserve that for graduate students!

If Bloom’s taxonomy were used just as a taxonomy—in other words a description of different types of thinking, I can see them as interesting and possibly useful. But generally they are used in the former way as developmental steps to be gone through, as Bloom designed them to be used.

My experience in elementary school bears this out. The “low achievers” and “remedial students” we are told first need to get the basics, and they are given tasks that focus on rote memorization, factual recall and following instructions. The “advanced” or “gifted” students are given assignments that allow them to be creative and analytical. They are asked to evaluate the characters in the story, to do the creative extension activities, and in math they get to do the extra “thinking” problems in the textbook.

This hierarchical idea of thinking ignores what Piaget demonstrated so long ago. Even babies are engaged in all levels of this taxonomy, and the different forms work together synergistically not separately. Learning by rote is the most inefficient way to learn. We are more likely to remember something when it has meaning attached to it. Then even more likely when we apply the knowledge, which is why hands-on and authentic activities are so often recommended. I would want most of the activities that students are engaged in at school to have them using all of these levels of thinking as they carry them out.

Any kindergarten teacher will tell you her kindergartners are creative. In fact there is some research that shows that we actually become less creative and innovative as we progress through school, less able to see the world in new and novel ways, not more so. I hope we do not wait until our students are in graduate school before we let and encourage them be innovative again, the way they naturally were as children.

It is possible to use Bloom’s taxonomy in a positive way. For instance, we create a teaching unit (level 6). We can analyze our unit to see it if includes all the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (level 4). We apply the unit as we carry out our lessons (level 3), for which we must have understanding and knowledge of our content and pedagogy (levels 1 & 2). As we go along and at the end we evaluate the unit and how it went (level 5).

For a full look at this whole idea of teaching children to think, one should read Franks Smith’s book, To Think.