Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Return of Synthesis: Connecting Critical and Creative Thinking

When Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl (2001) revised the cognitive categories of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy, we might have gained a simpler way to teach, but our students lost an essential skill to learn.
Anderson and Krathwohl completely revamped this instructional framework we educators we have traditionally used to establish our learning goals and outcomes.  The key shifts in their revised taxonomy were the following:
  • The Cognitive Domain was split into two dimensions - the Knowledge Dimension and the Cognitive Process Dimension.
  • Knowledge was replaced with the cognitive actions of .  The subcategories of Knowledge from the original taxonomy were combined into four categories within the Knowledge Domain: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive.  In 2014, Walkup and Jones expanded this domain by adding three more levels - relevant, deep, and communicative - as part of their definition of the concept of cognitive rigor.
  • The names of the categories of the Cognitive Process Domain from conceptual nouns to cognitive verbs.   Comprehension became Understanding.  Synthesis was renamed Creating. In addition, creating became the highest level in the classification system, switching places with evaluating. The revised version is now remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating in that order.  Anderson and Krathwohl also shifted the order of the categories, moving evaluate down a level and making create the pinnacle of the taxonomy.
 The revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy is truly a much more effective and user-friendly model.  It is more directive and explicit.  It also is much more applicable in developing  benchmark standards that clearly state what the student will be able to do by the end of a particular grade level. It also is beneficial in setting performance objectives for what the student will do as part of a learning experience.  It also can be used in setting encouraging and personal learning targets that state what I can and what we will do by the end of a unit or lesson.
However, the drawback of the revision is that it removed a key cognitive category that is essential for our students to demonstrate and communicate as part of their learning.
Synthesis was the cognitive category in the original taxonomy that addressed how students can put new information together to produce an original work - a plan, a product, or a project.  It was also the category which we educators addressed and referred when we wanted our students to demonstrate their ability to create.  When we tasked our students to build, create, design, develop, draw, plan, produce, or write something, we would state how The learner will demonstrate synthesis of whatever concept or procedure they were learning and complete the objective by stating what exactly they would do.
However, synthesizing is actually more synonymous to understanding and applying than creating.   Synthesis involves combining ideas and allowing an evolving understanding of text (Fries-Gaither, 2010).  Students are challenged to put pieces together and seeing them in a new way . Essentially, synthesizing is understanding and applying at a higher level.   Synthesizing involves both critical and creative thinking.  It involves students in processing what they have learned to form a new idea, perspective, or opinion or to generate insight (Bumgarner, 2016).   However, what distinguishes synthesizing from analyzing and evaluating is that the knowledge and thinking they demonstrate and communicate is more metacognitive and personal.  These are the conclusions, decisions, opinions, perspectives, and thoughts they have developed and drawn based upon the information they have learned.  They use the factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge they have acquired and gathered as examples and evidence to strengthen and support their thinking.
Synthesizing, however, is not the same as creating.  Creating involves designing, developing, or doing something physical that reflects and represents students' skills and talents.  For example, develop and use a model or produce a plan, project, or product.   Students synthesize by processing what they have learned into a personal argument, choice, claim, conclusion, decision, opinion, perspective, or point of view they can defend with credible information.   They create something to that will reflect and represent not only their thinking but also their talent.
Synthesizing is affective as well as cognitive in that involves processing learning to produce opinions, perspectives, or thoughts fueled by evidence, examples, and emotion.  In fact, synthesizing is what engages students in the affective actions of the Affective Domain of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.   The following graphic shows how synthesizing  guides students through how we internalize what we are learning into personal insight.
  • Receiving: Students receive factual, conceptual, and procedural information about who, what, where, when, how, and why.  This occurs as they demonstrate and communicate the ability to and evaluate the ideas, information, texts, techniques, themes, and topics they are reading and reviewing.
  • Responding:  Students process the information into personal or self-knowledge when they show and tell how do you transfer and use what they have learned to attain and explain answers, outcomes, results, and solutions.   They also engage in strategic thinking and problem solving by showing and telling how would you and what they have learned  to address and respond to academic and real world circumstances, issues, problems, and situations.
  • Valuing: Students use what thay to make and defend decisions using the personal or self-knowledge they have developed.  This is when students engage in argumentative thinking, establishing claims and conclusions about do you think.... or should... and making choices about whether do you agree or disagree...  This is an essential category within the Affective Domain - and with synthesizing - because it engages students to develop and demonstrate disciplinary literacy, the ability to examine, explore, and explain ideas and information in the subject areas.
  • Organizing:  Students show and tell how they can use the personal knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed in different hypothetical scenarios, settings, and situations.  They demonstrate and communicate conditional and contextual thinking by addressing and respond what do you do when.  They also demonstrate and communicate creative thinking by showing and telling what would you do if.  This is also when students begin to develop and demonstrate expert thinking, showing and telling how they would personally use what they have learned in any context.
  • Characterizing: This is the highest level of synthesizing, where their knowledge and thinking defines and describes a student's identify as a learner and a scholar.  They take what they have learned and express what do you believe, feel, or think.  They share what is your opinion, perspective, or thoughts.  Most importantly, they take what's academic and even abstract and use it to explain who are you as a learner in a particular subject area.
Since college and career readiness is marked and measured by cognitive rigor and cognitive rigor challenges and engages students to demonstrate higher order thinking and communicate depth of knowledge, perhaps it is a wise decision to bring synthesis back as a separate cognitive category within Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.   It should be positioned between the categories of evaluate and create.  This will be the cognitive category where students will write and present argumentations and express and share their attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about what they are learning.  
Here is a redesign of the Bloom's Questioning Inverted Pyramid I designed that can be used to develop good questions that promote cognitive rigor.  Notice where is placed and what distinguishes its question stems from the ones that challenge and engage students .  This establishes a more definitive connection and progression between critical and creative thinking.
Next year, when you're teaching and learning for cognitive rigor, be sure to include educational experiences that challenge and engage students to synthesize by asking good questions that ask what do you believe, feel, or think; how do you; how can you could, or how would you .  Then ask them what can you design, develop, or do to express that reflects and represents their talent and thinking.
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning is now available from ASCD.
For more information on this topic or how to receive professional development at your site, please visit www.maverikeducation.com.

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