Earlier this month Ed. Week published this  fascinating commentary by two Stanford scholars.   Bloom’s taxonomy, they explain, is often presented as a pyramid students must ascend, from knowledge at the base to analysis, then synthesis, and finally evaluation at the summit. This is a traditional or conventional view of learning– that we must begin with the facts, and “pour knowledge in” to the vessel of a student’s mind, storing up knowledge until the student is ready to (finally!) begin to be able to analyze and evaluate.

This blog regularly argues a different approach– that students will learn best and learn most by beginning with the problem, by beginning with the evaluation.

The knowledge we master best comes when we are seeking to solve a problem or analyze a difficult question.  As adults it is the same:  we don’t just stuff ourselves with facts that we hope later to have some use of, but we develop deep mastery of subject areas as we work to solve problems and address issues in those areas.

The Stanford scholars explain that Bloom himself never used a pyramid, and never meant to convey a progression of learning from knowledge to evaluation.  They go on to explain, brilliantly I think, that:

There was only one problem. The pyramid was upside down—at least for the history classroom.

Knowledge of history, as those taxonomic pyramids imply, can function as a platform upon which students can stand to make judgments. But just as math is about more than learning theorems, history is about more than collecting facts. It is also a discipline that requires piecing together an accurate story from incomplete fragments. Historical thinkers begin by asking questions, evaluating what they don’t know in pursuit of their ultimate aim: knowledge.

Without question, plugging up gaping holes in students’ background knowledge is how many savvy history teachers begin each new unit. But many teachers we interviewed assumed that learning the kind of information found in worksheets paves the way to higher-order thinking. That isn’t what we’ve observed.

The commentary goes on to lay out a fascinating anecodote of how a strong and successful high school student responds to an 1892 Presidential “Discover Day” speech about Columbus as a symbol of progress.  Jacob, as they say is typical, was able to read the speech and see that it praised Columbus for progress, and then Jacob effectively offered a critique of Columbus and the idea of his symbolizing progress.   Not bad, Jacob, they say.

But what does a historian do with a document like this?  History graduate students take a startlingly different tack, we learn:

From the start, it was clear what the young historians were doing differently. As one began his reading: “OK, it’s 1892.” The advantage they had was the ability to think historically about the documents.   Our high school student Jacob knew the story of Columbus. But he didn’t know how to read a document as the product of a particular time and place. To the historians, critical thinking didn’t mean assembling facts and passing judgment; it meant determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.

Why, the young historians wanted to know, did Harrison make this particular declaration at this particular moment? Over and over, as they puzzled through the document, they asked “why?” In our dozens of interviews with high school students, not a single one ever did so.

I am struck by this, because it illustrates the significance of asking questions first, of inquiring deeply into facts presented, and then developing knowledge from this process.  (We often are saying these days that we need to teach our students to inquire, to question, but this advice sometimes seems abstract to me, and this anecdote gives terrific flesh and flavor to powerful questioning).   But more, I am struck because this story exactly parallels a demonstration lesson I saw a (fabulous!) St. Gregory teacher give a few weeks ago.   Just as Jacob was asked to do, Dr. Michelle Berry’s students are asked to take a text from a given year and interrogate it.  The project is not just to understand the content of the document, but to draw inferences about the era in which it was written, and then bring those inferences back to derive greater understanding of the true significance of the text.    Interpretation and evaluation doesn’t follow and doesn’t come from the acquisition of knowledge, but vice versa.

To the historians, questions began at the base of the pyramid: “What am I looking at?” one asked. “A diary? A secret communiqué? A government pronouncement?” They wanted to know when it was written and what else was going on at the time. For them, critical thinking meant determining the knowledge they needed to better understand the document and its time. Faced with something unfamiliar, they framed questions that would help them understand the fullness of the past. They looked up from the text curious, puzzled, and provoked. They ended their reading with new questions, ready to learn. The high school students, on the other hand, typically encountered this document and issued judgments. In doing so, they closed the book on learning.

For the history classroom, the pyramid posters need to be turned upside down, locating knowledge at the peak of the pyramid and not at its base. That’s because in history, as in other disciplines, the aim is not merely to collect what is known, but to learn how to think about problems in a new way. Students who think historically know that they need to begin with analysis: What is this? Who wrote it? What time does it come from?

And, just as important, they know that their destination—new knowledge—isn’t critical thinking’s base camp. It’s the summit.