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Future of Learning

Learning Occurs at Various Levels of Complexity

The Learning Principles Column
By Dr Karen L. Taylor
Learning Occurs at Various Levels of Complexity

 Photo Source[1]

The opening chapter of Making Thinking Visible (2011), makes reference to going “Beyond Bloom” (p.6). The pyramid shape of Bloom’s taxonomy and its revised version by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) is familiar to us all and, as is the case with many visual images, it triggers something in our memory. The pyramid reminds us of the kinds of thinking that we wish to see and to nurture in our students.[1]

We associate knowledge and skills pyramids with concept-based curricula like that of the IB and the Universal Learning Programme. However, as much as an image can help us to retrieve information stored in our long-term memory, an image may also play a trick on us. We might forget, for example, that the pyramid suggests sequence and hierarchy although thinking occurs on a dynamic continuum. The elements of knowledge and skills pyramids are as interconnected as our cognitive processes and, as Richhart et al. (2011) remind us, “understanding is not a precursor to application, analysis, evaluating and creating but a result of it” (p. 7).

In grappling with the complexity of learning one might say that on the surface level there are facts, information, and simple processes.  On a deeper level, we find complex concepts and universal understandings that emerge from the organization of facts and information. You might think here of Jerome Bruner’s schema. A fact in and of itself is nothing more than a fact. What matters is where it fits into some larger picture. Bruner’s constructivist theory was grounded in a belief that learners develop these schema when processing past knowledge and experience.

So what does all of this mean for our classrooms and our practice? We may have a vision of the factual information and essential skills and processes that are necessary for our students to develop a grasp of abstract concepts and universal understandings. We plan our lessons in consequence. However, there is yet another layer of complexity that derives from the fact that not all our students have the same prior knowledge as we begin that lesson. We need to develop lesson content, learning objectives and assessments that take these differences into account and as Hendrick and Macpherson (2017) suggest, to “choose the proper technique for the relevant expertise level of the learner” (p. 129).

You may tell me that this is wonderful but how does one actually teach in this manner? My example comes from a kindergarten teacher at the International School of Amsterdam named Stephanie Martin whose approach serves as an example of visible thinking.[2] She teaches her students to think in terms of four key questions as they seek to understand patterns. In comparing objects or phenomena the children need to consider:

Form: What is it like?

Function: How does it work?

Connection: How is it like something I have seen before?

Reflection: How do you know?

Once children have assimilated this analytical technique, they have already gone a long way towards the habits of mind that will allow them to continue to deepen their understanding and that will remain applicable as they grow in years and in wisdom.

Not every student in our classes will grasp the technique at the same rate. The presence of such differences among our students means that we also need to nurture an important quality in ourselves: flexibility. We may have entered the classroom with a lesson plan that is beautifully structured. And it may not work the way we anticipated. We are dealing with human beings, after all. And so we find ourselves in the position of having to alter our approach on the spot. This means being sensitive to what is taking place among our students. How are they responding to the lesson? If they do not understand, how can we shift to a different approach and, perhaps, not one that we had considered in carefully planning our lesson the night before, or over coffee on Sunday afternoon? How can we devise a range of questions that will push them further in their thinking?

Things to consider:

  • Do my students engage in more than one kind of thinking in this lesson?
  • Can I identify the kinds of thinking they are engaged in (critical, analytical, evaluative, etc.)? Can they?
  • Do I encourage my students to extend, elaborate and develop their own ideas and/or the ideas of others?
  • Do I check for understanding in different ways before moving on to the next level of learning?

Dr Karen L. Taylor 
s Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecolint. 

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Complete Edition. New York: Longman.

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ecolint (2019). Universal Understanding Guide.

Erickson, H. L., Lanning, L. A., & French, R. (2017). Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom. Corwin.

Eyre, D. (2016). High performance learning: How to become a world class school. Routledge.

Hendrick, C., Macpherson, R., & Caviglioli, O. (2019). What does this look like in the classroom?: Bridging the gap between research and practice. John Catt Educational.

IBO (2019). Big Understanding - Melanie Smith.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. Jossey-Bass.

Sherrington, T. (2020). Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. John Catt Educational


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