How High Is the Bar, Really?

How High Is the Bar, Really?

What Real High Performance Looks Like  in the April 2017 issue of Kappan magazine addressed the all-too-common practice in classrooms of teaching content at a cognitively low level – even in schools labeled “high performing.”  The researchers found that in most classrooms, teachers taught the same three skills:  recall, application, and occasionally analysis.  As one of the researchers put it:

Although we’ve known for decades, based on research that classrooms tend to focus on lower-level cognitive skills, we were shocked that this pattern remains so strong, even in schools considered among the very best.”

Many districts include teaching higher-order thinking skills or critical thinking skills in either their mission, their policies or their instructional model.  Sometimes all three. But the actual incidence of complex thinking being modeled and required in the classroom doesn’t always tally with the desires of the district. Tests like PARCC and Smarter Balanced require considerably more complex thought than prior tests – a degree of complexity that will find students unprepared for success on those exams. Ironically, procedural complexity (lots of complicated steps) and additional content (more stuff) can often masquerade as “higher-order thinking.” The tasks tied to the steps or the stuff are still at the lowest levels of cognition. This is beautifully explained in the article, and is something we encounter on audits all the time:  just using the words “analyze” or “analysis” doesn’t necessarily mean that analysis (or any other higher-order thinking) is occurring.

One of the lenses CMSi uses in the Curriculum Management Audit to determine if the degree of cognitive demand is aligned with the demands of the tests in use is identical to the methods employed by the researchers in this article:  we collect student work artifacts.  These are the activities teachers design to help students master the content. We then examine those artifacts to see whether the context (how the student is required to demonstrate mastery) and the cognition (the level of cognitive demand) are the same as those the student will encounter on the test.  In general, we would have to say our experiences mirror those of the researchers:  the degree of complex thinking is neither as high nor as prevalent as most district leaders would like.

This is why we offer trainings like Cognitively Complex Instruction and Resource Alignment and Examining Student Work – to assist principals and teachers in including the kind of higher-order thinking skills they want their students to have.  The ability to look at what students are being asked to do in the classroom and what they are being asked to do on high-stakes tests and determine whether the former prepares them adequately for the latter is an invaluable tool for educators, as is ensuring that all students are provided with instruction that actually incorporates those more demanding levels.

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