A Taxonomy of Reflection: Critical Thinking For Students, Teachers, and Principals (Part 1)

Taxonomy of Reflection by Peter Pappas

My approach to staff development (and teaching) borrows from the thinking of Donald Finkel who believed that teaching should be thought of as “providing experience, provoking reflection.” He goes on to write,

… to reflectively experience is to make connections within the details of the work of the problem, to see it through the lens of abstraction or theory, to generate one’s own questions about it, to take more active and conscious control over understanding. ~ From Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

Over the last few years I’ve led many teachers and administrators on classroom walkthroughs designed to foster a collegial conversation about teaching and learning. The walkthroughs served as roving Socratic seminars and a catalyst for reflection. But reflection can be a challenging endeavor. It’s not something that’s fostered in school – typically someone else tells you how you’re doing! At best, students can narrate what they did, but have trouble thinking abstractly about their learning – patterns, connections and progress. Likewise teachers and principals need encouragement and opportunities to think more reflectively about their craft.

In an effort to help schools become more reflective learning environments, I’ve developed this “Taxonomy of Reflection.” – modeled on Bloom’s approach.  It’s posted in four installments:

1.  A Taxonomy of  Reflection
2. The Reflective Student
3. The Reflective Teacher
4. The Reflective Principal

Taxonomy of Reflection by Peter Pappas

Educator Larry Ferlazzo writes: “I think Peter Pappas’ Taxonomy of Student Reflection is a brilliant way of looking at developing higher-order thinking skills through a new “lens.” It makes Bloom’s Taxonomy much more relevant and engaging to students than so many other Bloom’s strategies that are out there. And it can be an invaluable and simple tool for formative assessment — something that any teacher can regularly use in their classroom that only takes a few minutes. My students and I have used it for the past three years, I’ve strongly recommended it in two books, and prominently highlight Peter’s work in my blog.”

A Taxonomy of Lower to Higher Order Reflection

Assume an individual has just completed a task. What types of questions might they use to reflect on the experience? How might those questions parallel Bloom’s Taxonomy?

Bloom’s Remembering: Retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge from short- or long-term memory.
Reflection: What did I do?

Bloom’s Understanding: Constructing meaning from oral, written, or graphic messages.
Reflection: What was important about what I did? Did I meet my goals?

Bloom’s Applying: Carrying out or using a procedure through executing, or implementing. Extending the procedure to a new setting.
Reflection: When did I do this before? Where could I use this again?

Bloom’s Analyzing: Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose.
Reflection: Do I see any patterns or relationships in what I did?

Bloom’s Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards.
Reflection: How well did I do? What worked? What do I need to improve?

Bloom’s Creating: Combining or reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure.
Reflection: What should I do next? What’s my plan / design?


Note: A thanks to dear friend and colleague Patricia Martin, for sharing her thoughts on this idea.

 Take my Prezi tour of the Taxonomy

Homefront America – Engage Students with Document Based Essential Questions

Update: October 2012: While this lesson is still available as a pdf (see original post below) an expanded version – Why We Fight: WWII and the Art of Public Persuasion - is now available at iBookstore It includes 43 historic posters, 13 rare films, plus numerous communiqués, photographs and recordings. Plus student “stop and think” prompts based on CCSS skills. 

Ride-hitler Recently my post: Essential Question: Who is the Teacher in Your Classroom? drew a response from a teacher looking for a more scaffolded approach to document based instruction. Here’s my response …

Homefront America in WW II (PDF) is designed to improve content reading comprehension with an engaging array of source documents – including journals, maps, photos, posters, cartoons, historic data and artifacts. (One of the central goals of the Common Core standards).
I developed it to serve as a model for blending essential questions, higher order thinking and visual interpretation. I intentionally refrained from explaining the documents, to afford students the chance to do the work of historians. A variety of thinking exercises are imbedded in the lesson to support reading comprehension. Graphic organizers support differentiated activities to assist the students in extracting meaning from the documents.

Hopefully this lesson serves as a model of how to infuse support for literacy into the more typical educational goal of content mastery. But more importantly, it is designed to demonstrate how student engagement can be “powered” by an essential question. 

Instead of attempting to teach the American homefront experience during WWII via the memorization of historical facts (like “victory” gardens), this lesson approaches the same subject through a more timeless question “How did Americans change their lives to support the war effort?”

This essential question invites the students into the material as they draw from their life experience to construct a response. Guiding questions direct students to construct comparisons between the American experience in WWII and the Iraq / Afghanistan war. Moreover, since the events of September 11th, the very notion the “homefront” has been redefined by new perceptions of terrorism and homeland security. 

Instruction is not simply an act of telling, it should instead be centered around creating learning experiences that provoke student reflection. In this lesson, source documents and literacy strategies combine to simultaneously teach content and comprehension. But more importantly, an essential question serves as a springboard to engage students in a deeper reflection on the notion of sacrifice in the historical context and in their own lives.

Scaffolding questions include …

Pre Reading / Think Before You Start: 

Before you begin this lesson,think about and discuss in small groups the following questions: 

  • What resources are needed to wage a war? 
  • How could people on the home front help to supply these resources? 
  • What would you be willing to contribute to a war effort? 

Post Reading / The Question Today: 

Civilians have always been impacted by war and they are frequently called upon to contribute to national war efforts. Since the events of September 11, 2001, the United States has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

  • How have Americans on the homefront contributed to the effort? What have they sacrificed?
  • How do those efforts compare with the home front in WWII? 
  • How did the attacks of September 11 change the nature of the “homefront?”

Teacher-Led PD: 11 Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs

I frequently conduct large-group workshops for an entire school or district. I use a variety of methods (like audience response systems) to create engaging events that model the practices I am promoting. The workshops resonate well with teachers and I am often asked to come back and “do some more.”

My reply is typically something like, “I’m done talking … it’s time to take this training into the classroom – that’s where the teaching is going on. Besides, you need to build your local capacity.” Over the last 3 years I have developed a classroom walk through (CWT) approach that works. When I return to a school my goal is to serve as a catalyst for dialogue that can be self-sustaining (read – no consultant required).

During my return visit I typically lead groups of teachers on brief CWTs in an effort to try to identify the instructional elements that we addressed in our large-group session. For example, if my large group session was on fostering higher-level thinking skills, then our CWT focuses on trying to see if the CWT visitors can answer the question, “What kinds of thinking did student need to use in the lesson segment we just saw?” If the large group session addressed fostering student engagement, then my walk-through reflection might be “What choice did students (appear to) have in making decisions about the product, process or evaluation of the learning?”

If the large group is “the lecture,” the CWT is the “lab.”

The specifics of CWTs are tailored to the school, but  here’s a few of protocols I generally use:

1. CWT groups are kept small  – usually only 2 visitors per classroom. (I guide larger groups of teachers, who break into smaller teams to visit classrooms.)

2. Individual CWT visits usually last 10 minutes or less. No note taking or elaborate checklists to fill out. Just watch and listen with a focus on the learning. The real insights occur when we later process our different perspective about what we thought we saw during the CWT.

3. We rotate a pool of subs (or use planning time) to free up teachers for a series CWT sessions that total about 1-2 hours.

4. Teachers are asked in advance if they want to join the CWT and / or be willing to “host” a visit. No “gotchas” or surprises allowed!

5. All teachers are told in advance that we are not doing CWTs to “evaluate them or their lesson.” Our purpose is to use a brief slice of their lesson as a catalyst for a discussion about learning. I ask teachers who did CWTs to get back to the host teachers later in the day to follow up and assure them that our dialogue was about learning, not “their” teaching.

Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs

1. Staff development should look like what you want to foster in the classroom
CWTs can be conducted like roving Socratic seminars – engaging participants in observation, reflection, and discussion. Isn’t that the perspective we want to foster in our students? – thoughtful learners who are reflecting on their progress. 

2. CWTs relies on local resources not consultants
Typical PD takes place in the isolation from the students. Herd the teachers into a large lecture hall and let some consultant talk at them. Too often the consultant is viewed as a person with a PowerPoint from somewhere else who wants to sell you the solution to your problem. CWTs can be lead by teachers and move the discussion to the reality of the classroom. More importantly, instead of treating teachers as a passive PD audience they are active participants in staff development. 

3. CWTs break through teacher isolation
When I first started teaching 38 years ago, my department chair handed me my class lists and keys and said “Don’t let the kids out ’till the bell rings.” From that day I was on my own and for years I worked in isolation from other adults. Mentoring programs have made great strides with novice teachers since then, but can’t more experienced teachers also benefit from thoughtful discussion and collaboration? 

4. CWTs change the dialogue
Let’s face it, our teachers’ lounges are often dominated with complaints about problem students, annoying parents and the unpopular “reform-du jour” from district office. CWT fosters a different discussion. Teacher gain greater respect for their peers. Conversations move in a positive direction – observing, for example, how that problem student behaves in another classroom setting.

5. CWTs clarify your school’s vision of teaching and learning
We spend all this time crafting a school mission (or is it vision?) statement. Let’s see if it holds up in action. Are students given responsibility for their learning, or are they asked to simply follow instructions? If we believe in life-long learning, then how do the educators dialogue to improve our craft?

6. CWTs foster a K-12 conversation
I often lead K-12 teachers on CWTs at different school levels  – for example, take high school teachers on a CWT of their feeder elementary and middle school (or vice versa). As one high school teacher said to me as we walked out of a fifth grade classroom, “I didn’t realize what these 5th graders are capable of – I think I need to ‘ramp’ it up a bit at the high school.”

7. CWTs are naturally differentiated
Teachers bring a variety of background knowledge and experiences drawn from different disciplines and grade levels. Our discussion are enriched by their varied perspectives and teachers are free to take away the ideas that resonate with them.

8. We can all learn from each other
During a follow up debriefing, a math teacher remarked to our CWT group that she felt stuck in her approach – it was always foundations first, then have students practice with a series of problems. She asked, “how can you reverse the order and use problems to generate foundation understanding?” The PE teacher replied “when I coach the wrestling team, I put students into a new position and ask them to wrestle their way out of it. In doing so, they discover their own understanding of movement, that I later reinforce with techniques that work from that wrestling position.”

9. It models life-long learning to the students
We ask teachers to explain in advance that teachers will be visiting classroom to improve their skills. As one student once remarked to me, “Still learning to teach? Just kidding – it’s cool to see that you teachers keep working on it!” 

10. CWT’s are cost-effective PD
No travel, materials, software, hardware required. With practice, you don’t need the services of an outside consultant. Many of my clients have felt our CWTs were such powerful experiences, that they later continue the CWTs with teachers serving as facilitators.

11. This is PD that is equally valuable for  administrators
All my observation about the value of CWTs apply equally well for training administrators. I have led principals (and other admin) on CWTs and found principals to be eager to refocus their thinking away from the traditional evaluation of teachers to more fundamental reflections on the varied dimensions of learning. 

If you’ve read this far,  you might also like a few other posts:

Lesson Study: Teacher-Led PD That Works  

A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer

The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection 

Essential Questions in American History: “The Great Debates”

Essential Questions in American History_ “The Great Debates”

I developed this series as part of my work with Prentice-Hall supporting Daniel Boorstin’s A History of the United States.

Originally it was suggested that I develop lessons on questions such as “Should slavery be extended into the territories?” I argued that most of these issues had been answered, and that it would be more engaging to frame the debates around essential questions. Thus the typical question – “Should the Constitution be ratified?” became “How powerful should the national government be?” Anyone following the reauthorization of NCLB or the proposed health care legislation knows the enduing relevance of that question.

The Great Debates feature consists of twelve debates, one for every unit of the text. Each of these debates contains an introduction that states the topic of the debate, examines the background of this issue, provides information about both the readings and the debaters, and discusses the debate topic from a contemporary perspective. Units feature the conflicting viewpoints of two or more historical figures or organizations and a worksheet that helps students analyze the debate through a series of comprehension and critical thinking questions. Download all Great Debates here

Essential questions / debates include:

Debate  1: How Should Society Balance the Need for Tolerance with the Need to Protect Itself?
Debate  2: How Powerful Should the National Government Be?
Debate  3: Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?
Debate  4: Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?
Debate  5: How Should Americans Treat the Land?
Debate  6: Has Industrialization Produced More Benefits or More Problems for the Nation?
Debate  7: Should the United States Pursue a Foreign Policy of Isolationism or Interventionism?
Debate  8: What Should the Nation’s Immigration Policy Be?
Debate  9: To What Extent Is the Federal Government Responsible for the Welfare and Security of the Individual?
Debate 10: Is Civil Disobedience Ever Justified as a Method of Political Change?
Debate 11: What Are the Limits of a Free Press?
Debate 12: How Much Should the Nation Invest in Defense?

Defining Creativity – Higher Order Thinking for All Students

Sir Ken Robinson was recently interviewed for  the “Teaching for the 21st Century” issue of Educational Leadership. more

The article “Why Creativity Now? A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson” notes three misconception that people have about creativity.

One is that it’s about special people—that only a few people are really creative. Everybody has tremendous creative capacities. A policy for creativity in education needs to be about everybody, not just a few.

… It’s about special activities. People associate creativity with the arts only. … education for creativity is about the whole curriculum, not just part of it.

… It’s just about letting yourself go… Really, creativity is a disciplined process that requires skill, knowledge, and control. Obviously, it also requires imagination and inspiration…. It’s a disciplined path of daily education.

I agree with Robinson but he defines creativity in a way that I find a bit narrow  ”a process of having original ideas that have value.” I define creating more broadly as “a new combination of old elements.” The distinction between the two definitions is important. As educators we want to move all our students along a full spectrum of Blooms’ Taxonomy. If we want our students to reach the highest level of critical thinking, then we need to be clear on our goals.

Creating requires both a strong foundation in content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in new ways – usually across a variety of disciplines. And it requires using all of Bloom’s skills from remembering through creating. It begins with a firm grasp of the basics and includes analyzing patterns and needs, evaluating alternatives and finally creating something new. When seen as as “a new combination of old elements,” creating is not  limited to the “creative.” It’s something that all students can do, and one of the goals of the new Common Core standrards.

Toy-bath To illustrate the point that all students can create, here’s a photo of my granddaughter, Zoe taken when she was a toddler. I had walked into her room and saw her sitting in a mesh basket used to store her stuffed animals. When I asked her what she was doing, she quickly replied “I have a toy bath.”

Was their “value” in her “creation?”  Probably not.

But don’t try to tell me that this little cutie isn’t creative!