Apps and Thinking Levels

An educator shares lessons learned from two decades of teaching.

GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Fisher

CREDIT YouTubeBack in 2009, my colleague Paula White and I created a Bloom’s Pyramid of Web 2.0 tools, sorting and parsing digital applications into different thinking levels. It sparked a conversation, a really good conversation, about the metacognitive actions that go into how a tool is being used as well as the importance of the task behind it.

What we did back then was okay, albeit naive, and now that we know better, we should do better. 

Almost immediately, it was apparent that we did this wrong (which we found out as we conversed and thought this through with our Digital PLN!). What we discovered as this unfolded is that applying Bloom’s Thinking levels or Webb’s Depths of Knowledge was not nearly as neat as it seemed to be. We were taking a hierarchy designed for questioning and assessment and applying it to tools in too novel a way. It was a misapplication at best, but it was also a deep learning moment. It showed us how not to do something. One of the biggest things I’ve learned being an educator in these last two decades is that anything easy isn’t going to be worth a whole lot. That which challenges us, grows us.

Since 2009, despite the misapplication, the images we created have been copied, remixed, recreated, added to, expanded, and more. I’ve even seen the original pyramid as a poster in schools around the country and the original blog post inspired ongoing conversations, a website, and even an extension into how to assess. You can read the original blog post here, and see different versions of the images Paula and I created here. The wiki we created at the time is still online, too, if you want to see how some of this conversation unfolded and the actions around it. (Check the section “Ideas for the Visual” for some of the really cool ideas that were shared.)

Despite its popularity at the time, and its multiple iterations and remixes online since, the same flaw still exists: assigning a web tool or app a placement in a cognitive hierarchy is pretty much useless. It does not represent the intention of critical thinking in any form, whether it’s Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels. Whatever hierarchy or system is being used to parse out web tools into leveled gradations is being used in the wrong way.

The real critical thinking revolves around understanding how to use a Web tool or app at all of the levels. All of the charts and images are cute, but they don’t represent a real transfer of thinking at the associated level. This is also not necessarily something that is the teacher’s job to determine for students. It’s an incredible opportunity for students to be able to show multiple levels of thinking about the tools they’ll use and the creative and divergent ways in which they will use them.

Parsing the tools into levels is limiting. It encapsulates learning into neat little boxes we continually tell students to work outside of. It creates a check-off system of what is done with a particular web tool versus an opportunity for deeper learning.

If you’re using tools at an isolated level or if you printed out a poster of the original image or perhaps you didn’t think about a more expansive version of Bloom’s and web tools, consider going deeper.

The real depth of thinking around this can be explored by asking these two questions:

1. What is an app that is good for learning?

2. In what ways can we learn using that app?

This invites an opportunity for the engagement of all levels of thinking, certainly the cognitive, but also the mid-levels of application and analysis and eventually moving toward the creation of something new.

Let’s take YouTube, for example. We can engage the cognitive domain by using YouTube the way we use Google: to search for relevant resources. Finding videos that represent content we wish to learn about is a lower level skill. Using YouTube’s tools to create a list of similar videos is a bit more sophisticated. Beyond that, students can consider comments, number of hits, likes/dislikes, etc. to decide the level of quality of a video on YouTube. Eventually the students would move from consumer to producer and create content to upload to YouTube, inviting and exemplifying the multiple ways in which YouTube can be used for learning and assessment.

Leveling Web tools and apps represents past-thinking. Understanding how the tools and apps live on multiple levels represents future-thinking. What we did back then was okay, albeit naive, and now that we know better, we should do better.

Michael Fisher is a former teacher who is now a full-time author, consultant, and instructional coach. A member of both the ASCD Faculty and the Curriculum 21 Faculty, he is also an active blogger who writes often for the Curriculum 21 Blog and ASCD’s EDge Social Network. His website is The Digigogy Collaborative and he can also be found on Twitter as @fisher1000 He is the author of Digital Learning Strategies: How do I assign and assess 21st Century Work? and the co-author of Upgrade Your Curriculum: Practical Ways to Transform Units and Engage Students, both published by ASCD. He is also a contributing author to the Solution Tree series Contemporary Perspectives on Literacy.

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