Can you imagine a classroom where all students think and learn at high levels and demonstrate clear depth of understanding?

The classroom described above does exist beyond the limits of our imagination and can become a reality when teachers use instructional strategies that engage students and both encourage and demand the use of critical thinking. What we are essentially discussing is how teachers can increase the cognitive demand in their classroom. Stein, Smith, Henningsen, and Silver (2000) define Cognitive Demand as, “The kind and level of thinking required of students in order to successfully engage with and solve the task.” Recall Bloom’s Taxonomy. In the 1990s, a group of cognitive researchers revised the technology to better fit educational practices in the 21st century, to increase the cognitive demand. Their work eventually increased the cognitive demand at the higher levels of the taxonomy. First the nouns (i.e. comprehension, analysis) were changed to verbs (i.e. understanding, analyzing). Next, the categories were reorganized to reflect more precision.

Teachers can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to increase the cognitive demand in a myriad of ways. First, throughout a unit/lesson, teachers can use the levels to develop learning objectives that reflect all levels of the taxonomy. Once the objectives are written to demand higher levels of cognitive demand, teachers can write assessments and instructional/learning activities that align to the objective and, therefore, increase the cognitive demand. Through this process, teachers can also use the taxonomy to reflect on their own instruction. They can ask questions like, “What will students learn from this lesson?” (Remembering) or “How will I measure my students’ ability to think at various levels of cognitive demand?” (Evaluating). In other words, how can I measure my students’ ability for critical thinking, “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”?

Bloom’s Taxonomy is not the only tool for increasing cognitive demand in the classroom. Norman Webb, a mathematics educator and senior research scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the National Institute of Science Education, first identified in 1997 (and revised in 2002) a hierarchy to the complexity of objectives and tasks known as Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK). The hierarchy levels are as follows:

  • DOK1: Recollection & Reproduction
  • DOK2: Basic Application
  • DOK3: Strategic Thinking
  • DOK4: Extended Thinking

One key difference between Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is that while teachers often select various levels along the taxonomy at different points in a unit or lesson, Webb’s DOK is intended to be a guide. Teachers should follow all four levels with each goal or objective. Students should first be able to recall or reproduce information, apply it, use it strategically, and eventually be able to extend their thinking beyond what has been taught. Researcher Karin Hess created Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix, which applies Webb’s DOK to Bloom’s Cognitive Process Dimensions. The tool allows teachers to follow Webb’s DOK while strategically hitting various levels of cognitive demand along Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Now that we’ve discussed the pedagogy, let’s get into the methods. Once we write the objectives and develop the assessments using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s DOK, how can we create instructional/learning activities that promote critical thinking?

Inquiry-based learning is a process where students start with an essential question (often but not always supplied by the teacher) and then develop their own questions stemming from the essential question. Once students have questions to answer, students should be allowed to research answers to their questions and present their research in a way best suited to their task and learning style.

Socratic Seminars are formal discussions based on a text. This text can be either fiction or nonfiction but the key is that students are using the text as a basis for their discussion. The discussion is led by a student who asks the group open-ended questions. The participants must comment on the question and further the discussion with their own questions and synthesis/analysis. The discussion can center around the text itself or can use the text to solve an authentic or real-life problem.

Project-based learning will increase the cognitive demand in the classroom because students will gain knowledge as they work for an extended period of time to respond to an authentic task, question, or challenge.

Finally, collaborative learning and problem-solving are two other methods that can increase the cognitive demand in the classroom. We call on higher-order thinking when solving complex problems, and it takes great metacognitive skill to work in a collaborative environment.

A pattern emerges as you review the methods that educators use to increase cognitive demand in their classroom—all of the methods mimic how adults interact with knowledge and each other in authentic environments. We often learn because we have a question we want to answer or a skill or concept that engages our thinking. We work collaboratively at our jobs and are regularly tasked with solving problems. Teachers who work to increase cognitive demand in their classroom are providing their students an opportunity to learn skills and knowledge that will benefit the far beyond their classroom academic life.

How do you increase the cognitive demand in your classroom? How do you support critical thinking and collaboration among your students? Please share your favorite lessons, strategies, or resources in the comments below.