Hands-On in the Mind

Hands-On in the Mind

By Mark A. Forget

I recently shared some ideas with a group of career-technical education teachers at a conference in Nashville. The theme of the workshop was Motivating CTE Students to Read Challenging Text: Doing “Hands-On” in the Mind. In the workshop, which was near the end of a long day, I noted to the participating educators that what we were doing was not too different from a seventh period class, where students might have already expended a good deal of energy in earlier classes, and that it might be a bit more difficult to motivate them. Nevertheless, I began to model behaviors that I have used with students for years—behaviors that motivate through engagement.

After a few introductory remarks about Benjamin Bloom’s original research on problem solving that led to the creation of the taxonomy of objectives for which he is so famous, and about the role played by higher-order thinking in helping people to learn subject matter, I could see several eyelids drooping, as I had anticipated might occur. Then I asked each of the participants to make some predictions on an anticipation guide, a piece of paper that included seven conjectures about “how students learn most effectively.” After having committed to agreeing or disagreeing with each of the statements, the participants were asked to discuss the reasons why they chose the way they did on the anticipation guide. After a few minutes of discussions in small groups, I asked them to read silently from a short excerpt from my book, MAX Teaching with Reading and Writing (2004), as they sought evidence to support or negate their predictions. Having been engaged in discussion, the droopy eyes were no longer evident. Each person took to the text to find evidence for his or her thinking. It was pin-drop quiet in the room for about ten minutes, with everyone engaged in reading and gathering evidence to support their thinking.

After sufficient time for reading, participants were placed in small groups and asked to attempt to come to a consensus as to which of the seven items on the guide should be considered to be validated by the text (combined with their own prior knowledge of course). The ensuing discussions were highly active, with participants citing various ideas from the text and from their own experiences with their CTE students. When one group had achieved a consensus, I wrote their conclusions onto the screen in the front of the room, suggesting that the next step in the process was to try to achieve a whole-class consensus. Immediately some teachers disagreed with one of the conclusions drawn by the group whose ideas I had placed on the screen. The discussion went back and forth from one group to another, with teachers excitedly citing various parts of the text to make their points. The atmosphere in the room was quite emotional as they argued over what each word meant, and how such ideas would apply in their own classrooms. After several people had made a variety of debating points from virtually every group in the room, we amended the statement by substituting one word, altering a couple of others, and adding a phrase to clarify the idea. At this point there was a “classroom” consensus. And there was enough emotion in the room to cut it with a knife!

It was at this time that I pointed out to them how engaged they all appeared. I think many were stunned by the fact that they forgot how tired they were at the end of a long day, and had become so enthralled with the arguments/discussions in which they were involved that they hadn’t noticed how time flies when you are having fun highly engaged. It was nearly time for the session to end, and not a person had left the room, nor were any appearing drowsy. Just the opposite was obvious to everyone present. I reminded them at this point that what they had been engaged in was problem-based learning, not to be confused with project-based learning, but not unrelated either.

Project-based learning is the practice of engaging students in seeking answers to a central question or solving a real-world problem through their own research, experiments and ideas. This process often culminates in some type of work project that leads to a product, such as a live or written presentation, a demonstration, or the creation of some invention or artwork. Proponents of project-based learning say that when it is done right, students may be learning history, economics, science, or math by working hands-on.

Problem-based learning, done properly, is similar to project-based learning in the required thinking, but involves a much shorter-term process, usually within a class period. The product—insofar as there is a product—is likely to be some sort of evidence in the form of individual and/or group writing that will lead to discussion or debate. Problem-based learning relies on the use of ill-structured problems that have the three characteristics of 1) needing more information than is offered in the problem, 2) allowing for multiple interpretations both before and after the reading, and 3) requiring higher-order thinking in order to come to some resolution. So, problem-based learning is essentially a mini-version of project-based learning, and it is easier to generate than one might think.

Though there are many techniques to create a problem-based learning situation in the classroom, one of my favorites is through the use of an anticipation guide. Every well-made anticipation guide has at least one or two statements that create ill-structured problems. Thus students—in this case, teachers in a workshop—have a need to find out more information based on their own personal interpretation of the statements. Partly as a result of pre-reading small-group discussions, each person went into the reading thinking, “I know I am right, and I know s/he is not, and I am going to find information that supports my thinking!”

When I do this sort of modeling for teachers, it is my hope that they see the effectiveness of the activity and will want to use it with their own students, provoking similar thinking behaviors, before, during, and after they read. What many may not know is that research resulting in development of the six tiers of thinking known as Bloom’s Taxonomy was based, in part, on observations in problem-solving settings, comparing the problem-solving methods of high-achieving college students with those techniques used by students with lower performances that did not seem to reflect their actual abilities. What Bloom & Broder (1950) observed was that both aptitude groups had certain habitual behaviors in their problem solving styles. Low-performing students tended to employ “one-shot thinking” and to tolerate gaps in their knowledge (Whimbey, 1984). High-performing students were much more active in their problem solving, drawing on prior knowledge, and carefully proceeding though a series of steps that often included application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. What the researchers observed was that, to succeed, students placed in problem-solving settings had to break the problems down (analyze), and to combine their prior knowledge with the specifics of the new problems they faced to create novel solutions (synthesis), and to constantly weigh their own thinking and various possible alternatives (evaluation), and to apply their thinking to succeed. This research led to recognition of the various “levels” of the hierarchy, or taxonomy of thinking that they had observed—recognizing that those subjects that were engaged in higher-order thinking in problem-solving settings tended to think more precisely, and to have greater success in solving problems. Thus, observation of college students of differing aptitudes in problem-solving settings contributed to the view that awareness of higher-order thinking skills enhances one’s abilities to perform thinking and problem solving. To me, the key concept to take from the early work of Bloom et al. is that what separates high performing students from low performing students is their differing habits of mind in solving problems, and that the processes of problem solving are as significant as the end product. Furthermore, one might conclude that training could be provided, not just in how to study to improve achievement, but also in how to think (Bloom & Broder, 1950).

Where does a person develop habits of mind that lead to effective thinking and problem solving? What are the implications for classroom instruction? Some students come to school already prepared with analytical skills because they have grown up in an environment where such precise thinking skills were modeled as a part of everyday life. Others don’t. Perhaps we should recognize that teachers are capable of enhancing the analytical reasoning of all students by simply using the subject matter of any course as the medium. All that must be done is to modify the focus of our instruction, shifting the emphasis from the content itself to the mental processing of the content, with provisions to be made to observe and provide feedback on the processing (Whimbey, 1984). We must create an environment in which opportunities to solve subject-matter-related problems abound, and in which the opportunities for formative assessment and feedback correspondingly abound. In other words, teachers can cultivate intelligence by cultivating intelligent behavior in their students. Instead of the culturally normative practice of primarily providing students with information (knowledge) and probing for understanding (comprehension) teachers could create situations in which students had opportunities to learn through problem solving (practicing higher-order thinking—combining fluid intelligence with crystalized intelligence).

Since Bloom’s mid-20th-century research, refinements to the original taxonomy have been proposed (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Webb, 1997, 2002; Marzano & Kendall, 2007), and each refinement contributes, in its own way, to a finer understanding of the habits of mind we associate with intelligence. (Figure 1.) Anderson and Krathwohl re-align Bloom’s, and Webb synthesizes and expands on both, achieving similar recommendations. Marzano & Kendall apply three “systems” of processing knowledge to the three domains of information, mental processing, and psychomotor activity. The various levels of processing knowledge that are included in earlier taxonomies are subsumed within the cognitive system. They also posit metacognition and self-system as critical elements in the habits of mind to be developed in students.

My contention is that, through content-literacy-based instructional (CLBI) classroom activities like those performed in the CTE teacher workshop mentioned above, we allow for students to acquire sophisticated habits of mind with regard to learning and problem solving. Unfortunately, I see a dearth of such activities in K-13 classrooms that I visit around the country.

Figure 1



Bloom’s Revised (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) Webb’s DOK


Marzano & Kendall (2007)
Evaluation Creating   Metacognitive System
Synthesis Evaluating   Cognitive System:

Knowledge Utilization




Analysis Analyzing Extended Thinking
Application Applying Strategic Thinking
Comprehension Understanding Skill/Concept
Knowledge Remembering Recall/Reproduction

The concept of taxonomies of cognitive (and other) behaviors most often imply use of increased levels or complexities of cognitive performance as one moves up the table from the lowest level to the top. For Bloom’s original taxonomy, the lowest level of thinking would be at the knowledge level, suggesting behaviors characterized by the descriptors of the lowest levels of the other taxonomies: remembering, recalling, or retrieving knowledge, perhaps best characterized by memorization. As one moves up in the tables, one sees increased mental activity involved in the higher processes. The Marzano/Kendall taxonomy differs in that it goes beyond a knowledge-related taxonomy. Their cognitive system has four levels similar to Webb’s, each of which describes ways of acting on cognitive knowledge. The Marzano/Kendall taxonomy then progresses beyond cognitive behavior to include metacognition and self-system as important educational objectives. So, the Marzano/Kendall taxonomy really includes three systems of a hierarchical structure of thought: cognition (the four ways of using knowledge), metacognition, and self-system. It is the development of metacognition and self-system and that are the basic premises of this book and of CLBI. Indeed, the essence of MAX Teaching is daily immersion in higher-order thinking within a skill-development paradigm to help students acquire facility in metacognitive behaviors and to develop a self-system based on habits of mind that are built on repeated experiences of success in processing ideas and solving intellectual problems.

My experiences with content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI), facilitating students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking in subject area classrooms, began before publication of the latter three taxonomies, and I did just fine using Bloom’s. In fact, at first, I was not really cognizant of how what I was doing in the classroom with CLBI was engaging students in the higher levels of processing ideas. I only saw that students were highly engaged and that they were retaining information so much better than they had when I simply gave them the information to recall. In addition, they were all becoming comfortable with reading for learning. My original focus in using CLBI had been on the dual acquisition of literacy skills and subject matter. I knew the importance of learning through reading in my own educational history. One could say that I truly learned how to learn through reading several years after I graduated from high school. (I dropped out of college in my first attempt, largely because I was not capable of keeping up with the reading required. After a short stint with military combat, leading to many months in the hospital, and years on crutches, I again attempted college, and with a great deal of effort, was able to develop the literacy skills that I had never acquired through an education that had been centered on the culturally normative model.)

As I worked on my master’s degree in secondary curriculum development at the college of education, in the first year after receiving a bachelor’s degree, professors constantly stressed that higher-order thinking was a goal to be achieved by students, and that Bloom’s Taxonomy was the way to go. Most of my instructors were quite adamant about that. It is just that I had no idea how to really get students to practice the higher levels of thinking. After all, like most newly graduated teachers, I had sat through approximately 13,000 hours of the culturally normative model of instruction throughout my education. When I did student teaching, I was observed, and lauded, for how interesting my lectures were. I was clueless as to how to get students deeply engaged in processing ideas. Eventually I figured out the missing link—reading. If all of the students had read something, they could discuss what they had read. However, homework was not the place for the reading to take place. For many students, the reading would be too difficult. For others, they had myriad excuses why they did not get to the reading. The fact is that only a few would have read the assignment for class each day. What I discovered was that it is very difficult to perform higher-order thinking about something for which a person has no knowledge to start with! This problem is, of course, what leads teachers to fall back into the culturally normative model to begin with. They have a need to convey knowledge to their students. Of course, teachers also do as much as possible to help students comprehend what they lecture about. They pepper students with questions to help them think about the new knowledge they are receiving. Teachers create analogies to help students to comprehend information. But how can a teacher get the students to get beyond the lower levels of the taxonomy? That was the quandary.

Fifteen years after beginning my career as a teacher, I attended a train-the-trainer workshop wherein I learned how to use reading for learning as a routine for the classroom. Suddenly, by having students take the time to read, right there in the classroom, I could help them to be able to read difficult text. I could help them to set their own purposes to want to read, a fundamental part of metacognitive behavior. I could facilitate their pre-reading and post-reading discussions. It did not take long to realize that the top four levels of Bloom’s taxonomy were the norm under this classroom regime. Without my anticipating that it was going to happen, higher-order thinking became a routine. Students analyzed what they were reading, naturally discussed how it would apply under various circumstances, synthesized ideas with what they had learned previously, and with their own experiences, and evaluated the author’s and each other’s interpretations of what they were reading. What I was discovering was that higher-order thinking is a natural extension of the CLBI process. Everyone in the classroom has read the subject matter with real purpose, and interactive discussion and debate is a natural outcome of an environment in which everyone has the same information to play with, but different opinions as to what the information means. So, students were practicing higher-order thinking and metacognitive behaviors every day as they self-actualized as independent learners. In other words, I watched my students as they routinely performed higher-order thinking, practiced metacognition, and developed a self-system that would lead to a lifetime of successful learning.

To facilitate the process, one of my favorite CLBI methods became the use of an anticipation guide—a set of conjectures about what is to be read—to get students arguing about ideas both before and after the reading, which is what I did in the CTE workshop last week. (The term anticipation guide is somewhat of a misnomer since, if created and used properly, it does much more than lead to anticipation. It allows for individuals to maintain purpose during silent reading, and it provides the specific language about which students will argue after the reading. A well-made anticipation guide is quite the opposite of most textbook-published worksheets that demand essentially no real reading/thinking at all.) Whenever I make an anticipation guide, I take ideas that are important from the reading—the learning targets for the lesson—and I figure out some way to connect with what I think students might think about the ideas, based on incomplete information, and I write statements (most of which are at least mostly true interpretations of the text they are going to read) that are at a level of language that students will find easy to interpret. In other words, I scaffold students by writing the statements in language that will make it easy for students to understand the essential concepts without necessarily using the technical language they will subsequently encounter in the text to be read. Agreement or disagreement with the statements brings students each into conjecture. In facilitating this process, I have created a problem-based learning opportunity. Students are committed to finding out. My experience has been that, once hooked on a set of ideas over which there is some contention—or at least a need for clarification—students of all levels of capability become purposeful readers and thinkers. Teachers in a workshop are similar.

In fact, problem-solving behaviors (higher-order thinking) are central to who we are as a species. Language is the tool for such thinking. By allowing for all persons in the room to have access to the same language is to facilitate acquisition of both language and habits of mind that include higher-order thinking. Every student has access to the same text. They do not have to rely on what the teacher said fifteen minutes ago—or yesterday, or last week—in order to develop ideas. The resources are right on their desks in the classroom. Whatever text(s) the teacher has chosen are the resources. The problem to be solved, then, is what does this text mean, exactly? How shall we interpret this in light of all of our knowledge and experience? How does what we are discussing apply in our lives? Such problem-based interaction—what I call hands-on in the mind—is a natural outflow of human collaboration, which can only occur if everyone is on the same page, literally. We all are capable of higher-order thinking as long as we have the resources to be in the discussion. Content-literacy-based instruction is one solution, and it is easy to do if a person is willing to get beyond the culturally normative model and try something different. I always tell teachers that, if you use CLBI for two weeks straight, every day, you will never go back. Being highly engaged is too much fun—even during the last period of the day. That is what the CTE workshop was all about.

Contact me at mforget@maxteaching.com, or check out our web page www.maxteaching.com.


Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. and Broder, L. (1950). Problem solving processes of college students. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Forget, M. (2004). MAX teaching with reading & writing: Classroom activities for helping students learn new subject matter while acquiring literacy skills. Victoria, BC: Trafford.

Marzano, R., and Kendall, J. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Webb, N. (1997). Criteria for alignment of expectations and assessments in mathematics and science education. Council of Chief State School Officers and National Institute for Science Education Research Monograph No. 6. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Webb, N. (2002). Alignment study in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies of state standards and assessments for four states. A study of the State Collaborative on Assessment & Student Standards (SCASS) Technical Issues in Large-Scale Assessment (TILSA). Washington, D. C.: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Whimbey, A. (1984). The key to higher order thinking is precise processing. Educational Leadership, September, 1984. Vol. 42, No. 1. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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