The Ascending Cognition Principle

Kevin Jennings, M. Ed., World History Teacher, Leysin American School.

Designing Units Systematically and Gradually Through Mastering Skills.

In my 10 years in education I’ve had the good fortune of teaching on three different continents, with colleagues from all over the world, and students from over 30 countries. In that time, I have found a few challenges to be both universal and recurring.  

These problems include: 

  1. I) How do we create a classroom environment that promotes higher-level thinking without overwhelming students?
  2. II) How do we make sure one class period, one week of classes, a 5-week unit aligns meaningfully with the next?

III) How do we create a classroom environment that promotes student leadership and independence?

  1. IV) How do we make sure we practice the skills and develop the understandings that are necessary for success?


Through trial and error, and through conversations  with colleagues, I created a standardized unit outline that helps to address the problems mentioned above. I call it The Ascending Cognition Principle. 


 An Educational Principle 

Think of skill development in the classroom in terms of the proverbs “you must learn to crawl before you can walk” and “you don’t need shoes to run, but it helps.” While developing units, It’s important to target specific skills necessary for student development. The first few units may require students to focus on the mastery of lower level, less cognitively demanding skills that are necessary for success, e.g. Cornell Notes, extracting information from a text, comparing and contrasting resources, etc. These foundational skills are our proverbial “shoes”, preparing students for their next challenge.  


In the beginning of the school year, a class may be asked to practice skills such as Cornell notes, summarize, and compare and contrast, in order to set a foundation of skills to build off in the lessons and units to come. As a student, a group, or a class is able to master these skills, they will then “graduate” to more cognitively demanding skills such as classify, predict, interpret, solve, analyze, cause and effect. Of course these skills are made easier by the use and implementation of earlier, foundational skills. 


As the year progresses, lower-level skills and activities will take less time to complete, allowing more time for higher-level, more cognitively demanding skills to be targeted. For example, while we may take 2 weeks to master Cornell notes in the beginning of the year, writing these notes will (hopefully) become second nature into the latter half of the school year, allowing more time for new exciting and challenging skills. In our case, the next two levels of thinking skills are Application and Analysis.  These two levels allow for students to solve problems, building prototypes, investigate, defend reasoning, develop a thesis with conclusion, etc.. The mixture of interesting and challenging material with constant practice and feedback will allow even these difficult skills to become natural as the school year progresses.  


As mentioned in the initial problems, the ultimate goal of my class is for students to be able to handle higher-level thinking tasks and skills, while becoming more independent and self-reliant. The ascent to the highest level thinking skills, Synthesize and Evaluate, encourage such behavior as they are meant to help students develop something new, or justify a position. Some students or classes may be ready to ascend quicker than their peers. In which case, it would be beneficial for educators to allow these students to embrace more cognitively demanding tasks and activities. Students, who are ready, will benefit from more challenging material as well as more opportunities for creative expression e.g.developing a song, creating a historical fiction, creating a political cartoon or meme, solving problems, etc. 


A unit lasts as long as time allows, or as you (or your school) see fit. The following unit will then build off the foundation of skills you have just developed in order to embrace more challenging material. The ascending complexity of tasks and activities over the course of the school year is represented by the gradual change from red to purple in the figure below.  


Preparing for a Successful Unit  

In order to figure out which activities are less or more cognitively demanding, you may want to use Bloom’s Taxonomy Teacher Planning Kit (Google it) as a guide, then use and/or add what makes sense for your classroom.[Text Wrapping Break] 

As you move from left to right on the Bloom’s scale, from “Knowledge” to “Evaluate” the keywords, actions, and skills will become ever more complex and cognitively demanding, as seen on the figure above. 

Download Bloom’s scale


Targeting Specific Skills 

As we prepare for a successful unit, one thing we should be cognizant of is the skills that you would like your students to practice and eventually master. If you are using The Bloom’s Taxonomy Planning Kit, these skills and command terms are located in the “keywords”, “actions” and “outcomes” section, and if they are not there, add your desired skills to the appropriate section of the unit. 


The location of the skills along the Bloom’s scale (e.g. under “Knowledge” or “Comprehension” etc.) determines when in the unit the skill will be practiced. For example, any desired skill that appears under “Knowledge” or “Comprehension”, which are the first two levels of Bloom’s, will likely be targeted earlier in the unit, while any skills that fall under “Synthesis” or “Evaluation”, the highest levels of the Bloom’s scale, will only be practiced once that individual, group, or class, is ready for the challenge, which may not be until the latter months into the school year. 


Once we know which skills we would like our students to master, and we know where in the unit the skill will fall, it’s now time to create activities allow students to master these skills. For example, if I want my students to learn how to take Cornell Notes, it’s up to the teacher to come up with an effective way for students to learn this process. This large task will be infinitely easier if the teacher has the ability to collaborate with other teachers of similar grades or subjects. 


Cycling Through the Units 

While the goal of a school year may be for students to master all of the skills necessary for their next year, teachers will also benefit from having a classroom which is (among other things) predictable, flows seamlessly from one lesson to the next, has a clear purpose, offers creative outlets for students, and guides students to higher-level thinking activities. The Ascending Cognition Principle was developed to allow teachers to produce units that do just that.  


Kevin Jennings is a social studies teacher and resident scholar at Leysin American School in Switzerland. He is a native of the Washington DC area and is currently in his 10th year of teaching.

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