Do students need to learn lower-level factual and procedural knowledge before they can do higher-order thinking?

There is a prevailing conception that students must learn facts and procedural knowledge BEFORE they can then engage in so-called ‘higher-order’ thinking skills. Educators, parents, policymakers, online commentators, and others point to Bloom’s taxonomy (which typically has been portrayed as a pyramid) and say, “See? You have to do this stuff down here before you can do that stuff up top!”

But that’s not how Bloom and his co-authors categorized the taxonomy:

Bloom et al. discussed at length their decision to apply an Aristotelian categorization method in their taxonomy. The choice was significant, because an Aristotelian method creates distinct, bounded categories ordered by complexity without the hierarchical assumption that higher-level categories always entail instantiation of those lower in the taxonomy (e.g., when evaluating, it is not always necessary to first apply and synthesize). Moreover, Aristotelian categorization emphasizes that these groupings are closely related and difficult to tease apart. . . . however, the division of the taxonomy of educational objectives into classes representing lower order … and higher order thinking … has prevailed in research.

Alexander, P.A., et al. (2011). Higher-order thinking and knowledge: Domain-general and domain-specific trends and future directions. In G. Schraw & D. R. Robinson (Eds.), Assessment of higher order thinking skills (pp. 49-50). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Similarly, as the National Research Council stated a quarter-century ago:

the term ‘higher order’ skills is probably itself fundamentally misleading, for it suggests that another set of skills, presumably called ‘lower order,’ needs to come first. This assumption – that there is a sequence from lower level activities that do not require much independent thinking or judgment to higher level ones that do – colors much educational theory and practice. Implicitly, at least, it justifies long years of drill on the ‘basics’ before thinking and problem solving are demanded. Cognitive research on the nature of basic skills such as reading and mathematics provides a fundamental challenge to this assumption.

National Research Council. (1987). Education and learning to think (p. 8). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Expert thinking does indeed require a high degree of domain knowledge. Hopefully no one is arguing that kids can be high-level thinkers ‘without knowing anything.’ But the notion that students have to be immersed in ‘lower-level’ factual and procedural knowledge BEFORE they can do ‘higher-level’ thinking work doesn’t comport with what we know from cognitive research.

So what?

The problem with taking a sequential approach to Bloom’s taxonomy is that many students – especially those from traditionally-underserved populations – rarely, if ever, get to engage in the ‘higher-level’ thinking work that is critically necessary these days. Instead, they remain mired in the ‘lower-level’ thinking domains, doomed to a steady diet of decontextualized fact nuggets and procedural regurgitation. What is advocated as a foundational floor instead becomes a rigid ceiling in practice, thus negatively impacting student engagement and interest, knowledge retention and procedural mastery, dropout and graduation rates, workforce preparation needs, and so on.

We can do better. In fact, we already are doing better in certain places. We just need to take more cues from schools like those in the New Tech, Big Picture Learning, Envision, Expeditionary Learning, Independent Curriculum Group, High Tech High, and EdVisions networks. These schools do a much better job than most traditional schools of emphasizing ‘higher-level’ thinking work for students while simultaneously ensuring that ‘kids know stuff.’ In fact, we’re finding that students in these schools typically are more successful and care more about what they’re learning because whatever facts and procedures they need to know are embedded within the context of doing more relevant, meaningful, and authentic work. That sounds pretty good to me! Now, if my local school district would just get on board…

Your thoughts and experiences?

Image credit: Bloom’s taxonomy

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

27 Responses to “Do students need to learn lower-level factual and procedural knowledge before they can do higher-order thinking?”

  1. Another reason to rid ourselves of test rep, and to focus on authentic reading and proect work


  2. So we start with the “word problems,” then discover, or even invent the math that solves the problem. I’ve often wondered about this shift.

    • That makes so much sense, David. You and Scott have given me lots to ponder here. Thanks!

    • I am currently teaching 5th grade Math using sixth grade “Agile Mind” that is based in this theory. It’s a hard sell to parents who think their students aren’t getting enough “skill and drill practice.”

  3. When I was in the classroom, it wasn’t unusual for 100% of my students to meet/exceed, and it didn’t matter how many students had IEPs. Why? Because we focused critical thinking and learning, not some darned test.

    In fact, one year on the day before our Sat9, we took a field trip because ASU was in walking distance, and there was a science fair my 3rd graders would love. It was a fabulous!

    We’d spend maybe 30 minutes the whole year talking about test taking strategies. Being on top of what they are really learning (Bloom’s higher levels), was my focus, and it showed. They filled in the lower levels because they wanted to know more. Here’s an example:

    Furthermore, my students pretests the following year showed they didn’t lose any of the learning over the summer. They didn’t lose it because it was meaningful and authentic learning experiences.

    Thanks for this post!

    Kind regards,
    Tracy Watanabe

  4. i’m thinking learning is non-linear.
    i’m thinking that means .. there are no basics.
    jump in anywhere, follow it everywhere. – Myron Rogers

  5. The comment “students have to know all this knowledge before we can do anything with it” is one of the most common refrains I hear in my high school among senior academic teachers. I must admit I held on to this idea for quite awhile myself.
    Many events and ideas have shifted my thinking away from this and moved me to start with larger understandings and allow students to fill in the smaller pieces of knowledge as they move through their own learning process.
    Overwhelming I find students are motivated (as I am) to understand big messy and compelling ideas as compared to list of trivia that can be looked up in a blink of an eye on their phones.
    I think this is a vitally important topic to discuss for us teachers if we are to shift away from content driven courses being an exercise of short term memory.
    Thanks for the post, it is timely for my own learning!

  6. Sam Wineburg had a great essay in Kappan a couple of years ago, asking if the Bloom’s pyramid is upside down, arguing that teaching facts through analysis was a better way to make sure people “know stuff”.

  7. “Hopefully no one is arguing that kids can be high-level thinkers ‘without knowing anything.'”

    I am, but it depends on what we define by ‘knowing anything’. Kids of all ages can analyse, evaluate and create without “knowing” what a teacher dispenses to them, because they already know an enormous amount of stuff simply by being alive in an increasing stimulating world.

    Can’t teachers harness this prior knowledge and introduce students to thinking at any/all Bloom levels?

    The bottom two levels are the “who wants to be a millionaire” stiff, and can be taught quickly and easily through a range of accelerated learning techniques, leaving time to actually educate students.

  8. This question is really at the heart of most of our contemporary curricular debates. I wrote a few thoughts last week about how this dimension has changed in the Internet age here:


  9. I could not agree more! We often rob our students of opportunities to transfer their learning because we insist that they acquire low level skills and information. Allowing students to have multiple opportunities to engage in higher order thinking skills AS THEY ACQUIRE facts and basic skills is best practice.

  10. Hey Scott Mcleod my name is Corey Waldon. I am commenting on your Blog for an assignment for my EDM310 class.

    I think in this Blog You ask a big question.Do students need to learn lower-level factual and procedural knowledge before they can do higher-order thinking? My answer to that is yes. I believe that by using lower level factual and procedural knowledge we can set a base foundation on learning.I think that in order to get into Higher- order thinking a student needs to know the basics of any problem or history. My question is how do you tell a student to think outside the Box, when they don’t know what the box is and how to find it. How could you ask for higher thinking when the thought process is not ready or available. I agree with you Scott when you say some school are stuck on teaching the basics of education and not allowing the students to think. But if we can get our education system to start with factual and procedural knowledge then work towards and beyond higher- order thinking that’s when as a education system we have won.

    Great Blog Scott.

    • Learning is not linear, it is cyclical. Sometimes when we set limits we also limit thinking. For example, a 9th grade student just discovered a new way to detect cancer on a simple strip of paper costing 3 cents. They reason? No one told him that he couldn’t do it that way. Others accepted the expensive machines and tests, but he wondered why it had to be so expensive and took so long to detect. Because we understand restrictions of the past, sometimes we limit students who might have discovered different ways of doing or presenting ideas. It is that reason why we put students in a class to learn something they are already beyond. Students reading on a 12th grade level should not be doing regular class assignments in 8th grade. Students reading on a 2nd grade level should not be doing assignments on an 8th grade level or even be placed in that grade. Students need to be placed by abilities and that is not how school is set up. It is set up by age.

    • Agreed. Although many educators see the problem as too much time spent on “lower order” thinking skills I would argue they have missed the boat completely. In teachers incessant need to embrace the latest and greatest, basic knowledge has become out of fashion and memorization has become a dirty word. I think you are bang on Corey. Of course we can’t exclusively have drill and kill. Students need to think and analyze and create. But it is my experience that the “knowledge” step has been skipped almost completely and student learning suffers for it. And what is so wrong with learning the skill of memorization? Did we not all memorize the phonetic sounds each letter makes in order to read? Of course we did.

    • Some interesting thinking here, Corey. I’d challenge it a bit by asking why kids would care about the box in the first place. When I was little, my grandmother let me be alongside her in her kitchen all the time. Baking and cooking, I got to see the process and the outcomes. Along the way, I’d ask questions, make comments, and notice things. What didn’t happen was my grandmother requiring me to understand all the properties of flour and what it does within all possible recipes before she would let me touch, use, and observe the actions of flour in cooking. Had she done that, I would have left the kitchen for something less pedantic and more open to my curiosity. Schools never let kids like me leave the kitchen.
      I became a cook (or at least adopted that identity) before I really understood what all the tools at my disposal did. Later, when I needed to figure out how to do something or make a recipe work, it made sense that I would research and deepen my understanding of an ingredient as simple and ubiquitous as an egg. I was already a cook, and cooks figure out how to cook.

  11. What some people may not know is tha Bloom’s original taxonomu was intended as an assessment framework, not a pedagogical way to approach teaching. Bloom merely stated that if you gave students tasks that fell within a certain level on the pyramid, you could expect certain outcomes. Unfortunately many teachers use the taxonomy as an excuse to blame students, or why they feel pressured to “cover” curriculum. If, on the other hand, critical inquiry became the culture of education, students would surpass our expectations. See the work of Garfield Gini-Newman on this.

  12. Years ago in college, while studying to be an English teacher, I came across a lot of research that showed that learning the technicalities of grammar did not do much for student writing. I was intrigued by the idea and brought it up in some of my education classes. Other students, as well as professors, thought I was nuts! They all thought that only after rigorous drills and memorization of terms could students be proficient writers.

    After a bunch more study, I am yet to find research showing that knowing grammar rules makes a proficient writer. The best way to learn to write, and this is according to extensive research, is to read and then practice writing. The brain really takes care of all the rules through the creative process of putting words on paper.

    I imagine this is true for most of the what we do. When the mind is engaged in a creative state, there is knowledge there just waiting to be used, and as it is used, more knowledge is gained.

    • Knowing how to spell is not an indicator of intelligence, but using proper grammar in writing is the sign of a proficient writer. Writing is about content and conveying something of interest to the readers. If you cannot edit your content to show you have a grasp of the language, readers will become distracted by the errors and eventually refuse to read your work. That is why most professional writers have editors. I am sure those research is not referring to college students and the focus of the research is about reading comprehension and teachers wasting time teaching grammar when it doesn’t improve comprehension.

  13. Well said. I’ve been working on this for a while. You can’t blame Bloom…his taxonomy seems to have been taken away from his original use (like Binet’s IQ tests were meant to see where schools were ).

    When you think about great learning environment or the way people learn outside of schools, learners are always doing these processes simultaneously. A kids will have to put on a scene from a Shakespeare play, but need to look up an unfamiliar word, then need to decide what the best definition is then decide what gestures to add then maybe read up on what the other characters were doing…etc.

  14. Agreed. See: Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy –
    by Brenda Sugrue, PhD, CPT

  15. This post is a fine example of dogmas at battle.

    I am a parent of a 3rd grader, and I pay a substantial tuition to have my child in a school free from the typical linear progression of skills (esp. in math and science). However, our personal experience shows that the reactionary position of teaching high-level thinking with insufficient accountability for lower-level skills, can very much backfire.

    My daughter’s experience in math last fall was an exercise in profound frustration as the teacher catered primarily to the most advanced students. Consistent with her personality, she internalized the frustration and decided that “she wasn’t good at math”.

    Other students who are allowed to focus exclusively on intuitive understanding of advanced material – with insufficient or absent accountability for mastering basic skills – run the risk of never reaching comfort level with doing the analysis by hand, even years later. This profoundly affects the kinds of problems that they feel comfortable spontaneously tackling.

    Leaving the strictly linearized curriculum behind will make some students happier, but introduces the risk that others may fare far worse.

    I challenge educators to leave behind the dogmas of both the strictly linearized curriculum and the reactionary position of a curriculum free-for-all.

  16. What I always found frustrating when I was in the classroom, was the insistence that “higher-order” skills be taught in conjunction with academic material. I taught elementary special education, and my kids rarely had the factual basis to answer those higher order, grade-level math or language questions. But I taught them to problem solve and to think, and that carried over into their academic learning. We might spend 15 minutes on figuring out your options when you didn’t remember to bring a pencil to class, and some would see that as a waste of valuable instructional time. But that was the level that my students could access higher order skills, and that was where we learned them. Several years later, anecdotal reports from their teachers showed that my students were better at figuring out how to self-accomodate for their disabilities than their peers. I call that a win.

  17. My initial reaction was to push back. Students need to know the facts before they can analyse-evaluate-create. Then I read deeper. Seems that we are not advocating they skip all the facts – facts need to be contextualized. EXACTLY! Students who are instructed in a manner where rote memorization is expected don’t have a way to connect their learning to higher levels of thinking. When they have a context to attach the skills to then they can really think outside the box.

  18. As a mother of 3 daughters, I can say that entering the taxonomy at different places, in different ways, is really a much better way to think of this. It’s the hierarchical model that’s wrong, no matter which way you flip it. One of my daughters had much more trouble with concepts and problem solving; she could handle that better once she really mastered the mechanics / basics. This was a really profound, tangible truth about this daughter. But another daughter is exactly the opposite: she looses all motivation dealing with the basics unless she’s fitting it into a bigger picture. For the third daughter, it doesn’t seem to matter as much. In other words, she more easily flips her own thinking from “top-down” to “bottom-up” thinking without much effort. So this is much more nuanced than a hierarchical taxonomy model lets on! I like to think about Maslow’s Hierarchy and flipping that: do you really need the basics of life to be provided for before you can life life fully? OR is that we need motivation first to even care about the basics of life? You see, the answer is… it depends!!!

  19. Some interesting thoughts, especially from the parents talking about their children. I’ve found that students learn at a higher level and “vacuum up” the information and skills needed when they are given well-designed projects that require curriculum-based skills to complete. Project design is very important here if students who have difficulty in some areas are not to be left behind.
    However, I find that, when someone in the class does need help, that other students are quite willing to work with them, and, of course, as the teacher, I’m always watching for a student who is struggling with some aspect of the project.
    I do what one of my professors called “intrusive tutoring,” as we are working in class on learning projects. I keep my eyes on the students and check to be sure they are not getting behind. I’m able to both encourage and instruct when there is a need, and I’m also able to stay out of the way when students are “getting it.” In my class, there are no dumb questions and we laugh a lot. No one is embarrassed when they have to ask for help. Maybe they don’t all learn at the same level, but they all learn, and students tell me they learn more and more quickly than in other classes.

  20. Can I add Critical Skills Classrooms and the Critical Skills Program to your list of groups to learn from? It does just what you describe here- but with the added benefit of targeting both content and process (think 21C skills) at the same time.

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