Getting Students to Participate in Higher Level Thinking

David Russo

Science teacher David Russo from Madison Public Schools, Conn. is part of an innovation project to experiment with personalized learning throughout the year with Allison Zmuda.

In my Human Biology class student learning can begin at any one of three points: comprehension, conceptual modeling, or application. This is visualized in the flowchart below which is provided to my students so they can visualize the learning process in my class.


The comprehension step involves collecting basic information about a given topic. Students must have a working understanding of individual parts of a broad topic. This part of the process constitutes lower level thinking. This could include defining vocabulary or performing research in an effort to satisfy what I call “knowledge statements.” If you are unsure of what a knowledge statement is, they are mentioned in my first blog post, “What Does A Personalized Learning Science Unit Look Like?”

Conceptual modeling and application

Conceptual modeling and application are higher level thinking activities both of which involve piecing together the information gathered in the comprehension stage into an understanding of the whole. In my case, “the whole” is an entire body system and how all of the individual parts work together to make a functioning system.

It may seem that students need to start with comprehension and work up to the conceptual modeling and application level of thinking. In reality this is not the case. My units of study usually start at the application stage with a scientific phenomenon that they ultimately need to explain. For example, I showed them a video of a human heart that has been removed and placed in a bowl in an operating room. The heart is still beating in the bowl completely separate from the person’s body.  The question my students immediately ask is, “How is that possible?!” My response to them is, “That’s what you have to figure out.” So they have essentially started their investigative journey with a case study of sorts.

The next step is to move into the world of comprehension where they conduct the research necessary to discover and understand the basics of how something like this is possible (essentially investigating how the heart works).  Once they have this basic knowledge they move to the conceptual modeling step and start piecing together the results of their research into a cohesive model that has the ability to explain the phenomenon. More times than not there are holes in their model, at which point they need to move back to the comprehension step and gather more information to fill those holes. Ultimately, after moving back and forth between comprehension and conceptual modeling, the students create a model that completely explains how the phenomenon occurred, landing themselves back in the world of application which is ultimately where I want them to be.

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