Saturday, July 30, 2016

Preparing K-12 Students to be Postsecondary Ready

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog titled "College and Career Readiness: Less Political Rhetoric, More Practical Strategies" that discussed what exactly does it mean to be college and career ready and how there should be less politicizing and more focus on how we can truly prepare our students for the demands and responsibilities they will encounter in their personal and professional lives after high school.
Two years later, I'm pleased to see that the political rhetoric has died down.  However, two years later, there is still a lack of clarity and understanding as to what exactly does it mean to be college and career ready and how we can prepare our students at the K-12 level.
As I explained in my blog two years ago - and as I discuss in my presentations and seminars - college and career readiness is actually only half of what our students need to be prepared for according to Conley (2010), who identifies the qualities of postsecondary readiness as the following:
  • Work Ready: Meets the basic expectations for workplace behavior and demeanor.
  • Job Ready: Possess specific knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary to begin an entry-level position.
  • Career Ready: Possesses key content knowledge and key learning skills and techniques sufficient to begin studies in a career pathway.
  • College Ready: Prepared in the four keys to college and career readiness necessary to succeed in entry‐level general education courses.
In essence, postsecondary readiness is similar to the Response to Intervention (RtI) in that it focuses on both the academic and behavioral aspects of education.   In the graphic I provided, the academic component is on the left side of the circle while the behavioral is on the right.  Each is split evenly into quarters to suggest that all components are important for a student to learn and develop in order to succeed in life professionally and personally.
However, what does postsecondary readiness mean from a K-12 perspective, and how can we effectively prepare students as young as kindergarten to be postsecondary ready?
I designed the following graphic for K-12 schools to understand what we need to address in order to prepare our students to be postsecondary ready.  This redesign is based upon the research I have conducted on Conley's work, the general definitions of what college and career readiness means (and they are very general), and also my own observations and experiences in my personal and professional life as well as those of my friends, colleagues, or people who have endured great success or setbacks
When we prepare students to be college ready, we are teaching them disciplinary literacy - the ability to demonstrate and communicate knowledge and thinking in an academic discipline accurately, acceptably, appropriately, and authentically.  To prepare students to be college ready, we educators need to teach our students how to read and research to build background knowledge, examine and explain how and why concepts and procedures can be used, and investigate and inquire to extend learning.  These are the key academic skills students will need to develop and demonstrate in order to succeed in their postsecondary academic and vocational endeavors.  We can prepare our students to be college ready by continuously challenging them to demonstrate and communicate - or show and tell -  how and why can the knowledge be used to attain and explain answers, conclusions, decisions, outcomes, results, and solutions.  For example, instead of simply solving math problems, we should be challenging them to explain how and why they can use the math they are learning to defend or refute their solutions, developing and demonstrating deeper conceptual and procedural knowledge.
When we are preparing them to be job ready, we are guiding them to develop and demonstrate basic comprehension and communication skills.  Today's high school, college, or even graduate student must possess the foundational or rudimentary literacy and numeracy skills to perform and complete the tasks they would be assigned in an entry level position.  In essence, they must be able read, write, and do math competently to do their job.  The depth and extent of their literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills as well as how effectively and efficiently they can do their jobs will determine their prosperity and success within a particular company or their chosen field.  However, to get to those next steps, entry-level employees must demonstrate the ability to read critically, write clearly, and do math correctly.  To teach this, we need to foster and promote literacy across the curriculum.  Teaching and learning reading and writing should not be regulated to the English language arts block or classroom.  All teachers are reading and writing teachers, and all students should be expected to demonstrate and discuss what they learning through reading and writing.  All teachers are also teaching mathematics in that we teach students how to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others appropriately, use appropriate tools strategically, attend to precision, and look for and make use of structure.  These are not only the standards for mathematical practice.  They are the essential life skills students will need in order to succeed in their post-K-12 academic and vocational endeavors. 
When we are preparing students to be work ready, we are helping them develop independence and self-direction.    This is the behavioral component of postsecondary readiness.  Today's graduate and employee must be responsible, reliable, resourceful, and respectful.  They need to fulfill their job duties and responsibilities.  They need to be counted on and gain their supervisor or organization's confidence that the job, project, or task assigned to them will be completed as expected (if not beyond or before).  They need to be able to seek out the information they need - either from credible sources or from within themselves.  Most importantly, they must show courtesy and consideration to their supervisor, their colleagues, and even their community or customers even if they do not agree or "like" them.    Of all the components of postsecondary readiness, this may be the most difficult and tricky for schools and educators to address.  Our local education agencies, our schools, and our classrooms do not mirror postsecondary academic and vocational environments or organizations.  The consequences for not being responsible, reliable, resourceful, nor respectful are not as impactful or even damaging as if they displayed these behaviors in college or the workforce.  Students will not be expelled or kicked out of school for poor grades like they would in college.  We also cannot "fire" our students for behaving improperly or inappropriately.  However, we can prepare our students to be work ready by fostering a learning environment that teaches students how to develop a solid work ethic and also work productively and politely with others - even if the student doesn't like the person.  Consequences should be real and impactful but not based on punishment and reward.  We should also try to make the classroom as similar as possible to a postsecondary academic or vocational environment.   Talk to college professors or supervisors in the workforce.  Ask them what are the behaviors they expect from their students and employees, and seek their recommendations as to how these expectations can be addressed and instilled in your classroom.
This leads into the fourth component of postsecondary readiness - career ready.  We can help students become career ready by having them develop deeper understanding and awareness of 21st Century Skills.  The term 21st Century skills has unfortunately become a catchphrase like college ready and career ready.  It sounds great and spectacular as a campaign promise or a mission statement.  However, it lacks true, substantial definition of what exactly that means.  Also, like college and career readiness, it is also misinterpreted and misleading.  Many people believe the 21st century skills are defined and dictated by digital media and informational literacy and people's ability to use technology.  However, digital literacy is only one small fraction of what encompasses the 21st Century skills our students must develop.
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning - or P21 Council - has identified what are these 21st Century skills and themes our students should be examining and exploring along with learning the concepts and procedures correlated to the core subject areas.  We should teach them how and why the academic concepts and content they are learning are relevant and beneficial.  We should encourage them to investigate and inquire how these academic concepts and procedures can be used not only within a specific subject area but also across the curriculum and beyond the classroom.  We should also guide them to recognize and realize what is their place and responsibility in the community locally, nationally, and globally and how they could use both their innate skills and talents as well as their education to contribute to the world.  By having students address these themes and develop these skills, we will be teaching them not only how to be positive and productive members of society but also develop the critical and creative thinking skills that will help them establish, succeed, and thrive in a career in whatever field they choose - or even develop a career path of their own.
When we are preparing our students for life after their K-12 education, we should not only be focused on guiding them to become college and career ready.  College and career ready sounds great as a slogan.  The true goal is for our students to become postsecondary ready - to develop the knowledge, skills, and disposition they need to succeed and survive academically, professionally, socially, and personally.  When developing the learning environments of our classroom and planning educational experiences, consider how these four components of postsecondary readiness can be incorporated to truly prepare our students for the demands and responsibilities they will encounter in the real world.
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning will be published by ASCD in July 2016.  For more information, please visit

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Class...

In this book from ASCD, Erik M. Francis explores how one of the most fundamental instructional strategies—questioning—can provide the proper scaffolding to deepen student thinking, understanding, and application of knowledge.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Return of Synthesis: Connecting Critical and Creative Thinking

When Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl (2001) revised the cognitive categories of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy, we might have gained a simpler way to teach, but our students lost an essential skill to learn.
Anderson and Krathwohl completely revamped this instructional framework we educators we have traditionally used to establish our learning goals and outcomes.  The key shifts in their revised taxonomy were the following:
  • The Cognitive Domain was split into two dimensions - the Knowledge Dimension and the Cognitive Process Dimension.
  • Knowledge was replaced with the cognitive actions of .  The subcategories of Knowledge from the original taxonomy were combined into four categories within the Knowledge Domain: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive.  In 2014, Walkup and Jones expanded this domain by adding three more levels - relevant, deep, and communicative - as part of their definition of the concept of cognitive rigor.
  • The names of the categories of the Cognitive Process Domain from conceptual nouns to cognitive verbs.   Comprehension became Understanding.  Synthesis was renamed Creating. In addition, creating became the highest level in the classification system, switching places with evaluating. The revised version is now remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating in that order.  Anderson and Krathwohl also shifted the order of the categories, moving evaluate down a level and making create the pinnacle of the taxonomy.
 The revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy is truly a much more effective and user-friendly model.  It is more directive and explicit.  It also is much more applicable in developing  benchmark standards that clearly state what the student will be able to do by the end of a particular grade level. It also is beneficial in setting performance objectives for what the student will do as part of a learning experience.  It also can be used in setting encouraging and personal learning targets that state what I can and what we will do by the end of a unit or lesson.
However, the drawback of the revision is that it removed a key cognitive category that is essential for our students to demonstrate and communicate as part of their learning.
Synthesis was the cognitive category in the original taxonomy that addressed how students can put new information together to produce an original work - a plan, a product, or a project.  It was also the category which we educators addressed and referred when we wanted our students to demonstrate their ability to create.  When we tasked our students to build, create, design, develop, draw, plan, produce, or write something, we would state how The learner will demonstrate synthesis of whatever concept or procedure they were learning and complete the objective by stating what exactly they would do.
However, synthesizing is actually more synonymous to understanding and applying than creating.   Synthesis involves combining ideas and allowing an evolving understanding of text (Fries-Gaither, 2010).  Students are challenged to put pieces together and seeing them in a new way . Essentially, synthesizing is understanding and applying at a higher level.   Synthesizing involves both critical and creative thinking.  It involves students in processing what they have learned to form a new idea, perspective, or opinion or to generate insight (Bumgarner, 2016).   However, what distinguishes synthesizing from analyzing and evaluating is that the knowledge and thinking they demonstrate and communicate is more metacognitive and personal.  These are the conclusions, decisions, opinions, perspectives, and thoughts they have developed and drawn based upon the information they have learned.  They use the factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge they have acquired and gathered as examples and evidence to strengthen and support their thinking.
Synthesizing, however, is not the same as creating.  Creating involves designing, developing, or doing something physical that reflects and represents students' skills and talents.  For example, develop and use a model or produce a plan, project, or product.   Students synthesize by processing what they have learned into a personal argument, choice, claim, conclusion, decision, opinion, perspective, or point of view they can defend with credible information.   They create something to that will reflect and represent not only their thinking but also their talent.
Synthesizing is affective as well as cognitive in that involves processing learning to produce opinions, perspectives, or thoughts fueled by evidence, examples, and emotion.  In fact, synthesizing is what engages students in the affective actions of the Affective Domain of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.   The following graphic shows how synthesizing  guides students through how we internalize what we are learning into personal insight.
  • Receiving: Students receive factual, conceptual, and procedural information about who, what, where, when, how, and why.  This occurs as they demonstrate and communicate the ability to and evaluate the ideas, information, texts, techniques, themes, and topics they are reading and reviewing.
  • Responding:  Students process the information into personal or self-knowledge when they show and tell how do you transfer and use what they have learned to attain and explain answers, outcomes, results, and solutions.   They also engage in strategic thinking and problem solving by showing and telling how would you and what they have learned  to address and respond to academic and real world circumstances, issues, problems, and situations.
  • Valuing: Students use what thay to make and defend decisions using the personal or self-knowledge they have developed.  This is when students engage in argumentative thinking, establishing claims and conclusions about do you think.... or should... and making choices about whether do you agree or disagree...  This is an essential category within the Affective Domain - and with synthesizing - because it engages students to develop and demonstrate disciplinary literacy, the ability to examine, explore, and explain ideas and information in the subject areas.
  • Organizing:  Students show and tell how they can use the personal knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed in different hypothetical scenarios, settings, and situations.  They demonstrate and communicate conditional and contextual thinking by addressing and respond what do you do when.  They also demonstrate and communicate creative thinking by showing and telling what would you do if.  This is also when students begin to develop and demonstrate expert thinking, showing and telling how they would personally use what they have learned in any context.
  • Characterizing: This is the highest level of synthesizing, where their knowledge and thinking defines and describes a student's identify as a learner and a scholar.  They take what they have learned and express what do you believe, feel, or think.  They share what is your opinion, perspective, or thoughts.  Most importantly, they take what's academic and even abstract and use it to explain who are you as a learner in a particular subject area.
Since college and career readiness is marked and measured by cognitive rigor and cognitive rigor challenges and engages students to demonstrate higher order thinking and communicate depth of knowledge, perhaps it is a wise decision to bring synthesis back as a separate cognitive category within Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.   It should be positioned between the categories of evaluate and create.  This will be the cognitive category where students will write and present argumentations and express and share their attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about what they are learning.  
Here is a redesign of the Bloom's Questioning Inverted Pyramid I designed that can be used to develop good questions that promote cognitive rigor.  Notice where is placed and what distinguishes its question stems from the ones that challenge and engage students .  This establishes a more definitive connection and progression between critical and creative thinking.
Next year, when you're teaching and learning for cognitive rigor, be sure to include educational experiences that challenge and engage students to synthesize by asking good questions that ask what do you believe, feel, or think; how do you; how can you could, or how would you .  Then ask them what can you design, develop, or do to express that reflects and represents their talent and thinking.
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning is now available from ASCD.
For more information on this topic or how to receive professional development at your site, please visit