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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

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A Simple Solution to a Complex Problem

Greg Wheeler

When Benjamin Bloom created his taxonomy of educational outcomes in 1956, he faced problems not unlike those educators today must confront. Bloom's taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956) quickly became one of the most popular frameworks in education. Yet in spite of its popularity and evolution (as evidenced by revisions by Anderson and Krathwohl [2001] and Marzano and Kendall [2007]), we see the same problems almost 60 years later as educators continue to grapple with ensuring students receive a rigorous education and defining what it means to teach "thinking skills."

Research scientists Derek Cabrera and Laura Colosi call for a new approach to teaching thinking skills so that all students receive an education that prepares them for the 21st century. In their book Thinking at Every Desk, Cabrera and Colosi (2009) describe research they conducted that led to the DSRP method, a framework for teaching and learning that represents a seismic shift away from other taxonomies.

The DSRP method is intimately tied to knowledge. In more than 20 years of research completed at Cornell University, Cabrera examined thousands of disciplines, surveying their histories and interviewing experts in those fields. He also studied how novices and experts construct new knowledge or change existing knowledge. The result was four universal patterns that structure knowledge:

  1. Making Distinctions Between Identity and Other
  2. Organizing Systems into Parts and Wholes
  3. Recognizing Relationships of Cause and Effect
  4. Taking Perspectives of Point and View

These four universal patterns work much like DNA: their combinations and subtle changes produce the rich biodiversity of ideas.

Because it began with knowledge as the subject of its research, the DSRP method can be easily taught within any standards-based curriculum. For example, during a unit on community helpers, Head Start students ages 3–4 learn to break a fire truck down into its parts and, at the same time, see the truck as part of a broader whole (community). In a middle school science class, students list the parts of each system of the human body, examine the interrelationships among these systems, and break those relationships into parts.

In both examples, students learn not only the content (communities, human body) but also underlying conceptual structures (part-whole systems, relationships) that are universal to all content. Whether students are learning to write an essay, solve a math problem, conduct a scientific experiment, or just think about the way they think (metacognition), they can use the DSRP method to strengthen thinking skills.

Equipped with these robust thinking skills, students are able to structure content knowledge meaningfully, leading to deeper understanding. Because the four patterns of DSRP are based on how knowledge is universally structured, these same patterns help students recognize structures that are already built into the content that they're learning and structure the information into meaningful knowledge. Additionally, this leads to tremendous horizontal articulation, or transfer, as students use the same thinking skills in every class.

DSRP increases vertical articulation, as well. As students progress through school, they can continue to use the same four patterns of thinking to build new ideas. In fact, the DSRP method is used in Head Start programs and graduate degree programs around the country. Rather than learning entirely new material at each grade level, students use the same metacognitive patterns to build more sophisticated constructs that are intimately connected to their prior knowledge. In hundreds of video case studies, teachers from preschool to 12th grade demonstrate their use of the same four patterns to teach students thinking skills.

Cabrera and Colosi call for a set of national standards for thinking skills and to use DSRP as a tool to assess students' thinking. Rather than attempting to classify students' thinking using an arbitrary taxonomic schema, DSRP standards would simply describe the universal behaviors students use to build ideas and change them over time. This would give teachers a list of observable outcomes that they would see when their students are thinking.

Cabrera explains why the DSRP method brings about outcomes far beyond thinking skills and increased content acquisition that many districts across the country are looking for—outcomes such as increased engagement, decreased behavioral problems, increased transfer of knowledge, and deeper understanding:

DSRP focuses our efforts and resources where it matters most—on making the teacher and student more metacognitive. This develops thinking skills and knowledge acquisition. This may seem like an overly simple way to address the huge problems facing education: closing the achievement gap, differentiating teaching for all students, etc. Unfortunately, people believe that to solve these complicated educational issues, we need a complicated solution. What we know about complex systems is that nothing could be further from the truth. It's because it is so simple that it works.

Is this to say that Cabrera and Colosi have solved the problems of Bloom's taxonomy? There is still tremendous work to be done in schools around teaching both thinking skills and a deep understanding of a standards-based curriculum. When educators can list hundreds of content-based standards (the "what to know") but cannot come to an agreement on the thinking skills to teach (the "how to know"), it's clear that we need a better method to teach thinking skills. The DSRP method is a refreshingly simple and elegant solution.


Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete ed.). New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. S., Englehart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, R. R. (Eds.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.

Cabrera, D., & Colosi, L. (2009). Thinking at every desk. Ithaca, NY: Research Institute for Thinking in Education.

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objectives (2nd ed.). New York: Corwin.

Greg Wheeler is a partner and director of teacher support at ThinkWorks. He previously taught high school language arts in the District of Columbia Public Schools and holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Catholic University.


ASCD Express, Vol. 5, No. 23. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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