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VI Cognitive Development Strategies and Activities

Effective social studies instruction relies on the premise that learning requires cognitive processes that are aimed at encouraging student comprehension; consequently, effective social studies instruction relies on the need for student engagement in instruction. In other words, for instruction to be successful, students must be able to actively encourage thinking about substantive issues associated with the subject matter. In order to engage students in subject matter, the teacher must be aware of the status of current student knowledge. Before instruction begins, some assessment should be taken in regard to student “readiness” for instruction. This is a diagnostic phase that should be taken prior to the introduction of new content: it is called “diagnosis or readiness.”

Diagnosing Readiness
One of the first rules of effective instruction is to know your audience – to know the strengths and the weaknesses of your students, especially in connection with the introduction of a new topic of instruction. In other words, it is important to take a few minutes to question students and to ask them to provide a few examples related to their experiences with the topic of instruction. This information is especially important in providing the teacher with an insight into the students’ current level of comprehension, as well as some of their misunderstandings and misinterpretations. If, as a result of diagnosing readiness, the teacher learned that students were advanced in their comprehension of the “new topic”, the teacher might simply review the topic and move on to another topic. On the other hand, if the students’ level of comprehension was shallow, or nonexistent, the teacher might provide some form of introductory instruction before proceeding with the topic.

Cognitive Strategies
Once it has been determined that students are “ready” for instruction, and the lesson is in progress, the teacher might activate an auxiliary strategy or an activity that is specifically designed to enhance student comprehension. For example, one common means of enhancing comprehension is to base some aspects of a lesson on a series of thought provoking questions, questions that encourage student thinking. In my text, Designing Effective Instruction for Secondary Social Studies (See Chapter 8), I recommend the construction of a series of question based on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Thought Provoking Questions
This taxonomy presents a cognitive hierarchy aimed at stimulating cognitive development. Elements of this taxonomy include the following levels of thinking: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (The idea of a hierarchy is that it ranges from lower to higher levels of thinking.) Converting this hierarchy into a series of social studies questions is relatively easy. The knowledge level of questions would be based on the simple recall of some of the facts of an event. The comprehension level of question would be based on asking students to describe some aspect of the event. The application level of questions would ask students to make use of what they have learned about another or similar event. The analysis level question would require students to separate the event into its important parts to examine the inter-relationship between parts or elements. The synthesis level of question would ask students to combine aspects of one event with aspects of another event (i.e. presidential inaugural addresses). The evaluation level of question would ask students to render a judgment of the event according to a stated moral, legal, or social standard.
Not all of these levels of cognitive development would likely be applied in a single lesson, but a combination of one or two questions would help advance student comprehension. Chapter 8 of Designing Effective Instruction for Secondary Social Studies contains a very helpful chart related to constructing behavioral objectives and/or constructing oral or written question from Bloom’s Taxonomy (See figure 8-1, page 206).

An auxiliary (sub-strategy to the lesson) designed around a questioning strategy has the added advantage of engaging students directly in the presentation of the lesson. Thought provoking questions as an auxiliary instructional strategy not only increase student interest, but provide a means to help students gain a greater comprehension of the subject matter content. Questioning strategies also can be applied as the main or core strategy of any effective lesson plan.
1. Presenting a lesson through a questioning strategy, such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, invites students to participate in the presentation of the lesson
2. Questioning strategies are a helpful means to encourage a greater degree of student cognitive development.
3. Bloom’s Taxonomy is based on a hierarchy of cognitive thinking that provides for the development of a higher level of student thinking about the subject matter of a social studies lesson.
4. Before introducing a new topic to students, a measure of student readiness should be used to determine whether or not additional background instruction is needed.
5. A measure of student readiness also might be used to determine the appropriateness of the lesson in light of the advanced comprehension of some students.
6. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a helpful form for the development of questioning strategies for use in the social studies classroom, but there are other strategies for helping students increase their comprehension. (Can you name some other strategies or activities? i.e. creative activities, enrichment strategies and activities, critical thinking, problem solving, discovery, decision making, gestalt strategies and activities, etc.)
7. A lesson plan can be structured around strategies and activities that encourage a deeper student comprehension regarding the content of the lesson (for example the teacher can design a lesson around a series of questions that would serve as an outline for a lesson plan and these questions can then serve as the basis of instruction).
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