the educational technology journal

Vol 18|No 5|May 2009
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A Taxonomy
of Synthetic Thought and Production

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2009, all rights reserved.
About author

Why a taxonomy?

Not all synthesis requires thought, originality or imagination. The mere act of squishing a bunch of information together — smooshing or smushing or compacting a heap of facts — is low grade synthesis. It requires little thought.

The creation of a poem, a garden, a symphony or a good bottle of wine is quite a different matter.

A taxonomy provides clarity about levels of challenge and value - as with the taxonomies created by Bloom for Affective and Cognitive domains.

By alerting teachers and students to these levels, we hope to inspire production at a high level of originality and creativity.

Another Brick in the Wall

When students do little more than scoop up information - all that is required by most topical research assignments - they are simply putting more bricks in the wall. There is little thought required. The long term implications for the society are vividly portrayed in this video of the Pink Floyd song on YouTube.

The bottom of the Taxonomy is much like the bottom of Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy. Little thought is required. Little challenge is involved. While we expect students to master these levels, they should serve a higher purpose. If students remain captive to these levels, they will not make good citizens, employees or parents. The health of a society and an economy in this Age of Information depends upon the capacity of citizens to come up with original ideas, solutions and inventions. When these capabilities are in short supply, the vitality of the society will be compromised.

An Originality Chorus

Many organizations are now calling for original thinking. Educational groups in New Zealand, Australia and the States are stressing synthesis in a series of documents.

New Zealand's Curriculum expects that students will become thinkers:

Thinking is about using creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. These processes can be applied to purposes such as developing understanding, making decisions, shaping actions, or constructing knowledge. Source

States in Australia have also made this kind of thinking a priority. Queensland, for example, has stressed decision-making, problem-solving and creating in its document outlining Essential Learnings for Studies of Society & Environment (SOSE) by the end of Year Nine:

Students select and use tools and technologies, including information and communication technologies (ICTs). They routinely demonstrate an autonomous and purposeful use of ICTs to inquire, create and communicate within social and environmental contexts. Source

In the States, three groups have issued a clear call for originality.

AASL (The American Association of School Librarians) issued Standards for the 21st Century Learner that included clear statements such as the following:

Leaners use skills, resources and tools to draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge. Source

ISTE (The International Society for Technology in Education) has also issued Standards that emphasize the importance of original thought and production:

Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology. Students:
a. apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes.
b. create original works as a means of personal or group expression.
c. use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues.
d. identify trends and forecast possibilities. Source

Finally, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group of high tech companies and educators, stresses creative and innovative production in its standards:

Think Creatively

* Use a wide range of idea creation techniques (such as brainstorming)
* Create new and worthwhile ideas (both incremental and radical concepts)
* Elaborate, refine, analyze and evaluate their own ideas in order to improve and maximize creative efforts

At a time when many governments are obsessed with high stakes testing and accountability schemes, it is heartening (while somewhat confusing) to hear this chorus of groups calling for a more creative approach to education than is normally measured or valued by the kinds of tests used by fans of accountability.

The Top Levels of the Taxonomy

Unlike most taxonomies, this one requires little explanation. A quick glance allows the reader to grasp the difference between top and bottom. The tasks and words selected to describe the levels are intentionally user-friendly and easy to grasp.

A key aspect of the top levels would be novelty. Merely rearranging the elements of someone else's idea or product does not qualify for the top levels. The top levels demand freshness and imagination. Production and performance should inspire "oohs and ahhs."

"Originate" is an awesome word. Its location at the pinnacle of the Taxonomy clarifies expectations. Related words set a high standard for inventiveness.

dream up, conceive, formulate, form, develop, generate, engender, produce, mastermind, pioneer

At the top level of the Taxonomy, the inventor, writer, chef or politician is expected to come up with something that is quite new, quite fresh. Conception is fundamentally different from modification.

The value of the Taxonomy is to provide the differentiation usually lacking when the term "synthesis" is bandied about. Too little attention has been devoted to these differences. In the past, lower and higher level types of synthesis were all pretty much lumped together. The time has come for a more carefully defined approach.

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