For those of you who have received your copies of IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide, you might be wondering about those boxes you see in each lesson called “abstraction extensions.” 

The original name for these extending questions was “critical thinking extensions,” because that’s exactly what they are. However, they’re called abstraction extensions to fit with the language of the themantic model of curriculum’s three levels of thinking. Before you can fully appreciate the nature and purpose of the abstraction extensions, it’s important to first understand our three levels of thinking (that are heavily influenced by Bigg’s and Collis’ SOLO Taxonomy, as well as Bloom’s Taxonomy).

The SOLO Taxonomy and coming up with the revised three levels of thinking has had more positive impact on my teaching than any PD I’ve had in 10 years of teaching. If you take the time to think about how this applies to your teaching, I promise you won’t regret it!


Three levels of thinking

All learning falls into one of these three categories:

  1. Knowing
  2. Understanding
  3. Abstracting

In our model of curriculum, knowing refers to being able to comprehend and recall individual units of information. In psychology, this means being able to define key terms, describe variables, behaviours, theories, studies, etc. Every lesson in the themantic model includes information, summaries and key terms definitions to help students easily comprehend these new building blocks.

Understanding takes knowledge a little deeper and relies on the ability to show how things are related in response to a question or problem. In psychology, this means being able to explain things like how variables influence behaviour, how studies demonstrate concepts, how studies support theories, etc. In other words, understanding is all about constructing relationship chains in response to guiding questions (which you’ll also see at the end of each lesson in the student’s guide textbook).

After students are guided towards being able to put the building blocks together to understand how they’re related, we then want them to be able to think in the abstract about these relationships. This is what “critical thinking” is all about. Therefore, the abstraction extensions provide a bit of background for the student so they understand the problem they’re being extended with, and then provides a thought-provoking question that requires them to think in the abstract about what they’re just understood from the lesson. This scaffolds critical thinking so with enough practice it will become second nature.


What is “abstracting?”

Being able to think in the abstract includes:

(a) Considering if the relationship can apply to a new context

(b) Considering if other factors may influence (or explain) the relationship

(c) Considering if the relationship (or parts of it) even exist at all

For example, when we evaluate a study in terms of external validity, were considering (a). Can the relationship shown in the study (all studies show relationships, remember) be applied to different people, places, situations, etc.?

When we’re considering internal validity, we’re considering (b) – are there other factors that could explain why the IV affected the DV? Construct validity is (c): does the IV in the study actually represent the variable (or behaviour) it’s trying to represent?

Despite common assumptions, all learning requires progression from knowledge to understanding to critical thinking. Thus, it’s important that in each lesson the teacher knows exactly what they want students to know and understand. Quite often the “abstracting” is about having students understand why it’s relevant, as they’ll be able to apply it outside of the classroom and in other contexts (i.e. they can independently think in the abstract about it). All Themantic Education resources take this planning stress away by providing the building blocks, guiding questions and abstraction extensions.

Critical thinking is about students being able to independently think in the abstract about significant relationships that they’ve been guided towards understanding.


An example

In lesson 2.2(d) in our criminology chapter, the guiding question asks students to explain how Bechara et al.’s study demonstrates the role of the vmPFC in decision making. The abstraction extension then gets students to consider how understanding this relationship might be applicable to other contexts, like studying or addiction. Being able to transfer learning in such a way and hypothesize other relationships, is central to students being able to continue to learn independently, as well as learning how to learn. This latter point is another cornerstone of the themantic model of curriculum: by scaffolding levels of thinking with concrete frameworks, scaffolds and metaphors, we can teach subject content as well as critical learning and thinking processes.


Three levels of learning outcomes

By having lessons that are devised around three levels of learning (knowing, understanding and abstracting) you can ensure that all students are learning, being challenged and working at an appropriate level. This idea is at the heart of the themantic model of curriculum design. Furthermore, the key to effective lesson plans is to throw the kids the building blocks, give them a problem to figure out (the guiding question) and see what they can come up with.

The biggest mistake I was making for years was trying to do whole class “critical thinking” teaching when students weren’t ready for it. Not every student will reach the abstraction extension level in every lesson, and that’s OK. In fact, the average is around 1/3 of kids will finish a lesson at each level. This is fine and it’s the reality of teaching. If we try to get students to evaluate studies when they can’t comprehend the methodology (knowing) or understand its significance in terms of what it demonstrates (understanding), we’re going to get evaluations like “this was a lab experiment so lacks ecological validity.” And this is the last thing we want to keep seeing!

One big piece of advice I have for IB Psychology teachers is not to think that the same level of “critical thinking” is going to be the same end goal for all students. We have to look at our students individually and make sure that our lessons are designed so they’re all learning at an appropriate level.


The benefits of themantic jargon

What we now have with the language of the themantic model is the terminology to clearly communicate student progress to students and parents (and dare I say, admin). We can make general comments like “Stephen shows good knowledge, but needs to put in more effort outside of class to reach understanding.” Or, “Asif is understanding what we’re learning, so now he needs to challenge himself to be able to critically reflect on his understanding by thinking in the abstract.” All classes are mixed ability and not every student will end each lesson, topic, unit or course at the same place. If that were to happen, it means we’ve got a class of one, or we’re holding some students back. The word “extension” is critical in the abstraction extensions, because they’re not designed for all students.

It might be important to note that the three levels of thinking not only apply to individual lessons, but also to topics and entire units. While the IB isn’t aware of it (yet), their assessments (and command terms) are designed based on these three levels of thinking. So just because a student doesn’t reach an abstraction extension in lesson, it’s not to say that by the end of a topic or whole unit that they won’t be able to think in the abstract about broader relationships.


I hope you can see the rationale behind some of the cornerstones of our themantic curriculum model (and why it’s called themantic and not thematic, as it goes a lot deeper than just loosely tying themes together). Perhaps it won’t fully make sense until you give it a go in your classroom. When you do, I’d love to hear the results.