A New Path for Organizational Learning? Developing Discipline Specific Higher Order Thinking Skills for Evidence-based Practice

I am thinking of two ways of addressing evidence-based practice.  These are two ways in which one may devise consultive approaches for moving organizations toward evidence-based practice.  The one I have been discussing lately is to evaluate the processes, practices and practice protocols in terms of the evidence for their validity.  A second way is an educational approach: to develop individual and team abilities in the higher order thinking skills that are necessary to collect and use evidence in daily decision-making.  This is the approach taken by  Middendorf and Pace (2004).  As Middendorf and Pace point out, the types of higher order skills that are needed in many situations are often tied to specific disciplinary ways of thinking rather than to generic formulas of higher order thinking skills.  Their way of modeling the analysis skills needed to interpret and apply evidence is called decoding the disciplines, which can be conceived as 7 steps to uncover and solve problematic or unsuccessful thinking:

  1. Identify Bottlenecks; places where evidence is not being used or where analysis is breaking down.
  2. Identify how experts respond to these types of situations
  3. Identify how expert thinking can be modeled
  4. Devise feedback methods to scaffold expert thinking
  5. Devise ways to motivate learners to progress toward expert thinkers
  6. Devise assessments to monitor progress
  7. Plan for sharing learning and making this approach a part of the organizational culture.

The latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (11-18-09) reports on the attempt to develop this approach at Indiana University in Bloomington.  David Pace’s history courses at IU attempts to develop two skills that he feels are core to the discipline of history: “assembling evidence and interpreting it”.

“Students come into our classrooms believing that history is about stories full of names and dates,” says Arlene J. Díaz, an associate professor of history at Indiana who is one of four directors of the department’s History Learning Project, as the redesign effort is known. But in courses, “they discover that history is actually about interpretation, evidence, and argument.”

The Chronicle reports that the history curriculum at IU is now organized around specific analytic skills and the different course levels by which they should be mastered.

Volume 98 of the journal New Directions for Teaching and Learning was devoted entirely to this topic.  It includes examples of the decoding methodology as it is applied to history, marketing, statistics, genetics, molecular biology, astronomy, the humanities, physiology, and a specific chapter devoted to supporting the assessment step.

I have a kind of initial excitement about this approach.  I’ve known that learning and education are important to all kinds of organizations today and I’ve always been enamored by the meme that businesses must become more like universities.  Decoding the Disciplines is a potential methodology that could crosses over between these two very different universes and also provide a model for organizational learning.


Middendorf, J. & Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98, 1-12.

available at http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part3/Decoding%20Middendorf.pdf

Glenn, D (2009). A Teaching Experiment Shows Students How to Grasp Big Concepts, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov 18, 2009.

4 thoughts on “A New Path for Organizational Learning? Developing Discipline Specific Higher Order Thinking Skills for Evidence-based Practice

  1. Hi Howard,

    I share your enthusiasm. A few moments I go I’ve forwarded the article to Denise Rousseau. She always advocates evidence informed decision making strategies in her classroom. For graduate students as well as senior managers who take executive MBA’s.

    However, I do have a few reservations about the proposed 7 step model. I think it will work fine within the perimeter of the classroom. In the business environment it will be a little bit more challenging. How does a manager tackle step 1? Where does a manager begin? He/she first has to wade through the abundance of business literature with management fads, refute the anecdotal evidence provided by the alchemists (interim managers and consultants alike) who sell fools gold and promise a high performance organization and then the most difficult step, gaining access to academic research in the online journals (e.g. ABI/INFORM and Business Source Premier). Even if the persist and find the evidence, they still have to appraise it in the context of their organization/situation.

    I’m now in the process of developing an experiment. This is my idea. One group of students will be trained in finding information in the online academic journals and be educated in search strategies. The control group isn’t. Next, they will receive an assignment with a management problem. The have to excavate the best available evidence. With this experiment I want to prove that the current knowledge infrastructure has some serious fallacies. My findings should result in an academic publication.

    I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Thanks for your comment Richard;
    I think a key to using this idea in business is in determining the framework in which experts are making decisions. I’m using the idea of a decision framework to take the place of a discipline for a business practice that is not related to a specifically discipline. I would then search for specific evidence that relates to making decisions within that framework.
    What I see IU doing in the history courses is teaching students how to “do” history as opposed to teaching them about history. This is similar to how Clifford Stoll in his TED talk taught his 8th grade students how to “be” a physicist when they measured the speed of light, instead of answering the questions at the end of the chapter, which would be studying about physics. In business, I think it is about teaching novices how to make decisions like experts, that is when experts are using evidence within a research supported framework.
    Your research sounds like a great idea. I’m looking forward to hearing more. Do you intend a qualitative or a quantitative design. Methodology is part of my ed psych background, so let me know if I can help out in any way.

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