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.