Bloom’s Taxonomy is probably the most widespread and enduringly popular model in education. It was created in 1956 by Dr. Benjamin Bloom and colleagues at the Board of Examinations, University of Chicago. In 2001, the pyramid was revised by Lorin Anderson, a student of Bloom’s, resulting in Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.
Bloom’s Taxonomy focuses on learning outcomes. The very first thing that instructors need to think about is what students have to know by the end of the course. But each learning outcome needs an action to get to it. It’s hierarchical, requiring your students to achieve each level in succession—in order to understand a concept, you must remember it; to apply a concept you must first understand it, and so on.
There’s no doubt that this way of classifying educational objectives has been extremely useful to millions of teachers over the years. But for those who might not have had conclusively positive results adopting Bloom’s Taxonomy, it’s worth considering some more ways to think outside the pyramid. Here are three things you could bear in mind when using Bloom’s Taxonomy in your lesson planning.
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1. Cultivate judgment rather than transmit information
2. Start, rather than end, with creativity
3. Promote awareness instead of entrenching hierarchy
Bloom’s Taxonomy induces educators to begin with “lower order” tasks, arguing that students need to master these first. This means we front-load our courses with information: information that can be recalled, defined, identified, or one of the other objectives in the lowest layer of the pyramid.
But constructivist theories of learning—and our own classroom experiences—tell us that learning does not happen through information transference alone. Students are not empty vessels into which we pour definitions. They’re not going to truly understand something without interpreting it, questioning it, or relating to it.
So when designing your course, try to incorporate ways to strengthen and take advantage of their faculties of judgment.
What would it mean to cultivate judgement during a course? Start by doing. Engage your students to take action in some relevant way—through a lab experiment, for example, or by field research. Another way to do this is role-play. When I taught history, we started out by taking on the identities of various countries, coming to decisions supported by research and analysis. The historical facts—and there were many—were all taught in this context. In this way, facts are put into the service of learning, rather than becoming an initial goal in themselves.
As educator Shelley Wright has pointed out, Bloom’s Taxonomy gives the impression there’s a “scarcity of creativity.” Only those strong enough or talented enough to work their way up to the summit of the pyramid can be creative. The truth is that everybody is naturally creative—just think of a seven year-old at play—except that this way of being in the world is often squelched or squandered. Ken Robinson, for instance, has strongly argued that creativity is typically “educated out” of us.
What could it mean to start with creativity? Have your students create on day one. (OK, maybe day two or three.) Wright explains how this works for her media studies class. Instead of beginning by laying out design principles and the history of media, she gets the students to make an advert mockup. Then they compare their mockups to published adverts. Wright helps them analyze differences and introduces, through student-facilitated research, the major principles and concepts of design that help them explain their own creation and those of others.
A create-first approach could work just as well in courses that are theory-rich and fact-heavy such as philosophy, literature, or science. In environmental science, for example, ask students to propose a solution to deforestation or ocean acidification. Then, starting from their contributions, explore the principles, factors, concepts, contingencies at play, including the ones that were omitted. Have students compare their solutions to others’. Go on to elicit the principles involved, the recent literature in the area, articulate the concepts and the facts.
The stratification of Bloom’s Taxonomy into “lower” and “higher” order objectives sets up a value proposition. It leads educators to think that certain kinds of learning necessarily reflect superior kinds of cognition.
But as Roland Case argues, tasks at every level of Bloom’s Taxonomy can be performed thoughtfully or thoughtlessly. It is possible to defend a position in a completely superficial way. It is possible to propose a plan that lacks good judgment or analysis. It is possible to create something without building from a base of relevant knowledge. Indeed, that is why it’s necessary to practice and develop judgment, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving.
When Anderson and Krathwohl revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, they accounted for this with a second scale for assessment called The Knowledge Dimension. Each of the revised categories (Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create) should be assessed, they said, according to whether factual, conceptual, procedural or metacognitive knowledge is demonstrated.
If no category is higher or lower than any other, then leveling makes no sense. With proper consideration for The Knowledge Dimension, we are far from a pyramid… and always have been! But who knew? As Leslie Wilson points out, “what most educators are given in training is a simple chart listing levels and related accompanying verbs.”
Reshaping the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid
And so, if we want to engage students’ creativity, cultivate judgment and make sure that each stage of learning is fully developed, then reshaping the existing structure of Bloom’s Taxonomy could go a very long way. Instead of a pyramid, how about a mandala?
Strange things happen when we feel beholden to a structure. If lesson planning with Bloom’s Taxonomy hasn’t been working for you or your class, rethink the background on how it should be applied. Break down the hierarchy and rebuild.
Illustration credits: CC-BY 2.0 Vanderbilt University; CC-BY-SA 3.0 K. Aqinsqatsi.
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