Spend time in any school talking to teachers and even students about thinking and learning and you are likely to hear the phrase ‘Bloom's taxonomy' passed around. More than likely you will see it displayed on a wall as a set of processes learners engage with when working in the cognitive domain. Quite possibly it will be arranged in a pyramid or as a ladder with knowledge at the bottom and either evaluating or creating at the top. It might be labeled as 'High Order Thinking' and the teacher in the room is apt to inform you of how his or her students are encouraged to spend more time thinking towards the top of the ladder than the bottom. Despite the enthusiasm many teachers have for Bloom’s and the work of its lead author Benjamin, few educators have read the ‘Handbook’ that outlines its structure and most of the lovely posters leave out two key components. Beyond this aspect though there is a better way to imagine Bloom’s Taxonomy that sees it more as a 'choose you own adventure’ than a ladder to be climbed one rung at a time.
Sadly when most educators think of Bloom’s they think of just the single domain, the Cognitive, that rules so much of what we do in education. Had we focused on all three domains equally we may have better understood the part we do use and be much closer to a holistic view of education where the ‘Affective’ and ‘Psychomotor’ domains are viewed as equals to the cognitive. It is a shame that partly due to our obsession with Bloom’s we ignore the important aspects of our student’s feelings (hearts) and their doings (hands) despite these clearly playing a part in the taxonomy.
Since its introduction Bloom’s Taxonomy has been revised, revered and reflected on both positively and critically. I do not intend to enter into debate here on the quality of the research behind the taxonomy or lack of evidence for the hierarchy itself. The reality is that Bloom’s has become entrenched within the language of learning and this alone gives its power as a learning tool. What I would like to do is suggest a use for it that sees it as more than just an aspirational ladder but as a tool where each rung has value and may assist in driving learning forward.
Begin by moving past the idea that Bloom’s is a hierarchy with the implication of a linear progression of thinking from most simple towards most complex or valuable. See it instead as an intermeshed set of cognitive tasks that we combine and re-combine as our learning needs change. Such a process is particularly relevant to an inquiry process and using Bloom’s as an adjunct scaffold in this way can help students reflect on their learning. The process of inquiry might start anywhere on this jumbled up Taxonomy and where it progresses to next depends upon the learners progress through the task of solving a problem, creating a solution or refining an idea.
Typically the students will start with a question, one they have been given or one that they discovered or imagined. If it is their question the process most likely commenced before the question was formed with some wondering or evaluation of a piece of knowledge they had found. Once we have a question we can proceed and where the student goes next depends on what they already know or believe they know about the question. Maybe they do begin with a quest for knowledge but maybe they begin with a process of evaluating what they know. At times it might be appropriate to begin with creating a solution, as is the case when a ‘fail fast’ design process is applied. The next cognitive step depends on the results of the first. Try a new idea through a creative idea and when it fails you are likely in need of some evaluating. Maybe you are applying what you learned and re-testing. Maybe you found some interesting pieces of knowledge and now need to understand what you have absorbed.
The key is that the learning process is never neat, it is messy with lots of back and forth movement. There is no straight line path to learning and using the right type of thinking at the right time is more important than using the wrong skills even if it is a high order skill. ‘Evaluating’ when you should be ‘Applying knowledge’ or when you have no knowledge to ‘Evaluate’ will not help your learning move forward and nor should ‘Creating’ or ‘Evaluating’ only come at the end of a learning journey.
If you do have a lovely set of posters for Bloom’s Taxonomy consider taking them down from the wall and using them with your students as a set of cards. Ask the students which card are they using in their learning now, which card might they use next and so on. Ensure the cards are mixed up and be careful to not let your old beliefs about their hierarchical value of these skills block your students from choosing the right card for their learning. You might find that suddenly your students are genuinely excited by that old taxonomy on the wall and use its language to describe their learning adventures.
by Nigel Coutts
Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; Bloom's taxonomy - http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/bloomtax.htm