There’s Something About Benjamin, Part I

Making Bloom’s Taxonomy Useful

I haven’t written much about my work as Distance Learning Coordinator at Binghamton University (in fact, I’m just now creating a category called “Instructional Design” for this blog, so that’s revealing).  But as I approach the culmination of my work, I feel the need to publicly work out a few theoretical issues I’m running into.

One of the last projects for the Philosophy Department is the creation of a distance learning resource website.  This includes sample syllabi and projects, links to campus resources and university policies, as well as technology guides.  Most importantly, it includes instructions and best practices for the creation of courses.  One the primary resources is focused on the design of learning objectives and corresponding activities and assessments.  This is where things are getting interesting.

Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the most prominent guides to organizing learning objectives.  It was created by a committee under the direction of Benjamin Bloom in 1956 and has been widely used ever since.  Type “Bloom’s taxonomy” into a search engine and you will get hundreds of thousands of results (hey, it’s a lot for a specific technical schema!).  Many of these results will be simple statements of the taxonomy with perhaps a few example verbs for each and(if you’re lucky) sample activities or assignments.  The first result on Google is probably the best example of this, as it even includes the less well-known affective and psychomotor domains of the taxonomy (although I’m only going to focus on the cognitive).  Regardless, each site on Bloom’s will include verbs and activities to help guide the instructor.

Here’s the problem: there seems to be little consistency in what verbs to use for each domain (outside the lowest level of Knowledge/Remember) and very little practical advice on what assignments to use when.

I think this has led to Bloom’s taxonomy getting a bad rap.  In fact, a decade ago an article by Brenda Sugrue made the rounds of the blogosphere explicitly calling Bloom’s out on being inconsistent and ineffective.  And that article is right.

So why am I about to defend Bloom’s taxonomy?

Because Bloom’s taxonomy is meant to be used for a specific purpose and the problems attached to it are essentially the result of it being misapplied.  The taxonomy is primarily meant to be used to produce forms of assessment.  In a nutshell:  the purpose of the taxonomy can be completely boiled down to “Create Learning Objectives and related assignments.”  And Bloom’s, with careful planning and thought, does this very well.

Let’s take the potential problems with Bloom’s taxonomy one at a time:

1) Invalid: Research does not support the taxonomy.

If you are treating Bloom’s as an accurate representation of the cognitive organization of the learner’s mind, you are in for a nasty surprise.  As is pointed out here, our understanding of the human mind has advanced at an incredible rate since the taxonomy was originally formulated.  And what do we know?  That there are not six levels of learning.  There are two: declarative/conceptual knowledge (ability to state information) and procedural knowledge (ability to use knowledge).  Declarative/conceptual clearly corresponds to the first two levels of the taxonomy: Remember and Understand.  Procedural, then, corresponds to the remaining four levels: Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create.  Critics point out that this means Bloom’s is really just a two level hierarchy.

2) Unreliable: What kinds of learning objectives belong in what levels varies across designers.

You just need to browse the search results for Bloom’s taxonomy to see that this is true.  When I first encountered Bloom’s a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that Application could simply be reduced to Understanding or Analysis.  However, I was wrong on this (and other similar kinds of statements) because I misunderstood the function of the taxonomy.  I suspect that this is the biggest problem for Bloom’s: most people who apply it don’t actually understand it.  It this a problem with the taxonomy itself?  No.  Might it be a reason to shelve it?  Yes.  Bloom’s is the most well-known classification of learning objectives.  If it is consistently misunderstood, then it is possibly doing more harm than good.

3) Impractical: The taxonomy is useless for diagnosing learning problems because these problems can usually be divided into the two levels of knowledge: declarative/conceptual and procedural.

For instance: Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create are all dependent on the accurate application of the relevant procedures.  If the student isn’t competent at those procedures, then they are not going to be able to demonstrate their ability in a specific knowledge area.   Yet . . . this is the reason why these are higher levels in the hierarchy.  Technically, Remember and Understand are also the application of procedures, but they are procedures that we are likely to be more practiced in (although we likely aren’t that great at them, even when we get to college) and so operate more at the level of ability and traits.  As we move up the hierarchy, the procedures become more complex and more independent and so needed to be foregrounded until they are also translated into abilities.   Even if the problems can be broken down into two levels, this doesn’t mean that the higher levels can’t provide more meaning.  If I can pinpoint the particular procedure the student is having a problem with, then Bloom’s is useful.

Accepting the three points as justifiable and understandable reasons for rejecting Bloom’s taxonomy, why do I still insist that it is useful?

Used properly–with understanding of knowledge types, not just the levels of learning–Bloom’s taxonomy is a powerful tool for designing learning objectives and selecting means of assessment.  Keeping in mind the limitations of Bloom’s helps improve the way we use it.  And doing this has to be the goal of any good resource on Bloom’s taxonomy.

How would one go about presenting Bloom’s Taxonomy in a way that is explicitly and pointedly focused on concrete assessment, in a way that is clear and easy to follow?

For the answer (or at least a valiant attempt), stand by for Part II . . . .

Comments 4

  1. avatar Cris (@Cris2B) wrote:

    It’s good to see you back in the blogger’s seat, Brandon!

    Couple of ideas:

    Yes, I’m with you on the value of Bloom’s for assessment but if you “begin with the end in mind” then you create your assessment criteria first (which are essentially your outcomes) so same difference. Assessment >Instruction<Assessment

    And, yes, the terms are sufficiently vague to be totally confusing. Prime example for me is with the Revised Bloom's some teachers say that students creating a PowerPoint is creative. Well, no, that's procedural knowledge, the how-to, but the content determines the level of creativity achieved.

    btw how do you feel about the Revised Bloom's —

    Posted 09 Oct 2012 at 2:14 am
  2. avatar Brandon wrote:

    Thanks for the feedback,Cris! Let’s see if I can add to this through my medicine-fueled haze.

    Okay, second point first:

    Although I think the vaguest relationship is between understanding, application, and analysis, I think the most misunderstood level is create. The content is important, but it’s not even the content that determines the level of creativity–it’s simply the goal. So, if a student creates a PowerPoint that conveys all they key terms and concepts (for example) this is just at the level of understanding. Yes, they created a PowerPoint, but what they produced only demonstrated ability at the level of understanding. Technically, there is creation at almost every level, but that’s not what the Create level points to: it points to the ability of the student to put together information in a way that creates new information. So arguing for a point using concepts learned in class would be creation. This is why, although I generally prefer the revised taxonomy, I think the original is better is in the Synthesis/Create distinction because it emphasizes the appropriate activity.

    The assessment first thing is exactly where I want to end up. Does that mean there’s no point to Bloom’s? I don’t think so, I think it allows us to understand the relationship between the different levels and focusing on particular kinds of activities to achieve certain assessments, but . . . . Then again, maybe I’m just attached to Bloom’s taxonomy and don’t want to get rid of it. I’m completely rewriting part II right now (after it went on a 6000 word tangent), let’s see if I can find a positive reason to keep Bloom’s!

    Posted 09 Oct 2012 at 10:43 am
  3. avatar Cris (@Cris2B) wrote:

    No way I’m giving up Bloom’s until something better comes along. I’m with you that even though flawed there’s still much value in going through the reflective process to plan better assessment-instruction.

    I think taxonomies like this really serve as cognitive tools for use to hang our hats on. Pink’s Six Elements of Creativity is another that I like to use —

    Posted 12 Oct 2012 at 3:59 am
  4. avatar Brandon wrote:

    I’m not familiar with Pink’s Six Elements. Looks interesting!

    And you’re right, of course, the main strength of any taxonomy is provide us with a way to organize our teaching–it’s an important cognitive tool. Of course that doesn’t mean that some cognitive tools aren’t better than others . . .

    Posted 12 Oct 2012 at 10:45 am

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  1. From (Parenethical) - There’s Something About Benjamin, Part II on 11 Oct 2012 at 11:26 am

    […] Last time, I laid out reasons to reject Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This time I want to look at whether the taxonomy is a useful tool for the design of instruction and assessment. […]

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