Why rethink Bloom’s?
The language of Bloom’s taxonomy is one of those enduring discourses that seems to pervade all schools. Whether it is used as a basis to create a replacement system for life without levels, frame learning objectives, adorned on bookmarks given to students, on colourful posters in classrooms to prompt questions, or any other number of wonderful variations, the one thing I am certain of is that Bloom’s is pretty much the most widely known taxonomy amongst teachers. But what if this popular model was actually doing more harm than good? What if it was actually widening the achievement gap?
Bloom originally created the taxonomy as a model of assessment, as a way of classifying and assessing learning outcomes. The intention was that outcomes should interrelate closely with each outcome subsuming the level before it. It’s important to make note of this as the original model was intended to allow educators to deduce the particular outcomes which students had mastered based on an assessment of a difficult but closely aligned task.
What appears to have happened over time is that what was initially intended as a model of assessment, has become a model of teaching. And before I go any further it is probably worth saying that “higher order” and “lower order” don’t appear anywhere in Bloom’s taxonomy. As this maladaptation of the taxonomy has taken hold across classrooms and schools, it has led to several important, but unintended, consequences.
The limitations of using Bloom’s as a teaching model.
Using Bloom’s as a model of teaching has equated to teachers using it to decide when and how outcomes should be covered. In particular, it appears to have led to teaching practices which prevent so called “higher order” tasks being attempted before “lower order” tasks have been mastered. How many times do you hear (and I have been guilty of this) a teacher say, “But my student can’t attempt analysis or evaluation because they can’t recall or comprehend.”
The taxonomy has been broadened so that it is now used as a way of sequencing activities with the assumption that students have to be given a lower order task before they can undertake any higher order task on the same general topic. This is where the earlier point about closely aligned tasks is important. In the generalisation of the model, it is this aspect which has been most lost – activities are simply sequenced without any regard as to whether they overlap or whether the higher order tasks are more difficult than the lower order tasks. Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it starkly when she writes in Understanding by Design that differentiation by Bloom’s taxonomy is simply “indefensible”.
Does Bloom’s lower expectations of thinking?
My biggest worry about the shift that has happened in the use of the model is that by using Bloom’s taxonomy without proper regard to its original conception, we have actually failed to encourage the thinking which teachers are so adamant that using this model promotes. I fear we are in fact simply lowering our expectations of thinking, and consequently increasing the achievement gap.
I spent the day with one of my mentees last year and he spent the whole day ‘describing’, excluded from the more engaging and demanding tasks. I remember sitting with him in English while he had to complete a cloze review whilst some of his classmates were able to create a far more interesting review for a specified genre, audience and purpose. And this wasn’t because he had poor teachers, all of them were doing this with honest intentions. But the misapplication of Bloom’s had unintentionally led to a lowering of expectations, and promoted a view that higher order tasks were inherently more difficult than lower order tasks. Whilst this is obviously the case if the tasks are closely aligned, it is not a natural leap to then assume that students can’t attempt a more accessible version of the higher order tasks.
In the English example I have just given, why couldn’t my mentee have been expected to also create a review? Whilst he may have needed more support in terms of scaffolding by either doing some preliminary work on effective review writing, or considering the impact of contextual factors on writers’ choices, or even in the content which he was reviewing, there was no reason why he couldn’t still have attempted the same task as the most able students. How many of our students spend their days languishing at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy?
The danger of using Bloom’s stems to phrase learning objectives.
My other more recent concern relates to the ubiquitous use of Bloom’s taxonomy stems when phrasing any kind of learning which teachers want to take place. Again, I have been there. I remember creating chequebooks and laminated stem cards to cover every kind of verb going in Bloom’s taxonomy. But the more I see, the more I think that this over-reliance on the stems is actually creating less thinking, rather than more thinking.
Of course Bloom did attach verbs to each level of cognition but these somehow now seem to have taken on a mythical power of their own – that by simply using them, it’s enough for a particular type of higher order thinking to occur. More often than not though, I see students simply going through the motions. Every type of thinking can be undertaken consciously or unconsciously. You cannot detach evaluative thinking from all other levels – all disciplined thinking requires some kind of evaluative thinking. Explaining something is not just a mechanical process. It requires all sorts of thinking around what exactly to say and is underpinned by an appreciation and consideration of the audience, purpose and genre for which one is writing. To increase challenge for all we need to explicitly scaffold the critical reflection needed for every level of thinking regardless of its position on an hierachy.
Teachers can be resistant to any debate around Bloom’s, and indeed other taxonomies such as SOLO. It’s as if it has become so accepted into the folklore of schools that it has to be right. I have done much work around learning design and how to structure learning so that all students are expected to achieve the same end point. I will share some of these practical strategies in a later post but would love to hear in the meantime any responses to this.
What I do know is that if we are to promote thinking within our schools, we need to do a little more thinking ourselves.