Bloom’s Taxonomy in Learning Development

Another post in my series re-visiting educational theory from my PGCE in the context of LD work! But this time, there’s one theory in particular from my teacher training which has stuck with me and which I draw on every single day in my Learning Development work – although I use it in a slightly unexpected way.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives was admitted by its own author to be one of the most cited but least read texts in education. I’ve read it – well, some of it – well, a bit of it – it’s pretty dense! It boils down to such a nice, concise, self-explanatory graphic  though that very few teachers have felt the need to return to the original book. As with many easily condensed, neatly depicted theories, however, it has at times been oversimplified and applied in far too rigid and literal a way. However, Bloom’s taxonomy has been so influential and impacts so directly on learners that I think it’s a key theory in the Learning Developer’s repertoire.

What is it?

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework for understanding and working with learning objectives. It was developed by a committee led by Bloom in the 1950s to help clarify learning outcomes and ensure that they were suitably complex and challenging for university study. It’s also used to design teaching activities appropriate to those outcomes, and align assessment methods too. Bloom’s taxonomy incorporates three dimensions of learning: the cognitive, affective and psychomotor, but it is the first that is most widely used. The taxonomy organises learning outcomes into six categories, progressing from the least to the most cognitively complex and challenging. Most commonly depicted as a pyramid, the cognitive dimension encompasses, from least to most complex:

  • Knowledge:  Remembering facts and information
  • Understanding: Making sense of information and explaining what it means
  • Application: Using theory or methods to explain, predict or guide practice, or applying knowledge to different contexts
  • Analysis: Breaking knowledge down into its constituent parts and establishing how the parts relate to one another (like dissection)
  • Synthesis: Bringing different bits of knowledge together to create something new (like cooking!)
  • Evaluation: Making a value judgement – good/bad? important/not important? Relevant/not relevant?

Bloom

A subsequent review of the taxonomy in 2001 reversed the top two levels, noting that synthesis, or creating new knowledge, should be regarded as more complex than evaluating existing knowledge, which seems fair enough!

How might it relate to Learning Development?

Implicitly or explicitly, Bloom underpins so much of the assumptions and language of teaching, learning and assessment. Universities publish marking criteria which not only assume a progressive complexity of objectives, but often also draw on the language of the taxonomy. Feedback is full of this language, and the way assignment questions are phrased alludes to it. However, the Learning Developer encounters three issues relating to Bloom’s taxonomy:

  • Where the language of Bloom’s taxonomy is explicitly invoked, it’s not very self-explanatory to students. Just giving them the marking criteria and referring back to it in feedback doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being transparent. Students know university study will be harder, but that doesn’t mean they automatically have a tangible sense of what that means in practice, often assuming it will be a quantitative, not qualitative difference (I remember one friend who’d done an undergraduate degree asking me what my PhD entailed – “what will you be doing, learning even more German?!”). Even lecturers may struggle to define what they mean in their discipline by a term such as ‘analysis’, though they know it when they see it.
  • While Bloom’s approach often underpins lecturers’ aspirations for their students’ learning, they themselves may not be explicitly familiar with it or aware of how the language they use relates to it. Thus students find themselves grappling with very vague terms like ‘explore’, ‘discuss’ ‘more depth’, ‘too descriptive’, neither they nor their lecturers always able to articulate in concrete terms what is meant. (I remember one lecturer telling me that “as long as the students know their stuff, they will be fine!”). And if it’s too implicit, we revert back to the problem that Bloom was initially trying to resolve in the 1950s – are our educational objectives valid?
  • Influential as it is, Bloom isn’t universally liked or accepted (there are other taxonomies). Criticisms that it might result in too narrow, mechanistic or prescriptive teaching and learning may be valid, if it’s applied too rigidly. And I’m not convinced that the six categories are in fact strictly sequential. However, in contrast to Educational Developers, who are staff-facing and work to bring about change – teaching and learning as it could or should be – we learning developers work with students to help them negotiate teaching and learning as it is, as they are currently experiencing it (which isn’t to say we don’t also push for change, but it’s not our primary focus). Bloom has been hugely influential, and is part of the teaching, learning and assessment landscape we’re helping them navigate. I’m not necessarily advocating for Bloom as a means to classify educational objectives, but I am working with it as an established fact of educational life.
  • Edited to add (after some debate on Twitter!) – this includes working with all the misunderstandings of Bloom. It’s often interpreted as a hierarchy (it’s not, it’s a taxonomy), as a model of learning or as a process for teaching (it isn’t and was never intended to be). The pyramid diagram, which it’s most often presented as, is often criticised as an over-simplistic representation of learning- but it doesn’t actually appear in Bloom’s original (and you’ll find other diagrammatic reworkings of it other than the pyramid). However, all of these misapplications impact on students, and the Learning Developer needs to be aware of them and factor them into their discussion with students!

How might we teach it to students?

It was Bloom’s taxonomy that made me wonder why we aren’t more open about the ways we’re working with students – they’re adults, and intelligent ones, so why not share with them the models that guide our, and therefore their, practice? It’s rare that I could go through a day and not in some way refer back to Bloom – unpacking the language or unpicking the notion of progressive cognitive complexity it rests on. I use Bloom in a slightly different way to its original purpose, however. I use it as a heuristic, an interpretative framework, with students.

I use it to help students understand the expectations on them at each level of transition (“what does ‘more difficult, advanced, harder’ mean?“), or to help them examine what they understand by ‘learning’ (or “knowing your stuff“), what they value vs what their lecturers prize, or to unpack the way an assignment is phrased and spot the invitations or opportunities to demonstrate higher order thinking (“does ‘discuss’ just mean ‘talk about’, or something more?“). I use it to help interpret feedback and marks with them (“too descriptive means you’re demonstrating a lot of knowledge and understanding – it’s good that you have that knowledge, but what do you do with it?“), and see where they could push themselves more. I use it as an editing tool to highlight the proportion of their writing which is lower or higher order thinking, balancing breadth and depth. “Knowledge and understanding is what you have, from your lectures and reading”, I tell them. “we’re interested also in what you can DO with or to it. Don’t find an answer – make one”.  A simpler version of Bloom which I sometimes use is ICE – Ideas Connections Extensions.

How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

Learning developers’ use of Bloom is going to largely be less involved that that of academic colleagues who are planning formal programmes of study, modules, marking criteria and assessments. However, Bloom’s taxonomy is still a useful nudge to us when planning our workshops or also in one-to-one work, to ensure we’re challenging students to an appropriate level and using activities which reflect the complexity of what we’re asking them to learn. Given that emancipatory, student-centred, holistic practice is central to my work, Bloom is a useful reminder to me not just to focus on telling students things and giving them knowledge and understanding. They will need to switch independently between different discourses and codes, so I need to make sure they can analyse academic discourse and practice for themselves and apply the principles they derive. I also need to encourage them to evaluate the strategies we’re discussing and reflect on whether they are right for them individually, and to synthesise these into their own approach. It would be nice to be the fount of all knowledge, telling students all they need to know, but it would do them no favours, even if I knew all the answers, so Bloom is a reminder to me not to take the easy route. It’s also a reminder not to overlook the other two, often neglected, domains – the role of the affective in learning, and the impact of the psychomotor domain even on the cognitive.

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