My beef with Bloom’s

The picture is perhaps appropriate.

I recently had a comment on an old post asking why I have an issue with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and it’s something I’ve been asked about before. The common criticisms that are made of Bloom’s relate to (a) the poorly defined nature of the levels of hierarchy and (b) the ordering of those poorly-defined things within the hierarchy.

I largely agree with both of these points. Terms like ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation’ are so broad that they could mean just about anything. Similarly, I just do not see how the lower levels of the taxonomy are necessarily logically prior to the higher levels. Could one really claim to have understood wave-particle duality and yet be unable to evaluate the outcome of a double-slit experiment? Can one comprehend the causes of the English Reformation without having analysed the way in which those causes relate to one another?

These issues alone would make me want to question whether I should be thinking in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy for setting objectives, structuring questions or marking work (leaving aside for the moment that these are quite different things!).

Someone who wants to defend Bloom’s Taxonomy might object here and say something like ‘but the terms do kind of mean something, and we could remove them from a hierarchy and treat them as different kinds of objectives.’

I would disagree with this attenuated form of Bloom’s as well.

As I have written about before, the best objectives and mark schemes I can use are those which are specific to my subject. If a student hands me a piece of work on the consequences of the Norman Conquest, then I might comment on how they hadn’t addressed the cultural consequences of the battle, or perhaps they had spent too long considering the short-term consequences and not enough the long-term consequences. This is useful feedback, and I want my pupils to spend as much time thinking about this feedback as possible.

But what if I am forced to use Bloom’s Taxonomy? I then have to dress up what I know to be the real weaknesses of the work (the lack of emphasis on cultural consequences, or the imbalance between short-term and long-term consequences in the work) in the language of ‘analysis’, ‘synthesis’ and so on. The feedback ‘you need to be more analytical’ is far less useful than ‘you need to spend more time addressing long-term consequences’, and I reckon the majority of pupils I have taught would be more confused by the former than the latter.

So for me it’s an Ockham’s Razor kind of situation. Rather than unnecessarily overcomplicate my objectives and my feedback, I would much rather focus on what the real issues are. Using a generic model like Bloom’s Taxonomy obfuscates the problems I want pupils to address, whereas I can state those problems far more clearly, explicitly and succinctly in the language of my own discipline.

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4 Comments on My beef with Bloom’s

  1. Christine Counsell // 28 September 2014 at 10:39 // Reply

    Another way of making this case is to say that using Blooms is simply redundant. One argument I hear for Blooms, often from a senior management perspective, is that we want pupils to think, to be reflective, to solve problems, to make connections, rather than simply learn ‘stuff’ (i.e. content). Why do they imagine that any of these things need to be ‘imported’? I cannot think of a strong history lesson where, as a central part of knowledge-building and knowledge-reinforcement (that is, the disciplinary ‘shaping’ of information to make knowledge), where pupils are not being required to think, reflect, solve a problem or make a connection, usually explicitly.

    Strong history lessons and lesson sequences blend deep knowledge growth with a variety of discipline-specific forms of thinking, requiring pupils to discern and characterise a type of argument in another’s work, build their own arguments, and, increasingly as they gain stronger knowledge moorings, make sense of how historians have construed the past differently, and so on. More basically, I cannot even read a page of a history book and hope to comprehend it without making connection, applying prior knowledge, construing particular historical problems, finding resolutions that make a narrative make sense. Strong history teachers make sure that thinking about what really matters, in the interests of acquisition and transformation of those knowledge structures, is what pupils focus on.

    Well-trained history teachers, ones who know the history of the teaching of their own subject (that is, curricular-pedagogic problems other history teachers have analysed or solved over the last thirty years; shifts in policy and practice; trends in research…) do this using precise language, nuanced according to the historical topic, historical terms, the historical problem and, where appropriate, the kind of historical argument being developed. That pupils are ‘analysing’ or ‘applying’ is beyond question. Therefore, to be forced to make carefully planned subject-specific progress fit Blooms’ crude, blunt categories, creating false and unnecessary distinctions, is not only distortive and distracting from the important issues in the subject journey, it is based on a profoundly mistaken assumption: that there is a deficit within the subject discipline in the first place, one that must be ‘filled’.

    Jamie Byrom put this brilliantly twenty years ago when he ran a workshop for history teachers entitled, ‘How to avoid initiative overload by teaching history well’. Then in the litany of initiatives requiring teachers to produce yet another column in their workschemes, yet another audit, yet another set of extraneous objectives or principles that teachers had to render explicit in their opening remarks, it was ‘thinking skills’. Later it was PLTS, Learning to Learn, SEAL…. Now it is Blooms.

    I don’t think this will end until we solve the problem of the vacuum or absence of a discourse of senior CURRICULAR leadership in schools. We need a serious, sophisticated curricular discourse at senior level, one that takes subject disciplines and subject knowledge seriously, examining convergence and divergence across subjects and looking for the superficial, the profound and the necessary in that convergence/divergence. Otherwise, the vacuum will continue to be filled with the latest ‘good thing’, which is, indeed, on the surface, a good thing, but which curricular knowledge would expose as a poor tool when construed as a good in itself and when ripped apart from its object – the knowledge, the discipline, the art and the peculiar forms of thinking they require in knowledge acquisition and transformation.

    Even more important than a deputy head in charge of teaching and learning is a deputy head in charge of curriculum, one who is knowledgeable enough to lead staff debate on these issues of central importance to the core business of a classroom.

  2. I prefer to use the Anderson and Krathwohl updated taxonomy and I find it very useful.

    I have done a considerable amount of research into the taxonomy and it’s use and although I can’t speak for Bloom I believe Anderson and Krathwohl would not disagree with much of your blogpost. The exception would be the part where you describe your beef.

    I believe the same could be said for Christine’s comment. Anderson and Krathwohl would I think support most of what Christine has said, other than the part where she suggests that “Bloom is redundant”.

    Bloom suggested that the original model was incomplete when it was published. Anderson and Krathwohl and other members of the original Bloom team updated and improved the model. To that extent I agree that Bloom is in fact redundant, not because it has no use but because it has been superceeded.

    I wonder how many people have read the original Bloom book and literature plus the Anderson and Krathwohl book and literature. Not many I would guess.

    • Yes, I’m familiar with the Anderson and Krathwohl model but I do not think it is really any more useful. My argument (and Christine’s) is not that existing generac taxonomies are bad and, if only we could produce a good one, we would solve our problems. Rather, we think the *very idea* of a generic taxonomy for setting objectives and assessing pupils (the latter being how the taxonomies are increasingly used) is intellectually bankrupt.

      For starters, Anderson & Krathwohl still suffer from (a) the hierarchical structure of objectives and (b) the poorly defined terms.

      But, for me and Christine, it’s the redundancy of generic taxonomies that is the problem.

      As a subject specialist, I can use the language, structure, hierarchies and objectives of my own subject discipline to set educational objectives and assess whether these have been met. As these are not generic (i.e. common to all subjects) they are necessarily more specific and more relevant to what is being learnt. This is what makes them (a) more useful and (b) more understandable, because the objective is integral to the nature of what is being learned.

      Trying to shoe-horn subject-specific, disciplinary objectives into a generic taxonomy is probably always going to corrupt those objectives. And, given that I can set perfectly meaningful, specific and helpful objectives without any reference whatsoever to generic taxonomies, then why should I or any other teacher over-complicate things? Education is complicated enough already – parsimony is our friend.

      Practicalities aside, I also have a deep philosophical issue with generic taxonomies. They assume that the process of learning all subjects is the same – it is just the ‘content’ that differs. As I explained in this post (http://wp.me/p3JKe3-31), I just do not think this is the case.

  3. Prof. (Dr.) Sudhiranjan Dey // 21 October 2014 at 09:49 // Reply

    The taxonomies are like living life under dictatorship. If someone is a teacher and have his or her own mind, must be allowed to maintain their individuality and uniqueness in teaching, learning, evaluation and relearning process.

    As rightly pointed out “terms like ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation’ are so broad that they could mean just about anything”. As a teacher-examiner in any level the person is capable in questioning his or her own students to check about their learning, understanding and expected outcomes in their own language.

    It is meaningless and sheer inadequacy to follow somebody’s thoughts which came in almost a century back out of context in today’s world.

    The part of academic fraternity who are seeking to stick to these old fashioned rules are killing the individual talents of both teacher and also the students severely damaging the future of them as well as the true potentials of individuals, connected to the holistic development of academics with direct negative impacts on the community, society, industry, business and economy.

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