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Bloom Schloom; or, some research what I have auto-didactically done

“Use Bloom’s taxonomy here for a quick win with Ofsted!!!!”
— AHT giving lesson observation preparation advice, sometime in 2013. [Note: the multiple exclamation points are to give the reader some indication of the evangelical zeal with which this advice was imparted.]

 

 “I can’t remember the last time I met a teacher who knew if Bloom’s taxonomy was ever criticised”   — Tom Bennett, Teacher Proof, Kindle Locations 191-192. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition 2013

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I must confess, at the outset, that Bloom’s taxonomy has never sat right with me: for example, is it always the case that creating is always more cognitively demanding than (say) applying? So, creating a story about how the dog ate my homework is more cognitively demanding than applying Einstein’s time dilation equation?

I thought I was alone in my scepticism until I came across Tom Bennett’s comment (quoted above). However, even our very own Ben Goldacre-style enfant terrible of the educational research world doesn’t put the boot in to Bloom’s flipping taxonomy any further, although he does do a good job on knocking down de Bono’s coloured hats (as well as several other pieces of educational “wisdom” that he reveals to be not so wise  — read the book!)

And so I present my Bennett-ian take on Bloom’s taxonomy, the fruit of at least one afternoon of casual internet research — I’m sorry I’ll rephrase that, Ernie Wise-style, as “the research what I have auto-didactically done”. (And please note that I do not mean to imply in any way shape or form that Tom Bennett’s research for his book was as slapdash and cursory as mine…)

A taxonomy is, in its essence, nothing more or less than a system of sorting or classifying. To my mind, Bloom’s taxonomy has more of the feel of a folk taxonomy than a scientific taxonomy. For example, the folk classification of the large plants in a garden as trees, shrubs or flowers would be more than adequate for the average layperson. However, a botanist or gardener would probably require a more rigorous classification system using actual detailed scientific observations of the characteristics of the plants, rather than a handwaving “it’s a bit bushy” or “it looks tree-y”.

At first glance, it might seem obvious that creating is more cognitively demanding than (say) applying. But is it? How do we know? It seems to me that in order to accept this as a fact we need a sound model of how the human mind actually works. Is it always the case that creating always trumps applying? From my (admittedly limited) understanding of neuroscience, it seems to me that creating involves many brain processes and that these are currently poorly understood. The same can be said of the brain processes involved in applying. As a consequence, to place the two in any sort of cognitive hierarchy is, at best, premature.

The danger is that Bloom’s taxonomy is prejudicial in the sense that it assigns relative value to certain nebulously-defined types of thinking. As psychologist Robert J. Sternberg says, such theories “often do not have the clarity in epistemological status” that is required of a scientific taxonomy. So what we are left with is a folk taxonomy common among educational practitioners.

But how common? As Brenda Sugrue notes, even fans of Bloom’s taxonomy do not always agree on the level of a given learning objective: “it might be classified into either of the two lowest levels [ . . . ] or into any of the four highest levels [ . . . ] by different designers.” Sugrue argues that Bloom’s taxonomy:

was developed before we understood the cognitive processes involved in learning and performance. The categories or “levels” of Bloom’s taxonomy … are not supported by any research on learning. The only distinction that is supported by research is the distinction between declarative/conceptual knowledge … and procedural knowledge (which enables application or task performance).

It might seem, therefore, that possibly Bloom’s taxonomy is not even a folk taxonomy within the educational community, but rather it is simply a taxonomy of personal preference with regard to educational objectives.

David Morrison-Love makes the point that “the contribution made by Bloom’s Taxonomy cannot be underestimated, as a communication system derived from classifying different types of exam questions”; but goes on to say that  he does “not view the elements in Bloom’s Taxonomy as successive levels, but simply a collection of equally important intellectual processes I wish to promote and develop in learners; the challenge of which I control.”

Many of the authors cited propose alternative systems to replace Bloom’s taxonomy. At the moment, I am not sure whether any of these are worth considering.

However, the point of this blog post is to warn you that if that ubiquitous multicoloured triangle is flashed without a caveat on to a training screen near you, it could be an indication that the presenter has not done his or her homework, and that his or her assurances that what they say is based on  what ” research shows” may not be as rock solid as they might appear.

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