Still in Bloom

Tulips in bloomLast Monday I observed a colleague in the sciences begin a course by describing Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, explaining what skills the course was building upon, and what skills it aimed to enhance and test. Later in the day I overheard a colleague in the humanities introduce Bloom’s taxonomy in class as well. I, too, had planned to bring it up during the first week in order to conceptualize different types of discussion questions.

I don’t think that this confluence was a random occurrence or simply hometown pride (Bloom was born and raised in Lansford, just south of Hazleton). Bloom’s taxonomy continues to have a solid grip on our pedagogical imaginations. We hope our students will move beyond knowledge and comprehension, and we encourage them to develop the higher skills up the pyramid: application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

First published in 1956, the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives has been cited in 16,000 academic papers. But even this underestimates its influence. After all, physicists today do not cite Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity. They don’t have to; that they are doing modern physics at all attests to Einstein’s influence on their work.

That’s not to say that Bloom has gone unchallenged. For one thing, some researchers have renamed the six stages of the taxonomy and flipped the positions of synthesis and evaluation at the top of it. Others have gone further, arguing that the taxonomy has misplaced teachers’ priorities, overvaluing passing judgment on things and underemphasizing the discovery of new knowledge.

Stanford’s Sam Wineburg and Jack Schneider, writing in the Phi Delta Kappan in 2009, ask, “Was Bloom’s Taxonomy Pointed in the Wrong Direction?” Their study presented high school AP American history students and grad students of (non-American) history with the same 1892 document, a decree by Benjamin Harrison establishing a federal “Discovery Day” in honor of Christopher Columbus. There is an interesting contrast in the students’ responses.

The high school students responded by climbing “the Bloomian peak” (58), drawing from background knowledge about Columbus to make an evaluation of Harrison’s statement, seeing a vast distance between Harrison’s praise of Columbus and the facts of Columbus’s voyage and character. The graduate students–experts less in American history than in historical thinking–focused first on the document’s context, connecting it with burgeoning immigration from Catholic Europe and Harrison’s hope to appease this new wave of potential Republican voters.

Wineburg and Schneieder do not mean to denigrate these bright AP students. Still, they saw the grad students’ thinking proceed on a higher order. Making an effective evaluation of the document was the grad students’ starting point. Their ending point was learning why Harrison made the decree. New knowledge.

In fact, Wineburg has had a hand in shaping the teaching of history in some Bay Area high schools. In this classroom, the question, “is the document credible?” is among the first to consider; the AP students he and Schneider interviewed concluded their thinking by answering that question.

Despite this apparent conflict, Wineburg’s and Schneider’s approach may not be all that opposed to Bloom’s. We can know that Harrison was president in 1892 and that Harrison hoped to turn Italian-Americans into Republicans, but these seem like two different kinds of knowledge. If knowledge is always revisable, then isn’t creating new knowledge a form of evaluation?

Do you think in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy in designing course goals, activities, or assignments? Have you found the taxonomy limiting in any way? Why do you think it has held the pedagogical imagination of college faculty for so many years? Share your thoughts in the comments thread.

Photo by stock.xchng user seesky. Creative Commons licensed.

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2 responses to “Still in Bloom

  1. I don’t use Bloom’s taxonomy in any systematic way, but I would say that it has informed my teaching since I learned about it in my first semester at King’s. I try to separate the lower level objectives (knowing, comprehending) from the upper by, for example, having students summarize an argument before evaluating its strength or validity, when they would really prefer to jump right in with their own point of view. Paraphrasing exercises are useful for helping students see the importance of comprehending an author’s point before using that point in some manner (to bolster an argument, for example). But I often DO allow, even invite, my students to jump right into a discussion about an author and work backwards from there, trying, though, to keep an eye on the difference between accurately representing what an author said and responding to or using that knowledge. So, besides a rough understating of these two broad categories—
    (comprehending/responding? objective/subjective? fact/opinion?), I don’t make conscious use of the taxonomy. Another thought does occur to me, though: the taxonomy did give me a lot of helpful language to use when creating assignments (recommend, support, identify, restate, illustrate, and so on). That language is available in many places, of course, but the taxonomy helped me think about what it was that I was asking my students to do when I created a writing prompt. (By the way, when I started here, another model was distributed to new teachers: Perry’s Model of Intellectual and Ethical Development, which I found useful.)