Sunday, March 01, 2020

Bloom (1913-1999) - Taxonomy of learning… not a hierarchy…

One famous paper by Benjamin Bloom, The 2 Sigma Problem, compared the lecture, formative feedback lecture and one-to-one tuition. Taking the straight lecture as the mean, he found an 84% increase in mastery above the mean for a formative approach to teaching and an astonishing 98% increase in mastery for one-to-one tuition. Google’s Peter Norvig famously said that if you only have to read one paper to support online learning, this is it. In other words, the increase in efficacy for one-to-one because of the increase in on-task learning is immense. This paper deserves to be read by anyone looking at improving the efficacy of learning as it shows hugely significant improvements by simply altering the way teachers interact with learners. Online learning, in the widest sense of the word promises what Bloom called ‘one-to-one learning’, whether it’s through self-paced structured learning, scenario-based learning, simulations or informal learning.

Bloom’s taxonomy

However, Bloom is far better known for his hugely influential classification of learning behaviours and provided concrete measures for identifying different levels of learning. His taxonomy includes three overlapping domains:
Cognitive (knowledge)
Psychomotor (skills)
Affective (attitude)
It was devised to assist teachers to classify educational goals and plan and evaluate learning experiences. Unfortunately, this is about as far as most people get. They rarely dig deeper into his further six levels in the cognitive, six different aspects of psychomotor skills and his less useful, three types of affective.

Cognitive domain (knowledge-based)

In the original version of the taxonomy, the cognitive domain is broken into the following six levels of objectives:
Knowledge
Comprehension
Application
Analysis
Synthesis
Application
In the 2001 revised edition of Bloom's taxonomy, by his student Anderson, the levels are slightly different:

Remember
Understand
Apply
Analyze
Evaluate
Create (rather than Synthesise)
Note that there is no sense of higher and lower here, as they are often represented in diagrams.

Psychomotor domain (action-based)

Skills in the psychomotor domain describe the ability to physically manipulate a tool or instrument like a hand or a hammer. Psychomotor objectives usually focus on change and/or development in behavior and/or skills.

Affective domain (emotion-based)

Skills in the affective domain describe the way people react emotionally and their ability to feel other living things' pain or joy. Affective objectives typically target the awareness and growth in attitudes, emotion, and feelings.

Updates

Bloom published his now famous taxonomy of learning in 1956. Few realise that this taxonomy is now over 60 years old. There have been lots of taxonomies since then that slice and dice, many variations on existing categories. Indeed we've had dozens of taxonomies that sliced and diced in all sorts of ways.  

We seem to have got stuck in the Bloom taxonomy. Bloom published his now famous taxonomy of learning in 1956. Few realise that this taxonomy is now well over 60 years old. There have been lots of taxonomies since then that slice and dice, many variations on existing categories. Indeed we've had dozens of taxonomies that sliced and diced in all sorts of ways.

In the 2001 revised edition of Bloom's taxonomy, by Anderson  and Krathwohl (2001), the levels are slightly different: 

·      Remember

·      Understand

·      Apply

·      Analyze

·      Evaluate

·      Create (rather than Synthesise)

Note that there is no sense of higher and lower here, as they are often represented in diagrams.  He took the knowledge nouns and unpacking them into verbs, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001), then applied four dimensions: 

Factual

·      knowledge of terminology

·       knowledge of specific details and elements

Conceptual

·      knowledge of classifications and categories

·      knowledge of principles and generalizations

·       knowledge of theories, models, and structures

Procedural

·      knowledge of subject-specific skills and algorithms

·      knowledge of subject-specific techniques and methods

·       knowledge of criteria for determining when to use appropriate procedures

Metacognitive

·      strategic knowledge

·      knowledge about cognitive tasks, including appropriate contextual and conditional knowledge

·       self-knowledge

Other taxonomies include Mager with his His Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) based on five principles:

 

1.     Competences - Instructional objectives derived from job performance should reflect the competencies (knowledge and skills) that need to be learned.

2.     Scope - Learners study and practice only those skills not yet mastered to the level required by the objectives.

3.     Practice - Learners must practice each skill and get feedback about the quality of their performance.

4.     Reinforcement - Learners need repeated practice in key skills that are to be used often or are difficult to learn.

5.     Autonomy - Learners have some freedom to choose the order in which to complete modules and progress self-paced based on their mastery of the objectives.

Also Gagne’s attempt to move beyond and widen Bloom’s tripartite distinction with a taxonomy that focuses on real world activities, rather than abstractions. Gagne’s theory has five categories of learning:

 

1.     Intellectual Skills: Demonstrated by classifying things and problem solving

2.     Cognitive strategies: Demonstrated by their use and appropriate application

3.     Verbal information: Demonstrated by stating the information accurately

4.     Attitudes: Demonstrated by preferring options

5.     Motor skills: Demonstrated by physical performance

Then L. Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning Outcomes goes beyond cognitive processes and includes other aims of teaching. Fink’s taxonomy contains six aspects of learning:

 

1.     Foundational Knowledge – understanding information and ideas

2.     Application – developing critical, creative, or practical thinking skills

3.     Integration – making connecting between information, ideas, perspectives or real life

4.     Human Dimension - Learning about oneself or others

5.     Caring - Developing new feelings, interests, or values

6.     Learning How to Learn - Becoming a better student, inquiring about a subject

Wiggins and McTighe backwards design model describes Six Facets of Understanding:

 

1.     Explain – provide justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts, and data

2.     Interpret — tell meaningful stories, make subjects personal or accessible through images, analogies, and models

3.     Apply — effectively use and adapt what they know in diverse contexts

4.     Have perspective — see and hear points of view critically; see the big picture

5.     Empathize — perceive sensitively on the basis of prior indirect experience

6.     Have self-knowledge — show metacognitive awareness; perceive the prejudices, projections and habits of mind that shape and impede our understanding

Davis and Arend provide yet another categorization that can help educators determine which teaching methods are best suited for which learning objectives:

 

1.     Acquiring knowledge – supported through presentations and explanations

2.     Building skills – supported through practice and feedback

3.     Developing critical, creative, dialogical thinking – supported through question-driving inquiries and discussions

4.     Cultivating problem solving and decision-making abilities – supported through problems, case studies, labs, projects

5.     Exploring attitudes, feelings and perspectives – supported through group activities and team projects

6.     Practicing professional judgment – supported through role playing, simulations, scenarios and games

7.     Self-discovery and personal growth – supported through reflection on experience

 

Merrill’s instruction principles for offline and online learning is a set of activities that are common across all subjects. They are very much centred around learning by doing but also sensitive to prior knowledge and cognitive science. To help design optimal learning experiences, Merrill also constructed a matrix approach that matches two dimensions:

 

1.     Content: facts, procedures, concepts and principles

2.     Performance: remember, use and find

 

He later expanded this approach to cover entire courses with a more sophisticated approach to what we would now call ‘blended learning’. 

1.     Problem-Centered Teach towards real-world tasks or problems, from the simple to complex.

2.     Activation Get learners to recall prior knowledge. This allows new knowledge to be integrated with greater ease.

3.     Demonstration Show or demonstrate knowledge or skills in a real context, based on what research shows works well.

4.     Application Do it. Learners need to demonstrate their knowledge or skills by demonstrating that they know or can perform that skill.

5.     Integration Integrate knowledge or skills through reflection, discussion, debate or presentation of new knowledge. This means applying your knowledge into real life contexts.

Choosing a taxonomy

Most taxonomies fall into Bloom’s original tripartite structure of:

 

Cognitive

Affective

Psychomotor

 

When compared, a pattern emerges:

 

1.     Foundational knowledge necessary for deeper learning

2.     Practice, feedback, problem solving and application

3.     Interpersonal skills

4.     Affective, human dimension of attitudes, feelings, caring and empathy

5.     Aspirational or meta-cognitive such as self-knowledge, self-discovery, personal growth 

6.     Psychomotor skills

The problem with taxonomies is their attempt to pin down the complexity of cognition in a list of simple categories. In practice, learning doesn’t fall into these neat divisions. It is a much more complex and messier set of cognitive processes, so attention has shifted to how learning meshes with memory and techniques that improve organisation, chunking, encoding, practice and recall.

Another danger is that instructionalists, like Gagne, take these taxonomies and attempt to design learning that matches these categories, destroying much of the more useful approaches which an understanding of brain science brings; such as cognitive overload, working memory limitations, top-down processing and so on. Learning theory has moved on in terms of a more detailed understanding of memory, which has put everything on a more empirical and scientific basis.

We have also seen how Bloom’s and other taxonomies don’t pick up on contemporary findings from cognitive science, such as retrieval and spaced practice or technical skills.

Influence

We have Bloom to thank for addressing the basic but important issue in education – that group learning is not always better learning. He showed that formative feedback and one-to-one tuition are indeed powerful amplifiers of learning. Bloom was also the first to really establish a solid, working taxonomy of learning, had to have his theories extended, as people realised that the tripartite classification was too narrow. The cognitive, psychomotor and affective distinction is still widely used today, which is either a testimony to Bloom’s vision, or a tendency for the training world to become stuck in old models. His taxonomy was at least a start, which ultimately led to a more professional approach to instructional practice. Unfortunately, some like to represent Bloom’s taxonomy in a pyramid suggesting, both implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that knowledge, at the bottom, is inferior. It was never meant to be a hierarchy from lower to higher. Bloom meant no such thing.

We seem to have got stuck in the Bloom taxonomy. To be fair there have been good revisions, taking the knowledge nouns and unpacking them into verbs Anderson and Krathwohl (2001).
The problem with taxonomies is their attempt to pin down the complexity of cognition in a list of simple categories. In practice, learning doesn’t fall into these neat divisions. It’s a much more complex and messier set of cognitive processes, so attention has shifted to how learning meshes with memory and techniques that improve organisation, chunking, encoding, practice and recall.
Another danger is that instructionalists, like Gagne, take these taxonomies and attempt to design learning that matches these categories, destroying much of the more useful approaches which an understanding of brain science brings; such as cognitive overload, working memory limitations, top-down processing and so on. Learning theory has moved on in terms of a more detailed understanding of memory, which has put everything on a more empirical and scientific basis.

Bibliography

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. Longmans, Green.
Guskey, T. R. (2005).Benjamin S. Bloom: Portraits of an educator. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

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