27 April 2014

Bloom's Taxonomy - Still Relevant or Just Redundant?

Geriatric Guidance

It is amazing to me how pervasive Bloom's Taxonomy (1956) remains, despite its geriatric credentials. In particular advocates of TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) are often the most ecstatic about it, keen to categorise many of the most ubiquitous digital tools under it's reassuring tiers – well the tiers of its ‘cognitive domain’ anyway, something that is very well critiqued by Tom Woodward over at this post on his blog.

This may come as a surprise to many, but despite its 'common sensibility' Bloom’s Taxonomy was and is purely theoretical, without basis in cognitive research (Ritchhart et al, 2011).

The idea that thinking is sequential or hierarchical is highly questionable (Marzano, 2000), but nevertheless Bloom's categories capture types of mental activity that are embraced (rightly or wrongly) by many practitioners, and are therefore, it could be argued, useful as a starting point for thinking about thinking.

Anderson and Krathwohl’s revisions (2001), emphasise the importance of creativity, although understanding was still undervalued.

Understanding Understanding

Understanding is a very deep, complex endeavour, and not in any way a lower-order skill as the revised taxonomy implies (Blythe & Associates, 1998; EO Keene, 2008; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).

Cognitive research indicates that understanding is not a precursor to application, analysis, evaluating, and creating but a result of it (Wiske, 1997). Thomas and Seely Brown (2009) emphasise this idea, seeing ‘learning as reflecting, learning as making, and learning as becoming’ with creative play and improvisation as essential experiences – the kinds of experiences of ‘messing about, and geeking out’ described by Ito et al (2008). Wagner (2012) considers the unique motivation generated by creating as ‘the source of all good learning’, concluding that intrinsic motivation is fuelled by playing (experimenting), purpose (wanting to make a difference), and passion (devoting yourself to something you find deeply meaningful). Creating is not a single direct act but a compilation of activities and associated thinking. Decisions are made and problems are solved as part of this process. Ideas are tested, results analysed, prior learning brought to bear, and ideas synthesised.

With computers, the act of creating has never been more accessible – almost anything is potentially ‘buildable’ on a computer, and if it’s buildable, it becomes thinkable, discussable, and ultimately, learnable (TEL Report, 2012). Robinson (2009) makes the point that

"digital technologies are now putting in the hands of millions of people everywhere, unprecedented tools for creativity and sound, in design, in sciences and in the arts (p 205).” 

Creativity is something that digital technologies excel at facilitating - people learn best when they are making things, and sharing what they’ve made with each other. Making something produces something to talk about, reflect upon, and ultimately learn with. Making is an effective way of learning – or as Luckin et al in the Nesta report (2012) neatly summarise, “mending, mashing, and making with digital tools (p 59)”, using suitable personal devices and flexible web tools to achieve clearly articulated goals.

Considering the high regard Bloom’s retains in the estimation of many educators, it could be argued that rather than rejecting it; (say in favour of simpler and more academically robust paradigms like deep and surface learning) that the process of learning in the 21st Century be better represented by ‘flipping’ Bloom’s (Shelley Wright); one that views learning as the process of joining a community of practice reverses this pattern and allows students to engage in “learning to be” (Brown & Adler, 2008) even as they are mastering the content of a discipline. This encourages the practice of ‘productive inquiry’ (Dewey, 1944) the process of seeking knowledge only as and when it is needed, in order to carry out a particular task.

Flipping Bloom’s [Revised] Taxonomy (Shelley Wright)

Transformative Teaching and Transformative Tools

The point is, education is (or at least, should be) evolving –  new ways of describing learning are just another part of this ancient process. From flint and stone, to chalk and board, to pen and paper, to screens and cursors – excellent, experienced teachers have always been effective at utilising the most appropriate tools they have access to, to transform teaching and learning. Yes, sure, a piece of chalk and a black board can be transformative in the grip of a great teacher—but to cling to those tools when more powerful tools exist is a wasted opportunity, like walking when you can fly. Teachers need to move away from the traditional methods of teaching and utilise a wider variety of techniques, the best tools, digital tools, for their students to build their own understanding through real world applications and interactions with their peers.

“To be productive contributors to society in our 21st century, you need to be able to quickly learn the core content of a field of knowledge while also mastering a broad portfolio of essentials in learning, innovation, technology, and career skills needed for work and life.” (Trilling & Fadel, 2009, p 16)

Teachers have always needed to prepare students to be creative and innovative within professions that do not yet exist, for products that have not yet been invented, but the sheer breath of these experiences are growing exponentially. Clinging to obsolete paradigms makes no sense in a century that offers so much more than we've ever had access to before.

So next time you see another set of digital tools organised around the redundant, discredited, Bloom's hierarchy, think before you link. Aren't there better ways to structure our thinking? I think so.