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Learning and Knowledge – Bloomin’ Obvious?

September 28, 2015

Introduction

This argument will grow over several posts. I’m developing the argument as part of the process of developing and writing a book, which I currently think will be about learning in higher education. Wish me luck!

Learning and Knowledge

It can be hard to talk about learning. For example – what is being learned? Among other things, subjects, of course. Knowledge.

Ah, knowledge. Or to give it its technical name – stuff.

When we educators talk about knowledge, we usually mean much more than just stuff. By knowledge we can also mean ways of thinking, ways of acting, ways of being; forms of meaning, principles, theories, values, and much besides. The sorts of ambitious and demanding knowledge that we rate highly.

But the word knowledge can still pull us down. Whatever higher-level things we want knowledge to mean, knowledge also, seemingly inexorably, seems to end up meaning, well, stuff. Things. Objects.

I’m not sure how this happens. Suggestions welcome. But it happens.

Why do I call it stuff? Because of what we do with it. Learners learn it, and teachers teach it. And this in turn can bring down the whole educational show.

How?

On a bad day, of which there are many, learning (stuff) becomes memorizing (stuff). Knowing (stuff) becomes having memorised (stuff). Teaching (stuff) becomes telling (stuff). Assessing stuff becomes finding out whether people know stuff, which tends to mean checking, either if they can recall stuff (through open response questions) or if they can recognise right stuff among wrong stuff (multiple choice questions.) Stuff. The downward pull of knowledge as stuff is strong. Not irresistible, but strong.

What to do?

We might choose to be explicit about the full range of what we mean by knowledge. Or we might want to stop talking about knowledge for a while, and talk instead about the full range of desired (and assessed) types and outcomes of learning. Or we might simply decide to stop treating knowledge like stuff. Stop telling it. Stop seeing if they’ve remembered it. Instead, teach across this full range, support and expect and assess learning across the whole range. Concentrate on the higher levels. Knowledge, alas, can drag you down.

But how to describe this range, these levels?

Bloomin’ Obvious?

Levels of learning and knowledge

This is the problem that Bloom is addressing in his taxonomies (Bloom, 1956 and 2000) – how to classify in some usable way the multiple types and levels of learning that we might see, expect, hope for or teach towards. The taxonomies were originally devised within a behaviourist educational paradigm. This paradigm saw teaching as providing prompts and stimuli which would provoke appropriate responses, learning and evidence of learning, which was then rewarded. The paradigm worked for rats and pigeons – why not for students?

Bloom produced classifications, taxonomies, for the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains. That for the cognitive domain, considered here, has endured longest. It still features, sometimes in its updated (2000) version, in courses to train university teachers. It offers a classification of types of educational objectives or, as we now say, learning outcomes, of things people can with their rational brains.

Bloom  
  Level
Version 1 2 3 4 5 6
1956 Knowledge Comprehension Explanation Analysis Synthesis Evaluation
2000 Remembering Understanding Applying Analysing Evaluating Creating

6

Evaluation

Creating

(They’re in the table in the draft, honestly! They just don’t show in the Table when posted, Drat.)

The taxonomy has some use as a tool for analysis, particularly at level 1, knowledge / remembering. It’s good if we can be honest with ourselves and our learners, and say “You need to know / remember (which may mean recall or recognise) this.” But in a connected world, with well-indexed and sometimes authoritative knowledge only a skilful click or swipe or two away, our students may ask – “Why do we need to know?” This is a conversation well worth having. I often have it with myself, as a future post will show.

But the taxonomy crumbles at higher levels.

Bloom and Assessment

Crucially – when we ask students to show that they understand, or ask them to apply or analyse or evaluate or create, it is hard to be sure that they are not simply remembering a previous act of understanding or application or analysis or evaluation or creation. This is a giant hole in the security and integrity of assessment, and in the fiction that assessment faithfully assesses higher-level abilities.

How does this hole occur?

Most tutors prepare their students for examinations (let’s stick with exams for now, although the argument broadly works for other forms of assessment), Tutors typically set or suggest broadly similar assignments, essays, questions and topics, and perhaps offer feedback; or suggest what particular content the exam may address, and perhaps what issues, arguments, approaches may be preferred.

If the examination question is sufficiently different from the pre-assessment assignments, the student may actually need to work at higher levels. They may need to adapt or apply a method or argument to a slightly sufficiently different setting or content. But that may be as high as we get. “Do something completely original?” In an examination? There might be riots.

Often, we simply cannot know the true nature of the assessment task. The apparent assessment task, even accompanied by the intended learning outcomes and assessment criteria, does not confidently tell us what level of the taxonomy a student must work at tackle the question satisfactorily. To judge this we should need to see most if not all of a student’s previous work and learning and the feedback they received ….

Anyway, the levels are just not as clear as they appear. I have not seen a study of how reliably or how validly academics classify assessment tasks or learning outcomes against Bloom. I’d love to see such a study – it must have been done. But I have seen disagreements among academics about the highest level required by a task. (Most assessment tasks require at east some of the lower levels.)

Conclusion

So, Bloom has serious weaknesses as a tool for analysing knowledge. But a future post will see the much bigger horrors that can occur when Bloom is used as a basis for course design.

References

Bloom, B. S. (1956). The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1 (1st ed.). London: Longman Higher Education.

Bloom, B. S. (2000). Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing, A: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Complete Edition. (L. W. Anderson & D. R. Krathwohl, Eds.). New York: Longman Publishing Group.

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