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Bloom and Course Design – Disaster Strikes!

October 6, 2015

Introduction

This follows https://davidbaume.com/2015/09/28/learning-and-knowledge-bloomin-obvious/ . I’d start there, if I were you.

Course design – bottom up?

So, Bloom’s taxonomy as a tool for analysing knowledge has problems. But disaster strikes when the taxonomy is used as a tool for course design. (I am here criticising uses of Bloom, not the taxonomy itself.)

When you’re designing a course, the temptation is hard to resist. Bloom offers us a taxonomy, a hierarchy, of knowledge. Each higher level builds on those below. Obviously a building must start with a foundation, perhaps built in a hole in the ground. So, to design a course, start at the lower levels, on a solid foundation of knowledge, of things known, of facts and theories. Then build on up.

First, teach students the facts. Then teach them to understand the facts. Then to apply the understood facts. Then to analyse, and finally to evaluate and synthesise, in whichever order. As easy and as logical as Lego. Just another brick in the wall.

Trouble is, it’s nonsense. It’s not how people learn. It may or not be a useful description of levels of knowledge. As a way to plan learning, it’s a disaster.

Do the thought experiment for a course or subject you know. What are a few basic bits of knowledge in your subject? Imagine teaching students to remember these, then either to recall them in an open-response question, or to recognise them among – wrong facts, I suppose – in a multiple-choice question. No context for the knowledge, no account of why it is important, or what it might mean. No higher level stuff. Just the facts. Learned and remembered.

OK, now let’s move on to understanding these facts, to explaining them, expressing them in different ways. Done.

Now, let’s learn to apply this knowledge and understanding, to use it to address questions and problems. And then, having applied it, to analyse it. And finally, let’s critically evaluate and synthesize these facts that we have learned, and then learned to understand and to apply.

This is ludicrous.

I have been taught this way. It really was ludicrous, and of course quite ineffective. Even as we were being taught the basic facts, we were trying to make sense of them, each in our way. Some of us were trying to understand the facts, to reformulate them in terms that made better sense to us, that linked to, whether supporting or contradicting, things we already knew, and maybe even partly understood. Some of us is sought to understand the facts by trying to apply them, although we were not always clear to what kinds of situations or problems the facts could be applied. Some of us tried to the facts, although again we had nowhere to stand to critique or evaluate, and were certainly not encouraged to do so. We were being lectured to, with no opportunity to ask questions, to explore or to discuss, to make our own sense. We all did some memorising. But it all felt rather pointless.

I suspect I may even have taught this way a few times, in my early days. To those students, I apologise.

What has gone wrong here?

How long have you got?

A dangerous metaphor

A metaphor has led us astray. A diagram has led us astray. The metaphor of foundation and building, and the pyramid diagram in which Bloom’s taxonomy is often presented, simply do not work for learning. Why not?

A building, whether or steel concrete or Lego, doesn’t start with a foundation. It doesn’t even start with a plan. It starts with an idea, maybe even with a vision, with a need, with a specification of some form. Only when this has been agreed can we develop a plan. Quite late in the process, concrete is poured, steel is erected, and bricks are laid – or clicked. These ‘basics’ and ‘foundation’ metaphors just don’t work.

The basics?

Let’s come at this from another angle, and maybe try to rescue Bloom, to find good ways of using the taxonomy in course design.

It’s appealing to suggest that we should start from the basics. What are they? What are the basics of your subject? Go on, think about it for a minute.

What are the basics of your subject? Are they: Facts? Theories? Principles? Purposes? Problems? Values? Ways of thinking? Ways of acting? Something else? Some complex combination of all of these and others?

For what it’s worth, and as an illustration, after thinking for a long time about my own discipline / profession / area of work, academic development, I got to the view that that its basis takes the form of a purpose or goal; to improve student learning. Of course academic development has many intermediate purposes, and many methods and theories and ways of thinking and working and the rest. But at its heart, I feel, is a purpose. “Improving student learning”. Which, as I write, I realise is a subset of a larger goal – to make the world a better place. Which is hopefully a goal of most if not all professional and scholarly activity. (Add quotation marks to any of these words and phrases as you need.)

But, whatever the basics of your discipline, where do they lie on Bloom’s taxonomy?

Probably more towards the top than the bottom.

I’m not against knowledge and comprehension and application. They have their place. But, I would suggest, they are important mainly in how they are used in at the higher levels. I’ll probably give this more detail in a future post. Knowledge and comprehension and application may indeed be required for the attainment of higher-level goals. But this absolutely doesn’t mean that the pursuit of high-level goals has to start at the bottom.

This is the mistake that is often made in the use of Bloom’s taxonomy in course design. The relationships between the different levels of the taxonomy are used to deduce, completely wrongly, a sequence of teaching. The structure of knowledge doesn’t determine the best way of learning. We know a bit about learning – the importance of a wish or need to know, learning as a process of making rather than simply absorbing sense, learning as an active business incorporating above all action and reflection, reflection often being aided by feedback. We need to apply what we know about learning to whatever it is that is to be learned. That’s the only safe way to produce a good course design, good learning activities, and hence good student learning.

Conclusion

So – Bloom’s taxonomy may have some limited uses a tool for analysis. But I can’t find a good use for it in course design. Can you? I’d love to hear.

Next time, moving away from Bloom, I’ll suggest some more fruitful bases for course design and the planning of teaching.

Sources

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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