Classroom practice - Still blooming after almost 60 years

25th October 2013 at 01:00
Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy revolutionised pedagogy when it was published in the 1950s - and it is just as relevant today

The Year 1956 was a big one for teenagers. Elvis Presley had his first number one in the Billboard Top 100, ushering in the era of rock and roll; Fidel Castro and Che Guevara landed in Cuba, giving student socialists a pin-up to pay homage to for ever more; and, perhaps most significant of all, the US educational psychologist Dr Benjamin Bloom published his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.

That last one may surprise, because even though few schoolchildren since 1956 have escaped the influence of his work, many people will have no idea who Bloom is. Given the impact of the taxonomy he helped to create on teaching standards and curricula worldwide, this seems quite an oversight. Yet teaching today is quite different from how it was in 1956, so why should teachers in 2013 be expected to know about Bloom?

To answer that question, we must first consider how he came to prominence. In 1949, a group of academics in the US set out to determine a framework for classifying statements of what was expected or intended to be learned by students through instruction (ie, what students should get out of teaching).

The final report, which became commonly known as Bloom's Taxonomy, lays out a hierarchical framework of learning levels based on the six major categories of cognitive thought: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Each level is deemed to require an increasing level of mastery. So, for example, to effectively evaluate an idea, one must first be able to analyse and apply it.

The framework proved incredibly popular. It was translated into 22 languages and adopted everywhere from the classroom and the school leader's office to seats of government. It is still used widely today (although you may not call it Bloom's Taxonomy, or know that those attainment targets you regularly set are the result of Bloom's work).But is Bloom's Taxonomy really the map by which we should still be navigating? Does it have relevance today, considering it was devised 57 years ago in a pre-internet, almost pre-technology, era?

Well, few, if any, teachers do not want their students to know, comprehend, apply, analyse, synthesise and evaluate the information and ideas they encounter. And the cultural and societal changes of the past 50 or so years may mean that these skills, particularly at the top end of the taxonomy, are more important than ever before.

From an economic perspective, an increasing number of jobs require the analysis and evaluation of information in all its forms. This reflects the growth in the service sector and the decrease in manual labour that has characterised British society over the past 40 years.

In today's world, we are also bombarded by more information than could have been imagined in 1956. To deal with this, we need to make use of precisely those skills and faculties that are so clearly delineated in the original taxonomy.

And yet Bloom's Taxonomy is not without its critics. There are inconsistencies in the hierarchical structure: synthesising two pieces of text into a summary is very different from synthesising imagery, language and ideas into a poem. Similarly, analysing a chapter of War and Peace is arguably more intellectually challenging than evaluating a new fizzy drink advertisement. The taxonomy is no guarantee of educational achievement.

In 2000, the original structure was judged deficient enough to warrant a rethink. The revised taxonomy - devised by, among others, one of the original writers, David Krathwohl - still has six categories. However, three have been renamed, two have swapped position in the hierarchy and the statements have been clarified and made more active.

The revised table consists of remembering (instead of knowledge), understanding (instead of comprehension), applying, analysing, evaluating and creating (instead of synthesis). This framework is much easier to understand. Swapping evaluation and creation is also beneficial: many people feel that creation, not evaluation, is the apogee of human achievement and that the taxonomy should reflect this.

Encouraging growth

Despite the changes and criticisms, however, even in its original form Bloom's Taxonomy should still be part of a teacher's planning and practice today. Far from viewing it as a relic of the past, teachers should be embracing it much more proactively than they are.

Bloom's Taxonomy can be used to facilitate progress and encourage students to think in increasingly sophisticated ways by moving the objectives up the table. For example, if a student was to master the poem If by Rudyard Kipling, they would have to remember the poem, understand its meaning, use examples from the text to demonstrate ideas, explain Kipling's use of structural and linguistic techniques, evaluate its effectiveness as a piece of writing and create additional connected material - an extra stanza in Kipling's style, for example.

As well as providing a framework for teachers' questions, the taxonomy also helps students to become active participants in moving their learning forward. Towards the end of a lesson, you can hand the students Bloom's Taxonomy and, after explaining the different levels, get them to come up with questions they can ask one another to find out how far up the taxonomy their learning has travelled. Put them in pairs to answer these questions, with one student judging another's answers to see if they have truly progressed to that level of understanding.

In addition, the top two levels of Bloom's Taxonomy are ideal starting points for developing complex activities that provide a high level of challenge. For example, put students into groups of three or four to devise an advertising campaign to sell what they have learned during a lesson - ie, synthesise the information they have acquired. Get them to present their campaign so that the class can judge how well they synthesised the lesson's learning points.

The interesting thing about the taxonomy is that most teachers will already be using it, sometimes without even realising that it is Bloom they have to thank for the strategy. A friend of mine observed an outstanding lesson recently, after which he asked the teacher if she knew of Bloom's Taxonomy. The teacher replied: "It sort of rings a bell, but not really." My friend then pointed to the learning wall where the headings "remember", "understand", "apply", "analyse", "evaluate" and "create" were listed with accompanying questions.

Not all teachers are as proactive in using Bloom's Taxonomy - whether or not they know that is what they are doing - but they should be. The taxonomy is as relevant and vital as ever, and its place in the classroom needs to be addressed. A more active and focused use of Bloom's Taxonomy would be beneficial to students' learning and would help teachers in the preparation and assessment of lessons.

Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect. His booklet How to use Bloom's Taxonomy in the Classroom is the latest in the Teaching Compendium series, available to members of TES Pro and TES subscribers. Find it at www.tesconnect.combloom


Bloom, BS, ed (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the classification of educational goals. Handbook 1: cognitive domain (David McKay)

Anderson, LW and Krathwohl, DR, eds (2000) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: a revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Longman)

In short


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