Bloom’s Taxonomy Isn’t What It Use To Be

I want to consider what it means to do ‘high-order thinking’ in education.

The  terms ‘high’ and ‘low order’ is commonly associated with  Bloom’s Taxonomy , the basis of many marking keys for courses and exams in primary, secondary and tertiary education since the 1950s.

However, I believe that its hierarchy of six levels exposes how ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. As The Learning Spy observes,  the taxonomy

can lead to teachers not really thinking through the different categories of thinking skills each time they’re used which lead students to think superficially. Any classification of skills along the lines of Bloom’s can aid critical thinking but only if it is used critically. I guess my concern is that use of Bloom’s Taxonomy has become wholly uncritical in many cases.

Thinking about  Bloom’s research

One of the most comprehensive overviews of Bloom’s and other taxonomies can be found on The Performance Juxtaposition .  Servicing ‘instructional designers’ of online learning, website creator Donald Clark shows the impact of all three  learning domains on teaching and learning.

  • Cognitive: mental skills (Knowledge)
  • Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (Attitude or self)
  • Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (Skills)

Despite this, it is Bloom’s Taxonomy’s of six levels of cognitive thinking that is focused on and have led many teachers to encourage their students to characterise the lower three levels –  knowledge, comprehension, and application – as ‘lower order thinking’ and higher three levels  – analysis, synthesis, and evaluation – as ‘higher order’ (revised in recent times to analysis, evaluation and synthesis).  From my experience, I have rarely read how higher levels depend on the incorporation of the ‘lower’ levels. That is, a student functioning at the ‘application’ level needs to mastered the understanding and processes related to the ‘knowledge’ and ‘comprehension’ levels. Instead, there’s an inference that the lower levels simply need to be avoided.

The better the question…

Mindful, therefore, that I’m introducing students to complexity through any taxonomy, I concentrated on creatively building their practical experience of focusing on their own progress. Let me illustrate this through an exercise I use on looking at different  ‘levels’ of questioning in my area of specialisation in senior secondary drama studies.

The FVQ Activity – Facts, Verbs & Questions

We know that students find it hard work reading texts, understanding their ideas and linguistic devices, but that it is vital that they do. Logically this begins with the fundamentals: for instance, as one artistic director revealed to students in an after-show talk, actors need grammar like a mechanics need tools! Ironically, I’ve observed how my devising of the three parts of ‘Facts|Verbs|Questions’ need not be implemented in a strictly linear order: as we know, for some groups it would be a disaster to begin with ‘the facts’.

Rather, I aim to position my students’ to understand that achieving an ‘high order answer’ (i.e. answers that give you a C and above in exams in which Bloom’s Taxonomy is used) require that they understand how to ask themselves ‘high order questions’. This, I tell them, depends on an approach that doesn’t cut short the need for them to also address the fundamentals about the play they are studying.

Get the facts

Over the years, this invariably means addressing four ‘lower order’ type questions:

  1. How many acts and scenes make up the play?
  2. Who are the characters and what information can they find in the text in terms of their
    • age & physical appearance?
    • role & status?
    • relationships?
  3. What are the settings in the play?
  4. In what year was the play first staged?
    • Where was it first produced?
    • List the original creative team.

The fourth question often surprises students.  Essentially an introduction into historical research, I have found that without addressing the material facts of when and where the play came into being, the study of the text is insecurely tethered to the development of the deep analysis of context students are required to make in drama studies examinations.

The verbs

The building up of a student’s vocabulary of associated terms in a study of the play is made easier these days with the number of charts online showing how various teachers differentiate the activities at each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Again, time has enabled me to settle on the following chart of related verbs. The exercise is itself a great lesson in categorising since the compulsion to ‘pidgeon-hole’ is so great for students facing exams.

There is nothing inherently lower or higher about the meaning of the terms in a list. However, when seen together, the list of verbs enable students to understand the movement of a ‘simple fact’ to an ‘original argument’.

  1. KNOWLEDGE – arrange, define, duplicate, know, list, label, match, memorise, name, order, quote, recall, repeat, reproduce, restate, retain
  2. COMPREHENSION – characterise, classify, complete, depict, describe, discuss, establish, explain, express, identify, illustrate, locate, recognise, report, related, review, sort, translate
  3. APPLICATION – apply, calculate, choose, compete, conduct, demonstrate, employ, implement, interpret, operate, perform, practice, roleplay, sketch, solve
  4. ANALYSIS – analyse, appraise, categorise, compare, contrast, critique, diagram, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, explore, inventory, investigate, question, research, test
  5. EVALUATION – assess, argue, critique, defend, envision, estimate, evaluate, examine, inspect, judge, justify, rank, rate, review, value
  6. CREATION  – generate, hypothesize, designing, produce, compose, construct, create, design, formulate, integrate, merge organise, plan, propose, synthesise, systematise, theorise

Exploring different types of questions at each level

It is from the use of the verbs that you can get students to begin exploring the different types of questions that might occur at each level. I kick off the exercise with the following:

  • Knowledge: How many acts and scenes are in the play?’
  • Comprehension: How do the main characters in the play relate to one another? Illustrate diagrammatically.
  • Application: Sketch the set and positioning of the actors for the opening scene of the play?
  • Analysis: Compare and contrast two different productions of [name of play]
  • Evaluation:  As a director, explain how you would present ideas about identity in a production of [name of play]
  • Creation: As an actor, explain how you would make the journey of the character you are playing evident so that you keep the audience engaged with your role in [name of play]

Indeed, the more I focus on questioning  rather than ‘galloping apace’ to answering questions, the more useful I find this three part structure for projects from early years to university level. It’s my way of compensating for what I see is a lack of high-order questioning in most educational settings. As Steven Hastings wrote in TES Connect (2003)

When Socrates defined teaching as “the art of asking questions”, he had in mind the cut and thrust of lofty philosophical debate. The prosaic truth of the modern-day classroom is rather different. Four hundred questions a day may seem a startling statistic, but a large proportion of these (anything between 30 and 60 per cent) are procedural rather than learning-based. In other words, they tend to be of the is-your-name-on-it? or have-you-finished-yet? variety.

‘Thinking’ classrooms surely can do something about that!