What does Bloom’s Taxonomy really say?

How many times have you heard people say that the idea of “higher-order thinking” comes from “Bloom’s Taxonomy”?

Well, in handbook 1 of the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, published in 1956, Benjamin Bloom and colleagues do not once use the phrase “higher-order thinking” or “higher-order learning.” The phrase “higher order” comes up only once, on page 10.

What’s more, the authors make clear that the more complex forms of thinking depend on the simpler kinds (such as factual knowledge). On page 16, they write:

One may take the Gestalt point of view that the complex behavior is more than the sum of the simpler behaviors, or one may view the complex behavior as being completely analyzable into simpler components. But either way, so long as the simpler behaviors may be viewed as components of the more complex behaviors, we can view the educational process as one of building on the simpler behavior.

Building on it? You mean we can’t just skip over it? Bloom and colleagues would say no. They devote considerable space to the discussion of knowledge–its justification and its different forms and levels. The justifications for teaching knowledge, according to the others, include the following (from pp. 32-34):

1. “Perhaps the most common justification,” they write, “is that with increase in knowledge or information there is a development of one’s own acquaintance with reality.” In other words, to know about the world, one has to learn something about it.

2. It is essential for all other purposes in education. “Problem solving or thinking cannot be carried on in a vacuum,” they write, “but must be based upon knowledge of some of the ‘realities.'”

3. Knowledge has status in our culture; it is often associated with maturity and intelligence.

4. Knowledge can often be taught and assessed simply.

They discuss each of these justifications at length. From there, they bring up questions of stable and changing knowledge; interrelated versus isolated facts; students’ immediate and future needs; and more. They describe three levels of knowledge (which they break down into subcategories): knowledge of specifics; knowledge of ways and means of dealing with specifics; and knowledge of the universals and abstractions in a field. Much of this knowledge involves and includes quite a bit of complex thought.

Nowhere do they imply that knowledge gets in the way of complex thinking or that the latter can do without the former. Of course, each new situation demands unforeseen combinations of knowledge and method; it is impossible to prepare a student perfectly for the future. “It is possible, however,” they write, “to help him acquire that knowledge which has been found most useful in the past, and to help him develop those intellectual abilities and skills which will enable him to adapt that knowledge to new situations.”

Bloom and his colleagues are not gods; the fact that the Taxonomy says this does not make it truth. But what’s clear here is that the Taxonomy does NOT encourage teachers to stop emphasizing knowledge. Those who claim that the knowledge emphasis belongs to the “industrial age” are welcome to say what they wish, but the Taxonomy, if given the floor, would likely disagree.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Diana. Makes me think of all the areas where I’ve developed the abilitiy to think critically over the years — and they all involve LOTS of domain knowledge. Thinking only of gardening, for example, what good would it do for me to ask myself “why does it make more sense to plant tomatoes than avocados in my back yard?” if I don’t know a whole lot about growing seasons, soil conditions, water availability, pests, and how well tomatoes and avocados have done in the past in my area (Illinois!).

  2. Fred the Fourth says:

    From the article:
    What’s more, the authors make clear that the more complex forms of thinking depend on the simpler kinds (such as factual knowledge). On page 16, they write:

    One may take the Gestalt point of view that the complex behavior is more than the sum of the simpler behaviors, or one may view the complex behavior as being completely analyzable into simpler components. But either way, so long as the simpler behaviors may be viewed as components of the more complex behaviors, we can view the educational process as one of building on the simpler behavior.

    Building on it? You mean we can’t just skip over it?
    *****
    The acceptance of the idea that a Gestalt, or “Higher-Order” thinking, can be achieved without a thorough grounding in the fundamentals, is the most pernicious concept to invade education over the last 40 years.

    But, you know, it’s so much more fun to BS about modalities and schemata and rubrics, than to actually figure out how to get your students to acquire some knowledge. I pray my grandkids are not subjected to fourth-grade teachers who can assign art projects to make pretty maps of the “math world”, but who cannot explain (or even comprehend) the relation between 5×4=20 and 5x2x2=10×2.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Look — this isn’t rocket science, people.

    All we need to do is proactively implement student-centered best-practices-directed pedagogy protocols directed at fostering and producing higher-order learning outcomes in synthesis with accessibly familiarized conceptual understandings and graspings of factually-inclined knowledge structures designed to manifest approved curricular models of cognitive development along multiple axes of expert-approved competency evaluation matrices.

    I mean, really… what’s your problem?

  4. Michael,

    That should be a mission statement.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    @ Michael — English please? This sounds like nothing more than a BS education speak which is just…well, BS…

    How are parents to understand what you said? They don”t? Any wonder why some parents have no clue what teachers do to their kids in the name of “education”?

  6. Erin K. says:

    @tim-10-ber

    I think that was Michael’s point. 😀

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Yes, well, mea maxima culpa.

    Le sigh.

  8. FWIW, I had the impression that Michael was being facetious.

  9. Michael was joking. BTW, I don’t know any ACTUAL teachers who speak like that.

  10. I was joking, too, about the “mission statement”–I hope that was obvious!

  11. Good satire always gets a little too close to truth!

  12. Rational says:

    In all of my career as a teacher (almost forty years) I have known one administrator and no teachers who have ever read, cover-to-cover, Bloom’s Taxonomies. I repeat: his taxonom-ies: The Cognitive Domain (dedicated to Knowledge) and (nobody ever ever even mentions it) The Affective Domain (dedicated to Feeling, which he considered more important than cognition). Bloom was adamant that a balanced focus on cognition and affect were the only way to fully address the learning needs of students. But educators love to make a fad, and then an institution, and then a “best practice” based upon poorly researched and interpreted educational theory. When will we get it right?

  13. Mike Curtis says:

    Michael,

    I will plagiarize your brilliance at our next staff meeting…I think the agenda calls for a briefing on teacher evaluations.

    Thanks

  14. I wish all administrators could read this. I remember sitting with a seasoned teacher who explained to me that knowledge is important, but lesson plans have to use higher-order objectives. So, she showed me how to gussy up my lesson plans using the Bloom’s wheel (or flower, as the school liked to call it) so I could demonstrate to higher-ups that were were doing higher-order things. She explained that while I would need to require all the levels of thinking of my students, no one outside the classroom wanted to acknowledge the so-called “lower” levels of thinking because they just weren’t educationally sexy.

    I’m finding this is all still true today.

  15. At one point in my teaching career, “essential questions” came into vogue. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a central question or set of questions for a unit (I see no reason why it should be just one). But the “essential questions” were supposed to be stripped of all specifics in order to indicate “higher-order thinking.”

    Thus, instead of asking, “How did patronage affect Renaissance art?” (already too broad), an essential question might read, “How does economics influence culture?” (which is far too vague to be answerable). I am sure this varies from place to place–but I have seen far too many “essential questions” that essentially mean nothing.

    Supposedly “essential questions” are supposed to be answerable and open-ended at the same time. But teachers are under pressure to make them generic and sweeping. I suppose the premise is that this makes them “bigger” or “higher” somehow. But it does not.