Self-guided learning I: Introducing Bloom
This is a series of articles aimed at both students and educators. In three parts, we look at how Bloom's Taxonomy (1956, revised 2001) can be applied to everyday learning. In this first article, we're going to introduce the Taxonomy. In the second article, we'll look at how learners can use the theory to guide their own learning and build metacognitive skills. In the third article, we'll look at how educators can use the theory to create clear, robust, and efficient curricula.
What's Bloom's Taxonomy?
Bloom's Taxonomy models the increasing complexity of cognitive tasks. It can be used as a yardstick to gauge how much effort any given cognitive task will require, what level of familiarity learners should have with a topic before attempting such a task, and how best to scaffold learners' learning so they can approach increasingly complex tasks as rapidly and memorably as possible.
The taxonomy was originally developed across several US universities from 1949 to 1956, and is generally considered to be one of the most, if not the most, important models in educational theory. It has been translated into 22 languages, and forms the backbone of almost all formal curricula around the world (and a good number of popular informal ones).
In 2001 Anderson and Krathwohl revised the language and structure of Bloom's Taxonomy to better reflect the language used by educators, to provide more powerful tools for analysing and building curricula, and to bring the taxonomy in line with advances in modern cognitive science. We're going to look first at the original taxonomy, put it in context, and wind up by looking at how the revision clarifies some parts of the original.
Bloom's Taxonomy divides the process of learning a topic into 'stages', each more complex (or 'cognitively demanding') than the last:
- Knowledge (the ability to recall or remember something)
- Comprehension (the ability to understand or explain something)
- Application (the ability to use topic knowledge)
- Analysis (the ability to break down topic knowledge and derive new insights)
- Synthesis (the ability to create something original using topic knowledge)
- Evaluation (the ability to judge or esteem others' topic knowledge as worthy or not)
The taxonomy asserts that, given a particular topic, proficiency in 'simpler' cognitive processes is required for mastery of more complex ones. For example, a learner should be able to break down the inner workings of a Ruby
while loop (Analysis) before they go and write their own (Synthesis). It also asserts that learners have to do one step after the other: you can't jump straight from recalling what happens when you multiply two numbers together (Knowledge) to critiquing someone's PhD on Abelian multiplication (Evaluation).
Why is Bloom's Taxonomy worth knowing?
According to the original 1956 publication, Bloom's Taxonomy provides:
- a “common language about learning goals”, which allows educators and educators, educators and learners, and learners and learners to communicate about teaching and learning in a consistent way;
- a “basis for determining…the specific meaning of broad educational goals”, enabling swifter and more robust construction of curricula, as well as better self-guided learning;
- a single approach to tracking progress throughout a certain topic (or domain), as learners can clearly identify 'where they are' in the topic-learning process, and
- Clearer indication of where a particular learning experience sits within the educational possibilities of a topic as a whole. In other words, an idea of what a learner doesn't know, as well as what there is yet to learn.
Who uses Bloom's Taxonomy?
One of the big insights the taxonomy offered was that planned curricula tend to overwhelmingly focus on Knowledge (fact recognition and recall) at the expense of the real (or most memorable, at any rate) learning goals: Comprehension (understanding), and Synthesis (the creation of new things).
As a result, Bloom's Taxonomy is used by educational bodies to upgrade unbalanced (Knowledge-centric) and inefficient (and often repetitive) curricula to ones that quickly escalate learners to higher cognitive tasks.
There are several tools (for example, Taxonomy Tables) that are widely used to boost learning efficiency in this way. Spending less time recalling facts and rote-learning basics, and more time spent debating and discussing topics in action or building projects, makes for far more efficient learning. On the flip side, attempting to do higher-level tasks without knowing or comprehending the basics of a topic causes confusion, upset, and a drastic decrease in motivation. The most efficient learning scaffolds are those that make use of Bloom's Taxonomy.
In much the same way as institutions, Bloom's Taxonomy can be used by individual learners to:
- Figure out 'how good' a learner is at a particular topic (am I in the 'Knowledge' category, or do I qualify for 'Comprehension'?);
- Avoid feeling 'lost' in a particular topic (how much more is there to learn here? Am I actually 'good' at this topic yet?);
- Scaffold self-guided learning so learners can enhance their abilities in a topic area without requiring instruction, and
- Aspire to higher levels of cognitive ability in a topic area in a structured way.
So why was Bloom's Taxonomy revised?
To understand why Bloom's Taxonomy required revision, we should know something about how it's applied to creating learning objectives.
Well-planned curricula are split up into learning objectives, which are usually a combination of a verb (always a cognitive process) and a noun (always a topic). Here's an example learning objective:
Students should be able to remember (verb) the law of supply and demand (noun)
Learners will understand the importance of pair programming in a team environment
The 1956 version of Bloom's Taxonomy is a very powerful tool. On the other hand, it is antiquated: educators and learners rarely use terms like 'Comprehension' in the way Bloom's Taxonomy does. In fact, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) found out that most educators were using terms like 'x should understand y' to mean anything from Comprehension to Synthesis. That was a problem: in the second learning objective above, does the curriculum want learners to be able to explain pair programming (Comprehension), or to actually do some pair programming (Application)?
The 2001 revision formalised the verb aspect of learning objectives, allowing the creators of learning objectives to focus more on the nouns. Here it is*:
Learning objectives use this taxonomy to be clear about the order learners should learn things, and learners can more easily use the taxonomy to assess and structure their own learning.
The revision also took aim at the noun part of learning objectives, splitting the 'topic to be learned' into four main 'kinds' of knowledge. In the next article, we'll see how combining familiarity with the taxonomy and understanding of these 'kinds' of knowledge is the perfect recipe for successful self-guided learning.
*The revision further divided these 6 levels into sublevels: the full 2001 taxonomy is included below.
Full revised taxonomy
In the full revised taxonomy, each cognitive process is broken down into subcategories. Learners also proceed through these in a linear fashion, although there is some overlap between cognitive processes as a result*.
1.0 Remember - Retrieving relevant knowledge from long-term memory.
1.2 Recalling 2.0 Understand - Determining the meaning of instructional messages, including oral, written, and graphic communication.
3.0 Apply - Carrying out or using a procedure in a given situation.
4.0 Analyze - Breaking material into its constituent parts and detecting how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose.
5.0 Evaluate - Making judgments based on criteria and standards.
6.0 Create - Putting elements together to form a novel, coherent whole or make an original product.
For example, 2.7 Explaining is a more complex cognitive skill than 3.1 Executing.