Blooming Taxonomies

Catching up and refreshing my knowledge about all kinds of educational theory and research–it was inevitable to stumble across Bloom’s Taxonomy again–The University of Iowa ‘s CELT has developed a really nice model. I am still not convinced. But I am supposed to teach it.

So how do you teach something that you consider at best not functional and worst inhibiting and restricting learning and teaching experiences, if not causing damage to both?

The most interesting and challenging part of my work in education is the quest to understand, how we make sense of the world. How does this thinking thing work? Why do some learning strategies work for one student but not another? How do non-neurotypical learners compensate, and sometimes outperform neuro-typical learners?

Learning is identity-negotiation; it is a personal, social, and cognitive process. Learning constantly challenges our place in the world. What we know. How we form our interaction with the environment (social, physical, virtual). Cognition and neurosciences (e.i.: Neisser, 2014, Schäfer, 2005Marcel, 1983) have highlighted that even a simple act of perception is already an interpretation process of the brain. So identifying primary colours is much more than a simple ‘retrieval from long-term memory’ (CETL, 2012as implied in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

What pops into your mind when I say yellow?

The smell of lemon meringue pie, maybe? The texture of lemons? The sun? As drawn by little kids, with timber like beams? A dress your mom wore when young? A rubber ducky? The humongous rubber duck making the round on social media? A company logo? Horrible teeth? Autumn leaves? As we identify yellow, our brain allocates it within associative networks. We already learned that about 18 years ago in educational psychology. [For a really interesting history on neuronal networks check out this paper: Buckner & Krienen, 2013] So I am already stumbling over the very first lowest stepping stone of Bloom’s revised Taxonomy. Because effectively nothing is ‘just’ remembering.

And then of course is the problem of differentiation in vocabulary. Claudia Stanny has gone through some considerable lengths to identify if various institutions actually agree on the verbs (which was the first hurdle she encountered not everyone actually used verbs) and if these verbs then are assigned by different institutions to the same categories. It is almost needless to say: they were not. Surprisingly she found that a majority of verbs were all assigned to the same category. Language is context- and culture-dependent. Would a physicist writing learning objectives define ‘analysis’ the same as a sociologist? Would a bilingual academic?

I have not yet found–so please if you have, post the link into the comments–any research that actually maps cognitive processes to the various verbs, after establishing a strict definition to their meaning, and then links this to real life learning. The Taxonomy is a construct based on knowledge of cognition sciences in the 50s (yes, it was updated but the principles pretty much remained the same). It might be useful to develop an understanding of various forms of thinking, for someone who has not yet engaged with the topic.


Learning does not work in a linear way. Depending on what you are teaching you might want to start with creating. A learner might easily jump straight into so called higher level thinking based on prior experiences. If learning content is not relevant to the learner, e.i.: the learners experiences, their lives, their realities, they might not engage. Then what do you do? Their lack of understanding is not based on the lack of remembering.

So are you trying to keep them going through memory exercises over and over again? This will not actually bring the learner onto the proposed next level, which seems to be implied in the structure of this taxonomy.  It is in this regard a deficit model. If I go strictly by a linear progression model, in terms of asking the learner to prove each of the stages, I might find my learners are not able to provide evidence of each of the levels. I might also become discouraged because a learner who in one task displayed higher level skills, suddenly is back to basics, in a different task covering the same knowledge.

The heuristic spiral of learning, the character of learning as three steps ahead and two steps back, with a little side tap and a twirl, the importance of relevance and context of all learning content all of these are not shown in the model. I do not think any model can actually show this. I tried really hard during my PhD and was told that I came up with a fairly eclectic theoretical model, but this is the nature of trying to understand learning.

The fallacy is maybe not so much in Bloom’s Taxonomy itself–it can be a useful framework to scaffold assessments (and I am not going into performative cultures here), but more in the assumption that using it, provides a comprehensive overview and an applicable way of structuring learning. The fallacy is in an axoimatic way of teaching the model to aspiring teachers, in an almost dogmatic way of this is how we expect you to plan your learning and teaching activities.

Any learning model–particularly linear ones–cannot be but reductionist, over-simplified, and thus flawed from get go. To develop a functioning model that includes all aspects of learning: psychological, cognitive, personal, emotional, cultural, and social is near to impossible. So maybe a more differentiated approach to teaching this model is a way for engagement.

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