Not all learning was created equal...
When considering how we learn, a lot of aspects have to be taken into account and understood. For instance, when trying to memorise something, we use different mental processes than when attempting to understand a text or to critique a piece of work. Additionally, one might argue that some tasks, such as learning to play a musical instrument or to dance, are in stark contrast to studying for a literature exam. Experts in the educational and cognitive sciences have noticed these distinctions and proposed various frameworks to explain them. This was not simply done out of a need to understand the nature of the mind, but with the goal of improving how we learn and ultimately, improving ourselves.
An attempt to solve the conundrum
In 1956, aiming to demystify the process of learning, Benjamin Bloom created and published, with the help of four colleagues (i.e., Edward Furst, Walter Hill, David Krathwol and Max Engelhart), a framework to categorize educational goals according to a hierarchy of six levels of cognitive complexity, currently known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy” (the initial name was “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives”). The original levels were, from concrete to abstract and from simple to complex: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. Since its creation, the framework has reached wide popularity with educators and instructional designers. As the original taxonomy has been critiqued for not being constructed based on a systematic approach, it was revised in 2001, being rebuilt in a more methodical manner and updated in light of the knowledge we have gained since its initial creation.
The 6 levels in detail (2001 Revised Version)
The levels in Bloom’s taxonomy were altered during the 2001 revision (the taxonomy was renamed to “A taxonomy for Teaching, Learning and Assessment"). Some were changed altogether, while others were converted to verbs, moving away from static “objectives”, and towards a more dynamic representation, more in tune with the realities of the education process. The terms were also altered with wider use in mind than was intended by Bloom and his partners in 1956.
The new categories are, from simple to complex (also see Figure 1 below):
Remember – The ability to recall the relevant knowledge from long term memory.
Understand – The ability to construct meaning from learning material by summarizing, inferring, comparing, interpreting and finally, to explain that meaning.
Apply – The ability to put the understood knowledge to practical use – to embed the understanding obtained within the previous step in other systems.
Analyze – The ability to break material into constituent parts and to determine how they relate to one another, as well as to the wider context within which the information fits.
Evaluate – The ability to make judgements regarding work in the learned domain, by knowing the source material well enough to check and critique subsequent work.
Create – The ability to use the understanding of the material to create a functional whole or even original outputs, requiring the reorganization of elements into new patterns.
Figure 1. Bloom’s Taxonomy, with relevant terms on each level. Source: Vanderbilt University
Why is Bloom’s Taxonomy useful?
This tool was, historically, one of the first to provide educators with more systematic ways of understanding the mental processes related to learning, this likely being the reason it has been used in teaching most disciplines, at K-12 and higher education levels, and why it ultimately reached worldwide popularity.
Essentially, whenever an educator wishes to guide learners through an organized, gradual learning process, the taxonomy will come in handy, as it will help them break down the material and process of teaching it into distinct usable elements and key activities, grouped by difficulty level and complexity. It will also help assess the students’ level and capacity of thinking, as well as conceptualize them to facilitate analysis and explanation.
More concretely, educators using this framework could, for example, be enabled to:
- Better plan their lessons and courses, being also empowered to communicate these plans due to the collection of useful terms (results/actions) within the taxonomy
- Assess and organize the lesson material, and evolve new iterations based on the goals and actions prescribed in the taxonomy
- Evaluate already existing tasks (e.g., found in textbooks) and plan them for class according to the well-defined hierarchy within the taxonomy
- Better discern and balance course and assignment difficulty, as they can be more thoughtful of the underlying processes that students must traverse and complete
- Discuss course material with colleagues in a more relatable and precise manner, enabling easier knowledge sharing and perhaps highlighting how functional elements of different academic subjects might overlap at the various levels
- Use a handy checklist whenever in doubt regarding what a task actually entails for the student
The Affective and Psychomotor Domains
Taxonomies concerning levels of complexity/involvement in the affective and psychomotor (action-based) domains, as opposed to the main one concerning the cognitive domain, have also been proposed, the former being elaborated by Bloom and his colleagues, and the latter by another theorist, Elizabeth Simpson, in 1972.
The affective domain is indispensable to learning, as it moderates the level of involvement one can achieve and how stimuli are perceived, therefore, its levels of activation should also be taken into account by educators. Like the first taxonomy, this one offers a handy way of conceptualizing one’s affective dimension, and implicitly, the depth of learning that they can achieve, given their attitude. The 5 levels, again in hierarchic order, are:
Receiving – The lowest degree of emotional investment: The student merely pays attention, and without this minimal level of involvement, no information accrual can occur.
Responding – The student also reacts to the information they receive, meaning that the attempt to understand and further process or weigh in on the discussion exists.
Valuing – The learner’s value system is activated and associations are made between it and the received information. This will lead to deeper integration of the information.
Organizing – The student is involved with the information so that they organize it in a system of different components, using comparison and elaboration to assess what has been learned.
Characterizing – Abstract knowledge is built at this level, the deepest level of engagement with the information being achieved. All elements are viewed as parts of a whole, and original or creative thoughts on the matter may emerge.
The psychomotor domain relates to the ability to physically manipulate objects such as tools, or learn new movements, behaviours or skills. This is useful in pursuits such as sports or more practical domains rather academic learning. Its levels are:
Perception – the ability to use sensory input (sight, touch etc.) to guide motor activity.
Set – Referring to the readiness to act based on the mental, physical and emotional sets that modulate this.
Guided Response – The early stages of acquiring a complex skill, implying imitation and then adjustment via trial and error: In this stage, repeated practice is necessary.
Mechanism – The mechanism behind the task is understood and the complex skill can be performed with some level of accuracy and confidence on the fly.
Complex Overt Response – The ability to perform a complex skill proficiently, with little delay or preparation, requiring little energy and resulting in success. The action will look effortless to observers.
Adaptation – The ability to successfully respond to unforeseen circumstances that may arise while performing a complex task.
Creation – The ability to create new, original combinations based on the mastered skill, such as a new dance routine or style.
Common Critiques and Conclusion
Although clearly useful within the didactic process, the taxonomy, and such attempts to reduce complex cognitive tasks to neat categories in general, have often been viewed with skepticism. For example, the extent to which the 6 elements in the cognitive domain are hierarchically linked is debatable: The ordering of the first three (Remember, Understand, Apply) is not really questioned, but as complexity increases, the processes might sometimes overlap. Consider this: Is it possible to analyze without evaluating? And is it possible to evaluate without, in effect, creating new, perhaps even original meaning? Finally, given the extreme complexity of cognitive processing and occasionally idiosyncratic tendencies among individuals, can such a categorical, clean-cut system always hold true?
These questions are valid food for thought and should definitely be pondered, but they might also ignore or be parallel to the true reasons behind the taxonomy's success. Bloom's framework and other intuitive systems like it that simplify and organize reality for us will continue being used and appreciated, in lieu of the possible downsides, as they offer a good starting point for understanding that which is, in their absence, hard to grasp. Oftentimes, having somewhere to start is better than nowhere, and this is why Bloom's Taxonomy will likely stand the test of time.