Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy?

Last week or so, I came across an older article (December, 2002) from International Society for Performance Improvement that challenged the utility of Bloom’s Taxonomy on several levels.  In short, Dr. Brenda Sugrue argues that Bloom’s Taxonomy is not valid, reliable or practical.  Dr. Sugrue offers two alternatives which both suggest an emphasis on the application and use of knowledge.  I believe there’s a great deal of truth in Dr. Sugrue’s argument, and I have a few additional thoughts.

First, I believe Bloom’s Taxonomy is often mis-interpreted and misapplied by educators.  Repeatedly, I have experienced educators that interpret the lower levels of thinking to be appropriate for introductory and survey level college courses and that the higher order thinking skills are appropriate for advanced, or junior, senior, and graduate level courses.  The impact of that is that early college learners in those courses are limited to only rote knowledge experiences.  Of course, that’s a problem with the implementation of Bloom’s theory and not the theory itself.  However, it’s still important given the impact that Bloom’s has on the learning experience, and it leads into a related argument…

Second, Bloom’s Taxonomy – at least in it’s popular repetitions – fails to acknowledge that learners may perform at varying levels of proficiency within each type of higher order thinking skill.  It’s not that an early college learner is incapable of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation; they simply will not perform with an expert level of proficiency in those higher order thinking skills; they should be expected to apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, or create, but they will do that at a novice level.  For example, a student in a first year micro-biology class can and should be expected to apply knowledge of cell structures and epidemiology to identify a particular organism; however, the level of difficulty of the problem should be appropriate for the first year micro-biology student and not require advanced declarative or procedural knowledge which typically requires advanced study in micro-biology.

Third, technology makes possible many more avenues for students to perform and to be assessed; the range of simulations and interaction that can be created through technology enables more authentic problem solving opportunities.  Plus, the increasing demands in academia and the workplace for learners to be better prepared suggest learners need more authentic learning experiences.  The combination of those to facts indicates learners need to be performing to apply knowledge in as close to “real life” situations as possible.  This supports Dr. Sugrue’s argument that “all objectives are at the use level (that is, “performance” objectives) and that learners will practice or be assessed on the particular performance in representative task situations.” We should be observing students performing as they will need to in the future – and measure that performance, at whatever level of expertise is appropriately and reasonably expected of that learner given their prior learning experiences.  Simply “knowing” or “comprehending” something is not enough.

Perhaps classroom assessment would benefit from focusing on simply engaging learners with active, collaborative and authentic learning experiences and measuring their performance according to the level of expertise the learners should exhibit in that environment.

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