Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Problems with Bloom's Taxonomy: Impact on Curriculum and Motivation of Students

Problems with Bloom's Taxonomy: Impact on Curriculum and Motivation of Students

The basic problem with Bloom's taxonomy is defining the learning process as a sequence of progression from simpler memory recall function to the supposedly higher levels such as synthesis and evaluation which as Frank Smith argues below is contrary to the actual process of human learning. The problem is that the theoretical foundations of Bloom's Taxonomy are based on the experiments done (i) on pigeons, rats, and dogs by the founders of behavioral school of Pavlov and Skinner, and (ii) involving "senseless" and "meaningless" tasks. They unfortunately forgot to compare their experimental results with the observations of children learning in real life settings as the seminal work of John Holt, Chomsky and others demonstrate using sensible and meaningful activities. In the excerpt given below, Frank Smith points out the problems with Bloom's taxonomy through various observations of real people in real learning situations that prompted him to say:

"All of this is contrary to another educational shibboleth, widely promoted by University of Chicago professor of education Benjamin S.Bloom (who will be met several times in the course of this book) that the amount of learning depends on the "time on task." The more time spent in studying something, Bloom believes, the more that will be learned. Bloom is right -- but only for the kind of nonsense learning task that is involved in most psychological experiments. How much is learned by rote is a direct function of time and effort. ..." [Full context of this quote is give below in the excerpt]

Problems emanating from the application of Bloom's Taxonomy have further shattered the foundations of our learning system and even our assumption about a human being resulting in the loss of motivation and interest of our students in studies:
  1. Bell Curve Evaluation of Students  hightlights how a child is boxed into a corner by tools like Bloom's Taxonomy and MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator), which destroy the future potential of the child by labeling him. 
  2. Education as Tazkia: Is a child like a clean slate? identifies how tools like Bloom's Taxonomy assume that a child is like a clean slate which destroys the growth potential of a child before it actually starts. 
  3. How Our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) is an insult to the Intelligence of Children and eventually ends up making them hate every subject that we try to teach them. The more we increase the intensity of our teaching, the more they start hating the subject, whereas the opposing view would have effortlessly enabled them to explore and discover the subject and made them lovers of the subjects that they study.
  4. Holistic Learning and Whole Life Orientation is an alternative approach that aligns with the natural learning process of a child. 
Excerpts from the Book "Insult to Intelligence: Bureaucratic Invasion of Classrooms" by Frank Smith
[Begin Excerpt]
Memory, Motivation, and Effort  
An excuse many people offer for failure to learn is that they have a poor memory. I don't want to argue about whether some people have memories that are less efficient in every respect than the memories of others, but rather want to point out that we can all remember some things better than others. And paradoxically, we tend to be much more aware of the things we can't remember than of the things we can. We may say we have a poor memory because of problems we have with names or dates, even though we have no problem remembering huge quantities of other things -- like the details of the language we speak, the geographies of our homes and neighborhoods, and innumerable facts about the world in general. We may even overlook all the names and dates we do remember because of our concern with the few that give us trouble.
But even if individual memories may be weak in particular respects, what makes them function most efficiently is still not deliberate practice or determined effort but meaningfulness. It is often argued that surely students who find learning difficult must be drilled in just one thing at a time and tested frequently. But if there are certain things that we have difficulty learning, it is all the more important that they make sense to us. We can only learn from drills or from rote memorization things we already understand.
Another frequent explanation for failure to learn is lack of motivation. It is true that we do not learn if we are not interested in something, if we just don't see ourselves as the kind of person who does whatever it is we are supposed to learn. But motivation, in the sense of deliberate and conscious effort, is a different matter. I think it is one of the biggest red herrings we hear from teachers. Most of the time we learn without motivation, without even knowing that we are learning. And motivation itself does not guarantee learning. Often we fail in the very things we are most motivated to learn.
We all learn things that we are not motivated to learn, like my friend who came back from Scotland with a Scottish accent. Children usually do not make a conscious effort to learn to talk, walk, and dress 26 themselves like the people in the communities to which they belong. On the other hand, we can all fail to learn things we are highly motivated to learn, as I have failed with automobile engines. The most that can be said for motivation is that it puts us into situations where things are going on that we might be interested in learning. And motivation not to learn will almost certainly result in not learning. Motivation might raise the probability that learning will take place if the conditions are right, but it does not carry a guarantee of success.
The examples I have just given also demonstrate that effort will not take care of learning. We learn things without trying and fail to learn when we deliberately put our minds to it. All of this is contrary to another educational shibboleth, widely promoted by University of Chicago professor of education Benjamin S.Bloom (who will be met several times in the course of this book) that the amount of learning depends on the "time on task." The more time spent in studying something, Bloom believes, the more that will be learned. Bloom is right -- but only for the kind of nonsense learning task that is involved in most psychological experiments. How much is learned by rote is a direct function of time and effort. But when the learning is meaningful we learn much faster and, without effort. Having to spend long periods of time in repetitive efforts to learn specific things is a sign that learning is not taking place, that we are not in a productive learning situation.
Why then, for all of us, should there be specific things we can't learn, even when our motivation and effort are high? The explanation is that we learn there are things that we can't learn. The brain functions too efficiently. Once we are persuaded, by ourselves or by someone else, that we can't learn something, no amount of dedicated effort will produce success. The hardest problem for brain is not learning but forgetting. No matter how hard we try, we can't deliberately forget something we have learned, and that is catastrophic if we learn that we can't learn.
Spelling offers a good example. Many people tell me they are poor spellers and prove it by telling me the words they cannot spell. Their problem is not lack of effort to learn the words they can't spell. They are forever consulting dictionaries for the spelling of these words. The trouble invariably is that they have learned incorrect spellings as well. They have learned too much. Incorrect spellings as well as the correct ones come to mind whenever they want to write particular words. Writing out the correct spelling a dozen times to commit it to memory is a waste of time. The correct spelling has been learned, but it is just one of several alternatives. What these people are unable to do is forget the incorrect spellings they don't want to remember.
What I can't forget is that I can't learn about automobile engines. Other people tell me they know they can't learn algebra, music or bridge, recognize particular stars, or distinguish among different kinds of birds or flowers, even though they have learned far more complicated things in their lives. It is not a question of motivation or effort -- the things that people say they cannot do are usually things they have tried very hard to do. And it would be absurd to suggest that they might lack unique parts of the brain that specialize in the understanding of algebra, music, bridge, stars, birds, or flowers. We have all excluded ourselves, or been excluded, from certain clubs, with the consequence that we approach learning differently. We have decided that we are not the kind of person who learns certain kinds of things, that we are not members of the club.
[…. Some Material not included....]
Turning Sense and Nonsense Upside Down
A myth that supports all of the effort to drill into children things they do not understand is that leaning  has to precede understanding. To understand something you first must learn it, or learn to understand it. And there is no point in studying something you already understand. These are common assumptions, and totally wrong; the reverse of how things actually are. To learn you have to understand. There is no point in trying to learn something you do not already understand. The myth confuses understanding something with knowing it already. We are capable of understanding many things we do not already know; we probably do so every moment that we are awake and not bored or bewildered.
We do not usually persevere in reading an article in a magazine or newspaper if we do not understand it -- that would just be confusing. But we also do not read an article if we already know what it has to tell us -- that would be boring. What we do is read something that we understand, that we can make sense of, but that we do not know already. And as a consequence, we learn. The only thing we are likely to learn if we are confused or bored is that the article is confusing and boring. And if we continue to read material that is confusing and boring, we shall quickly learn that reading itself is confusing and boring. To understand something does not mean that we know it already, but that we can relate it to what we know it already, that we can make sense of it.
I understand when my morning newspaper tells me that my local team lost another game last night. Every word in the report makes sense to me, but not because I already know the result of the game. I also learn as a consequence of my understanding of the report -- I learn the result of last night's game. I  do not have to memorize the result, to deliberately put it into memory, became my understanding takes care of that. I would only have to memorize deliberately if I were dealing with something I did not understand -- but if that were so I probably wouldn't be reading the report in the first place. I do not have to learn anything in order to understand, but my prior understanding results in my learning. All of this is totally contrary to a monument of theorizing that has influenced and justified educational psychology and instructional development for the past thirty years, formally known as Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Benjamin Bloom and his academic associates at the University of Chicago developed their taxonomy, or classificatory scheme, of levels of learning complexity in the 1950s, when the systematic analysis of learning and instruction was beginning to gain momentum.
Bloom's proposal was that complex types of behavior (like the kinds of things humans generally do? are based on more simple kinds of behavior (like the kinds of things generally done only in experimental studies), and that instruction should similarly proceed in the same direction. Bloom's six categories begin with simple "knowledge," with relating one thing to another, like getting a fact out of a file. Learning and remembering that Lima is the capital of Peru, or that seven squared is forty-nine, are examples of the "knowledge" at the bottom level of Bloom's hierarchy, scarcely different from the rote memorization of nonsense syllables. This type of learning is also called "stimulus-response'' learning, reflecting the origins of this kind of theory in the animal conditioning experiments of the Russian physiologist Pavlov and in B. F. Skinner's behaviorism. Next up the scale from such "basic" learning in Bloom's hierarchy is "comprehension" of the very simplest kind, like being able to use a fact in some way without necessarily understanding its implications or relating it to any other knowledge. The ascent of the scale continues through application, analysis, and synthesis until the pinnacle is reached at evaluation, where the learner is able to make judgments about the value or utility of what is learned. For instructional and testing purposes, the six steps on Bloom's ladder are commonly reduced to three or four, starting with fact learning and rising through inference to application and then to evaluation. Each successive step is supposed to be harder than the earlier one. Mid- west Publications Company's "Basic Thinking Skills" series, which has been adopted for both English and math instruction in California and other states, claims to be "related to Bloom's Taxonomy" because the programs lead children from following directions and recognizing patterns to thinking about problems and making judgment.
Bloom's is not the only hierarchical learning scheme in educational psychology, but it is the mostinfluential. Unfortunately, all hierarchical schemes represent the world turned upside down. They are based on learning that is essentially nonsensical; determined by the experimenter rather than by the learner, and rely on data collected in controlled experimental conditions. In the real world, "fact learning" is the most difficult kind of learning, unless it is embedded in something that is understood. The recall of nonsense is much less efficient than the recollection of situations that were comprehensible. Children learn through what they do rather than doing things as a result of what they know. They do not learn from the club members they apprentice themselves to unless they can infer why club members behave in the ways they do and unless they evaluate the behavior as worth emulating. They learn when they decide they would like to do something themselves -- a judgment that is at the peak of the hierarchy.
In language learning, in mathematics and in science generally, teaching the "skills" or the "basics"first and hoping that understanding will come later may be the easiest kind of instruction for teachers who do not really comprehend what they are doing in any case. But children learn to read and to write when they are engaged in activities that naturally involve reading and writing, as a whole, not in bits. Children learn math and science – when they are shopping, building, creating, and exploring, and they can see a purpose and a value in what they do. For learning that occurs spontaneously and continually, the hierarchy and the taxonomy should be upended.
The Rise and Decline of Mastery Learning
Bloom's theories have also been directly translated into a program called "Mastery Learning" that has been adopted by over 1,500 school districts across the United States, one of them being its home territory of Chicago where it has recently been withdrawn at a failure. While his hierarchy is widely taken in support of the absurd position that something children can make sense of and use is more difficult to learn than something they cannot, Bloom has an underlying view that is insightful and indisputable. For thirty years he has argued against the widespread belief that there are good learners and poor learners, and in favor of the notion that there are faster learners and slower learners. Bloom has also pointed out that individual differences are not so much between learners, as people, as between what is learned, and that in fact the same individual might be a fast learner for some things and a slower learner for others. The realization that everyone could learn anything if given enough time led Bloom to the notion of mastery learning, which is one of the most influential ideas behind programmatic instruction today.
The way Bloom proposed that mastery learning could be translated into practice in schools was the familiar one that subjects in the curriculum should be broken down into parts, which he called units, and students should not be permitted or expected to proceed to the next unit until they had mastered the one they were working on. The idea sounds reasonable enough, but at this point a number of things go wrong. The first snag is that subjects are typically broken down into units, or objectives, without any regard for sense or for how children actually learn. Subjects are broken down on the principle of "what makes an expert," so that instead of having an opportunity to master one thing at a time -- if indeed that is what children normally do in a meaningful context, children are expected to progress from one meaningless chunk of learning to another. And in practice there is usually no more sense in the sequencing of units than there is in their content. Children "do" addition before subtraction, fractions before decimals (or vice versa), without understanding how the different parts of what they are doing relate to each other or to anything else.
The second difficulty is that while schools have avidly introduced the "mastery" part of mastery learning, they have not adopted the "different speeds for different learners" philosophy, which of course does not fit with the notion that children should achieve particular objectives by the time particular tests are administered or be labeled "failures." So while children are forced to struggle to master "units" that make little sense to them, standardized tests that they are not ready for come along at regular intervals to confirm that they are in fact poor learners.
In a comprehensive volume on the research and practice of mastery learning -- and of how it can be administered to children disguised at play -- Daniel Levine, professor of education at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, credits Bloom with being "the major theoretician and promulgator" of the system. Levine goes on to indicate clearly how students who fail to cope with such concentrated instruction are regarded as inadequate: "Mastery learning can be generally defined as instruction organized to emphasize student mastery of specific learning objectives and to deliver corrective instruction as necessity to achieve that goal. Mastery learning that involves formative testing of initial skill acquisition followed by corrective instruction for non-masters has become increasingly popular during the part ten years. Thousands of school systems are now utilizing mastery learning as defined here to define student achievement."
One of Levine's associates, Herbert J. Wahlberg, describes the methodology of mastery learning:"Students, alone or in groups, work through units in an organized fashion at their own pace and must master a given amount of one unit, typically eighty percent on end-of-unit or formative tests, before moving on to the next unit." There is little logic involved in deciding what constitutes a unit (which might be the name of a letter of the alphabet or the recognition of a number) or in deciding how units should be sequenced. There is certainly no concern with how much sense or purpose any particular child 42 might be able to detect in the unit to be learned, only with ensuring that there is sufficient time for the child who is a "non-master" to persevere with efforts to learn. The notion that children work at their own pace, which superficially sounds as though the program is responsive to the rate at which individual children learn, instead means that there is no escape for the child who is having difficulty; who must just keep trying until reaching "eighty percent" mastery. It is not surprising that mastery-learning enthusiasts are anxious to get as much time for their drills as possible, by lengthening and increasing the number of school days.
Other Levine associates-Beau Fly Jones, Lawrence B. Triedman, Margaret Tinzmann, and Beverly E. Cox -- provide "Guidelines for Instruction - Enriched Mastery Learning to Improve Comprehension." They offer four principles which could be taken as the essence of all programmatic instruction: (1) Organize the overall curriculum in terms of stated objectives. (2) Deliver day-to-day instruction in units with a four-phase cycle of teach, test, re-teach, retest [teaching meaning primarily the specification of what the student is supposed to recapitulate on the test]. (3) Align testing and curriculum. (4) Keep records unit by unit.

The curriculum has to be "aligned" with four kinds of tests that are at the heart of the mastery learning philosophy: (1) Pretests, which have the effect of priming the student for the regime of tests that will follow. (2) Formative tests, to "diagnose" learning errors. (3) Retests, at the end of every unit "to document mastery." (4) Summative tests, to assess how much learning has been done after a series of units. It is the results of all these tests that have to be scrupulously recorded.
Phyllis R. Pringle, in "Establishing a Management Plan for Implementing Mastery Learning," outlines how management plans should be written at the district level -- as far away as one can get from the actual classroom. She says that the plans, usually written by a management team centered on the superintendent's office, should set student-learning goals for all staff. Teachers have to design their teaching to match the district objectives. Mastery learning can be an administrator's delight -- until it, too, obviously goes wrong.
Mastery learning instructional materials were first developed by Chicago school personnel in 1975and are now sold by Mastery Education Corporation of Watertown, Massachusetts, under the name Chicago Mastery Learning program. They were mandated for use in Chicago schools in 1981. Student workbooks emphasized specific skills, such as "learning to follow directions" and understanding consonants and plurals. Mastery of the materials was the basis for promoting students to the next grade and for evaluations of teachers. Charles Munoz, president of the Chicago School Board, eventually acknowledged that a basic problem was that children were not allowed to read books. Even parents complained that children were bored by the exercises, and a study of the 1984 graduating class reported that only 6,000 of the 18,500 who graduated had reached the national twelfth grade level of reading ability; 1,000 were reading at or below the national junior high school level. These figures took no account of the fifty percent of the children who entered high school but dropped out before graduation.
Dr. Manford Byrd,Jr., Superintendent of Schools in Chicago, decreed in July 1985 that in the futureteachers should employ Mastery Learning materials only on an optional supplementary basis, for both reading and mathematics. Students would primarily learn to read by reading from books. But another commercial program -- the one published by Lippincott -- was adopted to fill the programmatic gap, and it remains to be seen how much teachers will be able to break free from years of programmatic instruction -- and where they will turn to cope with the continuing emphasis on demonstrating progress. Meanwhile, Mastery Learning materials are still extensively mandated for use elsewhere, including all New York City schools.

[End of excerpt]


  1. Studying is not easy as it seems for many people, sometimes excessive studying or anxiety before coming exams can lead to various mental disorders, it is not a joke, here are top widerspread problems some students meet

  2. THANKS for a good review on Bloom Taxonomy. The components of Bloom Taxonomy as I understand are knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application, synthesis and evaluation these are simple ways for Mastery Leaning and Learning by doing.

  3. I have now come to realize that Bloom Taxonomy does not cover the Caring Part and the Human Dimension which are significant for learning.

    1. More importantly, the major argument in this blog post asserts, the sequence is contrary to the way learning takes place. Learning does not take place from Simple to Complex. It takes place from Complex to Simple. As explained in my other post How Our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) is an insult to the Intelligence of Children

  4. Blooms taxonomy , behaviorist models of eduaction and intelligence testing some of these academic inventions have palgued the eudcation , to an extent that they have convinced a large group of people as staunch believers and see as a panacea to human learning and success. I have always wondered how can a human mind accept such convennient models and insights on how childern laern. Mention of Jon holt jogs my memory of attending a maths class where his work how childern learn and how childern fail was discussed at lenghth .I can now relate why John finally gave up reforming schools as these structures are so well founded that the change agents cannot brake the shackles they get impriosioned when trying hard, and are subject to life sentence. Well John decided to move out and rather working within the school jail promoted home schooling. I know of a colleague who strongly believed in home schooling and started with his own children and today all four of them have graduated from an international exams in flying colors, well settled in life confident and bold one of them is a girl and I am proud that she won an international scholarship to go for a conference in USA to present her story of development. Happily married too. Wow!! Salute to such parents who take these risks with strong believe that formal school cannot come out of the learning taxonomies and my children are too special to me,to allow them to be tortured in the name of quality standards and the survival of the fittest .
    Lessons for we educators is, ‘ teach the learner , allow the learner to take his /her approach to arrive at an outcome , do not demean any outcome, as all re equally important and they come in cycles not in steps.I also wonder as to why the psycholinguistics find Bloom a problem - be it Chomsky , FrankSmith , but then there are other psychologits and teachers like John Holt and Gatto equally reflective they did not reckon the classical ideas of behaviorism or setting congnitive scales but considered the learning of learners that requires natural ways. and leraning from within appraoches as well as phiolosophies.Thus the four walls of schools, preordained and prescribed currciulum caged in cognitive level outcomes needs a complete revamp .A CALL FOR TEACHERS TEACHER EDUCATORS AND EDUCATIONAL LEADERS. THE WAKE UP CALL Rana