Misuse of Bloom’s Taxonomy

You may be familiar with this method of categorizing the depth of different types of thought:

bloom taxonomy

(It’s the revised version; the original categories were labeled Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Note the top two rows in the revised version have been swapped.)

In principle this is a perfectly sensible arrangement. In practice there is an inane focus on the verbs being used to phrase the question, with little or no attention paid to the thought process in between.

For example, this list of verbs represents “Understanding”
classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase

while this represents “Creating”
assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write.

Which of these prompts will result in deeper thought?

A. Explain why the graph of the tangent has asymptotes.

B. Construct a diagram of the unit circle.

Now, prompt A does have a simple end product (“division by zero”) but the thought process in between can be vast, whereas the latter prompt is clearly nothing higher than the “Remembering” level of the taxonomy.

If one sat and pulled apart the different methods used the taxonomy seems more sensible (clearly if extrapolated from scratch prompt A enters the realm of creation) but that isn’t how the taxonomy is generally used or taught, in my experience. The list of verbs is a checklist, a way for teachers to escape having to genuinely think about a problem. Ignoring the content is a poor way to construct higher-order questions.


10 Responses

  1. And the paradigm continues to shift. So is it the students’ fault that they try to “figure out what the teacher wants me to know?” If we use a check off list, they will too no matter how much we tell them to “think. ” Thanks for the reminder with this one.

  2. I was given a wheel to use to remind me of Bloom’s. (A resource that was then stuffed in the back of a drawer and then given away.) It listed verbs associated with each step.The good/bad was that most verbs showed up on multiple lists, so you still had to think about which step you were assigning.

  3. Most of the time I’ve seen this pop up, it’s in a diagram similar to yours but in an actual triangle. It’s driven me crazy, because it visually diminishes the importance of the higher-level tasks (creating, evaluating, etc). I think some well-meaning but visualization-illiterate person came up with the triangle diagram to emphasize that the higher-level tasks build on the prerequisite knowledge of the lower ones. (I would argue that a straight rectangle, like a stack, has the same effect without the negative side effect.)

    So we have hordes of student teachers learning this with the subtle impression that there should be lots of simple knowledge questions assessed, and only a few rare acts of student creativity.

    • I also find the triangle strange.

      That’s why I made the diagram a trapezoid instead, and tried to give it a semi-three-dimensional effect so the farther words are only harder to reach, not necessarily diminished in area.

      A rectangle is fine too, although it doesn’t invoke the “classic” Bloom’s like I was attempting.

  4. Are your questions A and B really asking comparable things?

    What about
    A) explain why the graph of the tangent has asymptotes.
    B) plot a graph of tan(x) (without a graphing utility)

    B’s thinking could swing wildly. They could plot points from a table of values for tan(x) or they could plot points by dividing sin(x) by cos(x). Or they could plot sin(x) and cos(x) and sketch tan(x).

    That last one might prompt their understanding of vertical asymptotes. Maybe earlier in the year there were similar activities with rational polynomials functions.

    • They’re not, but that’s really the point — when looking purely at semantics (which word is being used to ask the question) the level of thinking isn’t well-indicated.

      I do like your analysis and I think someone could make useful time dissecting various questions like you’re doing.

  5. I was feeling briliant at devising lesson plans for my classes .suddenly when I tried to fit every single question into the Taxonomy, I started feeling confused, and purposeless. I tell you what ! I’ll enjoy teaching and seeing the spark of understanding in my pupils’ eyes, and lay the way for then to show how creative they are, and watch them perform with great pride, while you try to analyse my lesson and fit every single question into that Prison Taxonomy.

  6. Hi, I think there is some misunderstanding here about what “Creating” or, in the terms the 1956 taxonomy uses, “Synthesize” (as you note).

    Bloom, et al. describe synthesizing as (from my 1975 copy of the taxonomy)
    “5.10 Production of a unique communication
    5.20 Production of a plan, or proposed set of operations
    5.30 Derivation of a set of abstract relations”

    Your example “Construct a diagram of the unit circle” is none of these. Because the student isn’t constructing anything unique — but showing a commonly understood form of an abstract concept. What the objective is describing fits better under what you refer to as “Understanding” and Bloom originally calls “Comprehension”

    “2.10 Translation
    2.20 Interpretation
    2.30 Extrapolation”

    Particularly “Translation” which as Bloom, et al. writes “Translation from symbolic form to another form, or vice versa” and uses this example specifically “Given geometric concepts in verbal terms, the ability to translate into visual or spatial terms.”

    You are correct that your first example “Explain why the graph of the tangent has asymptotes” is higher level than the second. It is indicative of Bloom’s level Analysis:

    “4.10 Analysis of elements
    4.20 Analysis of relationships
    4.30 Analysis of organizational principles”

    Your objective belongs to 4.20 Analysis of relationships as, I would suggest, you are asking the student to analyse (then state) ‘why’ the relationship exists.

    Your example and analysis fails to make your point except that there is confusion about what the verbs can mean. You have proven that the first example is higher order. I agree with you that the taxonomy shouldn’t be seen as just a list of imprecise English verbs, but requires a deeper understanding of the system and principles themselves. So the teachers of teachers who do not evoke this are failing to provide a very useful tool.

    • Thanks for the analysis! (I tried to pick an example obviously wrong enough a detailed analysis wouldn’t be necessary, but it is still appreciated.)

      Generally the unit circle is originally given by teachers in whole, so students don’t have to translate anything, just remember. (It doesn’t have to be.)

      With the divide by zero question context matters here, but it is possible for students have to reach the level of creating new mathematics to get a solution. I don’t think the thought process is cut-and-dry, anyway.

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