Bailing on Bloom

Bailing on Bloom

January 25, 2024 Off By JR

It’s been so long since I’ve blogged that I thought I couldn’t return without a splashy post. Well, that’s not quite the case, actually. This one has been rolling around in the back of my mind for a little while. If you’ve been around instructional designers, educational developers, a center for teaching and learning, or anywhere near education, you’ve probably heard about Bloom’s Taxonomy. Most often, this will be in reference to creating learning objectives, those statements at the beginning of lessons that rarely reflect what you do in a lesson and that learners don’t really pay attention to. Cheekiness aside, it’s a framework for thinking about different ways to articulate the demonstration of learning. If you’ve seen it as a pyramid, the implication is that it’s a hierarchy, leading some to chase after the higher levels to the detriment of the lower levels.

This is a very typical example you’ll see online and at teaching and learning centers.

This looks great on a PowerPoint and is convenient for trying to explain the concept, but it’s not what was intended in its development, leading many educators and designers astray. Regardless, it is likely the most prevalent framework for designing learning experiences out there. Although it’s the most widely used, Bloom’s work itself is underread (there are some quotes from him saying as many decades ago, and I don’t think it’s gotten better).

While Bloom’s Taxonomy is widely used, there are concerns about its oversimplified and portrayed pyramid and/or linear model of learning. The original taxonomy’s fixed categories are one expression of the complex nature of learning, and the focus – whether intended or not – on creativity as the pinnacle of learning undervalues other important abilities. In addition, entire pieces of the framework are blatantly ignored; for example, many education professionals overlook the psychomotor and affective domains, prioritizing the cognitive domain to the detriment of a holistic learning experience. This is especially confounding when I’ve encountered learning environments with critical psychomotor skills, such as forklift training programs or in higher education programs including phys-ed and recreation, or polytechnics. I’ve seen plenty of educators focus solely on the Bloom verb list associated with the cognitive domain, even in contexts where more is required.

Speaking of the verb lists, there are plenty to be had that offer some guidance on writing learning objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy, but there tend to be two trappings to that. The first is that many verbs cross categories in the taxonomy. For example in the WIDS resources, describe appears in multiple categories. The way most learning objectives are written, especially in higher education (i.e. not a Mager style objective that’s actually descriptive of the performance), is that it does not clarify in what way the learning would be demonstrated. Second, while it might help to write out the objectives, they’re often blatantly ignored in the rest of the design process. These lists always make me think back to a media developer I knew who proudly proclaimed they did instructional design one day at work:

JR! I was an instructional designer today. I wrote our the learning objectives for a lesson. “By the end of this lesson, the student will be able to <gestures as if looking down a list> describe…

Finally, the original taxonomy was developed over half a century ago, specifically for educators and examiners in the public school sector, and may not be fully adaptable to today’s educational landscape. There have been plenty of developments in the areas of learning objectives, learning theory, and taxonomies since the original work in the 1950s and even since the revision in the early 2000s. I’m curious about what parallels there may be in other disciplines for hanging onto something for so long despite improvements that have come along.

In light of the recognized critiques of Bloom’s Taxonomy, alternative frameworks have been developed to enhance the design of meaningful and comprehensive learning experiences. I had been aware of a few competing frameworks (SOLO – h/t Maha Bali; ABCD; Depth of Knowledge; Marzano’s; Gagne’s domains of learning (not to be confused with the oft-referenced events of instruction), etc.). Although most of my career I’d been in a position where using Bloom’s was either required, or not worth debating over to get at the meat of a project. However, a recent project I worked on left me wanting a better framework to think about learning goals and objectives. It was a program intended for young adults, primarily Indigenous, and focused on self-awareness, community, and entrepreneurship. This journey eventually led me to Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning. And now that I’m working primarily on projects outside of classroom settings, I can see its utility over Bloom’s in many ways.

Addressing concerns about linearity, rigidity, and limited adaptability, Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning emphasizes the transformative aspects of learning, promoting deep understanding, application, integration, human dimension, and caring. By focusing on holistic development, real-world relevance (some connection with the backward design approach), and the human dimension of education, Fink’s taxonomy addresses many of the limitations of Bloom’s model, providing a contemporary and adaptable approach to fostering effective learning outcomes.

Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning emphasizes integrating domains of learning (i.e. significant learning happens at the center, not at the top of a pyramid), meaning that the framework does not solely focus on the acquisition of cognitive knowledge but also on attitudes, motivation, and self-improvement. It recognizes the crucial role that context plays in the learning process and encourages instructors to develop learning experiences that are relevant to the real world and can be applied in practical situations. This approach fosters deep, meaningful learning that surpasses mere memorization of facts and figures. Students who participate in this kind of learning may be better equipped to face the challenges of our ever-changing contemporary world.

So what is this taxonomy? There are six categories Fink (2013) suggests (unordered list because it’s not a pyramid!)

  • Foundational Knowledge: understanding and remembering information and/or ideas
  • Application: skills, thinking (critical, creative, practical), managing projects
  • Integration: connecting ideas, experiences, and realms of life
  • Human Dimension: learning about oneself and others
  • Caring: developing new feelings, interests, and values
  • Learning How to Learn: becoming a better student, inquiring about a subject, self-directing learners

So to begin with, in the back of the ID’s mind while they sit down with an SME or project sponsor, they might consider (Fink, 2013)

Exhibit 2.1. General Course Goals Formulated in Terms of Significant Learning.
By the end of this course, students will…

  • Understand and remember key concepts, terms, relationships, and so on.
  • Know how to use the content.
  • Be able to relate this subject to other subjects.
  • Understand the personal and social implications of knowing about this subject.
  • Care about the subject (and about learning more on the subject).
  • Know how to keep on learning about this subject after the course is over.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.