Future-oriented Social Change: Making Sense of MIT’s Theory U


Why do national and international policies fail to solve global problems? How can we transform larger systems and empower sustainable social change? Picture credit: Paul Souders/ National Geographic

The best way to familiarise oneself with Theory U (Scharmer & Senge, 2009) is to read the executive summary compiled by its inventor, Prof. Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which can he found online here.

As a most general definition, Theory U is a field theory for evoking and maintaining sustainable social change. What distinguishes Theory U from most cognitive theories and research is its emphasis is on the inner cultivation of mindfulness as well as reflected attention and intention that change leaders bring to the situation. With government agencies, NGOs, multinational corporations and local communities embracing Theory U all over the world (such as e.g., Oxfam, UNICEF, the World Wildlife Fund, Unilever, Nissan, Hewlett-Packard, Daimler, Pricewaterhouse Coopers or Alibaba, to name a few), Theory U has already established itself as a powerful leader in social change initiation and management.

In the following, I like to compare Theory U with Problem-based Learning (PBL) as another well-established methodology to solve problems and to design new solutions. The comparison serves mainly to position Theory U under the aspect of social solutions development rather than to conclude a judgment. Secondly, I like to investigate the psychological foundations of Theory U. I will argue in favour of Theory U that the call for an open mind, open heart and open will has a profound grounding in contemporary social psychology.

Where research and policies currently fail

To start with, as an educator and scientist, I find it frustrating how the incredible amount of empirical research conducted on education in Germany, as an example, stands in no relation to the meagre progress achieved in public education systems. In contemporary educational research, students are measured as objects within learning processes. They perform tests, get videotaped, analysed and asked to fill out all sorts of questionnaires, but they are rarely invited as active participants in redesigning education, nor do researchers intend to.

In most empirical research, the human mind is regarded as a machine that isolates, stores and retrieves knowledge, not as a medium to interconnect wholes and one that involves spontaneity, compassion or working on wholes larger than the self, to quote Berkeley psychologist Prof. Eleanor Rosch. Scharmer calls this dilemma the ‘analysis paralysis’. Contemporary research deals predominantly with data-driven description, but to a lesser extent with prediction and most rarely with application and intervention. However, when dealing with people it is mind-states, awareness of cognitive habits, emotions and motivation that matter – not as a source of data collection to build hypothesised models but to serve as a shared information network to evoke collaborative social development.

A comparison to PBL

PBL, by comparison, is a methodology to develop solutions on a factual level. With its origins in medical education and applications in law, business, engineering and design PBL is primarily focused on objects. However, when it comes to design education (such as e.g., collaborative human-centred design) where mutual adjustment and collective-emergent solutions development play a central role, the borders between Theory U and Design Thinking become permeable and overlaps between PBL, Design Thinking and Theory U exist. In terms of process stages, PBL and Theory U follow both the general cognitive paradigm of procedural information collection, information processing and solutions development. This is also where most similarities end.

As Theory U has been developed from the ground up as a cooperative, people-centred approach, theoretical analysis and research give way to an empathising and action-based methodology that aims for rapid co-created prototyping in the style of collaborative workshops. Secondly, the inner mind-states of participants and coaches cannot be separated or distanced from the process as objectified knowledge or content. Participants retain ownership of knowledge creation at any stage of downloading, presencing and performing.

Sensing’ entails anticipating the highest point of future possibilities while ‘presencing’ serves to connect to one’s inner source of inspiration in a tranquil and contemplative state. As psychologists, we could also describe ‘presencing’ as a truly autonomous state that is not compromised by fears, anxieties or pressured by external expectations (Ryan et al., 2012). Autonomy ís structured twofold in this understanding. Firstly, as authentic self-governance and secondly, as a means to keep autonomy open towards future possibilities while avoiding identity foreclosure by externalities.


Above: The process stages of Theory U. In essence, the theory relates social patterns of the past with the highest level of possibilities of the future. In the stage of ‘presencing’, social change leaders become self-aware of their intrinsic motivations and true motives.

To me, this is one of the profound differences not only to PBL but to most empirical approaches where knowledge is created for client-oriented contexts. In Theory U, the client is us. To this extent, there are no right or wrong theories, it is just that we have to decide if we (a) intend to create new knowledge to serve external clients or if we (b) want to create knowledge in order to collaboratively transform institutions, communities and ecosystems. The choice of employed theory and methodology depends on the nature of desired outcomes.

The connection to psychological theories

But how is Theory U connected to psychology? Arguably, Scharmer’s call for an open mind, open heart and open will sounds both enticing as much as it appears, on face value, not grounded in any specific scientific approach. Theory U is a pragmatic action-based approach that follows an agentic psychology (Bandura, 2006) where participants create desired futures rather than limit themselves to become passive onlookers on their own behaviour. The philosophy questions the strength of behavioural and reductionist research approaches: How relevant and valid is empirical research if it cannot inform in situ real-world changes? The root of science, to argue with Aristotle, is to demonstrate causality. Obviously, Theory U works well as a pragmatic approach to facilitate real-world progress. But is there any science behind it?

For sceptics, I suggest connecting the following tried-and-tested ideas.

  1. The outer layer of Theory U follows, as mentioned, the universal information processing paradigm of information collection, processing and decision-making that we find in behavioral-cognitive psychology (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).
  2. The move from a field structure of the me-world (where facts only serve to confirm pre-existing patterns) to a field structure of the it-world (where facts prompt a revision of the current belief model) is well described in the concept of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger, 1957, 1964).
  3. The move from an external, factual worldview to an intersubjective perspective that includes empathising for and learning with others is well researched in person-centered therapy (Ellis, 1962; Mearns & Thorne, 1988; Rogers, 1959, 1975; see also Feltham & Horton, 2012) as well as Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977).
  4. The move to an operating field that evaluates reflectively the highest future possibility is part of human agency (Bandura, 2006), in particular, individual metacognition (Efklides, 2012, 2014; Flavell, 1979; Schraw & Dennison, 1994; Schraw & Moshman, 1995) and social metacognition (Briñol& DeMarree, 2012; Kim et al., 2013).
  5. Lastly, in differentiating micro-, meso-, macro- and mundo (global) spheres of social influence, Theory U follows in the footsteps of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

To this extent, Theory U is deeply connected to well-researched psychological theories and represents a highly integrated approach to transforming lifeworld systems with other stakeholders. The subheader of Scharmer’s executive summary reads programmatically ‘Addressing the blind spot of our time’. The blind spot, so we learn, is mindful, self-aware and future-oriented leadership that connects to our most inner place from which we operate.

For Sharmer, the great quagmires of our time, which are the ecological-, social- and spiritual divide are just the symptoms of a deeper disconnect, which is the disconnect between self and nature (ecological divide), between self and others (social divide) and between present and future self (spiritual divide).

As a PBL practitioner, I see so-called soft skills, the skills of a tutor (facilitator and coach) benefiting Theory U. Scharmer calls this ‘holding the space’ for others. There are a plethora of arguments to keep discussions and projects related to Theory U alive for a very long time to come. For now, Theory U is the most ambitious attempt to bring mind, heart and will together.


Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a Psychology of Human Agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, (2). 164.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Briñol, P., & DeMarree, K. G. (2012). Social metacognition. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979).The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Efklides, A. (2011). Interactions of Metacognition With Motivation and Affect in Self-Regulated Learning: The MASRL Model. Educational Psychologist, 46(1), 6-25. doi:10.1080/00461520.2011.538645

Efklides, A. (2014). How Does Metacognition Contribute to the Regulation of Learning? An Integrative Approach. PsihologijskeTeme/ Psychological Topics, 23(1), 1-30.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. New York: Stuart.

Feltham, C., & Horton, I. (2012). The SAGE handbook of counselling and psychotherapy. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Festinger, L. (Ed.). (1964). Conflict, decision, and dissonance (Vol. 3). Stanford University Press.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive–developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906-911. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.906

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Emmitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center.

Kim, Y. R., Park, M. S., Moore, T. J., & Varma, S. (2013). Multiple levels of metacognition and their elicitation through complex problem-solving tasks. The Journal Of Mathematical Behavior, 32(3), 377-396. doi:10.1016/j.jmathb.2013.04.002

Mearns, P., & Thorne, B. (1988). Person-Centred Counselling in Action (Counselling in Action series). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Rogers, C. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rogers, C. (1975). Empathic: An unappreciated way of being. The counseling psychologist, 5(2), 2-10.

Ryan, R. M., Legate, N., Niemiec, C. P., & Deci, E. L. (2012). Beyond illusions and defense: Exploring the possibilities and limits of human autonomy and responsibility through self-determination theory. In P. R. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (pp. 215-233). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/13748-012

Scharmer, C. O., & Senge, P. M. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges: the social technology of presencing. San Francisco, Calif: Berrett-Koehler.

Schraw, G; & Dennison, R. (1994). Assessing metacognitive awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology.19(4)(pp460-475)

Schraw, G., & Moshman, D. (1995). Metacognitive Theories. Educational Psychology Review, (4). 351.

Constructivism Today: How Should Students Learn?

nürnberger-trichterOur schools: Same old, same old

The most commonly voiced out critique against traditional rote learning is that it doesn’t deliver what it promises, this is that acquired knowledge fades fast and students start to forget mental content shortly after their exams. In this model, learning serves to achieve a good grade by internalising syllabus material as fast as possible, forgetting it as fast as possible and to move on to the next short-term goal. But even if students would fully remember the knowledge that they were presented in class, they could do very little with it – perhaps with the exception of impressing their peers in TV game shows and quizzes that test for the recall of isolated facts. Knowledge acquired by rote learning is internalised passively. It is neither actively acquired by the learner, which would entail intrinsic motivation, nor applied within a real-world (and not merely academic-hypothetical) context.

Above: Traditional German illustration of the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’ (‘The Funnel of Nürnberg’). The writing says ‘First dumb and stupid, now clever as Goethe, all of which has been achieved by the funnel’s power’.

How about intelligence?

According to Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1985), the mere recall and modulation of fixed content circumvents various forms of intelligence, which are analytic intelligence (the ability to apply new knowledge to solve real-world problems), creative intelligence (the ability to create innovative and novel ways to solve problems and to design systems) and practical intelligence (the ability to make internal changes to adapt to new environmental conditions). As a result, students in traditional schools learn hard but remain incompetent. What is measured in most schools and colleges are not aspects of intelligence, but the individual ability to endure stress and anxiety, the level of supportive upbringing provided by parents and the ability to regurgitate and parrot the mental content set out by the school’s curricula. Within such settings, students are assessed as solitary actors in a rather mechanical manner, illustrated fittingly by the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’.

new jobs

Above: Courses advertised at Udacity. The digital economy requires proactive, self-directed and intrinsically motivated learners. From the perspective of emerging technologies, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence celebrates a comeback.

It is not about how long we remember what we have learned

The primary goals of knowledge acquisition, however, are neither the long-term recall of mental content nor to become a tough solitary learner. Actual cognitive and metacognitive performance is demonstrated by students being able to create concepts and tools to solve problems, to design systems that help people improve their lives, to develop positive social relations with others and to strengthen their autonomy. These educational outcomes are rarely assessed in most institutions of Higher Learning but they are more commonly found in elite education. Elite learners know how to contextualise newly created concepts (such as e.g., in information technology, social sciences or engineering) and they are aware of underlying historical and cultural conditions that scaffold local social development.


Above: Managing comprehensive project administration and supervision based on modern research and sustainable local development (picture: biodiversity project in Haiti by Helvetas, 2017)

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

How Design Thinking extends Constructivism

Although it is correct that context, learners’ self-regulation and social scaffolding play a central role in active learning, the success of achieving learning outcomes depends largely on achieving mastery in the construction, application and evaluation of cultural tools. In design education, tools are commonly known in association with software- and hardware tools (from silk-screens to 3D printers and visualisation software), but also as concept maps and design theories, such as ergonomics, human-centered design and social design.

Broadly defined, cultural tools are instruments of mind that encompass concepts, strategies, information collection and processing methodologies, culturally-mediated reflective and communicative practices as well as methods to relate inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences. Cultural tools are the means by which our lifeworld is designed and mediated. Cultural tools empower students to connect ideas with facts, to minimise the margin of error of empirical tools and to maximise the validity and relevance of theoretical concepts. Without the mastery of effective tools, teamwork and context awareness do not yield productive outcomes by themselves.

Design thinking is closely related to Problem-based Learning (PBL) as it consists of a series of logical steps to design products and services. These shared steps are (1) group setting, setting up a team, (2) problem definition and cooperative reframing of the problem if necessary, (3) the review of prior knowledge and hypothesis generation (for explaining phenomena) or setting goals and expectations (for creating designs and implementing interventions), (4) the identification of learning issues and gaps of knowledge (5) going through reiterative cycles of research and research review (inclusive of experimentation and creative exploration), (6) concluding solutions development, (7) final outcome presentation and (8) post-project assessment by the entire team. PBL, as well as Design Thinking, are grounded in procedural inquiry and follow best practices of empirical research. Solutions are developed in logical stages by a team and they are not arbitrarily assumed by a solipsistic learner following an elusive ‘model answer’ or ‘model solution’.


Above: Modern production facilities like here at Tesla are a good example for the need of skilled and competent workers that can solve complex problems, such as to program and manage robots or track and diagnose anomalies within automated production processes.

On the point of mastering cultural tools, Howard Barrows noted that PBL has one root in the apprenticeship method whose roots go back to the dawn of history (Wee Keng Neo & Kek Yin Chyn, 2002) where learning by doing emerged within an intergenerational culture of mastery. Today, mastery is rooted in science, also referred to as learning science (Bransford, 2000) shifting the educational focus on the mastery of scientific methods in support of new and innovative ideas.

Another argument for a procedural approach to future education is that without explicit awareness of the in situ implementation of knowledge, corresponding responsibilities cannot be assigned in a meaningful manner. As we live in a highly complex and interconnected world where responsibilities dilute across chains of institutions and businesses, a central theme in Badura’s recent work on moral disengagement (Bandura, 2016), the need to design systems of responsibility and accountability reinforces the call for fundamental educational reforms. If students are not taught on how to build a better world at an early age, how can anyone expect sensible societal progress?


Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning.

Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vivanna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2006). Embracing History through Transforming It: Contrasting Pigetean versus Vygotskian (Activity) Theories of Learning and Development to Expand Constructivism within a Dialectical View of History. Theory of Psychology, Sage Publications.

Wee Keng Neo, L. & Kek Yin Chyn, M. (2002). Authentic problem-based learning: Rewriting business education. Singapore: Pearson Malaysia.

The Ethics of Grading (About Grades, Part 2)

multiple-choice graphic

Grading is a method to measure students’ performance while the type of grading system employed is a representation of its underlying educational ethics. The more simple the grading system, the more simple the assertions of graders about the graded. The more multi-faceted the grading system, the more factors an assessment entails. In the latter case, justifications for stipulating assessment criteria need to be provided. Typically, no or little justifications are given in the case of simple grading methods, such as multiple-choice, true-false, matching, or simply accumulating errors and points that are commonly used in primary and secondary education.

But what are the ethics behind grading systems? Do some grading systems violate ethics and if they do, how should students be assessed instead? Let us have a closer look at the relation of ethics and academic assessment.

Low-level Grading and its Underpinnings in Social Darwinism, Liberalism and Behaviourism

Simple low-level grading is underpinned by a set of assumptions. These are that students should be graded individually regardless of social context and prior conditions, that given grades are a truthful account of a student’s performance and aptitude and that final grades are fair. One could argue that such grading is rooted in both liberalism and social Darwinism since only the fittest survive (at least from the perspective of teachers) and that teachers bear no responsibility whatsoever for their students’ learning – analogously to the view that governments should not interfere in markets. In such a more Darwinian outlook, some students are simply more gifted than others. It is nature above nurture, genetics above pedagogy. According to the philosophy of natural selection, traditional grading simply ‘separates the wheat from the chaff’.

As a tool of behavioural control, grades are commonly set out as rewards (‘An A, well done!) while bad grades serve as punishment. In principle, there is little difference between pupils getting grades and a rat inside a Skinner Box receiving either food or electric shocks as positive or negative reinforcements. The main task for students inside the learning box is store content temporarily in short-term memory in order to pass exams and to forget the acquired knowledge shortly after; a cycle that the German philosopher Richard David Precht described as ‘bulimic learning’ (BulimieLernen). As a side effect of bulimic learning, students learn that knowledge is dispensable and not meant to be part of an all-encompassing lifelong learning process. As grades are applied universally all over the world and across institutions, the systemic conditioning towards the belief in grades is strengthened along learners’ educational trajectories.

Mid-level Grading and its Meritocratic-liberal Stance

More complex grading based on criteria requires a justification of these criteria and is, subsequently, open to debate. Some institutions of Higher Learning assess higher-order learning outcomes such as, e.g., the use of specified evidence, the quality of the evidence cited, the ability to understand and differentiate concepts, to relate facts to ideas, to frame a general problem within a local context, the ability to argue cases and integrate multiple perspectives, to choose adequate methods of analysis, to be able to employ critical thinking as well as to demonstrate overall consistency. Such comprehensive, mid-level assessment takes time and requires educators to design adequate scoring rubrics.

The advantage of mid-level assessment is that students do not only know why they have received a specific grade (which could still be equivalent to providing or not providing a ‘model answer’) but indicates which areas to put more effort in. Scoring rubrics have the advantage that they can serve as a formative feedback to learners. A disadvantage is that they are typically limited to assess only cognitive skills.

From an ethical perspective, we could label mid-level scoring as a meritocratic approach: Although assessed on an individual account, all students are provided with a fair chance to improve their identified weaknesses and to build on their strengths in order to gain merit via continuous improvement. This concept is also liberal in a sense that individuals are provided with an opportunity (or right) for improvement, at least at face value, while it ignores an individual’s ability (or inability) to capitalise on a given opportunity. Meritocratic-liberal assessment is still based on the assumption that learning happens primarily individually and independent of social context, contrary to evidence provided by psychological research.

The different social starting points of learners and their contextual limitations (e.g., some students might have highly supportive parents while others have not, some have the financial means to pay for tutors or to participate in international exchange programs while others have not) are not subject to potential interventions. To this extent, mid-level grading is not directly engaged in providing equal opportunity since no support is offered to weaker students for improving their performance, even if it is pointed out to them which areas of studies they should focus more. It is like telling a thirsty person in the middle of a desert not to worry about water since the next oasis is only a couple of hundred miles away. This is why meritocratic-liberal assessment is more suitable to homogeneous classes where students are approximately on the same level rather than heterogeneous, socially diverse student populations. But how about exceptionally gifted students?

High-end Social-discursive Evaluation Beyond Grades

Jane Robbins wrote about elite students in InsideHigherEd that ‘They want the more complex, nuanced, individual (or small group), creative work. And while they can do a great deal in interaction with each other, they need and want, the guidance of experts with depth and breadth in the field at hand. They want and need feedback because they don’t yet have experience in solving those kinds of problems. Neither are they satisfied just to get their A- for many top students, A’s are easy, but the A in and of itself does nothing to motivate them, or do other than present a false sense of complete mastery; you can get an A and still need to advance to the next level of thinking. So for elite students, the teacher is mentor, coach, prodder, supervisor who provides his or her guidance through feedback.’

On the highest level of learning, students are evaluated for a plethora of abilities. Among them are the ability to empathise, social cooperation and teamwork skills, to take on different social roles and responsibilities within a team, to conduct research in meaningful projects on authentic problems (or phenomena) and to foster originality and creativity. Elite learning is (a) socially scaffolded and discursive. It embraces (b) critical discussions and the development of mastery in learning, while (c) underlying motivation is entirely intrinsic and not extrinsic.

Why a Hierarchy of Evaluation Systems is Counterproductive

In many elite universities, grading has already become redundant. Equal opportunity is mediated by including all students in research projects. The adequate description by Robbins begs the question why only elite students should be worthy of mentors and coaches. Isn’t achieving mastery in learning even more relevant for weaker students, especially at an early age?

It seems awkward and illogical that few lucky students are rewarded by high-level social-discursive evaluation systems (once they have made it through the maze of socio-Darwinist and meritocratic-liberal systems), but such privilege is kept away from ordinary students in the beginning of their development when they need such scaffolding the most.

By looking at learning environments that foster highly successful students, our journey into grading systems turns full cycle. Simple methods of evaluation are subject to social bias and confirmation bias can only yield distorted and inadequate conclusions about the true complexity of students’ learning and potential. Especially at a younger age, pupils deserve to develop the full range of social, emotional and cognitive capabilities to support more differentiated cognitive and metacognitive schemata some years later. Tell me your assessment system and I tell you how qualified as a teacher you are.

How can we tell that students have learned? Why traditional exams and grades do more harm than good (About Grades, Part 1)

Picture: College students taking an exam, Credit: Chris Ryan via Getty Images

The PDF version of this Blog entry: How can we tell that students have learned – Kompa 2017

The ideas behind traditional exams and grading

In traditional teaching, a teacher presents a learning unit by introducing new knowledge to the class via a series of lectures and presentations. Typically, brief question and answer sessions allow students to probe, at least to some extent, what they have not fully understood. In addition, pupils are given homework to apply the new knowledge in given exercises. At the end of the learning unit, an exam or test verifies the learner’s competence to replicate and apply the new knowledge. The resulting individual grade is regarded as a reliable and truthful standardised assessment of a learner’s competence of achieving the stipulated learning outcomes.

This is, in essence, the brief idea behind grading which was developed since the 16th century and gained its momentum in the 19th century with the introduction of compulsory education. The nagging question that is debated among educators is if standardised grading is actually measuring students’ learning and if it is not, what else it is measuring. Another question is how useful or even harmful standardised assessment plays out in real life.

What is assessed and how?

Constructivist learning pedagogy promotes active learning and assesses not only cognitive abilities (such as the application of mental operations to a set of varied problems), but includes furthermore the measure of students’ study skills, their individual ways of learning, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, social competencies, intrinsic motivation and metacognitive reasoning (the ability to reflect critically on mental content, methodology, knowledge creation and its meaning for the learner). By comparison, traditional exams only assess the minuscule part of cognitive abilities, like the ability to temporarily store subject knowledge in short-term memory, while ignoring all other relevant competencies.

In order to conduct sensible educational measurement, lecturers need to establish baselines of such competencies in order to understand students’ varying prior conditions. A series of semi-structured interviews combined with preliminary tests or exercises can reliably provide information on students’ prior conditions. As sociological research has demonstrated, students from academic families fare generally better as compared to students from working class families or students brought up by a single-parent. Socio-economic settings as well as age- and family-related factors set students at distinctively different starting levels for their studies. The responsibility of a fair education is to mediate and diminish such differences.

Let’s assume we have two struggling students with similar aptitude trying to pass the next exam. Student A comes back home from school to a household with two younger hyperactive siblings that deprive her of any opportunity to study and focus, whereby student B is luckier and has parents that can afford to send her to tutoring classes. In the final exam, student A fails while student B has achieved a decent grade. But what was measured by the exam was not a superior cognitive ability of student B, but a given social advantage. Or we may imagine a student with brilliant ideas, but incapable of time management to organise them, or a younger student who has exactly the same mental potential as everyone else, but is distracted by joining his friends on the football field while neglecting his studies. Or we can imagine a highly intelligent student who simply fails by not being able to handle exam anxiety, and so on and so forth. In most cases, we evaluate the influence of confounding factors on learning, but not learning itself.

Grades are not only unsuitable as an impartial evaluation tool, they also interfere with the very motivation to learn. Many students, sadly enough, learn in order to achieve good grades, not because they enjoy learning something new, exciting, personally enriching or useful. The main learning outcome is often not the acquisition of competencies, personal growth or new knowledge and skills, but a good grade. This is the point where the traditional learning system has turned ad absurdum: when the reward for learning is represented by the affirmation of prior social status via grades, true learning has lost its relevance as a driver for the development of young people. In many schools, colleges and universities, grades have become the symbolic trophies for representing achievement. What was originally intended only as a tool to evaluate learning outcomes by a simple scale has turned into a central outcome by itself with counterproductive side-effects. If education was strict science, grades would be removed as a confounding variable from the setup in an instant.

We could compare grades to political polls. Originally designed to objectively measure political trends within a population, polls have become a strategic tool for political parties to influence their voters. By employing polls, perceived instrumental threats and opportunities start to govern decision-making rather than good policies, arguments and well thought-out concepts. The same is true for students who calculate their minimum attendance requirements and bare pass investment in studies.

Alternatives to traditional assessment: Multi-perspective evaluation and scoring rubrics

This leaves progressive educators with at least two proven options for a more learning-centered evaluation. One is to assess projects in a PBL-like manner, which includes self-evaluation as well as the evaluation of others: How have I and others performed as team members, as problem-solvers and as researchers? How do we assess the shared learning process and outcome of a project? Here is also the opportunity for reflective journals that worked well with my students at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. The PBL assessment emphasises students’ social roles in interaction with cognitive and metacognitive reasoning. This is why this approach is well suited to postsecondary education in situations where discussions with students and their facilitators/ coaches play a central role.

The other option is to work with scoring rubrics that many educators are familiar with. The advantage of rubrics is that students know in greater detail how and why they are being assessed. Expectations are made clear from the beginning which makes this is a more structured approach. Students also learn that explaining phenomena, relating facts to ideas and integrating knowledge is of greater value than to cut, paste and simply summarise information, a common habit among digital natives. In many institutions, rubrics are still translated into grades, but they are still a far cry from simple point and error accumulations followed by a final grade and perhaps a brief commentary by the teacher. Both a PBL-like approach as well as scoring rubrics assist students’ learning to learn, which is why they are preferable to traditional grading. The desired procedural learning outcome is that students achieve mastery in learning, which is likely one of the reasons why some of my best students became teachers themselves.

Tracking progress: What sound assessment entails

Institutions that blindly grade students based on standardised tests measure de facto a plethora of prior conditions, rather than learning. Measuring actual learning progress would require the implementation of two more conditions. Firstly, that students need to be provided (a) adequate formative feedback for self-improvement on above-mentioned competencies and (b) follow-up investigations by teachers to verify if and how formative feedback was successfully internalised. As weekly assignments and projects continue, actual learning progress can be measured and facilitated efficiently in this manner.

Students are coached continuously and they understand how they have been assessed on multiple levels. A formative and reflected approach is obviously more helpful to fine tune ongoing learning than receiving a single summative grade at the very end. New technologies such as online feedback can speed up and further specify ongoing improvement.

Another harmful effect of grades is that they condition motivation.  A weaker student may find in low grades the confirmation to be a ‘born loser’ or a ‘failure’, while good students can find reassurance to belong to a class of eternal winners. Grades are often perceived as a judgment of the Global Self, especially among adolescents,  which explains how low grades tend to diminish self-esteem. In this light, grades represent a cruel tool to retroactively punish weaker students for their compromised position in life. On the brighter side, many teachers find that they do not need traditional tests. When conducting, e.g., more complex interdisciplinary projects, tests become redundant. It would be fairly ridiculous, for example, to conduct a traditional test at the end of a group’s research project, which would not only trade an information-rich assessment for an information-poor one but would be superfluous as learning outcomes and assessment have already been achieved and documented.

The Bell Curve paradigm

A more progressive assessment deviates from the assumption of a static Gaussian standard distribution also known as the ‘Bell Curve’. It represents the idea that typically some students are naturally at the top, some at the bottom and most positioned in the middle of the spectrum of abilities. At the beginning of a course, student levels might indeed be represented by a standard distribution. However, if performance levels remain unchanged for an entire term then a Bell Curve signals that learning among students has not taken place. Students that were good at the beginning are still good at the end of the semester while students who failed in the beginning still fail towards the end. A static Bell Curve is a reliable indicator of the fact that the education system or the teacher has failed. We can only tell how students have learned once we can demonstrate how constructive and motivating feedback has fostered their autonomy, contributed to their personal and social development and has built their competencies. Without such provisions in place, blindly conducting tests and grading papers tells us nothing about how students have learned. In the traditional assessment, the learning process remains unexamined simply because the dependent variable of learning progress is not related to the independent variables of the learning environment and other controlled factors facilitating learning.

What makes us human? What makes us a whole person?

As an empirically-validated domain, education should not fall into the traps of confirmation bias by repeatedly verifying prior conditions or conditioned responses. Education should elevate weaker students while providing new opportunities to stronger students. Every student is deserving of empowerment to develop into a strong, self-directed and lifelong learner.

But how about students that appear obviously lazy, who display negative attitudes towards their teachers or the institution and simply act out anti-socially in every perceivable way? One of the advantages of a multi-level assessment is that it includes personal factors. Difficult students can be counselled, which is better than failing them and pushing them over the edges of society. This entails of course that institutions of Higher Learning employ professional counsellors and that personal development is taken seriously as a hallmark of quality education – to connect to the ideal of a holistic humanistic education as first envisioned by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), or the idea of developing one’s personality as outlined by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). From a future-oriented constructivist perspective as well as from the perspective of humanistic philosophy, conventional exams and grades are a poor excuse for not understanding students’ learning and not contributing to their development as personalities and democratic citizens.

Remembering Prof. Howard Barrows: Notes on Problem-based Learning and the Schools of the Future

hbarrowsMe: “Howard, can I ask you a more general, philosophical question? Considering all your pioneering work in Problem-based Learning, how would you imagine the school of the future?”

Howard Barrows: “To start with, there would be no subjects. There would be no isolated classes for students such as geography, chemistry, accounting, history and so on.”

Me: “How can this work? What is the point of abandoning specialised subjects?”

Howard Barrows: “It is the designed learning outcomes that drive the learning process and in real-world problems, these outcomes are interconnected. As an example, you come from design. Supposed your students need to produce a TV program, then this is not only about holding a camera and putting it on air, but it is also about casting, accounting, clearing copyright, the ethics of journalism, buying airtime, mastering technology… a whole bunch of learning issues and they are all related. “

Me: “The school of the future would offer highly-integrated projects instead of traditional classes?”

Howard Barrows: “Yes. We would offer complex interdisciplinary projects that already include all the outcomes that traditional subjects intent to convey. Students develop knowledge and skills by achieving the designed learning outcomes. By presenting outcomes in the form of real-world problems, learning becomes more meaningful and relevant to students.”

Hallmarks of Constructivist Active Learning Pedagogy

These were not Howard Barrows exact words as this was not a recorded interview. But it is a truthful account of one of our last conversations during a teacher training workshop in Hamilton, Canada many years ago. Currently, almost two decades, later, Finland started abandoning traditional school subjects in favour of a curriculum reform under the title ‘Phenomenon-Based Learning’, which has much in common with Problem-based Learning (PBL) beyond sharing the same acronym.

(1) Problem-based Learning and Phenomenon-based Learning follow both a constructivist educational philosophy which refers to the idea that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge acquisition are actively created in the learner’s mind. The focus is on students’ critical evaluation of their learning, rather than passively internalising content. (2) Learning is contextual. A real-world problem or phenomenon such as climate change is contextual and requires considering different aspects and perspectives, such as e.g., the quality of people’s lives, mathematics, geography, meteorology, politics and policies, social psychology such as changing consumer behaviour and so on. This is different from most academic problems. Less complex and practical problems such as e.g., running a cafeteria would be another example. Each type of problem-solving or investigation into phenomena requires different kinds of competencies, each problem entails a distinct set of corresponding learning outcomes.

However, not all subjects can or should be replaced, such as e.g., languages, as they are by themselves meta-contextual in nature. Other subjects such as mathematics and music will e.g., still be taught in Finland which is adopting Phenomenon-based Learning. As Prof. Pasi Sahlberg of Harvard University comments “Finland’s National Curriculum Framework is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators freedom to find the best ways to offer good teaching and learning to all children. Therefore, practices vary from school to school and are often customised to local needs and situations.”

(3) The combination of social immersion with autonomous motivation is the key to sustainable, self-directed learning within social contexts. Given the complex nature of most problems, problem-solving is ideally conducted within cooperating teams, rather than competing groups.

(4) The tutorial group structure of PBL avoids oversimplification that easily occurs on an individual level, but it also prevents ‘groupthink’ by encouraging open inquiry and critical, diverse thinking among group members. By discouraging individual power positions, social loafing but encouraging active participation, open inquiry, and consensus based on the better argument, tutorial groups resemble an approximation to what the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas called in his early philosophy ‘ideal speech situation’, which he later concluded as Discourse Ethics. Habermas’ doctrines almost read like a PBL tutorial guide, e.g., ‘Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse‘ (principle of social inclusion) or ‘Everyone is allowed to question any assertion at any time’ (principle of open inquiry).  In classroom practice, real world problems appear more meaningful to students as compared to decontextualized abstract tasks and thus support their intrinsic motivation.

pbl2Image above: Outline of the core PBL process for a tutorial group. It involves the stages of the group setting, problem identification, idea generation, the identification of learning issues, self-directed learning (research), research review, solutions development and the final self-assessment of learners of their individual and social roles. Educators such as Donald Woods have diversified the process structure for numerous faculties.

(5) In constructivist educational philosophy, reality is based on multiple representations allowing for multiple and multi-faceted solutions to emerge – unlike the single ‘model answer’ in traditional education. During the research and development phase, students become aware of different conceptual and practical approaches. Final solutions are the result of reiterative rounds of research and synthesis by the team, they are not spontaneous assumptions based on somebody’s pet ideas.

When we talked about grades, a hallmark of traditional education, Howard Barrows put forward a rhetorical question “If a pilot is taking 250 passengers from Frankfurt to New York, and you ask him how he feels, what would you think if he answers ‘Like a C minus’?” If an industry representative would ask me which of my students is able to do the job – wouldn’t it be ideal if I can honestly answer ‘All of them, all of my students can perform the job well’? Besides, what does a grade tell us? For example, if a student has obtained a ‘B’ in web-design, is this because she could handle the backend well, or the graphical user interface, or the integration into a database or any combination thereof? Does a grade tell us how a student was performing as a team member, a problem-solver or as a researcher? Traditional assessment is disappointingly un-informing when we take the requirements of a 21st-century workplace as a criterion. As compared to a mere summative assessment, assessment rubrics and formative assessment procedures have undoubtedly narrowed the gap to a fairer and more efficient evaluation, but social skills and research skills are rarely part of academic appraisals.

What is a ‘Problem’ and what is its function?

My colleagues and Howard also had intense discussions about the term of a ‘problem’. Doesn’t ‘problem’ sound too negative? We rarely perceive problems as something we would wish for. Problems can be of high and low complexity and they come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. Some problems might not be considered problems per se, but challenges. A product that works perfectly well without problems may just need an update to keep up with the times, or people might want to discuss openly competing models of desired social futures. More than often, we pose general questions even when we do not face an immediate functional problem, e.g., how do we conceptualise social fairness? What makes a happy childhood? What do we wish for the future of our communities? What is our political utopia?

At the end, the terminus ‘PBL’ was simply too well established in academic discourse so that alternate proposals, such as e.g., ‘Challenge-based Learning’ never gained popularity. For now, it needs to suffice that we talk about ‘problems’ in an extended sense meaning that issues can be of quantitative as well as qualitative nature. In a Kantian understanding, problems and system design issues can represent instrumental as well as non-instrumental (pure- intrinsic) types of rationality. In each case, it is the problem or issue at hand that drives the learning process, not the lecturer or teacher. From a research perspective, theoretical frameworks can complement PBL (by e.g., integrating Critical Theory, Social Conflict Theory, minority group perspectives, Social and Ecological Sustainability, Prospect Theory etc.), depending on the decided research approach.

In the light of terminology, ‘Phenomenon-based Learning’ as in the Finish example represents a limited signifier as well. Phenomenology typically refers to the particular structure of consciousness from a subjective, first-person view. It is a good term in a sense that it emphasises the active construction of new knowledge by a learner, but it neglects one of the key principles of constructivism which is the construction of knowledge with others in social context. It is in intersubjectivity, the reciprocal exchange of perspectives, where learning takes place. Related psychologists in support of constructivist learning are Albert Bandura (Social Cognitive Theory) and Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky contributed an interesting perspective to learning by differentiating areas where a student can learn unaided, where a student can learn with assistance and a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) where learning takes place in terms of a coherent social scaffolding for knowledge creation.

Unlike traditional education, PBL questions its own assertions by promoting metacognitive skills in students’ reasoning and epistemology. A probing tutor asks for the grounds and justifications of group members’ reasoning and asks how group members truly know what they assume to know. In academia worldwide, PBL has established itself as a sound pedagogy to address the deep social, economic, ecological and technological challenges of the 21st century.

Extraordinarily great pedagogy requires extraordinary effort: What is the price to pay?

Since much of what has been claimed about constructivist learning may sound too good to be true, the question arises if I had ever experienced any drawbacks. From my experience, there are critical institutional and individual obstacles to overcome. Constructivist pedagogy requires substantial training of staff and it demands a likewise substantial commitment by the education provider to promote student-centered pedagogy. Policy implementation should be conducted across the institution based on a voluntary buy-in. It requires support by consultants and needs a clear normative endorsement by management. In summary, the implementation of constructivist learning pedagogies is a huge collaborative effort.

On teacher level, resistance to new modes of curriculum delivery is rather common. Teachers that have been delivering classes by rote learning their entire careers often feel reluctant to let go of their cosy classroom authority. Many traditional teachers are not ready to give up their role as classroom authority and to embrace the more meaningful role as a facilitator of students’ learning. They feel that PBL is depriving them of their privileged status. To them, the classroom is their private kingdom. On the other hand, each school or college has some teachers that are motivated to try out learner-centered pedagogy. There are opportunities for supporting and recognising such teachers, to offer them the opportunity to become role-models for others, to organise’best practices’ sharing sessions and to publicise student feedback to persuade those that are resistant to change. On a university level, empirical studies might convince more scientifically oriented staff.

Another issue to resolve is the topic of prior knowledge. How much of prior (mostly conceptional) knowledge should be taught to students as a professional ‘body of knowledge’before they can embark on PBL? Especially students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds deserve to start on the same level as their better-off peers. Related academic discussions contributed new ideas to the qualifying issue of prior knowledge such as e.g., initial lectures on common underlying concepts, ‘lectures on demand’ (by external experts, not necessarily lecturers) or ‘flipped classrooms‘, among many others. During policy implementation, it is critical to carefully balance the dissemination of prior knowledge with classroom learning expectations and to explain to all academic staff how both aspects complement each other fairly.

As a memorable experience, I remember my very first PBL class at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. Long after the class ended, I had to chase students literally out of the classroom (they ran overtime and the room was booked for other students) as they were still passionately immersed in discussions. I asked myself when was the last time that I saw students truly thrive this way. International studies have confirmed PBL as a superior and more efficient pedagogy as compared to traditional teaching, but practitioners and consultants are in rare supply.

Howard Barrows died in March 2011. To me, he was one of the most influential mentors, reformers, and innovators in contemporary educational philosophy. The list of groundbreaking innovations that PBL brought to the most diverse fields of education is incredible. It ranges from establishing students’ personal responsibility for their learning to learning in structured tutorial groups, employing simulated clients (today we also use computer simulations) and basing curricula on real-world multidisciplinary issues. Most importantly, Howard Barrows’ concept of PBL contributed to empowering learners of all ages by taking an active role in knowledge construction. PBL brought back meaning to students’ learning by introducing process-based solutions development for real-world applications. To conclude with a perspective of Albert Bandura, people are not merely onlookers of their behaviour, but proactive subjects capable of creating desired futures.



Barrows, H. S. (1971). Simulated patients (programmed patients): The development and use of a new technique in medical education. Springfield, Ill: Thomas.

Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Barrows, H. S. (1992). The tutorial process. Springfield, Ill: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

Barrows, H. S. (1996), Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996: 3–12. doi:10.1002/tl.37219966804

Barrows, H. S., & Wee, K. N. L. (2007). Principles & practice of aPBL. Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Why it is Time to Retire Bloom’s Taxonomy


Picture above: Exam among Chinese Students (Source: Tomo News)

“You cannot teach today the same way you did yesterday to prepare students for tomorrow. ” John Dewey

1. Historical Credit and Positioning

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning has reigned as one of the most influential pedagogical concepts for the design of school curricula until today. Formulated by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in the mid-50s (Bloom et al., 1956), the taxonomy attempted to break away from behaviorist theories as well as learning via remembering (rote learning) by promoting higher-order thinking skills, such as analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating concepts. Taking a more holistic approach, the taxonomy includes the cognitive- (knowledge-based), affective- (emotive-based) and psychomotor (action-based) domain which explains its intuitive appeal to many teachers. We do not only learn with our heads but also by our actions and emotional experiences that reinforce cognitive processes and give them meaning.

In 2001, Anderson & Krathwohl (2001) published a revised edition of Bloom’s Taxonomy, suggesting that in the cognitive domain, creation appears as a higher-order process as compared to evaluation (ISU, 2017).

2. Limitation of Bloom’s Taxonomy

The most commonly voiced out critique to the taxonomy is that thinking does not operate within hierarchies, but that cognition and affect are neurologically and phenomenologically distributed processes that can assume a plethora of possible configurations. Additional reasons that cast doubt on the usefulness of Bloom’s taxonomy as a pedagogical concept shall be outlined in the following.

2.1 Lack of Scientific Validity

Currently, Bloom’s Taxonomy is more than 60 years old and it had been developed before extensive empirical research into cognition, metacognition and motivation were conducted. As such, the taxonomy’s main categories (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation) are not supported by empirical research on learning, be it as a category or as a category within a hierarchy ranging from lower to higher-order thinking skills.


The only terms of Bloom’s taxonomy that are validated by research are factual-conceptual knowledge (described in modern pedagogy as ‘prior knowledge’) as well as procedural- and metacognitive knowledge. In psychology metacognition is further differentiated into metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive regulation and metacognitive experiences (Efklides, 2006; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Schraw et al., 2006) and it can appear in the form of individual metacognition, the reflective thinking related to mental content ‘due to me’, or social metacognition, the reflective thinking related to thinking about mental content ‘due to others’ (Briñol & DeMarree, 2012; Kim et al., 2013).

The question remains if lower- and higher-order thinking skills exist as such. A closer look questions this assumption. Some examples: The hierarchy of Bloom’s cognitive domains is broken in the case of (a) a problem-solving scenario where a solid comprehension of basic facts may outweigh an evaluation that is based on biased perceptions (besides, where does comprehension stop and where does evaluation start since both processes work reciprocally) or (b), where a concept is tested for the robustness of its causal and conditional relations (analysis) in order to obtain approval (final evaluation). In such case, analysis and evaluation are interdependent and one cannot be confirmed without acknowledging changes in the other.

If e.g., a situation is evaluated as problematic then this stimulates analysis on how to deal with it, entailing a subsequent evaluation of potential solutions. Even if a final solution is decided this leads to a retrospective analysis and check on the efficacy of the applied solution – and so on and so forth. There is, strictly speaking,  neither a clear-cut hierarchy nor sequence of cognitive processes since we are dealing with interactive, mutually dependent processes: no analysis without prior evaluation, no evaluation without prior analysis.

Creation, to comment on the revised taxonomy (Anderson et al., 2001), does also not necessarily constitute a higher order domain when underlying data analysis and conclusions of a project are faulty. Without proper research, creations remain guesses and assumptions. More than often, people try to promote their pet ideas and care little about thorough procedural solutions development. How do we determine the value of creation? In research, deductive and inductive reasoning are interdependent: we cannot blindly analyze things without an initial sense of intuitive comprehension (such as notions of purpose) and we cannot comprehend things without some sort of prior evaluation. Inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences relate reciprocally. The more tightly deductive and inductive inferences relate, the smaller the margin for error in research and development. For this reason, assuming a static hierarchy of domains like in Bloom’s Taxonomy is not helpful.

2.2 Lack of an Epistemological Base

Knowledge creation and relating thinking skills do not exist as a priori phenomena, but they are evoked and engaged by people. Knowledge is a foremost social construct while learning is facilitated by social processes (Bandura 2001, 2006). In this light, Bloom’s Taxonomy does not take into consideration the social relation of persons in the creation of knowledge. This includes crucial aspects such as the motivation to acquire knowledge, reiterative and diverse cycles of research, dynamics of open inquiry, the validation of related arguments or the ongoing refinement of concepts within teams. Bloom’s Taxonomy tells us nothing about the role that learners play in knowledge acquisition and creation, including a learner’s intellectual values, the psychological effects of learning experiences, individual differences in cognitive processing, or the communicative processes involved in research and development. Bloom’s Taxonomy does not explain how people collaboratively create, manage and modify knowledge.

Epistemological questions ask things like ‘How do we know that we know?’ or ‘How do we make sure that our knowledge is valid, reliable and relevant?’ The answers to such complex, but critical questions cannot be concluded by attributing general categories (e.g., ‘to analyze’, ‘to synthesize’), but via open deliberation among multiple learners.  Assessment cannot be based on ticking boxes of which cognitive domains have been covered by a student, but by assessing the quality of underlying reasoning.

2.3. Practical Disadvantages and Methodological Flaws

Other potential disadvantages of applying the taxonomy in curricula are (a) the lowering of expectations for higher-level deliberation and reasoning among students by ascribing complex, interrelated processes to simple domain identifiers (b) creating a false notion of ‘higher order’ versus ‘lower order’ outcomes. The taxonomy misleads educators to apply these perceived categories in separation, hampering a natural flow of logical reasoning such as in group discussions and (c) the identification of cognitive processes within an individual learner makes little sense. Instead, a student project can be structured according to logical stages, such as problem identification, problem reframing, identification of learning issues, self-directed research, research review, solutions development, solutions presentation and team/ self- review.

Bloom listed specific ‘action verbs’ that he claims are identifiers for the main cognitive domains, but it is easy to demonstrate that such simple correlations using ‘action verbs’ are misleading. For example, if we take Bloom’s domain of ‘evaluation’ in isolation and only look at action verbs, a student may e.g., ‘compare’ facts without involving analysis, ‘describe’ a phenomenon without explaining its underlying causality and context, or ‘justify’ an argument without giving valid reasons to why is should be believed. It is the power of interconnected, reflected and articulated reasons that drive cognition, not the mere presence of verbs.

3. Conclusion

Educators are looking for evidence-based strategies to enhance their students’ learning. Since Bloom’s Taxonomy is neither based on scientific findings nor offers an epistemological base that explains how knowledge is specifically created and modified within a socio-cultural context, it provides little reason to why it should be employed in educational settings.

The advantages of a constructivist approach, by contrast, are obvious: what matters is not the categorical identification of cognitive processes for the sake of ticking boxes. What matters is to determine how cognitive constructs have been assembled by the learner, which reasons and motivations went into the formulation of mental content and how knowledge-creation ties into larger meaningful frameworks such as cultural identity, human relationships, consensus finding, policy making, or the advancement of local and global communities.

In closing, Bloom’s Taxonomy, despite its historical merits, should be retired as an educational philosophy on the following grounds:

  • The taxonomy is not empirically validated
  • The taxonomy focusses on abstract cognitive domains rather than on learners. The taxonomy is not learner-centered and does not answer questions regarding a learner’s autonomy, competence and social relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2012), all critical to learning.
  • Real-life contexts and their relevance for knowledge creation are not part of Bloom’s taxonomy
  • The taxonomy does not take into consideration the meaning that knowledge creates for a learner or a community of cooperating learners
  • The role of prior knowledge is not operationalized from an epistemological perspective
  • Motivation, the key component to learning, is not part of the concept
  • Individual differences in learning styles and attitudes remain unaccounted for
  • The taxonomy provides no sensible, specific criteria for assessment, such as evaluating students in their role as team members, researchers, and problem-solvers
  • Thinking processes are not based on strict sequences or hierarchies. Depending on the kind of problem at hand and its complexity, learners structure affective, cognitive and metacognitive processes accordingly
  • The obsession with individual cognitive skills and processes is often exercised at the expense of personal development, social skills, communication skills and the development of cooperative behavior

In all fairness, we have to consider that Bloom lived in a time and culture that celebrated uncompromised individualism. Bloom still shared the assumption of solipsistic learners whose learning can be objectively measured by a clear-cut hierarchical taxonomy. Empirically validated theories of social learning and studies investigating intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation or cognitive construction had not yet appeared on the horizon when Bloom worked on his taxonomy.



Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review Of Psychology, 52(1), 1

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a Psychology of Human Agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, (2). 164.

Briñol, P., & DeMarree, K. G. (2012). Social metacognition. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399820.001.0001

Efklides, A. (2006). Metacognition and affect: What can metacognitive experiences tell us about the learning process? Educational Research Review, 13-14. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2005.11.001

Iowa State University (2017). Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved from: http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/effective-teaching-practices/revised-blooms-taxonomy

Kim, Y. R., Park, M. S., Moore, T. J., & Varma, S. (2013). Multiple levels of metacognition and their elicitation through complex problem-solving tasks. The Journal Of Mathematical Behavior, 32(3), 377-396. doi:10.1016/j.jmathb.2013.04.002

Schraw, G., & Moshman, D. (1995). Metacognitive Theories. Educational Psychology Review, (4). 351.

Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. (2006). Promoting Self-Regulation in Science Education: Metacognition as Part of a Broader Perspective on Learning. Research In Science Education, 36(1-2), 111-139.

‘I Love Democracy – As Long as You Agree With Me’: Notes on the Social Psychology of Authoritarianism

Nationalist autocrats (Trump, Erdogan, Putin): Different cultural backgrounds, shared cognitive template

The Democratic Model: Deliberating Discussions and Open Inquiry

Before going into workings of authoritarianism, it is useful to remind ourselves how functional, non-authoritarian systems look like in order to establish a baseline for evaluation. As I noticed during my recent holidays in Germany, politics appeared surprisingly sober and plain, absent of drama and high-stake ideological debates. For example, the Ministry of Environment proposed a tax increase for meat and milk from a subsidized 7% to a regular 19%, arguing the unfavorable carbon footprint of meat production. Being a traditionally meat-eating country, the proposal was immediately dismissed by the food lobby and most political parties. However, in the media, a vivid discussion emerged. Questions were asked such as ‘Should only the wealthy be able to eat meat?’ ‘Would it make more sense to tax meat, but to keep milk at the subsidized rate?’ ‘How about fruit: Should we also label fruit according to its delivery by plane (= higher carbon footprint) versus by ship (= lower carbon footprint)’?

Although the progressive idea of the Ministry may not have succeeded in the first round, the wider public started discussing the pros and cons, without a single politician or party hijacking the debate. This distributed discourse model stimulated in-depth analysis and new ideas that one day may serve as the basis for better-informed policies and laws. The point of public deliberation, after all, is to make well-informed decisions that are fair to all. The information processing in this model is conducted horizontally on a many-to-many basis.

Even on emotionally highly charged topics, such as the recent terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, the public debate took a widely pragmatic stand, ranging from critical analysis to prediction: How could a terrorist suspect, already in custody, be released by authorities? Where did authorities and the law fail? How can legal loopholes be fixed? How should the state deal with dangerous suspects in order to prevent future attacks?

Public discussion did not bother about ideological questions (such as ‘Does Islam endanger our Western civilization?’), but looked at pragmatic solutions addressing the problem at hand. Across political parties, a metacognitive principle was upheld to never blindly stigmatize and label groups of people and to differentiate within groups, such as e.g., fundamentalist Salafists versus moderate, integrated Muslims. Public consensus was that ontological and ideological judgments, due to their generalizing nature, tend to foreclose the discussion of specifics required for complex problem-solving.

Pluralistic Societies: Moving Beyond Group Conformity

In the cited examples, group affiliation or group membership did not determine the power of argument in the media. It is the suspension of group conformity that enables the unbiased public examination of arguments. Traditionally, social psychology dealt with issues such as social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), social conformity (Asch 1953, 1956; Janis 1972, 1982; Milgram, 1963, 1974) and social comparison (Festinger, 1954). It is intuitive to conclude how group identities solidify attitudes and behavior. However, in complex, pluralistic societies, group memberships and identities overlap (e.g., for a person who is a single parent with a migration- and higher education background, representing at least three implied group memberships) and it is the specific needs and interest across those overlaps that determine social cognition, personal attitudes, and behavior.

In pluralistic societies, social norms of cooperation develop and group perspectives integrate under the aspect of superordinate goals. Subsequently, the psychology of pluralistic societies is multi-layered and distributed horizontally in terms of social group identities: in interdependent group-constellations costs and payoffs between groups balance, encouraging the emergence of shared values.

By contrast, ideological narratives in combination with strong emotions generalize and simplify a group’s worldview, avoiding the processing of specific cognitive content. A set of supportive narratives allows authoritarian leaders to turn people against their own interests, e.g., to manipulate working class people into believing that tuition-free education would be unaffordable for the government or that trickle-down economics benefits those at the bottom of the social food chain.

Authoritarianism simplifies people’s real-world problems and silences the diversity and complexity of modern life. It provides simplistic promises (‘Let’s make America great again‘) to complex challenges such as globalization, deindustrialization, and digitization, but it is incapable of developing adequate solutions to multi-faceted challenges. To this extent, authoritarianism opens Pandora’s Box – the very real prospect of collective failure and poor decision making by dismissing communicative, networked competence and independent critique.

The Foreclosure of Open Debate by Authoritarianism

There are a plethora of strategies available to foreclose, circumvent and disqualify open debate. The most obvious, as pointed out by Robert Reich, is the berating of public media as ‘dishonest’, ‘lying’, ‘deceitful’ or ‘scum’ (as labeled by American President-Elect Donald Trump) or as “Lügenpresse” (“Press of Lies”, as labeled by right-wing activist and neo-Nazis in Germany). The term “Lügenpresse” has been used continuously across diverse historical contexts by authoritarian regimes e.g., during the Third Reich to disqualify newspapers critical of the Nazi party or by the SED, the ‘Socialist Unity Party’ of former East Germany to label the Western press. Authoritarian leaders do not regard media as a prerequisite to democratic deliberation, but as a conspiracy working against them. Subsequently, authoritarianism thrives on paranoia which is why scapegoating, the dissemination of fears of outgroups, serves as an effective social control instrument to avoid the exchange of critical arguments.

As in all authoritarian systems, information is forwarded without further moderation and analysis top-down, from a leader to a complying group. In the 20th century, the choice of authoritarian transmission was by radio and state-owned newspapers. Today, technologies such as essentially fulfilling the same function of an efficient one-to-many transmission. Essential for the circumvention of collective cognitive processing is the convergence towards a single leader who manipulates the cognitive processing and behavior of followers. The problem for critics of authoritarian regimes is that they may fall into the trap of hanging onto a leader’s lips, similar to true believers. Instead, critics should refrain from commenting on every nonsensical statement, rather than questioning the legitimacy of underlying assumptions, putting a leader’s claims in the context of viable reasons, critically commenting on a leader’s socio-political and verbal behavior while exposing fabricated facts and holding writers of fake news accountable.

Other repressive strategies to disqualify the press include (1) the setting up of blacklists to punish authors that are regarded as too critical, (2) turning the public’s opinion against media in general and (3) threatening journalists with lawsuits by tightening libel laws. Simultaneously, media supportive of a regime are rewarded. In authoritarian regimes, media are no more conceptualized as bipartisan or unbiased information platforms, not as institutions that can be independently audited for the quality of their research, but as self-serving gratification outlets of a ruling oligarchy.

Authoritarianism is the reversal of democracy: Politicians stop perceiving themselves as public servants and they expect the public to serve them instead. Personal psychology such as politician’s need for self-affirmation dominate the debate, rather than the social psychology of shared deliberation.

1984-frontDoublespeak and Doublethink

On a social level, followers of autocratic leaders need to be provided an alternative version of reality to support their particular worldview. This process is accommodated in two steps: (a) Facts are re-interpreted to suit the agenda of the ruling class. In this light, truth does not exist in the form of objective, verifiable facts but as a convenient vessel to convey one’s convictions. (b) Once ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) are widely accepted by a target group, attitudes, beliefs and cognitive styles around ideological interpretations solidify. Fabricated narratives lead to the ideological foreclosure of procedural cognition.

In his famous novel ‘1984’, George Orwell coined the term ‘doublethink’ for this type of sensemaking based on ideological indoctrination. A person affected by ‘doublethink’ is completely unaware of conflict or contradiction to obvious facts, oblivious to any cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957, 1964). This is how ‘doublethinkers’ make for perfect supporters of autocrats – they will never question the fabricated facts upon which their beliefs are built. Followers rely on a seemingly coherent ideological worldview. The main characteristic of ‘doublethink’ is the absence and avoidance of cognitive dissonance, of divergent arguments and critical thinking.

In terms corresponding political behavior, autocrats dismantle democratic structures in two logical steps. Firstly, they surround themselves with a tight circle of people that share their worldview since they are intolerant to cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Secondly, they will set up mechanisms that circumvent media, the judiciary, and scrutiny by political parties to replace a democratic-divergent system with an ideological-convergent one.

Image above: Book-cover Design for George Orwell’s ‘1984’

The Social Psychology of Authoritarianism: Implicit Ideology as a Strategy to Quietly Dissolve Modern Democracies

The psychology of authoritarianism is based on regressing to the level of salient group identities.The hallmarks of authoritarianism were, as pointed out by Richard Reich and Elizabeth Warren, (a) the dissolve of open democratic inquiry, (b) the convergence towards appointed leaders (versus a pluralistic and diverse public), (c) the polarization of the public into true believers and traitors (or ‘the people’ versus ‘elites’), rather than acknowledging the specific interests of divergent groups and (d) establishing an oligarchy, an exclusive group of powerful people who self-sanction their rule by political and economic means.

The social psychology behind authoritarianism does not necessarily require an explicitly defined ideology, such as fascism, communism or religious beliefs. It suffices to imply a specific worldview indirectly, in particular in populations with a large liberal minority that would immediately reject explicit ideology. The minimal condition is for followers to believe that their charismatic leader knows best, that the leader is infallible even in the face of counterfactual evidence. To this extent, post-factual fabulation endorses a self-affirming fatalism in the case of negative outcomes, since beliefs and sentiment circumvent causal and correlational reasoning, The attitude held by autocratic leaders is ‘I never lose, I always win. It was the others that made me lose.’ Public platforms are regarded as an opportunity for self-validation, not for the sake of cooperative problem-solving, open deliberation or independent auditing.

Image: Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump (top) officially established ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) in January 2017 in a blunt rejection of empirical facts when she denied the low attendance during President Trump’s inauguration. Her interpretation was reinforced by Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary (Source: NBC/ CNN)

In authoritarian regimes, mechanisms of group compliance take over, such as described by Milgram (surrender to imperative authority, such as powerful oligarchs), Asch (conforming towards ingroup consensus), Tajfel (the minimum group condition for social identity is identification with a leader’s perceived infallibility) and Janis (the emergence of groupthink, a group incapable of examining external and divergent perspectives).

Social motivation in authoritarian systems is supported by falling back on traditional beliefs, exclusive and unempathetic social norms as well as a set of counterfactual ideological narratives such as, e.g. ‘Man-made climate change is a hoax’, ‘Wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor, this is why we need to support the wealthy’, ‘Free education for all is a communist idea’, ‘Social welfare is only for the weak and lazy’, ‘The less government, the better’, ‘Deregulation is bad for business’, ‘Our nation first’ etc.

Authoritarianism defines itself also by the absence of metacognitive assessment (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994; Schraw, 1998) the question of why we think how we think. For example, Why would someone think that man-made climate change is a hoax? How do people derive conclusions about wealth and entitlement? Which are the justifications for a libertarian, a socialist, a consequentialist or deontological approach to social fairness?

Authoritarian mental processing excludes such metacognitive reasoning since it would potentially expose the lack of democratic legitimization. Instead, it appears safer to fall back on a set of constantly repeated, salient narratives. If repeated often enough ad nauseam, they will appear to be true – truth by assertion (Freely & Steinberg, 2009).

The described mechanisms of social conformity in combination with metacognitive avoidance dissolve the diverse, democratic processing of information. The monopolization of information processing in the hands of a few prevents open, independent inquiry and discussion. There cannot exist open and sensible discussion in a world where a leader already knows best. This is perhaps why current developments are a grave reason for concern. The appointment of autocratic leaders is not about putting up with a disagreeable political party or its political agenda, at stake is the foreclosing of participatory debate by the converging ideologies of autocratic leaders, fueled by their idiosyncratic, narcissist need for self-glorification.

Nationalist noise is designed to hide the deficits of personality-centered politics: the inability to listen to and understand the other, to include others, the inability for self-correction via independent critique and the inability to cooperative problem-solving.

The emperor has still no clothes.



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