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.
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 focuses 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
- 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.
There is no credible research evidence supporting a positive effect on learning by catering for learning styles. I want to share this piece into my network, but I really can’t do so while you still reference learning styles in it. Would you be prepared to review the critique on ‘learning styles, and consider revising your piece above?
you are absolutely correct. Learning styles (such as visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic etc.) show indeed no relation to a positive effect on learning. We are on the same page here. In the age of media-based learning, there is evidence on good media design (such as Mayer’s well-researched cognitive theory of multimedia learning ), which is, however, a different topic and a different approach. I have deleted the reference to learning modes in the ‘Conclusion’ section. Cheers and thanks for your valid comment!
I do think in a similar way. The cognitive objectives defined by the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy need further revision to accommodate the challenges of digital natives. Especially, it needs expansion to holistic and integrated thinking to protect the new generation learners from falling into the existential and noetic singularities, respectively.
Dear Joana, I am engaged in some PhD research into the relationship between the cognitive processing that takes place within working memory and the taxonomies of learning objectives that still define the assessment of competencies in UK qualifications. I am very interested in some of your criticisms particularly those related to metacognition and cognitive processing and those derived from the work of Bandura. Looking through your piece I can see why you raise these criticisms and I’m aware of the work by Schraw et al, and Bandura, but I was wondering if you could offer any references to the specific criticisms of learning taxonomies that you raise above or whether you raise these criticisms yourself on the basis of your own reading of Schraw and Bandura?
Your help answering this question would be very much appreciated as I will be referencing this blog article in my bibliography.
Dom McArdle (University of York).
firstly, I found a more differentiated critique of Bloom’s Taxonomy @ https://www.arjonline.org/papers/arjel/v2-i1/14.pdf that gives some of the references you might be looking for. Metacognition (individual and social) was not on the agenda in the 1950s and ’60s. I wrote on the topic extensively in
I base my criticism on the lack of scientific evidence of Bloom’s Taxonomy. As a theory, Bloom’s idea belongs, analogous to Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, to an intuitive construct that, however, is easily falsified. Not only does modern neuroscience dispel the myth of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’-order processes, but our daily pedagogical experience with learners teaches us that it is, e.g. not about factual knowledge versus higher-order thinking, but indeed connecting (!) facts with ideas; the ability to relate items not only linear but also interactively or massively in parallel.
In PBL and Design Thinking this is common practice: The quality of creation depends not on ‘higher’ or ‘lower’-order categories but on the quality (and complexity) of relating the simplest nodes. Some very well-proven theories such as Mayers’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning support the argument. Or take the Constructive Alignment (Biggs & Tang).
I hope the little add-on was useful to you.
With Kindest Regards!
I completely agree with what you say regarding interconnectivity as it is continually being backed up by research in cognitive psychology.
Thanks for the references, they will be very useful. I look forward to reading your other posts.
Very kind of you.
All the best,