The Problem with Taxonomies in Education

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I’ve been following a discussion on one of the education forums that is discussing the utility of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and others.

Bloom's Rose

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There are complaints that Bloom’s is out of date, that we know so much more now than we did then, that is needs to be updated to take modern technology into account, and so on. Then people point to whatever their favorite taxonomy is.

Truth is, they ALL have problems (some more than others) – but it really has nothing to do with what most people complain about.

People tend to view Bloom’s in a linear fashion simply because it is presented as a linear list. Educators seem to have this great faith in visual representations – if you can make it into a chart or some sort of picture, it magically takes on significance that it never had before.

Bloom’s should not be viewed as a simple liner list. And it for sure isn’t a formula or recipe for designing instruction. I’ve never thought of it that way. Bloom’s has its limitations, just like any other list, but if it is viewed as a set of non-exclusive classifications it remains useful. Webb’s DOK is also a simple list; it’s just that the list is presented as a circular chart.

Webb's Depth of Knowledge

Webb's Depth of Knowledge

There is still an implied linearity in the fact that the levels are numbered 1,2,3,4. If they really wanted to remove the linearity, then it would be important to use some other label – colours maybe. And, just for the record, there is an implied progression – going clockwise, of course – because, after all, clockwise is simply a linear progression wrapped around a circle. Note the incongruity between ‘Level One’ and ‘Level Four’ – Level One really does not follow from Level Four, so the representation of this list as a pie (or whatever you want to call it) is misleading.
Whatever people want to say about it, Bloom’s is still a useful guide (although, I have serious problems with the ‘revised’ one), but neither it nor any of the other charts should be used as though they are formulas for designing instruction.

That’s where the real problems lie. People really want some sort of recipe they can follow that will ensure their instructional designs are robust, complete, effective, and, well, good. I’m willing to grant that most educators do this because they genuinely want to produce good learning experiences.

People try to do the same thing (find recipes) when designing software. That’s what the field of Software Engineering is about – but here it’s even worse because often the ‘desire to produce better software’ is a pretense. What they really want is to find ways for mediocre programmers to write programs that work (at least, sort of). That way you can hire 20 mediocre programmers, pay them peanuts, and sell the resultant software for buckets of money. What they really should be doing, is hiring just a few, really GOOD programmers, and pay them what they’re worth.

Taxonomies are great in biology. Taxonomies describe mutually exclusive classifications in the the natural world (i.e. a mammal cannot also be a fish), but when it comes to education (and anything else that has to do with social interaction and behaviour), taxonomies do not have those same clear-cut demarcations. They are NOT formulas.

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The Problem with Taxonomies in Education — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Game Taxonomies Are a Mess, and Other Classification Exercises | The Becker Blog

  2. You know, Bloom is like a guide. It helps us, educators, to ask a variety of questions and to create divergent tasks for learners. It’s especially useful when blended with the QAR. I’ve created a visual – A Skyscraper, the floors are levels of thinking and the QAR is an overlay to let children know what they are supposed to “do” to find their answers or how to go about creating their projects. As it is with all things it’s all about how you implement it – it’s what you create that makes it worthwhile. If you look at Bloom as a concrete list then that’s all it will be. But if you come at it with the persepctive that it can be a powerful analogy for critical thinking then that is what it will be. I think that’s why it has the staying power – because it is more open ended then you’re giving it credit for. I’d be glad to show you what I mean.

    • I agree with you – I quite like Bloom’s and I use it a lot, largely because it is so flexible. In many ways it’s foundational. What it really provides is a broad categorization of knowledge in the general sense along with a basic vocabulary for working with it.

      I’d love to have you show me what you mean.

      What I am complaining about is the tendency people have to follow ID and learning models like they are recipes. That’s helpful when you are just starting out but once you have some experience teaching and have a thorough understanding of the subject matter, you should be able to develop your own approach.

  3. I didn’t mean to say we should dismiss them altogether and I apologize if you got that impression.

    I use them myself – I own dozens of books on I.D. and even after over 30 years of teaching, I still turn to various models for guidance when starting a new design project. Truth be told, I really LIKE taxonomies. Taxonomies are a form of organizing and pattern matching, which is what we humans DO. It‘s fundamentally how we make sense of the world. Taxonomies, both explicit and internal are an essential part of any learning process. Taxonomies are crucial to the formation of effective mental models.

    My complaint is with the weight that people attribute to them, with the uncritical acceptance of almost any list that is presented in a visually pleasing form, and with how people use them, rather than that they exist. Too many people turn to taxonomies as a way to avoid having to do their own sometimes hard but very human work of organizing and classifying their thoughts. It is only through that work that we can gain a deep understanding of what we are doing. Without it our comprehension remains necessarily superficial.

    I like Bloom’s a lot – it’s one I keep coming back to (though not the ‘Digital’ version that some see as the 21st Century edition). I have referred to Bloom’s in my doctoral work as well as in my book. I think the kind of structure you create by using Bloom’s to build study guides is a great idea – and I’d love to see your discussion grid.

  4. I think you have touched on an important idea: that there is no surefire way to create a good lesson. However, I wish you would have offered some alternative views or ways of using any of the taxonomies rather than just saying we should dismiss them altogether. Because, when it really comes down to it, Bloom and the other educational psychologists know there is no formula, regardless of what self-conscious teachers might think, and the psychologists still offer us taxonomies. Therefore, we need to think of better ways to use them.

    I use Bloom’s revised taxonomy s a guide when writing questions, both for study guides as well as for discussion lessons: I feel that it helps me build a variety of types of questions into my lessons and serves as a guide for me to remember to hit on different types of knowledge processing.

    For study guides I usually do ascending order up the taxonomy, not because I feel that the linear structure is important to students but because the top of the pyramid has greater potential for essay and longer-answer questions. Also, that way the guide isn’t in the same order as what it is to guide the students through.

    For discussion lessons I have created a grid (Oh, I wish I had this online already to link to) with a box for each category on the taxonomy. As I review the material I want to cover I write questions in each category. However, the boxes serve only as a preparation tool for me: I do NOT read directly from each box during the discussion but rather let the conversation flow as it will and I scan my boxes during the discussion to check if I am hitting everything I wanted to talk about.

    I think the key point is that taxonomies should be utilized as a preparation tool for teachers but we should not rely on them over our own educated understanding of what true performance of our content really is.

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