Sunday, May 6, 2012

A little refresher on Bloom's Taxonomy

I attended the weekend workshop from BESIG today and Michelle Hunter mentioned two points in her opening about coaching and ELT which really struck a chord with me.

First, she said that when attending conferences and workshops she found herself frustrated that she already 'knew' the information being presented.  She attributed this to the fact that she was drawn to subjects which were comfortable and in which she already possessed a high level of knowledge.  For me, I was nodding my head thinking, "Yes, that is what happened to me in Glasgow on the first two days."

However, her very next point brought home why we have to keep reflecting on our professional development and why sometimes hearing what we already know can be quite helpful.  She said that there is a difference between what we know in our mind and what we know on a deeper level.  For me, I have been exposed to so many ideas in such a short time and studied so much, the gap she mentioned is quite large.  I often get the feeling that the theories and concepts I have in my mind don't always seem to make it into my training.

So, the purpose of this post to look at one of those items I have learned in the last few years, but never seemed to reach that deeper level of knowledge; Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning.

Many of you have probably heard of this concept.  I originally learned about it in a university course on learning styles and methods.  But perhaps it warrants a little review both in the context of professional development and our learners.

Summary of Bloom's Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom proposed that there are sequential cognitive abilities applied within the process of learning.  He pointed to three lower levels and three upper levels in the cognitive domain.  Primarily, these levels are used to develop assessments to establish which level of mastery has taken place.  Since he proposed the theory in the 1950s, the names of the levels have been changed to those you see above, but the general principles have remained in tact.  Putting the taxonomy into practice, Bloom outlined verbs which place assessment questions into the various levels.  For example, if you can 'give examples' of a learning point, you have successfully reached understading (or comprehension as Bloom called it).  If you can support or criticize a learning point, you have reached the evaluation level.

Here is a list of selected verbs associated with the various levels.

list, label, name, define, describe, locate, select, match, tell, who?, what?, when?, where?, and how?
summarize, contrast, differentiate, discuss, explain, give examples, restate, rewrite, translate, illustrate
apply, modify, predict, model, sketch, prepare, use, draw, solve
distinguish, arrange, prioritize, categorize, compare, sequence, connect
decide, rank, recommend, defend, support, predict, justify, convince
compose, design, write, role play, imagine, develop, invent, arrange

The Taxonomy in Professional Development

I am guessing that if you are reading this blog, you are passionate about professional development.  The problem with the blogosphere and twitterati method of professional development is that it does not expicitly enable reaching the higher levels of ability.  For example, I can name probably 100 different ways to use technology in the classroom.  I can give examples of activities in which they can be used.  I can even explain the learning benefits which can be achieved (following my verbs?).  But I cannot distinquish which are right for my learners, justify using them, or develop lesson plans around them.

So, where do I go from here?  Without the structure of formal education, I need to use my self-reflection sessions and lesson logs to achieve these higher levels.  In short, I need to reflect with a purpose.  It could look something like this...

Focus:  Approach
"Okay, today I introduced 15 new lexical items.  Which method did I use?  Was it effective?  How would this activity look using Dogme, the Lexical Approach, Discovery, the Silent Way, TBL, etc.?  Which of these would have been (or will be) best for my learners?  Why?  How would I defend my choice against Scott Thornbury or Michael Lewis?  Finally, what can I create from this decision?"

Focus:  Technology
"Okay, today I introduced 15 new lexical items.  What technology did I use?  Was it effective?  How would this activity look using an app, a mindmap, a website, media, a java/flash applet?  Which of these would have been (or will be) best for my learners?  Why?  How would I defend my choice against the Consultants-E or the publisher techies?  Finally, what can I create from this decision?"

I think this focused self-reflection will enable me to finally reach those higher levels.

The Taxonomy in Our Training

This topic in second language acqusition is nothing new and a simple google search will reveal many resources.

However, I would like to highlight two points.

One:  Pushing learners up the taxonomy is high demand teaching

Prepared teaching plans typically follow the flow from low to high ability.  This is also the essence of PPP.  For example, first the learners identify a word, then they understand it, then they apply it into a structured activity.  Then poof, there is a discussion activity in which they must create it in the correct context.  However, without the trainer really ensuring the learners have full command of the word, most are inclined to stay in their comfort zone.

Jim Scrivener's talk about swimming in the language mentioned using activities to 'linger'.  In his examples he was essentially asking the students to analyze, evaluate, and create using the language point.  It could be grammar, lexis, functions, skills... it doesn't matter.

The point is that in BE classrooms we spend a lot of time asking our learners to user their higher thinking skills to process the content/situation (something they can already do) and less time asking them to really analyze, evaluate, and create the target language.  This leads to the second point.

Two:  Integrate the taxonomy into own materials

For us to ensure learners are using high cognitive skills on the lanuage, we need to be certain our materials are correct.  Course books get it right sometimes but when using a course book we should certainly view the activities to see what is missing.  But for our self-made materials, we need to double check that we are driving learning.  Let's look at how Bloom's Taxonomy can help us improve our self-made materials.  Here are some ideas:

1.  Matching and crosswords are not enough.  After this, we could ask them to connect the target lexis with other words in the same context.  Or connect the list together into some kind of diagram (flow chart, mindmap, etc.)
2.  In a cloze exercize, don't provide all the answers in a word box.  Ask them to predict which words come next and then defend why to a partner or the class.
3.  In error correction activities, place a line under the question asking them to defend why it is wrong and why their version is correct.
4.  Give them three of four examples of sentences with various grammar forms which are all correct.  Ask them to build a dialog or situation in which the different sentences could be used.
5.  At the end of a lesson, with all the 'stumbled upon' lexis on the board, ask the learners to rank them by frequency.  Which will they use more often, sometimes, never?  Then have them support their ranking with clear reasons.

I would love to hear more ideas.

In conclusion, I understood exactly what Michelle was talking about in her webinar, it is something I battle with constantly.  Perhaps a structure like Bloom's Taxonomy can help.


  1. Charles! I just stumbled on this blog having read your post about the BESIG talk you gave on Friday. Thank you. What I said at the beginning of that webinar (way back in May) having struck a chord with you is more encouraging than you can know. As a result of another person's comment recently, I was feeling I'd been self-indulgent and time wasting. To know that I'm not alone in how I feel re: "Knowing it all" is most reassuring.
    And by the way, I really enjoy the way you write. Thanks for sharing your knowledge - I'm definitely learning something from you!!

  2. I thought your webinar was great! I teach online quite often and I know how difficult it can be lacking any sort of audience response. It's like talking into a black hole. I found your talk great and really thought provoking about how I can improve in the future.

    Thanks for sharing!