It has dawned on me recently that two of My Ed Heroes, Gary Stager and Bernie Dodge, have somewhat opposing viewpoints (at least it seems that way to me) of what learners should involve themselves in when they learn in a particular content area. I think the difference is interesting, important, and instructive. Ultimately, their views aren’t 100% at odds, but I think these titans clash with regard to the type of learning task that they primarily advocate for educators to place before the learner.
First it is important to note that both Bernie Dodge and Gary Stager are frustrated by many of the mind numbing tasks that are presented to learners in the typical classroom. Both rail against simply learning about a subject out of context in sterile information transferring environment. Both are advocates of constructivism and tapping into, rather than quashing, the natural wonder, intensity, and creativity of learners. Both have devoted their exploits to helping educators move away from learning facts and skills in isolation and toward inquiry and exploration. So where’s the beef?
AUTHENTIC PRACTICE – The Learner Task As Envisioned by Gary Stager
AKA – In science class, do authentic science.
Probably Gary Stager’s greatest influence is Seymour Papert, who’s primary influence was in turn, Piaget. Papert has a paper titled “Teaching Children to Be Mathematicians vs. Teaching About Mathematics” that suggest ways for students to be “in a better position to do mathematics rather than merely to learn about it.” Largely because of this influence and because he is awesome in his own right, Gary Stager is a huge advocate of having students apply their creativity and problem-solving skills to make and do things. You will often hear him advocating for students to be computer scientists, be artists, be social scientists, be mathematicians, etc. in the classroom. That is, he generally advocates for the authentic practice of a field. For example, he has encouraged student that he has worked with to compose music, to program video games, to engineer devices, etc. So in a nutshell, Gary Stager primarily advocates the authentic practice of a field.
AUTHENTIC USE – The Learner Task As Envisioned by Bernie Dodge
AKA – In science class, use scientific ideas authentically.
In my post, My Ed Heroes #3 – Bernie Dodge, I claim that Bernie Dodge might be better viewed as “The Task Guy” than “The Webquest Guy” because the central aim of his work, in my opinion, is focused on helping educators develop authentic, real-world tasks for students.
“But, wait a minute!” you might be thinking. ”That’s just what you said about Gary Stager. I thought their views were in opposition.”
That’s what I find so interesting about this comparison. Both are interested in asking students to complete real-world tasks. However, the type of real-world task is very different. Where Gary Stager’s task is about the “doing” of the thing that is central to that field (i.e. being a practicing musician or scientist), Bernie Dodge’s task is about the authentic use of the information of that field.
Take the webquest, it is founded on the fact that there is already a wealth of information on the web about most topics in any field of study, like science, for example. A science webquest then is designed in order to promote the authentic and higher order use of scientific information that is widely available, rather than the doing of science. Students might be asked to make a decision about public health policy or to design a campaign to educate the public about the evidence for global warming or take a position on whether the United States should go metric or remain English. When I’ve seen Bernie work with students in the design of a webquest for a particular topic, some of the first questions he asks is what is the “real-world” use of this information, and why is it important?
People in a variety of professions may not be scientists, but understanding and making sense of scientific ideas might be central to their profession. Examples of this are politicians who make policy decisions based on their understanding (and also on their misunderstanding) of science, journalists who report on science (or at least attempt to), authors who write imaginative books where science plays a role, movie makers who imagine futuristic worlds based on their understanding (and also on their misunderstanding) of what is possible. So in a nutshell, Bernie Dodge advocates for the authentic use of information from a particular field.
Why both types of tasks are important
In my occasionally humble opinion, I think both types of tasks are important. Any curriculum that focuses on one type to the exclusion of the other would be a disservice to students. Unfortunately, the vast majority of curricula exclude both types of tasks and in turn focuses merely on learning about a subject matter.
Why should all kids take part in a curriculum where they are asked to “do science,” “be historians,” “be artists,” etc.?
For one thing, understanding the core values of a field and being empowered to view yourself as having a future in a field is difficult to do if you haven’t ever acted as a practitioner of the field. Sticking with the science example, doing science helps learners to understand central issues and attitudes of science:
- it helps them recognize the importance of careful measurement and documentation
- it helps students understand that science is not a finished project but something that they can contribute to and advance
- it promotes inquiry, curiosity, and asking questions
- it promotes the reliance on evidence and proof for claims
- it promotes rational, careful, and nuanced thought and reasoning
- it promotes agency and is empowering to be a maker, a doer
But it does these things best if students are honestly doing science.
I remember being in a very dynamic and interesting biology class where I learned quite a bit, but we rarely “did science” by investigating our own questions and points of wonder. In fact, the sense that I got from that class was that science was figured out and finished, there wasn’t much of a need to do science any more, but it was fun to learn about. This is in exact opposition to empowering students and helping them to see themselves as the future of a particular field of study.
Why should all kids take part in a curriculum where they are asked to authentically use the information and ideas of each field (i.e. use science, use history. etc.)?
It is an awesome idea to have students being scientists, mathematicians, and social scientists, but the reality is that many students will not grow up to be scientists. Others will not grow up to be mathematicians or artists or social scientists. But throughout their lifetime all students will need to be able to use information from any field in a responsible, rational, careful, and critical way.
One unfortunate reality is that we live in a society where we look to the wrong experts, we’re mistrustful of science, truthiness reigns supreme. We need a society where citizens can research information related to a particular field to make an informed decision or inform their beliefs and creations. They don’t have to always be doing science in order to be better connoisours of scientific or historical information. Everyday citizens need to be able to use information well, and that is just they type of skill that the second type of task, authentic use of information, purports to develop.
This second type of task has students imagine themselves to “be public policy makers,” “be architects,” “be school nurses,” ”be world leaders,” “be parents,” etc.
An authentic policy task that asks students to use scientific knowledge authentically would likely develop the following:
- information literacy and all that entails
- sensitivity to perspective
- understanding of cause and effect relationships
- problem-solving skills
- an understanding of what counts as evidence
- deliberations skills – how to discuss and disagree effectively and respectfully
Gary Stager and Bernie Dodge probably have advocated for both authentic use and authentic practice in their work, but from my perspective they are primarily a standard bearer for one or the other. There is no question that both types of activities within a content area are important for empowering learners within a subject matter. Students should be able to both be scientists and use scientific information well. It’s a shame, and a sham, for that matter, that the vast majority of tasks in classrooms are neither of these. Instead students simply learn about subjects. What a shame (and sham!) when there are two wonderful alternative approaches.
Gary Stager first blipped onto my radar screen at NECC 2009. He was standing on a big stage, in a big room, talking about contructivism and education. But more than that he was espousing his views about bad education, bad ideas, and young upstart presenters, who he thinks should sit down and listen to the seasoned experts. He was straight shooting and articulate, but also a bit bombastic and harshly unapologetic, but I loved it. I have the highest level of respect not for the people who I 100% agree with, but rather for those who have powerful ideas, backed by powerful evidence, who are willing to challenge the powers that be, or any one else, with the intentions of making the world a better place. I think that description describes Gary Stager perfectly. He doesn’t pull any punches, and he’ll challenge the biggest names in education. But he does this because he has had extensive experience and done extensive research and has a lot to back up the claims that he makes. Gary Stager is My Ed Hero #4 because he frustrates me, he challenges me, but in the end he makes me a better educator.
So who is Gary Stager? If you don’t know him already, he’s a progressive educator who has a website, a blog, and a gathering, Constructing Modern Knowledge, that he supports in addition to his many other endeavors. He’s also the executive director of the Constructivist Consortium, he’s a contributor to the Huffington Post, and he’s probably the biggest devotee in the entire world to the work and the person of Seymour Papert. I shouldn’t put words in his mouth but if I were to describe what I see as his mission in life, I would say that it is to reinvent the whole educational monster around the ideas and values that progressive educators have shared for decades, maybe centuries (got to get Dewey in there). That is, education should be child-centered, constructivist, democratic, empowering, and engaging. It should encourage learners to think creatively, critically, analytically to solve problems, to create, to discover, and more.
“Okay, so he sounds like a pretty great guy, but what effect has he had on you?” you might be asking (maybe you aren’t wondering that, but play along). Well do you remember at the beginning of this piece I mentioned that he was putting young upstart presenters in their place at NECC 2009? Well, at the time, I was a young upstart presenter. I presented at the Computer Using Educators conference for the first time in 2009. So I felt like he was telling me to sit down, and this made me uncomfortable. I could definitely understand where Gary was coming from. There have been so many thinkers and educators who have had valuable and critical things to say. And despite having these ideas as part of our collective body of knowledge, they are yet to be truly taken to heart and implemented. At the time I knew something about historical and contemporary perspectives on education, but there was definitely so much for me to learn. Despite coloring at the cheeks a bit and sending my mind racing to justify my existence as a young upstart presenter, I think he was right. I needed to do some soul searching and look backwards at the significant figures of the past and look around me at what is being said today by those with the most relevant and important experience. This has prompted me to examine my educational roots quite a bit more and is a big part of why I want to pay homage to My Ed Heroes. I think this one example of Gary Stager’s effect on me is a perfect illustration of constructivism at work. You need to be challenged and experience cognitive dissonance in order to significantly reorganize your cognitive schema, your understanding of the world and take a leap forward.
This is just one example of Gary’s influence on me as an educator. It really goes far beyond this initial experience. I definitely dig constructivism and enjoy hearing him share his ideas at conferences and on the Future of Education podcast and in other places. I also have started to chip away at his reading list for serious reformers. Someday I hope to be able to attend Constructing Modern Knowledge. Heck, I’d like to meet the guy and have a conversation. What I like most about Gary Stager is that although I agree with him about so many things, I disagree with him too. It doesn’t make me admire him less that I disagree with him. I like to be challenged. When I find that I disagree with him, I am pushed to re-examine my rationale for my belief. Sometimes I change my mind and find that I think he’s right and sometimes I decide that I still disagree. It is the dialogue, the critical discourse, and the flexing of mental muscle that continues to change me as an educator and as a person generally. It is something that I value immensely. For that, I thank you, Gary Stager. I look forward to continuing to be challenged by you. And if I do every meet you and get to have a conversation I won’t just say I’m a huge fan (although I probably will say that). I also have a few bones to pick with you. But regardless keep being the arms swinging educational reformer that you are!
If you’ve heard of Bernie Dodge, you probably know him as ”the Webquest guy” and with good reason. Bernie Dodge is a professor of Educational Technology at San Diego State University, and he is the father of the Webquest. The webquest (often misunderstood, unfortunately) is a model for learning experiences using the internet that are centered around meaningful and engaging tasks. Though he is thoroughly a techno-geek (and I mean that in the best possible way), what seems to drive his continued work is exploring ways to integrate new technology in the classroom in ways that coax higher level thinking out of the learner and that cultivate the innate desire humans have to investigate and understand our world.
Although “the Webquest guy” has a much nicer ring to it, I think a better moniker for Bernie is the “the Task guy.” The latter is more expressive of the expanse of work that he has undertaken. Unfortunately, the word ’task’ tends to have negative connotations, especially when you take a look at variations on the word such as ” this is so tasking” or “she is such a taskmaster” or “staying on task.” But these negative connotations tend to come from situations where the task is menial and/or boring such as when you are asked to fill out a worksheet by searching a chapter in a book. In spite of these negative connotations, I think The Task guy is apt because what ultimately defines the quality of learning, whether it uses technology or not, is the task that the student is asked to perform. And Bernie’s idea of a task is something that is inspired, challenging, and inherently engaging. It is because his work is about elevating the task that he is, in my mind, The Task Guy.
I’ve been lucky enough to have Bernie as a mentor in several venues. I’ve heard him speak at conferences but I’ve also taken classes from him at San Diego State. I’d like to share what I’ve learned from him regarding the notion of ‘task.’
Lessons from Bernie:
Lesson #1: The Importance of Webquest Tasks:
In a webquest, the task is of utmost importance. Something I know is particularly vexing to Bernie is when people misunderstand what a webquest is. The misunderstanding grows out of the conflation of two ideas: an internet scavenger hunt that is a collection of websites for a student to poke around in and a webquest that is a roadmap for inquiry centered around a robust task. Both the internet scavenger hunt and a true webquest ask students to examine websites, but a webquest asks students to use the information and ideas found at these websites to achieve something. In a webquest, the task determines what it is a student will be doing as they examine sites around the web. And the task must be authentic, engaging, and require higher order thought. So if you don’t have a high quality task, you don’t have a webquest.
The success of the webquest task can be gauged by how interested the students are in undertaking the task and how challenging it is (i.e. how much will it require intellectual and creative effort to achieve). It is because a webquest is about high quality tasks that harness the power of the internet to inform, collaborate, and share that the webquest is a model of instruction that has staying power.
Lesson #2: The Quality of the Task Depends on the Effect it has on the Cogs of a Student’s Brain
In a presentation Bernie did titled Kids as Deciders, Bernie provides a nice graphic and explanation that illustrated, in simplified terms, the learning process. Okay, the graphic is a bit Tron-ish, but the idea is great. Here’s a paraphrase:
You could simplify teaching and learning with a graphic like the one to the left. The arrow that is stabbing the learner in the eye represents an input. Inputs (like books, lectures, websites, simulations, movies, etc.) are things that students experience in order to begin to learn about and investigate a strand of learning. The arrow exiting the students mouth (hopefully not regurgitation but something more meaningful) is the output. The output is what teachers ask students to produce in order to demonstrate what they have learned. It could be an exam, a movie, an advertising campaign, a presentation, a concept map, etc.
Ultimately what matters most in teaching and learning is the unseen and invisible growth, i.e. the flexing of mental muscle, inside the brain of the student. This is represented in the diagram by the cogs in the head. How did the gears churn and turn in the student’s mind to process the inputs in order to produce the output? The churning of the cogs is the learning itself.
So what does this have to do with tasks? Well, generally the teacher at least in some way determines what output a student will use to demonstrate their learning. It is the task that the teacher lays before the student that determines how the cogs of the brain will process the information and what the student will produce.
First let’s look at an example from a “webquest.” I put ‘webquest’ in quotes in the previous sentence because the task in this example would barely qualify it as a webquest, if it does at all. (See below) The task is simply a scavenger hunt for information that will be regurgitated in a PowerPoint and a brochure. There is no repurposing of the information. All students have to do in order to achieve the described task is find the information and perhaps paraphrase it in a PowerPoint and brochure form. Essentially they will be taking notes on the topic with a PowerPoint and brochure. This is using the information at a very low level. The cogs of the brain simply have to locate the information and summarize/paraphrase it.
Now let’s modify that task. Let’s say that students will imagine that they are applying for grant money from the Department of the Interior. The grant money must be used for disaster preparedness for their hometown. In their presentation they have to define the dangers related to the type of disaster and generate a plan for improving the city’s readiness for that disaster. This task would require significantly more flexing of mental muscle. Presumably they can’t just go to Google and find a disaster preparedness plan for their home town. They have to CREATE it – the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy – by finding out what happens when that natural disaster strikes, how people protect themselves from it, and what readiness plan may already be in place and how it can be improved in order to make their hometown ready. They are going to need to piece a lot of information together for a particular purpose. Furthermore, the presentation they create will need to be persuasive in order to make an adequate case for the grant money. When they are done, the students have created something of value that probably taught them quite a bit about the natural disaster they focused on.
The lesson here is that a good way to evaluate the quality of a task is to think about what would have to go on inside of a student’s mind in order for it to be achieved. If the mind doesn’t have to re-purpose, evaluate, or create something with the information, it is likely a poorly designed task.
Lessons #3: Whenever Possible the Task Should Tap Into Wonder and Natural Curiosity
One of Bernie’s latest endeavors is called WonderPoints. The idea is to try to resurrect that innate intellectual curiosity that we all had as children. To refresh your memory of what that was like here are a few questions my four-year-old son asked just in the last few weeks:
- “Where does the gas go?” (in reference to why we were always filling our car with gas)
- “How did I learn words? Did you teach me?” (since his little sister is just learning to speak)
- “Why is the water windy?” (in reference to why we felt a breeze on our hike when we got closer to the Chattahoochee River)
- “Why is it called Chattahoochee?” (interesting answer to this one – I won’t tell, but the picture below provides a clue)
As we get older we take a lot more for granted. The idea of WonderPoints is to get students wondering about their environment by snapping pictures using mobile devices and documenting what wonder the environment inspired in a map. In order to encourage the wondering, the student is asked to take a fresh look at the environment as if they were a child or alien seeing it for the first time.
Why do I think wondering is important especially with regard to tasks. Well, I’ll give a story from my past as an answer to that:
I loved high school biology. It was one of my favorite classes. Not only was it challenging, but the teacher created experiences that were inquiry-based; where the task was high level and engaging. I learned a lot about Biology, and the class inspired me to take Biology as my major in college.
Biology seemed to be an interesting but lifeless subject. Somehow I got the impression that biologists had it all figured out. I loved learning about Pasteur and genetics and ecosystem dynamics, but these topics weren’t taught as if there were gaps in the scientific understanding. The information was taught as complete not as if there were interesting questions left unanswered in the field. To get down to it, the class did not inspire me to WONDER about biology or feel that I could be a part of answering biological questions.
My guess is that I’m not the only person in the world who has experienced this. A class might be taught well and include well designed and engaging tasks but still not make a student feel that they can participate in the generation of new knowledge in the field – i.e. that their questions and investigation might uncover new truths.
The moral of this story – creating tasks that stimulate students to wonder and ask questions inspires students to investigate their own questions and create new knowledge. This is often a missing element of coursework.
Why Educators Should Worry More About Tasks
All of the lessons that Bernie taught me about tasks may seem patently clear you. But my observations of education indicate that although teachers may understand the need for meaningful tasks, it is the transfer of that knowledge to implementation that tends to breakdown – especially when considering the integration of technology. Prepare yourself, I’m climbing up on my soapbox:
The reason education has failed to inspire kids is not a lack of engaging technological tools. These are a passing thrill. How excited are people about the original iPad now that the iPad2 is released? If we are simply enticing students to learn by employing the latest technology, it is a cheap thrill. To paraphrase Gary Stager (who happens to be My Ed Hero #4 and coming up in my next post) technology just seems to amplify the quality of teaching. It makes bad teachers worse and good teachers better. That’s because it is the teaching, and more importantly the task students are asked to do during their time with a teacher that defines the quality of learning. A meaningful and thoroughly engaging lesson can use nothing more than the minds of the student and the skill of the teacher. You can do a really bad lesson in Google Earth and do an incredible one with traditional paper maps or brain power alone. The task is what matters.
If you think about it, what educational/pedagogical value is inherent to new technologies? Well, I think that ultimately it boils down to a few things that really make them have value in the classroom:
- Access – 24/7, anywhere, immediate access
- connecting students with people outside of the bounds of their classroom and promoting collaboration
- connecting students with information and elements of the world not available prior to the new technologies
- allowing for creations that have high production value
For example, What is the educational value of a Prezi?
Prezi will not have enduring importance to education. Neither will VoiceThreads or iMovie or Flickr. Google docs is just a fancy word processing program that makes documents more accessible and allows for collaboration. Most likely these tools will soon be replaced and improved upon. But quality tasks are what we need our teachers to be able to construct, and this will be of never ending importance to the field. Students will always need to be able to plan, create, evaluate, persuade, propose, design, etc. Unfortunately too many teachers get things backward. We spend too much time raving about the power of a tool and not enough time raving about the power of tasks.
And one more thing, just because I feel this cannot be stated enough. The reorganization of Bloom’s Taxonomy has caused some problems in the education field because the term ‘Create’ is used too generously. Creating is now at the top of the taxonomy. However, some educators believe that if a student “creates a movie” or “creates a PowerPoint” that they have asked their students to think at a higher level, but this is not the case. Neither of these implies that the student created anything with the information. If you are wanting to design an objective that asks students to create, then take the tool out of the equation. Are they creating a persuasive presentation? Are they creating a new solution to a problem? Are they creating a plan? If you can take the tool out of the equation and the word ‘create’ still makes sense as part of the objective, then it is deserving of this highest rung of Bloom’s. But if you are having students “create a movie about the types of volcanoes” taking movie out of the objective makes it nonsensical to say the students are creating anything. They are Not creating anything with the information about volcanoes that they research.
I thank Bernie for helping me to focus on what the learner is doing (and in particular what they are doing with the target content of the lesson) because, to me, it is the ultimate test of the quality of instruction.
Links to various configurations and descriptions of Bloom’s Taxonomy are frequently tweeted and retweeted and shared in other ways. This is a testament to the continued relevance of this taxonomy of cognitive complexity. But not all descriptions or organizations of Bloom’s are created equal – so buyer beware! Unfortunately so many of them seem completely misguided – at least, they appear nonsensical to me. What worries me the most is that some of the most erroneous visual guides are the most shared, and to me, that makes them dangerous.
Many educators, myself included, suffer from a technolust that sometimes allows a love affair with a particular tool goad us into forcing a square peg into a round hole. This happens when teachers use tools because they are new and “shiny” rather than because they are a natural fit for their pedagogical needs. Another example of a bad fit is the numerous examples of visuals that try to categorize various techno tools in the Bloom’s hierarchy, and there have been a number of them. Here’s a sampling:
So why do I believe these visuals to be misguided, unhelpful, and even dangerous? Two reasons.
1. What’s the point?
When people create guides like this, I wonder to myself what is the point. How do they envision that teachers will use them. My best guess is that they would like for teachers to say to themselves, “Hmm, I’d really like to get my students to be thinking at a higher level today – perhaps at the Create level, but I’m just not sure what tool will help them do that.” And then later…”Aha, if I take a look at this nice diagram I can see that I can pick one of these tools in the Create level of Bloom’s and I’m all set.”
I hope that teachers do not use these diagrams in this way. It runs counter to what Judi Harris and many others have said about the tool not driving the instruction. What should drive the instruction is the outcome that you are hoping to attain and the pedagogical approach that will best achieve that end. This is an almost exactly opposite approach to Harris’ Activity Types where selecting the appropriate technology that will support the learning goals is the last step.
Another way that the creators might envision the use of these charts is that teachers might use them as an argument that their instruction is working students’ minds at a higher order of thinking. A teacher might their teaching techniques are validated by saying something to the effect of, “How great! I have my students use wikis and Google sites. That shows that my students are working at the highest level of cognitive complexity — Create.” That might be a valid use of these organizers if they were reliable, but I think it is fairly easy to demonstrate that they are not. Imagine a teacher having students “create” a wiki where it is little more than a research project where students find information and illustrate it with pictures that they find on the web. If the students do little to digest the information, this would at best reach the understanding level of Bloom’s unless a significant effort is made to organize the information for a purpose. This brings me to my second criticism of these organizers.
2. They don’t make sense
Heck they don’t even agree. In the first image, created by M. Fischer, YouTube is at the bottom Remembering level, and in the second, created by Samantha Penney, YouTube is at the second from the top Evaluate level, and in the third, created by Kathy Schrock, YouTube is at the top Create level. So what does that mean? Does that mean two of these people are wrong? No, they are all right, but they are also all wrong. They are all right because YouTube could be used at the remembering level if you asked students to watch a YouTube video in order to teach them about who Barack Obama is or what the Challenger disaster was. It could also be used at the evaluate level if you asked students to critique the accuracy or production value of the final product, but it could also be at the create level if you asked students to create and upload a persuasive video meant to provide a convincing argument for or against unionization. They are all wrong because they place a tool at a particular level of Bloom’s. Any tool could fall at any level of Bloom’s, and I challenge you to find a tool that is even mostly used at only one level of Bloom’s. The tool is basically irrelevant to determining at what level of Bloom’s a tool resides, and this is the most important reason that these organizers should not be made.
In my last post I praised Benjamin Bloom as one of My Ed Hero #2 because his taxonomy is such an important tool, but I also discussed the way that these organizers fundamentally misrepresent what the taxonomy is all about. It is a hierarchy of cognitive complexity. It is about what people’s minds do not what features or capabilities a tool has. It is what is going on inside the head of a child during a task that determines where it falls on Bloom’s. For example, take Webspiration, a new Inspiration product, that was placed at the Understanding level of Bloom’s on Samantha Penney’s graphic. On their blog, Inspiration graciously expressed gratitude to Samantha for placing their tool at the Understanding level but went on to explain that the Webspiration tool could be used to encourage students to think at any of the levels of cognitive complexity on Bloom’s taxonomy, and rightly so. If you have ever used Inspiration, a cursory look at their templates will reveal pre-made diagrams that ask students to analyze, evaluate, etc. The tool could easily be used to promote any type of thinking on the taxonomy.
Just one more point and then I’ll sum up. For some reason people recognize the absurdity of classifying non-technology tools and items on Bloom’s. Where would paper fall? How about a pencil? How about a two dimensional paper map? How about a two-dimensional image? Just take a look at this website that shows how a single image can be used in activities that promote each level of Bloom’s. Any of these things, heck even a blade of grass, a bird’s feather, a chair, and more could be used to promote thinking at any level of Bloom’s. The only thing that determines the level of Bloom’s is the what is happening in the mind of the child, and it is what you ask the student to do with the tool that will determine this.
Please stop making these types of graphics. They are misleading and unhelpful. Please stop sharing them. And if I’m completely wrong about all of this, tell me why these graphics are correct and helpful and I will eat my words.
Who in the field of education hasn’t heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy? My guess is that relatively few educators haven’t. If you’ve heard of the taxonomy and have found it useful in defining the objectives of your teaching, then you are indebted to Benjamin Bloom.
Bloom was a psychologist who is most famous for organizing educational objectives according to their cognitive complexity. This is, of course, Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom was consumed with investigating thinking and learning. In fact one of his great hopes was to find a way to replicate the educational results that were achieved through 1 to 1 mastery teaching in the group instructional setting.
Benjamin Bloom is My Ed Hero #2 because the number one pedagogical reform that I would like to see in education is a move toward encouraging students to contend with real-world/authentic problems that elevate their engagement with material to a higher order of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy. The habits of mind that Deborah Meier (My Ed Hero #1) places at the center of curriculum are a perfect example. Each of the habits of mind requires thinking about information that you are presented with in a more sophisticated and important way than simply remembering and understanding it. Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy provides a simple framework for creating instructional objectives, measuring outcomes, and evaluating the quality of teaching.
To me Bloom’ Taxonomy is the single most important guiding principle in education. You hear about the taxonomy so much because it is the best structure we have for determining whether a learning task is of high cognitive complexity or not. What’s disappointing to me though, is that at k-12 schools and institutions of higher learning across the country, instruction is still more often focused on the lower hanging fruit of understanding and remembering. Bloom’s book introducing the taxonomy was published in 1956. Despite being a welcome and much discussed guide for designing educational objectives and assessment and despite widespread desire to foster critical thinking, we still, after more than 50 years of having the taxonomy, create instruction as if information was something to dump into students’ brains rather than as something to use in awing and profound ways.
Now there are a lot of guides out there to help teachers consider the taxonomy in their lesson design. Some of these guides are great and some are fatally flawed. However, these guides have not proven adequate for promoting widespread higher order instruction. Why? I’m not sure. Could it be:
- they insufficiently communicate how to design lessons that engage the cogs of the brain at a higher level of Bloom’s
- not enough teachers place a high value on developing this type of instruction
- there isn’t enough time built into a teacher’s day to spend developing curriculum that goes beyond the insipid pre-packaged lessons that come with the big bucks districts spend on textbooks
- for some other reason yet to be discovered?
With all of the efforts being spent on education reform, it might be worth taking a moment to investigate why daily lesson plans do not consistently inspire these higher levels of cognition in students. It is not the case that there aren’t an extraordinary number of teachers that rise to this high standard, because there certainly are. It is just not as commonplace as one might hope. But why? Especially since Bloom’s is common knowledge among educators.
Bloom’s Taxonomy, however, is not perfect. It’s imperfection lies in how easy it is to misinterpret and misuse. Using the various guidelines for the taxonomy, a teacher may believe that they are creating a task that requires higher level thinking that doesn’t. Or equally ineffective, a teacher may create a task that has a higher level aspect to the task, but the higher order thinking isn’t focused on the concept and ideas that you hope. Instead, interaction with the concepts remains at a very low level. Here are a couple of examples:
Example 1: The pyramid to the left aligns web 2.0 tools with Bloom’s Taxonomy and was tweeted my way recently. It seems like a good idea because, in theory, now teachers can select a tool based on the desired cognitive complexity of the task. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that easy? Then as long as you are using the tool at the appropriate level of Bloom’s, then you are fostering higher order thinking at that level.
But ultimately it makes no sense. Each of the items listed in the pyramid are simply tools. Where would paper fall on the chart? Nowhere! Because it is not what tool or implement you are using but how you are using it. Take Prezi for example. Based on this chart it is a tool that will have your students working in the highest possible cognitive domain – creating. But if students are just finding images and information on the web and inserting it into a presentation without much processing, then it is far from being a creative enterprise. Conversely Flickr is placed at the lowest level as a remembering tool. But suppose that you have students find pictures on Flickr to illustrate the concept of ‘decay’ or ‘affluence’ or ‘democracy’. An activity like that would at least be at the analysis level of Bloom’s.
Example 2: I really like this site, so I hate to pick on it. Someone has made this Bloom’s flip book . On each page there are descriptions, helpful verbs, and sample activities for each level of Bloom’s. On the ‘Create’ level it suggests an activity where students create a film about a topic. What’s interesting about this example is that there is no question that creating a movie will have your students working at a higher level of thinking, but not necessarily about the topic of the movie. The act of writing a script/creating a storyboard and using movie-making software to edit and organize information so that it effectively communicates and visually stimulates certainly requires thinking at every level of Bloom’s. The problem is that students can create a beautiful movie and not have to think at a higher level about the content at all. For example, what if you asked students to make a movie about the types of volcanoes. Students could simply go online, find out the types of volcanoes, copy a definition/description, download a picture of each, and slap a movie together. I’ve seen students do exactly that. In order to have students struggle with the concepts at a higher level, it isn’t what they produce but how the task is framed that matters. A higher order movie task might ask students to pretend that they work for the department of the interior and create a introductory video for developers who want to build communities near a volcano. Clearly in this case the students will need to grapple with information related to volcanoes much more significantly.
Example 3: Even relying on the verbs that are often listed as correlating to various levels of Bloom’s can lead to mixed results. The verb ‘decide’ is placed at the evaluation level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This makes sense because complex decision-making requires significant thought. Bernie Dodge has an excellent presentation on the topic of Kids As Deciders (btw – he’s coming up as My Ed Heroes #3 tomorrow). But a teacher could construct an objective using that verb that does not ask students to think at a higher level. For example: ”Students will be able to decide whether an image of a volcano is a cinder cone.” This objective has a verb that is at the evaluation level, but what students are really doing here is at the understanding or applying level. The new Bloom’s Taxonomy that places creating at the highest level is sure to lead to misinterpretations. Whenever the objective is create a…movie, presentation, podcast, etc. and specifies the type of production, you have no guarantee that the task will truly meet any level of Bloom’s beyond understanding. However, if the task is not tool/product specific and uses the verb create, you are more likely to see better results. Take the volcano movie above. If instead you simply asked students to create guidelines for developers who would like to build communities near volcanoes and left the format up to the student, then the creation aspect is squarely placed on the content.
To sum up, I think that Bloom’s Taxonomy is of enormous importance. If educators truly understand it and strive to create lessons that prod their students to more complex levels of cognition, the employment of the taxonomy would be a great success. But this breakthrough has been around so long and we have still not found a way to utilize the taxonomy effectively, and that is a shame.
Resources (buyer beware – not all of the resources listed at these two sites are created equally, but they are a good start):
For my first post in the My Ed Heroes series, I want to reflect on a person who has brought about a budding resurgence of thought about the mission of education. This individual is of particular importance to me because although I have never met her, Deborah Meier talked me into becoming an educator.
After college I thought I would become a philosophy professor. Snoozer I know, but walking home from my philosophy courses struggling with the ideas of identity and other metaphysical questions prodded my brain into a place of challenged uneasiness – that sweet spot of intellectual growth. I liked it. If only I could keep my brain challenged by these intractable questions…So I packed up and took my desire to explore new intellectual frontiers to the University of California, San Diego to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. But at the end of my second year of graduate school at UCSD I had this crazy idea to take an education class.
It happened to be taught by Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High. At first the class made me uncomfortable. He had ideas about education that painted a picture of schooling dramatically different than my experience, and OBVIOUSLY the way I was taught is the right way. Right? Larry tossed out ideas that seemed utterly bizarre to me at first. He suggested that high school didn’t have to be constrained by periods with each subject tied up neatly into a time slot. Students could do internships or volunteer during school hours. Students could grapple with challenges and be asked to create something new. One story that sticks out for me is that at one of his schools in Boston students in shop classes got credit for physics. Their calibrated and technical creations impressed physics professors and physics professionals. That’s right, the kids traditionally considered to be beginning their vocational education were doing college level physics. Now in the grand tradition of believing that school should be taught in exactly the same way that it was when you were a student, I resisted these ideas. But only at first…
One of the things that pushed me over the edge and ultimately inspired me to believe not only that education should approach its mission differently but that I should be a part of it was reading the assigned book The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier. It is her belief in the ideals of democratic education, also espoused by John Dewey, that make her one of my educational heroes.
If you aren’t familiar with Deborah Meier, she is a progressive educator who founded several small schools in New York and has written a number of books. She is also on the board of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). Her small schools and work at the CES focus on developing the habits of mind that encourage future intellectual and emotional growth as well as equip students with the cognitive abilities and attitudes that will help them to blossom into an informed and conscientious citizen. Her goal is to grow schools that not only guide students to be conscientious members of our society but that themselves embody democratic ideals in the governance of the school.
Her influence over me (and many many others) can be summed up with one word: DEMOCRACY.
It’s been so long since I read her book, but there is much that sticks out to me. The ideal of democracy that she proposes is two-fold.
1. Education should prepare students to be active participants in our democratic system – Toward this goal, Deborah Meier focuses on Habits of Mind as a core element of her curriculum rather than stressing the retention of discrete facts. Ultimately it is the ability to think, analyze, and comprehend that are what lead to educated and responsible citizens rather than whether they can factor quadratic equations. The original habits of mind are below:
- Evidence: How do we know what’s true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us? This includes using the scientific method and more.
- Viewpoint: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectations? This requires the exercise if informed “empathy” and imagination. It required flexibility of mind.
- Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?
- Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that? What if ? This habit requires use of imagination as well as knowledge of alternative possibilities. It includes the habits described above.
- Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?
2. Schools should be models of democratic decision-making - The idea here is that schools should be collaborative enterprises where grown ups are allies not enemies. Parents, teachers, and students can democratically make decisions related to the operation of the school. There was no dictator calling all of the shots. One of the goals of a school of this sort is to gain the trust of students by valuing their ideas and opinions. Students aren’t incarcerated in a place not their own for a required number of years.
I use the word incarceration cautiously, but it is an inescapable (f)act — aside from a draft army, it’s the only institution that takes away our freedom even though we’ve done nothing wrong. – Deborah Meier from How Democratic Are Our Schools?
So I got talked into teaching by Deborah Meier. It turns out that graduate school didn’t prod my brain into that state of discomfort that inspired me to think…it was educational transformation that got those gears cranking. The unfortunate reality is that most schools achieve neither of the aims listed above. The real-world of education is what I faced when I first put on my teachers shoes and walked into a classroom. Too many schools suffer from the contagion of standardized testing delirium and other maladies that plague our schools. Despite widespread call for change and slow but steady reforms, it may be awhile before schools are transformed, but I’m in it for the long haul.
Why do Deborah Meier’s ideas have staying power?
- We live in a time where people understand that you can’t truly provide objective news coverage free of bias,but the response to that has led to a wholesale rejection of the idea that you should at least try. So “News” stations and talk radio have worked hard to convince viewers/listeners not by the strength of the evidence/causal connection but through repetition, fear, and out right misdirection and lying. So I think that educating students to be able to analyze what they are hearing and seeing (no matter who is the source) should be a key element of the educational charter. If students graduate from their schooling unable to question and critique and can easily be swayed by the most emotional or fear-based exhortation, then our democracy is in trouble. Democracies thrive on the marketplace of ideas where arguments are examined on their merits. They fail when the electorate is easily swayed and bullied and when some ideas are vilified and aren’t even allowed to be presented. I think all educators should consider the extent to which their curriculum truly does encourage higher order thinking and more importantly what real-world value the transformation that they are hoping to inspire in students will have.
- Secondly, in the spirit of democratic discourse, there is an ongoing discussion in the marketplace of ideas about the future of education. This debate concerns every facet of the profession from what good teaching looks like, what should be taught, how should teachers be compensated, etc. One struggle that I have had is that I am torn between two approaches that I can take to this ongoing wrangling about education. Option 1 – I tell myself that I can sit it out. No one will listen to what I have to say anyway. There are so many voices already out there. They can take care of this. I can just focus on the small sphere of influence that I have and do the best I can. Option 2 – I can add my voice to the marketplace of ideas. I have just as much right to be heard as someone like Bill Gates. In fact I probably have more of a right to be heard because I have years of experience and dedicated my intellectual study to education. More importantly there are other voices that have more experience and study than me that should be heard. Take Gary Stager’s insightful commentary on the meddling of Bill Gates. I know Bill Gates’ heart is in the right place in wanting to improve education but he is not an expert. Yet he has the ear of the presidency and the media. I don’t want the decision-making concerning education to be done over our heads by an oligarchy of the rich and powerful, the politically motivated, the traditionally entrenched, and the ignorant and uninformed voices that are the loudest and most well-funded. The habits of mind that Deborah Meier promotes allows people to question dubious claims of cause and effect based on a need for evidence and an understanding of the viewpoint of the individual making the claim (i.e. that unions are the cause of the budget shortfall in Wisconsin – okay, sorry I had to work that in). Never has it been more important that we not just instill democratic ideals in the children that we teach but that we model the employment of the skills we have developed to influence the debate to the best of our ability. We as educators will disagree with each other and have to duke out our discussions with the power of our ideas, but we need to join the fight. Obviously I’m choosing option 2, so like it our not get ready to hear my voice, and I hope that I hear yours. In fact I hope we disagree (at least a little bit) because that’s more fun anyway.
If you are interested in Deborah Meier she has a continuing exchange with Diane Ravitch called Bridging Differences and she was recently interviewed by Steve Hargadon on the Future of Education Webinar series.