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Turning learning on its head

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Date posted: January 3, 2013

Sometimes the patterns in a data set or in an artwork are more easily discerned when we change the orientation from which we view it. And sometimes flipping accepted practice upside down lets us see things in a fresh, new way. There has been a lot written about flipped classrooms, but this is about something different: flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy.

When I was in graduate school, Bloom’s Taxonomy ruled. Created in the 1950’s, the taxonomy was a framework to describe and classify different learning objectives teachers might set for students. To dramatically oversimplify things for the purposes of illustration, it was a hierarchical structure of knowledge acquisition beginning with lower order skills like knowing facts and moving progressively through comprehending their meaning and applying them, to higher order skills like analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating.

Bloom's TaxonomyIn 2000, a group of psychologists proposed a revised taxonomy to better illustrate what they felt 21st Century work would look like. In this new version, the progression went from remembering to understanding, and then through applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. Both versions were typically illustrated with a triangle, implying a step-by-step journey from lower to higher order thinking skills.

Canadian educator and blogger Shelley Wright (thanks to EdSurge for pointing this out and see also their link to the pinwheel taxonomy) thinks the model is fundamentally flawed and proposes flipping the Bloom’s on its head.

The current models not only imply a progression through the hierarchy, she notes, they also imply creativity and other critical thinking skills are in shorter supply than more basic skills. Teachers spend too much of their time with students “in the basement” of the hierarchy, working on basic skills and factual recall. This is, in the US, often reinforced by the very nature of the existing high-stakes tests used to measure student and school performance. The result, she says, is “we end up with rote and boring classrooms. Rote and boring curriculum.”

Instead, to adequately prepare students for life, work, and society in the 21st century, we need to be spending far more time at the top of the pyramid, focusing on giving students ample opportunities to practice using the 4 C’s (see the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ framework) of Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and Innovation.

Flipped Bloom's TaxonomyTo that end, Wright proposes flipping the taxonomy to place creating at the base. That better represents the way we construct knowledge. Think about applying this in an English class. Students exercise their creativity by jotting down a paragraph about an idea. They analyze their writing to find out what’s missing and what’s unclear, how punctuation and grammar are used. They evaluate their work for quality. Only then do they begin to apply their knowledge of English to revising the paragraph. In so doing, they understand the proper use of and the need for punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. Then, they remember not because they’ve memorized a rule, but because they’ve used it in the context of writing something.

If we want to educate a generation of students to be creative, innovative thinkers able to fill the critical jobs of the future instead of having to flip burgers, then a lot more classrooms need to flip Bloom’s taxonomy.

Image credits:
Old and New Bloom’s Taxonomy http://ww2.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm
Flipped Bloom’s Taxonomy http://plpnetwork.com/2012/05/15/flipping-blooms-taxonomy/