Bloom’s Taxonomy & Learning in a Digital Age (Long!)

The re-conceptualizing of Bloom’s Taxonomy a decade ago led to the dismissal of synthesis, the devaluation of evaluation, and the promotion of creation. Underlying these trends is a classic Anglo-Saxon belief in the primacy of individual autonomy and ownership of production (within a limited set – not too much Marxist influence in American culture today, for example). If that seems like overstatement, then suffice it to state that synthesis is the process that undergirds all creative processes, and so demands its rightful place on the taxonomy of higher order thinking. Nothing that is created by humans today exists in a vacuum, but is instead the result of an ecosystem of influences and relies upon those influences for its very existence. Evaluation is correctly placed on the original, as well, because it covers the reflective faculties so essential to creativity and innovation. If we’re not evaluating our products by a critical, detached thinking process simultaneously linked to a concrete, perhaps internalized set of values, then a richness and a higher potential quality is lost, which is why I believe the original taxonomy is superior to the revised version.

I’m not the only one who believes in the power of synthesis. Ultimately, we come to new understandings and we create new things or ideas through connection with other ideas or people. George Siemens refers to this as the power of “weak ties:”

Weak ties are links or bridges that allow short connections between information. This principle has great merit in the notion of serendipity, innovation, and creativity. Connections between disparate ideas and fields can create new innovations. (¶20)

This process, as Steven Johnson points out, takes time. In fact, when I teach a creative unit, I borrow heavily from Geoff Petty’s “Creative Process” because it provides a concrete framework that mirrors what successful people do, like SQ3R provides for readers, in which students can explore an essentially abstract process. This is the job of the teacher – provide a framework that makes reading, viewing, exploring, writing, speaking, discussing, analyzing, synthesizing or creating, and evaluating explicit for students. Once they work through an explicit framework a number of times with increasing autonomy, those sorts of frameworks become internalized, habitual, part of the toolbox. While I believe in constructing knowledge, I also believe that most students can access the higher order thinking skills in the taxonomy if they add skills like these that make regular, daily processes easy, which leads me to my questions about how much we lean on technology to provide access to higher order thinking skills in articles like the one linked for this week’s reading, recent blog posts I’ve found via my PLN, and ideas uncovered via my Twitter feed.

First, beyond the problem with order and the replacement of synthesis with creativity that ignores the nature of creativity and the ultimate importance of reflective evaluation above all, a closer look at evaluation in the digital realm exposes shortcuts to what that thinking skill could be. Evaluation is related to the following verbs:

Key Terms – Evaluating:

Checking, hypothesising, critiquing, experimenting, judging, testing, detecting, monitoring, (Blog/vlog) commenting, reviewing, posting, moderating, collaborating, networking, reflecting, (Alpha & beta) testing. (Churches ¶10)

Hypothesizing is not evaluation until after a cycle of experimentation has finished and a new, altered cycle is to begin; in this first case, it is analysis. Commenting, via blog or vlog, may be evaluation, or it may bypass the higher order thinking skills altogether in a reactive, emotional outburst. I was going to link Chris Crocker’s famous “Leave Britney Alone” vlog to underline this point, but thought better of it out of compassion for his youthful exuberance. The point can be made easily with Jim Cramer or Glenn Beck.

Technological tools do not force higher order thinking skills. While I agree that “constructive criticism and reflective practice” can be “facilitated” by online interacting or blogging, I disagree that “Students commenting and replying to postings have to evaluate the material in context and reply” (Churches ¶10). I have seen an awful lot of “ticking the box” when students in graduate-level courses respond to each other, completing the assignment and moving on by parroting a little or cheerleading. I think Andrew Churches would likely agree with these statements and point out that it is how an exercise or online space is structured that determines the depth and quality of higher order thinking that takes place and that student-centered environments encourage greater engagement with ideas and discussion, leading to greater analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

However, it seems like a thread of belief exists within the educational technology community that certain devices, software, or apps lend themselves clearly to accessing certain levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and this is where the whole thought experiment breaks down for me. For example, classifying iPad apps by corresponding or related level Bloom’s Taxonomy has become popular, here done by the excellent Langwitches blog. Note the verbs by level – I like Churches’ verbs more as I find them more apropos, but not perfect. I can’t get on board with verbs like “rate” or “recommend” for evaluation because of the social nature of the technology; when we “like” something on Facebook, is that a rating or a recommendation? I’d say it’s somewhere in there and I’d go further to say that the act has less to do with evaluation than with liking the implications by association and clicking the thumb’s up button. But I digress. While I find the iPad app by Bloom’s Taxonomy chart idea interesting, I think it places undue faith in these apps. I like Flipboard and can’t live without Skype, but I don’t see either tool as more inherently geared towards evaluation than Diigo or Posterous (with their fun new social structure, which may or may not stay fun), or even the Globe app for that matter. Heck, evaluation of source material is an essential skill, and what is the globe if not a source document?

At the end of the day, if we, as teachers and students, create environments in which risk taking is valued and design opportunities for exploring the world, drawing connections, creating something new as a result, and reflecting on the entire process, integrating learned skills and information, and considering revised approaches for greater efficacy or success next time, then technological tools will be applied in ways that regularly span the breadth of the taxonomy. Pencils and paper would be applied the same way, given the same environment. It’s not what tools we use, but how we use tools that lead us up the taxonomy to higher order thinking skills.

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