Bloom’s Taxonomy: A Primer

A year or two ago I was having a conversation with someone who had been an educator for decades. I tossed out a passing reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy and they said, “What’s that?”  I was astonished.  I consider this to be an extremely foundational principle for any educator to understand and use.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a way to conceptualize how people learn and process information to make it useful to them.  We often say in education that “we want the student to understand this.”  But what does “understand” MEAN?  What do we want the student to be able to DO?  Does “understand” mean that we want the student to be able to take a patient, apply appropriate diagnostics, make an assessment, and create a treatment plan?  That’s a lot of assumption built into that word.

Instead, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a pyramid of understanding.  First, you need KNOWLEDGE.  You need the basic facts of the topic.  Next, you need to APPLY this information.  You use what you know in a practical fashion.  Next, you need to ANALYZE the information.  Be able to compare and contrast.  Next you need to EVALUATE it.  Prioritize and justify your rationale.  Finally, you need to CREATE something.  Like a diagnostic plan or a treatment plan.

I find this incredibly useful because it helps to clarify what, exactly, I need the students to learn.  I write learning objectives using words that align to each of the levels of the Taxonomy.  This helps to guide my entire lesson plan.  I start with the outcome- what I want the students to be able to do with the information (i.e. the Analyze, Evaluate, and Create levels)- and then work backwards.  This is the principle espoused in the book Understanding by Design which I think is great.

There is a tendency (which I suffer from) to neglect the Knowledge level of the Taxonomy because I really don’t care if students memorize things.  I want them to be able to APPLY what they know.  I prefer open-book open-note exams because that simulates the real world.  When I used to work emergency, I would occasionally hit up the textbooks there to see how to handle a case.  If we let the senior students use these resources, why not let the pre-clinical students use them?  Our world has moved on from when we need doctors to memorize tons of facts.  We have access to the whole of human knowledge in our pocket.  We need people to interpret information and evaluate it, not just memorize it.

I encourage anyone who is teaching to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a starting point.  It has been elaborated on and expanded in recent years, so you can get a lot more intricate.  But I think this is a fundamentally essential approach to education.  We can’t just have students memorize.  We need them to be doctors.  We need them to think.  Bloom’s Taxonomy offers a straightforward way to approach this problem.

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