Blooming: update required? (Or: Let’s admit it, we are just playing.)

It has been at least ten years since I first heard of “Bloom’s taxonomy”, and almost ten years  since I was introduced to the concepts of scientific teaching, evidence-based teaching, science education research, and scholarship of teaching and learning. For the past few years I have participated in local, national and international meetings and conferences on science teaching and learning, and science or biology education research. And… I just learned about the “new” (I mean: 2001, whoo-hoo!), revised Bloom taxonomy about a month ago. How is this possible?

Like a number of colleagues, I have had the opportunity to present some of the work that I have been involved in, which I take to indicate that someone, namely the meeting/conference organizers, thought such work had some sort of value. Like a number of colleagues, I try to attend as many teaching&learning workshops and events as I can. Like a number of colleagues, I am constantly trying to implement “best practices”, and I am always game for participating in a study or other. Like a number of colleagues, I try to sort of kind of follow the literature in biology education research. And, like the majority of my colleagues, I have absolutely zero training in Education Research.

I have occasionally thought of what Education researchers must think of us. If the way many of us biologists-by-training look at medical doctors who attempt to do some research is at all representative, I can picture a bunch of Education experts smiling and giggling over coffee, with some of them going, probably very sincerely, “Good for them for trying…”. This paper by Heather Kanuka, I think, supports such a view… and points out one of the peculiarities of the scholarship of teaching and learning (and I think it applies just as well to discipline-based education research): many studies are conducted by discipline experts who have limited knowledge of Education Research, they are then submitted to journals reviewed by other discipline experts who have limited knowledge of Education Research, and read by yet other discipline experts with high interest in teaching and learning but limited expertise in Education Research, and so on and so forth.

If you’d ask me, I’d say that the majority of those of us who attend biology education events are really “just” playing (and I don’t want to make this sound derogatory in any way… Playing is important, and great ideas and innovations are often born from play). Maybe we should just admit it and embrace it: most of us half-know what we are doing, most of us are absolutely not experts, and most of us are having a great time.

Now, here is a recent example. I asked an actual Education researcher about the origins of Bloom’s cognitive levels, and learned some very interesting facts (as I write, I am still in the process of reading the book, “A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing. A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy for educational objectives“). For instance, there are two dimensions to the “taxonomy” for the cognitive domain: there are the cognitive levels, and there are the dimensions of knowledge. This book came out in 2001, so I have no idea why I had never heard of the second dimension of the taxonomy. (To be completely truthful, I had heard of a version of the second dimension, without ever getting an actual reference for it, and was given the impression that it was completely separate from Bloom’s levels).

The revised taxonomy also acknowledges that the cognitive levels are not fully hierarchical. For instance, some of the most complex actions/skills in Level II, such as “explaining” are more complex than some of the simplest actions/tasks in Level III. This gives me a newly found respect for the taxonomy itself, as it is perfectly congruent with many terms worth of observation: it is very typical for students in my classes to be able to implement/execute/apply procedures, to make predictions, etc., while having a really hard time providing any kinds of explanation. This had made me seriously question the validity and usability of Bloom’s levels… And now I know why: I only vaguely knew the 1956 versions of the taxonomy, and had never upgraded to 2001! Well… as it appears, neither have many other teaching&learning-enthusiastic biologists. By the way, here is one of many informal sites that outlines the revised taxonomy and some of its history.

In 2008, Crowe and  colleagues published an extremely helpful article presenting a “tool” to effectively and efficiently “bloom” learning objectives and assessment questions specifically in biology. This “Blooming Tool” is very popular and useful, and the article itself has been cited well over 100 times. Surprisingly however, although it mentions and cites the revised taxonomy, it still uses the 1956 version of the cognitive levels, does not mention once the knowledge dimensions (which could be so helpful in this context!), and claims that the first three levels are mainly “hierarchical” (despite the fact that both the revised taxonomy book, and a short overview article by Krathwohl in 2002 explicitly say that it is not the case).

Maybe the authors had a very good reason for using the old taxonomy (now I am really looking forward to the next conference to ask them about it!), but does it not strike you as odd that they do not discuss or even mention a single time why they went with a model from 1956 instead of its 2001 revised counterpart? And, does it not seem even more odd that the reviewers never asked for such information? And/or, wouldn’t you expect that biology instructors who are into teaching&learning research would notice and ask for clarification before merrily jumping on the tool for both instructional and scholarly purposes? None of the papers cited in the 2008 article (or rather, none of the ones that I checked, which were all post-2001) used the revised taxonomy, either.

Let’s admit that most of us are playing and should therefore not be taken too too seriously. Let us admit wholeheartedly that we do not really really know what we are doing, and that expertise in the classroom does not necessarily translate into expertise in scholarly education research. I think this is an unpopular idea, but there is nothing wrong with it. And, come on: when experts see a 50+ years old method or model being used, while a 6 or 7 years old, revised-and-updated version of it is available, they ask questions and demand explanations. (For the biologists out there… If someone published a genomics paper with a protocol that uses the Maxam-Gilbert sequencing method, wouldn’t you at least start wondering?). I think it’s fantastic that we have the opportunity to keep playing and I sure hope this will never change.

However, I sure hope that we’ll start developing some collaborations with our Education colleagues (who, on my “home campus” are just across the street…)!

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