Flipping and Expanding Bloom’s Taxonomy

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In 1956, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom and a group of other researchers created one of the enduring models of how learning should be structured and supported. The model came to be known as "Bloom's Taxonomy," and explains how to lead students from basic knowledge retention to more advanced information evaluation. In the 1990's the model was updated to more accurately reflect the theory of constructivism. The time has come for another update.

Given the furor over the flipped classroom, and the recent Khan Academy-inspired trend of flipping just about anything to do with education, it is no surprise that someone has finally decided that Bloom's hierarchical pyramid could benefit from being flipped as well. While the idea of flipping Bloom's Taxonomy is a good and timely one, the model presented by Shelly Wright in her May 15, 2012 post on the Powerful Learning Practice site, is missing one important element that would make her flipped taxonomy truly relevant for the information age learner – she forgot the fact that creativity is a social process.

Revisiting Bloom's Taxonomy
As one of the foundational pieces of current educational thinking, Bloom's Taxonomy of learning is worth reviewing as an introduction to how and why it should be flipped for the 21st century learner. In theory, the taxonomy works like a series of steps that help learners ascend to higher order thinking by building on previous skills. In the updated version from the 1990s it looks like this:

Learners begin with the most basic tasks of remembering facts, figures, and other information then progress through understanding that information, applying it in new ways, analyzing it to understand its parts, evaluating the information and supporting decision with it, and finally creating new information, a product , or a new point of view based on the original information (Overbaugh & Schultz, Bloom's Taxonomy). It is generally accepted that most learners will not reach the top of Bloom's pyramid as the top two levels represent complex, abstract levels of thinking that it is assumed most people never reach, or only reach later in life. As Wright states in her article, "only the most academically adept are likely to reach the pinnacle" (15 May, 2012).

Why Flip it Now?
The challenge of reaching the pinnacle of the taxonomy for most users is what has inspired Wright to flip the model on its head in hopes that, by starting at the top, students will have a much easier time with the entire learning process. In addition to this, Wright states that learning at the lowest levels of the pyramid is "rote and boring" and that "standardized testing rigorously tests the basement, further anchoring the focus of learning at the bottom steps, which is not beneficial for our students" (15 May, 2012).

Finally, Wright's most important reason for flipping the taxonomy is because its current incarnation seems to imply that there is a great scarcity of creativity, which does not accurately reflect the potential of our students or the education system. Given that we live in a world where innovation and creativity are the greatest form of capital that we have, the focus on these attributes as nearly impossible to attain sends the wrong message to learners.

Bloom's Taxonomy Flipped
Dissatisfaction with the model prompted Wright to flip the traditional view of Bloom's Taxonomy so that her students were starting with creating right from the outset. Here's what her revised graphic for the model looks like:

(Bloom's Taxonomy Flipped)

Wright uses an example from media design to illustrate how this model works, but a more general description makes it more accessible to all areas. The basic idea behind the flip is that students start by creating something within the area that is being introduced. This is a largely uninformed creation based on tacit knowledge, akin to a pre-reading, prior knowledge activation activity. Students then evaluate their creation based on comparing it to professional examples from the field. Next, students are encouraged to analyzed both their work and the professional examples and determine formal categories that apply in both. At this point, a formal introduction of the underlying ideas or principles that have been discovered are introduced, students conduct their own research into these ideas and formalize their understanding. Finally, Wright has her students create their own graphic representations of the information/knowledge to help them remember.

This process is very much in line with inquiry or discovery-based learning where students are introduced to a problem or explore something to see how it really works; then they work towards developing an understanding of the principles underlying that discovery.

Limitations of the Flipped Model
While the concept of discovery learning is not new, applying Bloom's Taxonomy to it in reverse makes a lot of sense. It provides a familiar structure that teachers can apply (in reverse) to help their students develop a deeper understanding of material while simultaneously feeling empowered by their own creative potential. There are two shortcomings to the way in which Wright has presented her model which, if addressed, could make this an even more powerful and relevant tool for supporting students in the information age.

The first limitation to her model is that it seems to break the creative process out of context. For example, in her examination of the way the model could be applied in an English classroom, the creative activity is writing for a prompt or free writing. Neither of these activities represents anything close to the kind of authentic context that would ultimately make the act of creating anything more than a classroom task. In order for students to truly embrace the creative process, they must feel that the product that they are creating has real world value. This can be accomplished by linking the exercise to real clients or by providing a public venue for sharing the finished work. This is one area in which the flipping of Bloom's Taxonomy begins to break down. It is ill-advised, if not impossible, to have students create something with real meaning if they lack a fundamental understanding of the key components that make what they are creating valuable. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it does represent a challenge for educators looking to make activities relevant.

The final problem with this model is that it does not account for the social constructivist view that learning and knowledge creation are social activities. Wright's model seems to have students working in isolation for much of the process, when they could be actively engaged with their peers collaboratively creating their products, discussing their decisions, and negotiating the underlying rules and principles behind what they are learning. Fortunately this also is an easy fix for educators. Having students work in teams to make their way up the taxonomy would eliminate most of this issue. This modified graphic shows what the social constructivist model of the flipped taxonomy might look like:

In the final assessment, there is a definite place for a flipping of Bloom's Taxonomy in the world of education. Our understanding of how people learn has changed and there is a premium on creativity that needs to be encouraged. The traditional model is outdated and fails to account for some of the realities of the 21st century. Adding a social constructivist slant to Wright's model helps to ensure that it won't be outdated before it even gains widespread acceptance.

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