Think of the process of learning as a pyramid.

At the bottom – the foundation upon which everything else is built – you have the most basic and most crucial elements of what you’re teaching. Each level above depends on the one below, becoming increasingly deep, complex and cognitively-demanding until you get to the ultimate achievable level.

This, essentially, is Bloom’s Taxonomy: a structure that classifies and organizes educational goals and performance into specific, hierarchical categories. And although it was first published in 1956, it has remained popular among K-12 teachers because of the way it helps them map their curriculum, plan lessons, ask questions, deliver assignments and assess student learning from the basic to the complex, all in alignment with specific, measurable learning objectives. 

So how does Bloom’s Taxonomy work… and how can it improve learning in the classroom? Let’s scale the pyramid together.

Learning that reaches new heights

There are six levels of knowledge in  Bloom’s Taxonomy: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyse, Evaluate and Create.  The higher you move up the framework,   the deeper, more complex and more cognitively-demanding knowledge and skills become.

Here’s how it breaks down: 

1. Remember

Students recognize and recall basic facts, concepts, processes, patterns, structures and settings. At this level, teachers might ask students to recite a poem from a textbook, remember geometric formulas or list countries on a continent.

2. Understand

Students decode the meaning and significance behind concepts, facts and ideas – and communicate them to others. At this level, students can summarize the main ideas of a story or classify different animals.

3. Apply

Students use the knowledge or skills they’ve developed in new contexts or situations. At this level, students may be expected to create a budget using mathematical concepts, write an advice column for a character in a story or paint using a particular artistic style.

4. Analyze

Students break down concepts into their component parts and identify the connections between them. At this level, students might distinguish between fact and opinion in a newspaper, deconstruct how a machine works or identify logical fallacies in an argument.

5. Evaluate

Students use the knowledge and skills they’ve gained so far to appraise a situation, state an opinion and justify their stance. At this level, students can do things like select the best source of vitamin C in a diet or critique the value of new technologies in a specific context.

6. Create

Students formulate their own solutions to problems and create original work. At this level, teachers might ask students to write a poem of their own, develop a business plan for a new company or design a machine to tackle a problem.

Full disclosure: this version of Bloom’s Taxonomy is a revision from 2001, which uses dynamic, verb-oriented language for each level and places Create as the top learning. That said, the basic concepts and outcomes remain the same. If you’re interested in the original framework, you can find more information here.

So what’s the big deal?

When Bloom’s Taxonomy was first developed, the authors wanted to better assess college student performance. But teachers soon found that it helped them plan and structure learning in classrooms at all levels, beyond just assessment:

·  Setting clear and measurable classroom objectives: Because all six stages and the expectations under each are expressed as verbs, the taxonomy places its focus on observable behaviors that demonstrate student learning within a specific lesson, unit or curriculum as a whole.

·  Organizing standards within a curriculum: Which standards should you address, and in what order? This framework helps outline the sequence of learning in curriculum maps, unit plans and lesson plans by identifying which standards align most closely with lower-level stages like Remember and Understand vs. those that align with higher-level stages like Analyze and Create.

·  Designing appropriate assessments: For students at the Remember level, multiple-choice or true-and-false questions may be most effective; but an essay? Probably not the best approach. Using this framework, teachers can better design assessments to reflect where students are and what they’re expected to be able to know and do.

·  Bridging the knowledge gap: Knowing where students are in their learning journey, and where they need to be at the end of the lesson, unit or grade level, helps identify which kinds of learning activities, textbooks and assessments will be most useful to teachers and students alike.

·  Collaborating with other teachers: How will learning flow as students switch between subjects or move on to the next grade? Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a structure or scaffolding of learning that can help set expectations for progression throughout a student’s entire educational journey at your school.

Start with setting better outcomes

Writing classroom outcomes is one place where Bloom’s Taxonomy truly shines. Why? Because it pairs specific, observable behaviors that indicate learning with knowledge- and skill-level dependencies that support those objectives.

And it’s adaptable enough to do that work on many levels:

Curriculum

Bloom’s Taxonomy helps address the question, “What should students know or be able to do at the end of this year?” Most likely, these outcomes will align with grade-level standards. 

Units

Breaking things down further, Bloom’s Taxonomy helps create and link unit plans by considering the behaviors through which students will show mastery of the topic they’re learning before they’re ready to move on to the next one.

Lessons

Bloom’s Taxonomy can even help map student learning within a single lesson or between lessons in support of larger unit or curriculum goals. It can also be a handy tool for selecting and structuring learning activities within each class.

No matter the type of outcome, we can recommend a few tips to follow when writing them:

–       Limit each outcome to one observable, behavior-oriented verb. The more clearly you define what “mastery” means, and the more measurable it is, the better you’ll be able to gauge student progress against your objectives.

–       Make sure those verbs are appropriate to each level of the taxonomy. If students are at the Apply level, for example, you can expect them to be able to do everything at Understand and Remember as well… but not Evaluate or Create.

–       Avoid favoring higher-level outcomes over lower-level ones. After all, deep learning needs a strong foundation. We must remember a concept before we can understand it, and understand a concept before we can apply it meaningfully.

–       Express outcomes in terms of what students will learn, rather than what will be covered in class. What skills will students demonstrate, and to what proficiency? What questions will they be able to answer?

Putting Bloom’s Taxonomy to work in your classroom

What does Bloom’s Taxonomy actually look like when used effectively in a classroom? To illustrate, here’s how it fits into each part of a curriculum map:

✏️ Standards: Align the standards that you’re teaching to the appropriate level of the taxonomy.

✏️ Sequence: Order your standards so they move from lower levels to higher levels throughout the year.

✏️ Content: Plan the key concepts, facts and events you’re teaching, moving from foundational to higher-level thinking.

✏️ Skills: Define what students should be able to do by the end of the year using verbs that match the appropriate level of the taxonomy.

✏️ Assessments: Gauge student learning using methods that reflect the complexity of each level – for example, at Understand, multiple-choice quizzes are a better option than essay-style assignments.

✏️ Activities: Plan in-class activities that help students develop their knowledge and mastery, and moving progressively from one level to the next.

✏️ Resources: Strategically choose textbooks, videos, guides, worksheets, etc. that reflect the level students are at and where they’re going next.

✏️ Essential questions: Check that students have reached class objectives by asking questions at the end of class that indicate their understanding of the content and their progress toward your objectives.

✏️ Timelines: Consider how much time it will take to move students from one level of knowledge or skill to the next.

✏️ Pacing: A pacing guide can help make sure students are progressing through the taxonomy and reaching the goals you’ve set on time.  

✏️ Units: You can use the taxonomy in your unit plan to define how you’ll move from topic-to-topic over a period of time.

Mind you, Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t the perfect solution for every situation – criticisms range from “it encourages over-reliance on a set structure without understanding the reasons behind it” to “it leads teachers to focus on higher-order levels at the expense of lower-order levels.”  

That said, versatility is its greatest utility. By thinking of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a tool in our teaching toolboxes or a framework off of which we can hang lessons, learning activities, units or whole curriculums, it makes planning more effective, learning more measurable and helps ensure our students will remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate and create their way to mastery.

Additional resources for curriculum mapping: 7 Reasons Why Your Curriculum Matters More Than You Think, Your First Steps to Vertical Alignment, and How to Audit Your Curriculum: An 8-Step Guide.

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