Bloom’n Skills

Bloom’s Taxonomy has guided educators for more than 50 years, and has survived as a useful categorisation of learning (at least in the cognitive domain) in spite of the numerous critics. In the original work, the cognitive domain was split into six skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. In the age of information abundance, where do these skills fit, and how are they taught in HE.

The focus of too many classes in HE lies on teaching knowledge and comprehension with lip service paid to analysis. In fact, academic snobbery has led some areas (basic STEM subjects) to abjure application as unworthy of consideration. Research funding and academic kudos favours basic research as opposed to applied sciences. Synthesis and evaluation are considered desirable, but beyond the reach of most undergraduates. I believe that this is because content rules. The argument usually given (by teachers) for not really getting to grips with synthesis and evaluation is because the students don’t grasp the basics to a level that would allow them to practise the higher order cognitive skills. That argument would be easier to buy if the understanding of the function of sodium-potassium adenosine triphosphatase (sodium pump) in the firing of a neurone wasn’t considered basic knowledge.

There is too much knowledge today, and the problem is growing exponentially. I noticed an advert in this weeks New Scientist that said something like – 90% of what will be known in 50 years hasn’t been discovered yet. To make matters worse, in the age of information abundance, all of that knowledge will be (and is quickly becoming) readily available. I can’t wait until, sometime in the bright content laden future, I can take a 15 week final year undergraduate class on how the tertiary structure of sodium-potassium adenosine triphosphatase effects the intracellular calcium balance in a centre-surround inhibitory neurone in primary visual cortex. Once I fully grasp (and demonstrate memorisation by regurgitation in a high stakes final) the process, I’m sure I’ll have enough basic knowledge to begin to synthesise what I know across my field of study (psychology). I’m not certain how that is going to help me organise the recreational time at the Senior’s Home where I will get a job in management because of my good undergraduate degree (it is all psychology, isn’t it?).

When are HE educators going to realise that their job isn’t to make clones of themselves, but to equip students with higher order thinking skills that will make them valuable contributing members of society?

We don’t have to focus on the minutia of our research specialisms in our teaching. In fact, I believe that in doing so, we are endangering the foundations of the institutions we live in. Content! Content! Content! We need to refocus our teaching on the higher order skills with content (and it doesn’t matter what content) as a wrapper. The skills need to be the learning priority.

Students should be practising analysis, application, synthesis and evaluation over and over. They need to learn and practise the skill of finding and organising knowledge – something the information scarcity model says that we need to do for them. We write textbooks, condense them into slides, and present them as re-usable learning objects for the students to learn from. And now, thanks to digitisation, we can replicate our entire information scarcity model, easily and cheaply, on-line. Now we can produce and distribute textbooks and slides from every class ever taught by every lecturer. We can record all of our mindcrushingly dull lectures for endless replay online. We can (and do) produce more content than ever before. We live in content heaven!

When are we going to start teaching the students to find, evaluate, organise, synthesise, and present information for themselves? When are we going to evaluate the process, the skills, instead of the content that they regurgitate (along with a couple of other tidbits they pick up from further reading) in coursework or a formal exam?

More and more detailed knowledge that greater numbers of graduates have demonstrated a passing familiarity with isn’t what society needs of its graduates. Higher order cognitive skills that can be applied to unfamiliar problems is what is needed.

We can teach analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, it is just easier to grade knowledge.

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