The year was 1956. Elvis Presley stokes teen and parental angst with his newly-released “Hound Dog”, Communist Russia invades Hungary and a gallon of gas costs .22 cents almost anywhere in North America.
In education circles the earth quakes when a professor from Chicago, Dr. Benjamin Bloom publishes his “Taxonomy of Learning” that crystallizes a hierarchy of cognitive activities including, in pyramidal shape and ascending order of importance: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.
In 1956 Elvis rocked the world, and so did Dr. Benjamin Bloom
When the shaking stops (from Bloom’s Taxonomy, not Elvis’ pelvic thrusting) the pyramid becomes reified as one of the destinations of teacher training and, thus, modern schooling, alongside Piaget’s developmental schemas. And I’ll bet you a wooden nickel that most educational superintendents or deans of education from sea to shining sea can recite Bloom’s simple pyramid in their sleep, and defer to it in guiding their decision-making. Today.
The problem is, its shelf life is long past due. To wit, it has been oversold, and many times over, a fact that is especially apparent with the insights into learning from the frontiers of neurobiological learning. With the help of modern diagnostic technologies we now know that human learning is much more complex than Bloom’s simple taxonomy would have us relax into. Most obviously, it can be said that cognition is merely a player in the ensemble cast that shapes learning.
This is not exactly the fault of Dr. Bloom, who originally conceived of it as also including the affective and psychomotor domains. But never underestimate the power of human psychology to prefer the simple to the complex, and that is what has happened with Bloom’s model.
In the 1950s, researchers like Bloom and Piaget didn’t have the benefit of the tools we have today. They did the best they could to analyze the workings of human neurology. But that analysis was, in hindsight, very limited. Kind of like analyzing the workings of the automobile without ever looking under the hood.
Today we have the tools to ‘pop the hood’ and analyze in much more detail the workings and playings of our neurology and speak with much more authority about learning than in the 1950s. And we need to do so. Because conventional education is still on the dance floor, rocking to Elvis.
For a concise history of Bloom’s Taxonomy, see here.
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