Doctor Paideia
Sep 27, 2018 · 7 min read

One thing I have learned about our public schooling system is that administrators absolutely love fads. Sometimes they stumble upon a good idea, but even when they do, it’s not uncommon for them to give up on it for the next big thing, and when they do stick with something, they invariably get the entire thing wrong.

A great example of getting everything wrong about a good idea is the public schools’ use of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is often used to structure students’ learning objectives. Because Bloom stated that Evaluation and Synthesis are “higher-order thinking,” while knowledge is “lower-order thinking,” the people who make up the curricula have made the mistake of thinking that “higher-order” means “the only things that are important.” As a result, teachers are required to always ask “higher-order questions,” no matter the age or degree of knowledge a student has.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is structured like a pyramid because the easier “lower-order thinking” levels are absolutely necessary to master before you can move up to the next level. No pyramid exists with only a top or a middle. There has to be a foundation, and that foundation is knowledge. What that knowledge is going to look like will vary according to grade level, and the more complex the knowledge, the more of the higher-order thinking levels can be involved.

Consider Kindergarten. The knowledge we expect students to learn are their letters and sounds, and their numbers 1–100, reading 30 words per minute with fluency, do a retelling of a story and write a retelling of a story (beginning, middle, and end) and adding, subtracting, comparing sets, and word problems in math. We will leave aside the developmental (in)appropriateness of some of these expectations aside for a moment and just focus on how far up the pyramid we can realistically go with this knowledge.

To learn one’s letters and numbers, the child is learning to associate certain shapes with certain sounds. There’s a whole neurobiology of reading we won’t get into in this essay, but I will say that there is some significant rewiring happening in the brain to accomplish this. Learning to read is not natural, rewiring the brain to recognize letters is a significant process that takes a while to accomplish, and so a great deal of time should be spent on it. It’s basic foundational knowledge necessary to move forward on acquiring a great deal more knowledge.

When you learn your letters, you can certainly discover, observe, list, locate, and name the letters (and the numbers, for that matter). It’s knowledge, after all. But how do we demonstrate comprehension? Certainly, you can say a letter and have the child write it down. Discussion might go something like, “Notice how the C is like an O that isn’t quite closed,” or “the Q is an O with a slash in the bottom right-hand corner.” So comprehension seems possible.

Application would likely involve the writing of words. Of course, in that case, we are also gaining knowledge in learning how to spell and write words. Would we consider learning how to spell new words knowledge or application of the alphabet? I think most people would consider that gaining knowledge.

Even if we admit learning to write words as application, that application doesn’t come right away, but in the second half the year at earliest. The knowledge must come first before you can demonstrate comprehension and apply the knowledge. They don’t occur simultaneously with gaining the knowledge. You have to gain the knowledge, before you can discuss what you know, let alone apply it.

Analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are completely ridiculous expectations for Kindergarten students learning their letters. It takes an actual scientist to identify and analyze patterns in letters. And what would it mean to engage in synthesis, to create something new (one would presume new letters) from this knowledge of letters? Evaluation of theories of letters is of such higher order that such discussions are only found in scholarly journals.

Clearly the application of all the stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy is completely inappropriate for Kindergarten students when it comes to letters. You may think that I’m being absurd on purpose, to make my point, but in fact I’m showing the actual absurdity of the requirement for higher-order questions for Kindergarten knowledge. You can go up one level, and probably not on the same day you introduce the letters, and you can go up two after several months.

Okay, so even if learning letters and numbers cannot possibly utilize higher-order thinking in Kindergarten, perhaps there are things to which you can apply higher-order questions. Stories, perhaps.

Let’s consider this option. It’s important to read to children and to help them understand the nature of both fiction and non-fiction texts. At the Kindergarten level, perhaps the single most important thing you can do is get the students excited about reading. Children at around the age of 5 absolutely love repetition, including rhyme and rhythm. Stories with lots of repetition hold their attention, as do nursery rhymes and songs. Turn a lesson into a song, and children are likely to remember it. Of course, since that only creates knowledge, such things tend to be discouraged in favor of higher-order questions.

When you are reading a story to children, the questions you are going to ask will involve making sure they comprehend the story. Do they understand what happened? Do they know who the characters are? Do they understand the problem and the solution? So far, so good.

Application would involve writing your own story. Since they cannot write yet, perhaps telling or re-telling the story. It’s unlikely Kindergarten students will be able to construct a story that demonstrates this level of understanding. They can of course tell stories, because that’s what people do, but they cannot construct the kinds of stories we’re reading to them in such a way as to demonstrate a capacity for application based on that knowledge.

Can a 5 year old analyze a story? Not much beyond, “What happened first? What happened next? What happened at the end?” But ask them a question like, “Why do you think the boy wasn’t scared of the witch?” and it’s not going to be an answer you can work with, if it even makes sense. And what are you going to do if the answer is, “Because he knows Jesus will keep him safe”? Try to work back from that one with 5-year-olds.

Inferring and predicting are developmentally inappropriate expectations for students this young. Inferring is very difficult, and often isn’t even developed very much by middle or even high school. Predicting means you understand cause and effect. Understanding cause and effect doesn’t typically happen until around the age of 7. A lot of time is wasted trying to get children to do these things when they don’t remotely have the cognitive abilities to do so yet. And if this is the case for synthesis, one can only imagine how inappropriate trying to get them to engage in evaluation is. (The ability to evaluate stories is something grad students in English are still working to develop.)

Elementary school should be primarily about creating foundational knowledge on which all future knowledge — and the cognitive abilities to move up the pyramid — are built. The focus should thus be on gaining knowledge and, at best, showing a degree of comprehension. As the knowledge becomes more complex, and the cognitive abilities of students become more complex, new steps up the pyramid can be ascended.

The bottom line is this: you cannot evaluate unless you can synthesize, you cannot synthesize if you cannot analyze, you cannot analyze if you cannot apply, you cannot apply if you cannot comprehend, and you cannot comprehend if you do not know. You need to have knowledge first and foremost before you can do any of these things. That means learning the basics of letters and sounds, numbers, basic arithmetic (meaning, memorizing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables), spelling, grammar, story structure, and basic knowledge of science, history, and social studies.

If you don’t know anything, how can you show you comprehend it? Knowledge is the foundation of it all, and we need to refocus on that in elementary school especially. The higher-order questions will take care of themselves naturally and in time. After all, Romeo and Juliet begs for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. See Spot Run does not.

The problem is that even if a teacher understands all of this, they will have to misuse Bloom’s Taxonomy anyway, because if an administrator comes in and sees you are not asking “higher order” questions, you will get a lower evaluation score as a consequence. So it doesn’t matter if a teacher knows everything I just said. They will still have to waste their and their students’ time asking developmentally inappropriate questions and trying to lead discussions with incomprehending children.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately for their consciences), most teachers are even unaware that they are misusing this model. The lack of understanding of Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t just a problem of administrators not understanding the model, how and in what order children’s brains develop, and thus why the model must be followed in order. No, it’s a problem from top to bottom, from teachers to the superintendent. After all, don’t forget that the administrators were all once teachers, too. They just now have the power to impose their ignorance and misunderstanding on everyone else.

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