Bloom’s Taxonomy and Questions for Life | Steve Barkley

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Questions for Life

An article by Ron Berger, We Learn by Doing: What Educators Get Wrong About Bloom’s Taxonomy, triggered me to reexamine an earlier blog I wrote after reading Sam Wineburg’s and Jack Schneider’s article, Inverting Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Berger shares how the original and revised Bloom’s Taxonomy provided educators with an understanding of the importance of giving students opportunities to work with all the skills: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Source: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

The problem that Berger identifies occurs when educators interpret Bloom’s Taxonomy as discrete steps starting from the bottom and working up: assuming students must be proficient in one level to move up to the next one.

“This hierarchical vision of discrete, sequential steps in learning was not Bloom’s intent. Nevertheless, it is now widespread among teachers and is as deeply troubling as it is fundamentally wrong. Most of the time we do not first memorize, then understand, then apply. We build our understanding in part through application and creation.”

“But many teachers we interviewed assumed that learning the kind of information
found in worksheets paves the way to higher-order thinking.
That isn’t what we’ve observed.”

– Sam Wineburg and Jack Schneider

 According to Wineburg and Schneider, Benjamin Bloom never used a pyramid to illustrate his taxonomy.

“The taxonomy was easy to remember and easy to use, even more so when it was reduced to a pyramid. There was only one problem. The pyramid was upside down—at least for the history classroom. Knowledge of history, as those taxonomic pyramids imply, can function as a platform upon which students can stand to make judgments. But just as math is about more than learning theorems, history is about more than collecting facts. It is also a discipline that requires piecing together an accurate story from incomplete fragments. Historical thinkers begin by asking questions, evaluating what they don’t know in pursuit of their ultimate aim: knowledge. And then they repeat the process.”

Upside down triangle: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation

My work with thinking and questioning has led me away from the terms higher and lower levels. I’ve been concerned when observers are recording the verbs in teachers’ questions and using that to rate the “level” of student thinking in the lesson design. I’ve been exploring “complexity” of thinking as a topic to examine with teachers. Perception questions are often labeled lower level, but one can do a very complex exploration of what is seen and heard. A “simple” creative question frequently gets labeled as higher level.  Identifying the complexity of the thinking in a learning task is a valuable teacher coaching conversation.

Questions for Life is the structure that I use in my training and coaching work with educators. In the diagram below, the first word in each shape describes a type of thinking with the other words being cue words for forming questions.

Steve Barkley's Questions for Life

The connections between the types of questions are illustrated in the shapes and the rows. Same shapes are thinking processes that are closely linked. For example, to identify a pattern (induction) often requires analyzing and finding similarities and differences. The rows identify a connected purpose. Seeking to gather information would lead me to asking row one questions.

We can examine, plan, and debrief a thinking process beginning anywhere within the framework and moving any direction from there.

  • Its valuable for learners to be able to ask what I call, “the questions behind the question.” Being asked to give an opinion (evaluation) requires the learner to ask herself questions from Row 1 and 2, gathering available information and working with it to confirm her opinion.
  • If I wanted to guide a group to generate ideas for creating a change, I might facilitate with questions from Row 2, uncovering beliefs (evaluation) about the “need to change” first. Then proceed to Row 3 generating ideas, predicating possible impact from implementing the ideas, leading to action. At any time, the thinking process can call for additional information requiring Row 1 questions. Once action is taken, Row 1 gathering information questions are critical in guiding ongoing evaluation that may lead to revision or to new ideas and change of action.
  • In coaching post-conferences, I frequently have questions that guide a teacher to uncover the thinking they did during instruction which frequently leads to insights that generate new ideas. Identifying what he heard and saw (Row 1) that influenced a decision he made (Row 2) and action taken (Row 3) allows for conscious exploration of options.

Look consciously at the flow of thinking processes being encouraged in your classrooms and in professional dialogues with staff. Consider how your questions guide your decision making.


Here is a link to my book, Questions for Life: Powerful Strategies to Guide Critical Thinking.

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