The end of Bloom's taxonomy

Why thinking of cognition as a hierarchy does more harm than good.

Peter Ellerton Nov 17, 2020

Bloom's taxonomy has been a stalwart of educational theory and practice for decades. It has helped bring a focus on thinking into the classroom and given us a language to plan for it.

But nowadays, I reckon, using Bloom's taxonomy is doing more harm than good. I'll just pause a bit to let the dust settle on that one ...

Let me explain.

The nature of a hierarchy of cognitive skills is problematic on several fronts, and significantly so. But don't just take my word for it, both Bloom himself and later Marzano acknowledge this.

From Bloom and Krathwohl, for example: "Although evaluation is placed last in the cognitive domain because it is regarded as requiring to some extent all the other categories of behavior, it is not necessarily the last step in thinking or problem solving. It is quite possible that the evaluation process will in some cases be the prelude to the acquisition of new knowledge, a new attempt at comprehension or application, or a new analysis and synthesis."

In other words, it is not the case that a particular cognitive skill is constituted by a set of other skills. What may seem a culminating skill in one context is a first step in inquiry in another.

As Marzano says: "In summary, the hierarchical structure of Bloom’s Taxonomy simply did not hold together well from logical or empirical perspectives."

The problem with a hierarchical model of cognition

Conceptualising cognition as a hierarchy of skills has led to the wide spread use of the term "higher order thinking". But if the term isn't accurate, then its use will only serve to create confusion.

Evaluation can be very simple or very complex, deep or superficial. Same for analysis, justification, interpretation, identification and so on. It seems there is nothing innately "higher-order" in any particular skill.

Neither can we cleanly separate one skill from (and set it be before) the other as the notion of a hierarchy requires. We simply can't engage in one cognitive skill without engaging the others, and it's not always in a particular sequence.

Using hierarchical thinking also supports reserving certain cognitions as discriminators in a criteria sheet.

For example, very often in the cognitive audit of tasks, we come across marking standards based on different cognitive skills—a B for example might require that the student analyses while an A requires the student to evaluate—when the student was only asked to demonstrate one (or neither). which then raises the significant question of what the students were actually asked to do. For example, an assignment asking students to 'compare and contrast Claudius' relationship to Hamlet with that of Ophelia' does seem to require analysis, but not necessarily evaluation.

It would seem logical that the criteria are what the students were asked to do and the discriminators show how well it was done. This does not work well when cognition is used as a discriminator.

There is many a teacher who has seen excellent student work but could not grant it an A because the student did not 'accidentally' evaluate (if, indeed, the assessment allowed for any meaningful evaluation).

There is much to say about this, but here we can only scratch the surface.

So what is an alternative to Bloom's hierarchy? Next time, we will look at a model of cognition used by many teachers to identify and plan for student cognition in the classroom — the cognitive web.

Bloom, & Krathwohl. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives : the classification of educational goals. McKay.

Cizek GJ, Webb LC, Kalohn JC. The Use of Cognitive Taxonomies in Licensure and Certification Test Development: Reasonable or Customary? Evaluation & the Health Professions. 1995;18(1):77-91.

Marzano, R. J. ; K., John S. (2006). The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (R. J. Marzano, Ed.; 2nd edition). Corwin.