January 26, 2005

Reviewing books to kill Benjamin Bloom

In the middle of the 20th century, Benjamin Bloom became the best-known psychologist to categorize abstract thinking (or rather in a project to categorize the types of thinking in educational environments). His work has become known collectively as Bloom's Taxonomy of knowledge, and people in colleges of education can spout the categories almost by heart: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

So far, so good. Having terms for the different ways you want to see students sweat while thinking can be useful for designing work for them. That's what we in academe call a heuristic classification scheme, devised to be useful. Philosophers might call it pragmatic in the sense of calling something real if it's useful.

Unfortunately for pragmatist philosophers, something happened to this taxonomy once it was released into the wild. Many people decided that it was real in all contexts, not just useful in a limited set. And, having done so, they started describing the categories in a hierarchical sense. In this way, you will commonly see descriptions of higher-order and lower-order thinking skills, with knowledge and comprehension as clearly "lower-order." When I see or hear such description these days, I want to scream. What is it about humans that make us classify things in a hierarchical scheme and then latch on to them in this addictive fashion?

Wait. I should probably explain why I don't agree with a hierarchical scheme of knowledge: book reviews. Profgrrrrl wrote yesterday about voice and book reviews, and the tenor of comments is consistent with what I advise students about one critical skill in reviewing books: listening carefully to the author's voice. If I were to categorize that in Bloom's Taxonomy, knowing the author's perspective would be "knowledge," the lowest, basest form of thinking according to the hierarchical thinking-classifiers. And yet it is the hardest task in reviewing a book.

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Posted in Random comments on January 26, 2005 8:48 AM |