One of the best things about taking cover lessons outside of your subject area is that you often come away having learned something new. In my particular experience, Geography is the lesson I usually come away from loaded with bags of new knowledge, having bugged the kids with questions for the best part of the hour. To put it bluntly, before I started teaching, my knowledge of tribal communities mostly extended to the moment that a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango, stuck it with the others and then danced a dainty tango and… well, the rest is history.
But thanks to Geography cover lessons, my knowledge of tribal communities is much deeper. I now know that Um Bongo is actually produced in Somerset (they do genuinely drink it in the Congo though).
I also recently learned about another tribal community, named the Mundurukú, who live in the Amazon River basin. As far as I am aware, they did not invent any soft drinks, but they are interesting for another reason: they have a number system that only goes up to five. That is to say that they only have words in their language for numbers one to five (which is probably why Brazil did so badly at the last World Cup: if they’d have won, it would have been their sixth trophy – how would they have explained that to these people?) And whilst we may find having only five numbers in your language peculiar, the Mundurukú would probably look at the Pirahã people (a ‘neighbouring’ tribe located some 700 miles away) with a similar curiosity: the Pirahã only have words for numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’. Don’t worry, they’ve got all eventualities covered: for anything greater than two they use the word ‘aibaagi’, which means ‘many’.
So basically, everything with these tribes is quantifiable up to a point and then it just becomes vague, ambiguous and equivocal beyond that.
To us it seems unworkable to have a system where everything is clear and distinct to begin with, then becomes imprecise and woolly once it reaches a certain level. But that is basically how I see taxonomies of higher order thinking, such as Bloom’s.
It strikes me that, according to such taxonomies, the higher the order of your thinking, the less likely it is that we can actually define or measure it. Which is problematic if we are encouraged to live by them, as we are in many schools.
But maybe it is precisely that same problematic nature of these ‘higher order thinking skills’ that puts them at the top of the hierarchy in the collective consciousness? Because – and here’s the crux of my thoughts on this taxonomy – I don’t actually believe that those soft skills at the top are actually harder than those distinctive ones at the bottom: I think it is often harder to remember than it is to create. I’m of the belief that it can often be more difficult to understand than to evaluate; indeed, it is only once you understand a concept that you are in a position to evaluate using that concept. I’d even argue that, if you have full understanding of a concept or concepts, evaluation of it/them is a very simple process. Just watch how quickly and precisely experts like Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood evaluate the shortcomings of a technical bake – they do this because they have complete understanding. One could even suggest that their understanding came after mastering creating.
Yet, it is the slippery nature of these soft ‘higher order’ skills that means we see them as somehow more advanced than the others.
I recently went on a course aimed at improving higher order thinking skills. During this course, there was never any discussion of pupils actually knowing things. It was all aimed at them being able to do the stuff at the top of the taxonomy – creating, evaluating, analysing. What the course missed was that, by teaching pupils content, by building their knowledge base, by making sure they can remember things, by ensuring they understand concepts, the ‘higher order’ stuff becomes much, much easier for them. With stuff like Bloom’s, we are often deceived into missing this.
For me, it seems that the so-called ‘lower order’ skills (such as remembering, understanding) often involve a lot more cognitive processing than the ‘higher order’ skills (creating, evaluating, etc.) Indeed, those ‘higher order’ skills often involve the brain just making short cuts using the hard-earned knowledge – that which was acquired through ‘lower order’ thinking.
So, Bloom’s taxonomy? Higher order thinking? If we want pupils to do the things at the top of those ranks, I think we should ignore these hierarchies and, instead, concentrate on teaching content and building pupils’ knowledge. Honestly, I think it is that simple. As simple as do-re-mi, A-B-C, 1-2… um… many?
Note: the penultimate paragraph – italicised – was added on 30th September 2014, to clarify the argument made in the post.