Tag Archives: Bloom’s taxonomy

A Glossary of U.K. Education (Vol. 3)

Following on from volumes one and two, here’s the latest edition of our education glossary.

Bennett, Tom

/bɛnɪt, tɒm/

noun

Scottish outlaw and folk hero; known colloquially as ‘Tam’ Bennett, he formed the researchED clan and led the VAKobite Rebellion against the neuromyths laying claim to the throne of pedagogy; he ultimately overthrew the House of Brain-Gym and restored evidence to its rightful place.

Bloom’s taxonomy

/bluːmz takˈsɒnəmi/

noun

a hierarchical model of classification which organises learning into six levels of complexity: remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, create; once you have overcome all of these levels, you must ultimately defeat the end-of-level boss: obfuscate.

Blue’s taxonomy

/bluːz takˈsɒnəmi/

noun

a hierarchical model of classification which organises items on a scale of least irritating to most irritating, based on the members of the boy band Blue: Simon Webbe (least irritating), Duncan James, Antony Costa, Lee Ryan (most irritating); e.g., “The consultant delivering that CPD was absolutely Lee Ryan.”

caffeine

/ˈkafiːn/

noun

life-force of teachers; they can cut our budgets, they can freeze our pay, but if they come for our coffee and tea, they’ll have to prise it from our cold, dead hands.

Christodoulou, Daisy

/krɪˈstɒduːluː, ˈdeɪzi/

noun

the only prominent educationalist who is most commonly referred to by their first name alone.

fair funding formula

/fɛː ˈfʌndɪŋ ˈfɔːmjʊlə/

noun

unfair funding formula.

grade descriptors

/ɡreɪd dɪˈskrɪptəz/

noun

occult apparatus used for supernatural divination; a form of cleromancy in which prophets will look over a document and then interpret it using the grade descriptors to guide them to a grade, which will then be challenged by another prophet who used the same descriptors to come up with an entirely different grade; a process of debate will follow until the prophets can agree on an interpretation of the descriptors that angers the spirits the least.

Hirsch, E.D.

/hɛːʃ, ˈiː ˈd/

noun

educationalist and academic; be honest, you think his name is Ed, don’t you? I mean, maybe not consciously, but subconsciously, you sort of think of him as Ed Hirsch, don’t you? Yeh, you do.

interactive whiteboard (IWB)

/ɪntərˈaktɪv ˈwʌɪtbɔːd/

noun

a large interactive

display that,

when written on with an

interactive whiteboard pen,

displays the writing wherever the                                               hell

it

wants.

Even after calib

ration.

Mantle of the Expert

/ˈmant(ə)l ɒv ðə ˈɛkspəːt/

noun

educational approach in which novices spend their time pretending to be experts so that they can remain novices for longer.

Slough of Despond

/ˈsl əv dˈspɒnd/

noun

the filthiest, most festering, fungus-ridden mug in the staffroom, as mentioned in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth […] doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond.”; it is traditionally discarded in the waste bin at the end of every term, only to magically return in another form within a few weeks of the following term.

snow

/snəʊ/

noun

the gift given to tired teachers from the benevolent gods every few years as a reward for their hard work in educating the children (cf. wind, which is a punishment handed down to teachers from the vengeful gods for not keeping up with the marking).

Summer Holiday

/ˈsʌmə ˈhɒlɪdeɪ/

noun

1963 British film starring Cliff Richard, in which he plays a character who wanders about feeling utterly purposeless at the start, then writes himself a to do list of household jobs he’s been putting off all year; he goes on to read a couple of books, binge watch some boxsets, fall asleep in the afternoon a bit, and he finally goes into work to put some displays up on the walls; just as the credits roll he suddenly realises that he hasn’t done any of the household jobs on his to do list.

Teach First

/tiːtʃ fəːst/

noun

charity which focuses on giving bankers hearts.

wind

/wɪnd/

noun

powerful chemical catalyst; just one part wind mixed with 100+ parts children will cause uncontrollable agitation and ebullition of said children.

wine

/wʌɪn/

noun

a form of neuralyzer (the memory-wiping device made famous by the Men in Black film franchise); it is used by teachers on themselves each night in order to forget the ignominy and upset of being told to “!@$# off” or that “your lessons are boring”; sometimes these things are even said to them by pupils.

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Evaluation: it’s a piece of cake

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 20.29.30
Never marry a tennis player. Love means nothing to them. Or so the old joke goes. I’m convinced that there should be a teaching equivalent of this line that goes something like: Never offer an examiner some cake. ‘Some’ can mean absolutely anything to them.

This is no joke, though. It is the very nature of these assessment descriptors that the interpretation of words like ‘some’ or ‘evaluative’ or ‘understanding’ is entirely subjective. Daisy Christodoulou has written about this problem with criterion-referencing, citing both Tim Oates and Dylan Wiliam on the issue of the subjective interpretation of descriptors. It seems that the English language is pretty unhelpful when it comes to precision of meaning.

So it came as no surprise when I tuned into this week’s #engchatuk to find English teachers discussing the topic of teaching ‘evaluation’, with a broad range of interpretations of what the word meant. The natural conclusion of this is that there were also a wide range of ideas presented on how we should then teach pupils how to evaluate. There were a number of interpretations (and, thus, approaches to teaching) that I don’t think I agree with and some that were close to my own interpretation.

I’m not suggesting that I am right, but this is my take on evaluation. A good way to look at it is through the medium of cakes. (Heck, a good way to look at anything is through the medium of cakes.) More specifically, though, I think a useful example of evaluation is that which Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood do when they take on the wearisome task of making their way through slabs of crème pât-doused confectionery each week. (You never hear them complain about workload, do you?)

Here’s an example:

Here are some of the comments that Paul and Mary make whilst evaluating:

  • “they look like Little Gems”
  • “they’ve lost their shape in the oven”
  • “if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them before you baked them, and you had plenty of time”
  • “they’re great – the only thing is they’re slightly over-baked”
  • “a beautiful flavour – I love the marzipan… I’d like to have seen a bit more colour to lift it up on the top”
  • “the appearance of the top is lovely – that nice crackle on the top”
  • “you’ve caught a few of them though”
  • “for my taste, I think it’s slightly over-gingered… I like the flavour ginger but the burn that comes, for me, is too much”
  • “I would have liked a lot more nuts in it”
  • “the whole thing about a biscotti is that it’s dense with flavour, and you’ve got large areas of empty crust”
  • “the texture’s excellent, but, for me, a biscotti should be absolutely rammed full of whatever you’re putting in there”
  • “what’s making it bitter?”
  • “it’s lavender but it’s not a lavender that you recognise”
  • “it’s a very difficult thing to use lavender in biscuits… it’s just not working, that lavender, is it?”
  • “I’ve only finished one and I’m not getting [the lavender] coming through at all”
  • “for me it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”
  • “the white chocolate doesn’t really need anything with it if it was a very thin coating”
  • “the flavour of that cinnamon… the mixed spice – it’s very strong”
  • “this doesn’t work really”
  • “the look of them, I think they look great”
  • “I’d never have thought of putting colouring in, just a swirl – so pretty, and the filling is good”
  • “I think the flavour… the biscuit is baked extremely well, it does melt; the flavour is really nice as well”
  • “I think it looks very professional”

The range of comments are varied, but they seem to focus on: outcomes (“they’ve lost their shape in the oven”); impact (“the burn that comes, for me, is too much”); alternatives to elective choices (“if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them”); and context (“it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”). It may be that you could identify other categories for these comments and group them in different ways – I’d be interested if somebody has spotted different patterns (I wondered about the question “what’s making it bitter?” – perhaps this is the question we ask when we want pupils to evaluate: why is this writing like this? or what’s making it have this effect?)

What one might do, having identified what these comments are doing, is to teach pupils to make similar comments – we could give them sentence stems, or model the process with a text. But I think that misses out something crucial here and that is: the importance of who is doing the evaluating here.

Paul Hollywood was born into a family of bakers – his parents own a bakery, and his grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. He started working with his parents at 17 years old and, in his own words, “lost my youth because I had to get up and go to bed early… I never had girlfriends or went clubbing until I was in my mid-20s.” By the time The Great British Bake Off hit our screens for the first time in 2010, he’d had nearly 30 years of professional experience in baking, including holding the position of head baker in such lauded institutions as The Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.

But Hollywood is just a beginner compared to Mary Berry, who began her working life demonstrating ovens for the electricity board – she’d do this by turning up to people’s homes and baking them a Victoria sponge. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu school in France at 22, Berry worked for a range of food related bodies (such as the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board), before becoming food editor on a number of magazines. Over her 60 year career, she has published more than 75 cookery books.

What is crucial to Hollywood and Berry’s ability to evaluate so effectively is the knowledge and experience they bring to the task.  They can evaluate precisely and judiciously because they know their way around good baking. The recipes that they are tasting may be new to them, but they have a clear understanding of the processes a baker needs to go through to achieve success across the gamut of baking techniques: they understand immediately whether something has been successful or not, as well as the reasons why it has or hasn’t worked. What is more, they can instantly identify what the baker should have done to improve or rectify. They understand the wider context of any bake – the required effect of the recipe, and the tradition that runs through a particular style of baking. And, in an instant, they apply all of this knowledge and experience to what they are seeing and tasting and… they evaluate the bake.

So how do we teach pupils to evaluate in their reading responses? Obviously, we don’t have the time to furnish them with the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hollywood and Berry have accumulated, but building knowledge and experience should be our goal nonetheless.

The way to teach evaluation is, first and foremost, to ensure pupils read lots. Build up pupils’ experience of writing and of the traditions of writing – of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama, etc. By experiencing the effects of writing, when confronted with a new text, we want them to be able to identify when a writer has followed a tradition or subverted it, whether they have been successful in achieving an impact, or how utilising techniques may have highlighted their biases. Secondly, when reading a text, we should spend a lot of time teaching context: what are the historical, social, cultural and biographical contexts that inform a text? When evaluating, pupils should be connecting their analysis to these contexts – can they read the text through the veil of what they know about the writer’s interests or perhaps the contemporary reader’s preoccupations?

I’m totally convinced that this is what evaluation is in English: connecting a text to one’s own knowledge and experience of reading. It isn’t a quick approach, like giving sentence stems or modelling the process (we should do this anyway, all the time), but it is quite simple: get kids reading more and think carefully about what they are reading. Read through the traditions of writing – from Greek myths to modern reportage. And read around the texts too – build up a picture of the context: the nourishment that fed the writing.

So where analysis might be seen as a student’s understanding of language, evaluation is an expression of their wider knowledge. You want me to end this by saying “it’s the icing on the cake”, don’t you? Well, I won’t. I’m better than that. Only an idiot would end a blog with a half-baked pun.

The Knowledge

“So, you’re wanting to be a London cabbie, then? Hope you’re prepared to put in all the hard work it takes to do the job? All the study?” asked the slightly gruff, porcine man.

“Er, yes. I’ve just got the Blue Book, and I’ve started trying to learn the roads and runs and that…” replied the enthusiastic young man.

“The what? Oh, yeh, you won’t be needing that. The Blue Book, I mean. We don’t really use that anymore for studying to be a cabbie.”

“You don’t… I mean, I don’t need the Blue Book? But it’s got all the runs and routes in it? The ones I… I mean, I thought the Blue Book was the main source of, you know… The Knowledge.”

The gruff man snorted. “‘The Knowledge’? Yeh, we don’t call it that anymore.”

The young man knotted his brow. “Huh? What do you mean? Why don’t you…?”

“Yeh, we don’t call it The Knowledge anymore. I mean knowledge is important, of course. But the people at Transport for London realised that it was more important to have higher order skills. They decided that we need cabbies who can analyse the routes, evaluate them and create new runs. No good just knowing the runs. Here, it’s all based on this.” The gruff man pointed to a poster on his wall:

bloom

“See?” he continued. “These things are much more important than the knowledge itself, so we focus on those instead.”

“Oh, right.” said the young man, perplexed. ” So how would I go about learning the… erm…”

“We now call it The Skills. As I say, The Knowledge isn’t really a thing anymore.”

“Right. So… how would I go about learning, The, er, Skills? I mean, I suppose I still need to learn the routes and runs first, right? I’d have to know that stuff first, wouldn’t I?”

“Hey, I’m not saying knowledge isn’t important. We all know it’s the foundation on which the higher order skills are built. We’re not that stupid.”

“Okay. I was a little worried then that I wouldn’t get the chance to do  The Knowledge…”

“We don’t call it that…”

“Yeh, of course. I mean, I was worried I wouldn’t get to learn all the routes and runs. My old man was a cabbie and he prided himself on learning The Kno… on knowing his way around London. I’d like to follow in his footsteps. So how do I go about learning the runs? What sort of time frame are we talking about?”

“I tell you what: you take your Blue Book out into the lobby and sit and read it for a bit. When you’ve got an idea of some of the runs, we’ll get you started on The Skills; the higher order stuff. I’m going for a coffee and a fag. Shall we say half an hour?”

“Half an hour?” The young man’s mouth hung open for a few seconds, before he snapped it shut and composed himself. “Doesn’t it take years to really know this stuff? I thought you said knowledge is the foundation…”

“Oh, it is. It is. We’d be stupid if we said it wasn’t. But it’s also really important to make sure that you are able to do the higher order stuff too. You go and get some of your knowledge and then when I’m back, we’ll sort out your tickets for your trip to Mumbai. I take it you are available to fly this week?”

“Yes, I’m… wait… what? Fly…? Mumbai…? This week…?”

“Yeh. Mumbai’s the best place, usually. But if you’d rather do Shanghai, we can…”

“Why would I need to go to Mumbai?” The young man was utterly perplexed. “I want to be a cabbie in London. I want to… I want to…”

“You need to do a placement overseas in order to learn The Skills. You’ll basically need to apply your knowledge to the streets of Mumbai. You’ll go there and learn how to evaluate and analyse and to be creative. Then you can come back to London and apply those skills so you can drive around better. Honestly, you’ll like Mumbai. Or Shanghai. Whichever you choose. I mean, if either of those are really a problem for you, I suppose we could send you to New York…”

“I don’t have a problem with those places… I mean, I do have a problem with them in that they aren’t London! It’s not the places themselves. I just want to be cabbie in London so I need to learn about London streets! Why would I…?”

“The Skills, son. You’ll need to learn The Skills. As I said before, you’ll need to learn how to create new routes. You’ll need to learn how to evaluate which route to take in rush hour or where to divert if there’s been an accident. You’ll need to analyse traffic reports in order to ensure you have all the details. Those things are really important. Higher order, innit?”

“But won’t it be better if I just learn The Knowledge…”

“We don’t use that…” the gruff man insisted.

“If I just learned… The Knowledge,” the young man darted a forceful look at his interlocutor as he mouthed the words, “I could just apply that knowledge to what I needed to do. The Knowledge would ensure that I’d know what routes to take at certain times. The Knowledge would mean that analysis and evaluation and creation would be more-or-less automatic: I’d be able to make quick decisions of analysis and evaluation and change my route using the knowledge I’d have of the runs. I’d be able to create new runs without really thinking too hard. Why do I need to learn these skills in a different place and then try and apply those skills to the place where I actually need to use them? It doesn’t make sense. I understand that creativity and evaluation and analysis are important to a cabbie, but these are things that just spring forth from a sound understanding of The Knowledge. I don’t need to learn creativity as a discrete skill. It’s nonsense.” The young man sunk back into his seat.

“Right. I see.” The gruff man looked thoughtful, but not entirely dejected. Then he smiled, and spoke again. “You have a problem with the Bloom’s taxonomy approach to cabbie training? I understand that. It’s not the way you like to learn things. You don’t think you need to learn creativity. That’s okay.”

The young man looked on, breathless. The gruff man continued. “There is another approach to cabbie training we could use. You’ll like this one.”

He pointed to another poster, this time on the adjoining wall.

“Now, at the moment, you are at the SOLO Prestructural stage. But what if we got you thinking about driving a cab in an Extended Abstract way….”

Bloom’s: the slipperiness of soft skills doesn’t make them higher order

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.

Higher order thinking

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.

 

Towards a confusion of tongues (why a common language isn’t always helpful)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (1563)

There sometimes exists in schools a cognitive dissonance that appears to hold these three theories as truth:

  1. Learning other languages is beneficial to pupils.
  2. Developing a wide English vocabulary is beneficial to pupils.
  3. Creating a common language across subjects is beneficial to pupils.

The reason I think this represents cognitive dissonance is because the third theory seems to want to reduce the language pupils use in school, whereas the first two seek to increase it.

It would be very hard to argue against the first two ideas. Learning a second language (or more) has obvious benefits in terms of communication in an increasingly global community, but there have also been neurological benefits identified too. And the importance of developing a wide vocabulary within English is uncontested (unless we count some pupils’ protestations: “I know all the English I need. I speak it already. This is pointless.”)

Despite this understanding that increasing the language of our pupils is a good thing, the idea does seem to exist, if not pervade, that we should create or rely on a reduced, common language to use across the various subject domains.

Most recently with the removal of National Curriculum levels, I have seen numerous people suggest that the levels and language of SOLO taxonomy could be a suitable replacement. This was notable during last Thursday’s #UKEdChat.

This is quite bizarre: one of the complaints about NC levels was that they were vague. I find it odd that some feel that moving to an even more equivocal set of levels and descriptors is the answer. Like Bloom’s taxonomy, SOLO uses descriptors which are open to a wide range of interpretations, even within a single subject area.

And this is the other problem with assuming that a common language is helpful to pupils: words have different (usually polysemous, but sometimes homonymous) meanings in different contexts. Surely when words can shift in meaning depending on context, the language is no longer a common one? As each subject area presents a different context, the ‘common language’ gets taken in different directions by its different speakers. It’s analogous to the dialects of England and America and George Bernard Shaw’s observation that the two countries are “separated by a common language”: both England and America use the same words, they just don’t always mean the same thing.

But we don’t have to look at different dialects to see how meaning shifts. Standard English is a minefield of ambiguity. For example, the word ‘bank’ has a number of meanings. Ignoring the many definitions of the verb form, here are just a few definitions of the word as a noun (but by no means all of them):

  1. A financial establishment
  2. A stock of something available for use when required
  3. A receptacle where something may be deposited for recycling: ‘a bottle bank’
  4. The land alongside or sloping down to a river or a lake
  5. A set of similar things, especially electrical devices: ‘a bank of monitors’
  6. The cushion of a pool or snooker table

So if I said, “I took off my trousers by the bank”, the context in which I said this would certainly change the meaning of the word bank. You’d hope that I was stood by the side of the lake, replete with a bathing suit and not lining up a shot in the final frame of the World Championship at the Crucible.

It is therefore much more efficient for me to use a more domain-specific word (or words) other than bank to ensure the meaning I wish to convey is clear and precise: “I took off my trousers by the embankment,” or “I took off my trousers by the Abbey National.”

Likewise, if we have to rely on the vocabulary of a school’s common language, we are avoiding the more domain-specific vocabulary that would make meaning more precise.

So when I ask my pupils to analyse a text in English, it is a fundamentally different thing to when they are asked to analyse a chemical compound in Chemistry. Just look at this enormous list of applicants of the term analysis across a large number of disciplines. And even within disciplines, there are different meanings to the word. If analysis had one fixed meaning, there would be no need for the numerous collocations (‘aura analysis’, anyone?) in that list.

This means that if we try to establish a common language across schools, the words we use will have no meaning until they are applied to each subject. At this point the language is vague, at best. And as they have different meanings within each domain, the language isn’t a common one. It becomes more confusing and less helpful for pupils. Put simply:

I would always argue the case for schools to allow subject areas to establish their own,  domain-specific language for practice and assessment. Why assume that our students need a reduced, catch-all vocabulary in order to make sense of their learning across subjects when it is more likely that such a vocabulary will obscure the understanding process.

When it comes to world globalisation, we are always reminded of the importance of the plurality of languages and heed warnings to protect them. Are we as defensive of our domain-specific language when it comes to ‘globalising’ schools and blurring the boundaries between subjects?

As Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says of globalisation and language:

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

Likewise, if we are going to combine many subjects with very different vocabularies, we shouldn’t impose any single language across all of them.