Bloom’s taxonomy has acquired a mythological status in education, being one of those reference frameworks that teachers adhere to with some sort of blind allegiance. It has been around for so long that educators take it for granted. While some question and criticize its validity, it is still being widely used by teachers as a tool in the analysis of learning objectives. The levels appear on tests, and factor in lesson planning and curriculum design, with the taxonomy being ubiquitous in schools. A Google search offers over a million results. Despite its widespread use, I’ve never understood its appeal.
Originally designed by Bloom and a team of psychology graduates in the 1950s (updated 2001 by Anderson and Krathwohl) as a method for the development of college test questions for WWII veterans, the six levels of cognitive domain have dominated education for the past half century. However, the hierarchical pyramid was never meant to be used as an evaluative tool and does not claim to measure ‘effective teaching’. With that said, Bloom’s still serves as the backbone of many teaching philosophies, in particular those that lean more towards skills rather than content. Unfortunately, it’s time has come and gone. The taxonomy no longer serves a useful function.
As Brenda Sugrue states here, Bloom’s taxonomy is not supported by any research on learning. Developed before advances in cognitive science (applicable to education), the taxonomy is little more than a best guess by some knowledgeable people of the time. It has led to several misunderstandings among educators as outlined in this post by Grant Wiggins. While it may help some teachers with questioning and checking for learning, for students it’s just a triangle. It lacks clarity. Students find it difficult to chart their progress. To them, more or less, it is meaningless.
What’s the alternative? I think there is real merit in the SOLO taxonomy. For some teachers, especially in the UK, this taxonomy is well known. Although it has received criticism, most notably from David Didau in this post, I believe it has a lot of positive aspects. Like many things in education, the more practical, the better. SOLO provides that pragmatic approach that Bloom’s always lacked.
SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) offers a structured framework to help students progress in their thinking and learning. As its creators Biggs and Collis (1982) state, ‘it provides a simple and robust way of describing how learning outcomes grow in complexity from surface to deep learning.’ While it is similar to Bloom’s, it has one major advantage: a user-friendly, common language of learning that allows students to explicitly understand the learning process. SOLO has none of the confusing overlaps of Bloom’s (i.e. ‘identify’ appears in knowledge, comprehension and analysis).
- Prestructural – Students don’t have any real knowledge or understanding of the topic. You will typically see blank stares. They will usually answer, ‘I don’t understand it.’
- Unistructural – Students have limited knowledge of the topic. They may only know one isolated fact or aspect of the topic. They have some basic understanding.
- Multistructual – Students responses focus on several relevant aspects but they are seen as independent and little connection is made. They are unable to link ideas. Assessment at this stage is mostly quantitative.
- Relational – Students start to integrate concepts into a coherent whole with the development of higher order thinking. They link together and explain several ideas on a related topic. The pieces of the puzzle fit together.
- Extended Abstract – Students reach the most complex level. Ideas are linked together, extended to the bigger picture and then looked at in a new and different way. This is the holy grail of learning.
The benefits of SOLO can be found in its ability to make progress more visible. Ideally, it empowers students to take more control of their own learning and gain greater independence. The forward momentum found in the taxonomy can be a powerful motivator. As well, the idea of progression between the levels is more clearly defined than in Bloom’s. It is something that students can plainly see and experience. SOLO allows students to reflect meaningfully on what their next steps in learning are. Hopefully, it also gives them a sense of purpose in their learning.
In the end, it’s what every teacher wants for their students.