One of the modules in my teacher training workshops is on Bloom’s Taxonomy. This hierarchy of skills developed by Benjamin Bloom is usually a part of Bachelor of Education courses. My workshops help teachers reduce these theoretical categories into practical workable strategies for the classroom. As I become more and more adept at thinking in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, I find that though these learning categories were created to be used in the context of education, they apply to every aspect of our lives. These are skills which help us think systematically.
The six skills that comprise Bloom’s Taxonomy are --- Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analysing, Evaluating and Creating. First three are routine skills that our education system teaches us. The last three help critical thinking. The set is a hierarchy because the skills get more and more complex as we go further down the list. Hence, the first three are called lower order skills and the last three are seen as higher order thinking skills.
This post is about taking this set of skills out of the classroom and education texts and bring them into our everyday contexts. Hence, I will go down the list and see how we need and use each one of them in our day to day situations. This is a long post, so I beg my readers’ indulgence.
The most basic of all learning skills, which is like a foundation of other skills is remembering. Remembering requires using our memory to recognize and recall information. We use this skill all the time --- remembering names, facts, prices, dates, conversations, cooking processes ---- the list goes on. All this information stored in our memory then becomes our personal knowledge base. Knowledge is not something we get only through our education system. We are constantly imbibing knowledge from our experiences, our conversations, from our surroundings --- it is something we take for granted in our everyday lives. A lot of times we are not even aware of the range of information we absorb from things around us. I am amazed at how much I still remember about people whom I had encountered or heard about while growing up --- names, who married whom, who is related to whom… and so on. This is a legacy of being raised in the face-to-face society of Assam, where everyone knew everyone else. All these are a part of our memories that we remember and recall at particular times. Our memories are also one of the key sources of what we ‘know’. We also ‘know’ how to do things --- how to talk to whom, how to respond to people and situations, a lot of what is right or wrong, ----- the list goes on and on.
The next skill, that goes one step beyond mere knowledge, is understanding. There are several mental processes by which we understand something --- comparing, exemplifying, classifying, interpreting, explaining. We usually do something with the knowledge we have ---
interpret it, classify it, explain it, exemplify it, make inferences based on it, compare it. All of these reflect how we understand and make sense of a situation. And again, a lot of it is done unconsciously.
“Why can’t you be like your sister? She does everything right”. “Their house looks so much better than ours’. “He is a much better actor than his father”. Most of us have grown up with being compared, and have consciously or unconsciously, made comparisons ourselves. Comparison is one way of understanding a person or a situation --- in terms of something or someone else. Very closely linked to comparing is exemplifying. “Look at so-and so. He studies all the time, gets good grades and makes his parents proud”.
Years ago, when I was still in college, I was getting ready to go to a wedding. I had on a very bright zari sari and to match with that I put on a very bright lipstick. My mother hit the roof. “You look like a cheap woman”, she said. In a rare show of defiance, I went to the other extreme that day, and went lipstick-less to the wedding. But the point I am making here is about the term ‘cheap woman’. Though there is no consensus of what it connotes, we use terms such as these all the time to classify people. Classification is a way of understanding, by slotting people and things into categories. A whole bunch of things or people are grouped together so as to get a better sense of what they are. These groupings are sometimes our own personal categories and sometimes societal. “Maharashtrians are very nice people’ (I have heard this myself 😊)”. “His behaviour is typical of the millennium generation”. “Young people today are very shallow”. “This case is just like the one in ……”. “A parsnip is just like a carrot, except that it is white and does not have the sense of sweetness that carrot has”. In all of these statements, things, people, qualities, situations, have been classified and slotted together to create a particular understanding of something.
We understand a situation by first interpreting information about it. I see two of my colleagues in deep conversation. They both look at me as I pass by. I have just had an altercation with one of them. My interpretation of the situation is that they are talking about me --- my way of understanding the situation based on my prior experience with the person concerned. This interpretation is based on an inference --- two things have happened; therefore, a third thing must be happening too. I had an altercation with A, A is talking to B, both look at me as I pass by; therefore, they must be talking about me. And more often than not, we jump to such conclusions without even entertaining the possibility that they could be talking of something else entirely.
Another way of understanding situations as we go through life is by explaining them to ourselves and to others. “My son got very ill during the exams, hence his grades went down”. “All these bad things happened to our family because our stars were bad’. “His father was a great musician. No wonder the son has an ear for music”.
Explaining, exemplifying, comparing, classifying, interpreting and inferring are cognitive processes associated with understanding. I am using an anthropological rather that an educational conceptualization of the term understanding here --- it is about how we perceive and hence ‘understand’ the world around us.
One step beyond understanding is application. We use our skills of application every day. Following procedures for driving a car, repairing a broken item, helping our children with their homework, following a recipe, all of these require executing and implementing, the cognitive processes associated with application. And again, we use these processes without realizing we are doing so.
Knowledge, understanding and application do not necessarily need critical thought. As Richard Paul and Linda Elder, internationally recognized authority on critical thinking, say in their Critical Thinking: Tools For Taking Charge Of Your Professional And Personal Life, our regular thinking is full of biases, prejudices, misconceptions, ideological rigidities, mixed with rational thought, insights, facts. Our perceptions and interpretations are filtered through these biases, prejudices, etc. This is first order thinking: spontaneous and non-reflective. It contains insight, prejudice, truth and error, good and bad reasoning, indiscriminately combined. Second order thinking is first order thinking raised to the level of conscious realization (i.e., analyzed, assessed and reconstructed).
The first three rungs of Bloom’s Taxonomy --- remembering, understanding, applying --- correspond very closely with Paul and Elder’s first order thinking. The last three rungs, analyzing, evaluating and creating, get into the realm of second order thinking. This is the stage where critical thinking really happens. The skills of analysis, evaluation and creation helps bring about the transition from first order to second order thought.
The first step in moving from first to second order thinking is developing our ability to analyze. A lot of our thoughts are not based on analysis. We depend on emotion, hearsay, limited prior experience, to form our conclusions. For example, I heard someone argue very vociferously at a party that arranged marriages have disappeared in Indian society. When asked how she could be so sure, she said “just look at my family; no one in my family has had an arranged marriage this generation”. This particular person’s knowledge and understanding of current marriage practices in India is based on a rather limited experience of one family. However, we just need to look at the matrimonial pages of The Times of India, or The Hindu or sites such as Shaadi.com, to see that arranged marriages are very much alive and well. It has in fact gone on to a different level. There are marriage portals now catering to specific communities, regions, languages. Hence, this lady’s perspective was flawed, as it was not informed enough. She however believed it, and because she said it very categorically, may have been able to convince other people in that conversation too. We believe such statements because most of the time, we do not bother to analyze things ourselves --- we take opinions at face value, especially if they are spoken authoritatively.
We need our analytical thinking skills all the time ---- sifting through gossip, stridently made arguments, through all the ‘informative’ and ‘public service’ posts that come through our Facebook and WhatsApp feeds, as well as in everyday situations such as should I send my daughter to this trip; what are the stresses that that my colleague/child/friend, spouse, is going through because of which she/he lashed out at me; is there another side to this story that I have overlooked or have not been told, --- and so on. Analysis is not emphasized in our rote-learning based education system, hence this is a skill we do not have much practice with.
The skill of analysis helps us sort through information --- identifying which information is important and relevant to a situation or issue and which is not. It also helps us organize information --- find out what is common and different between information and grouping similar ideas, concepts, points, evidences together. Lastly, and to me, most importantly, analysis helps us identify alternative perspectives, points of view, underlying motives or biases in things we see and hear around us.
Evaluation is one step beyond analysis. Suppose my child has got admission into four very good colleges, and the dilemma is which one to accept. How would we go about making the right decision? Firstly, we would analyze the pros and cons of each college based on our needs, listing out what the college has to offer, the faculty, my child’s interests and future plans, costs, ease of transportation, who else is going there, the city that the college is in, is there a good local guardian available, and so on. Once we have listed all these out, we will move from analysis to evaluation --- which of these four will we decide on. Listing the pros and cons is analyzing, assessing these lists and coming up with a conclusion is evaluation. Evaluation involves weighing all the pros and cons and then coming up with an informed decision.
Evaluation is also the skill that enables us to form an informed opinion, make an unbiased judgement, and take a position on an issue. It involves identifying biases not only in others (which we do at the level of analysis), but also in our own biases by assessing our own thinking on that issue.
For example, suppose there is a conflict situation between me and someone else. Evaluation involves objectively analysing the situation and then evaluating my own role in it. Most of the time, in such situations, we immediately blame the other person. Evaluation is a skill that helps us go beyond our immediate anger and ask objective questions such as, ‘could I have in any way have triggered this situation’, ‘was I being defensive and therefore made that negative retort’, and so on. The combination of analysis and evaluation helps us reflect on our own actions and the possible consequences of those actions.
Last in this list of skills is the ability to synthesize all the previous skills to create innovative plans and solutions, think out of the box, critically examine various perspectives and come up with unique solutions to problems. This is the kind of thinking that leads to new insights, a whole new way of understanding and approaching a problem, bringing in fresh perspectives. Hence, this requires the highest level of critical thought.
As I had promised, this has been a long post, 😊 and so far I have only talked of the ‘what’ --- what the skills making up Bloom’s Taxonomy are. Subsequent posts will talk of the ‘how’ --- how can we use these skills in teaching and in everyday life, and how to teach these skills to others --- both in the classroom as well as perhaps in our own homes and workplaces.
Do write in with questions and clarifications. Tell me what you think about the connections I have made and keep this conversation going.