Amadeus, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and How Students Learn

  • 2020-21
Amadeus, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and How Students Learn

Like everything else, education is subject to fashion. In my professional life as a teacher – now spanning over 30 years – I have seen many ideas come and go.

Some of the key ideas have revolved around three main theories:

  • behaviourism - the idea that children represent a blank slate, and education fills up this ‘tabula rasa’, with routines and habits that are learned and then repeated
  • cognitive theory - the idea that children don’t just passively receive information, they actively process it, using real-world examples to understand
  • constructivist theory - whereby learning is constructed from prior knowledge and developed through experience, by actively doing things along with others

Aside from these theories, there has been a focus on multiple intelligences (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic to name the main three), and the idea that each child has a preferred learning style; there was a trend for identifying and developing Gifted and Talented children, and more recently a focus on Assessment for Learning (the importance of written and verbal feedback) – and this is not even to mention theories of digital learning.

All of these ideas have their merits, but in my view none of them on their own represents the complete answer. Collectively they do, however, make available tools that teachers can use as part of a varied approach.

I am always a little sceptical about any new theory or system of learning, because I remember how the last one was supposed to be the ultimate answer, and it was not. Education is as much an art as it is a science. People are more complicated than ideas. And inspirational teachers are always more important than theories.

Still, one idea has stayed with me over the years and seems to make the most sense. It’s the one thing I haven’t changed my mind about. It’s what is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. (A taxonomy is an ordered list or way of classifying things.)

Most essay writing, most scientific laboratory reports, and most examinations generally conform to this model.

It was first proposed in 1956 and focuses on learning skills ranked in order of cognitive difficulty. 

The original hierarchy is as follows (knowledge being the lowest, evaluation the highest):

  1. Knowledge
  2. Understanding 
  3. Application
  4. Analysis 
  5. Synthesis 
  6. Evaluation

The first three represent what are generally called lower-order thinking skills.

Memorising facts as a means to knowledge is a less useful skill these days because facts are so freely available online (though of course students absolutely do need to acquire knowledge and then learn to distinguish between facts and opinions).

Understanding is key, and students tend properly to remember something only if first they understand it.

It’s said that we remember about 10% of what we hear but remember 90% of what we do, and so actively engaging and participating in, for example, scientific experiments (rather than merely watching them being performed) is essential to the application and development of deep learning. 

The final three (numbers 4, 5 and 6 above) are known as the higher-order thinking skills. It is these that can really distinguish merely good students from excellent students.

It takes maturity of thought to analyse and interpret things. A still more sophisticated skill is synthesis (seeing things in context, comparing and contrasting), while evaluation or making a judgement based on analysis is the most sophisticated skill of this hierarchy.

That’s why, in both an essay and a laboratory report, you need first the understanding, then the analysis in order to reach an evaluation at the end. Students are often happy to analyse but a little shy to make judgements about the value of a poem, the importance of a historical event, or the result of an experiment.

And yet to make a judgement is an instinct that most young people enjoy. If a group of children go to watch a film, they will emerge from the cinema (or living room) recalling the best scene, identifying their favourite character, say what they thought of the ending, and compare it with other films they have seen. It’s our job as teachers to cultivate this ability to evaluate and apply it to intellectual judgements.

There was, however, a major revision of the model in 2001 by Bloom’s original partner, David Krathwohl and his colleague, Lorin Anderson.

The main change was that the order of the top two skills was reversed. Synthesis was taken out of the list, and Creativity was added at the top, over and above Evaluation. And in keeping with the move towards verbs and away from nouns, ‘Remembering’ as a skill replaced ‘knowledge’. The updated taxonomy is as follows:

 

It’s probably easier to show you an example. So, let me illustrate the concept by looking at a short scene from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, made into a film and directed in 1984 by Milos Forman.

Please watch the clip here.

The young Mozart is welcomed to the palace by his eventual nemesis, Salieri. Salieri has written a rather ordinary ‘March of Welcome’ for Mozart, and the Emperor is pleased to play it as Mozart enters the court.

Mozart first remembers the music, understands how it works, and so is able to apply his understanding, quickly playing it off by heart. Then he begins to analyse the melody, evaluate its quality before creating his own brilliantly improvised version to the astonishment of the Emperor and the humiliation of Salieri.

The scene vividly illustrates the movement through Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning skills.

It serves to remind us how the skills of memory and understanding are essential foundation stones to then apply knowledge, before we can interpret, make judgements and ultimately create our own ideas, art works, experiments, formulae and theories.

It is these higher order skills we spend much time developing in our students at school. And, of course, these skills are transferrable.

In other words, creativity in the arts can also lend itself to innovative thinking and imaginative solutions in other fields, such as business, law, medicine, and engineering.

As parents you can help to cultivate the higher order skills in your children by asking them what they thought of a film, a book, or a game, perhaps inviting them to make comparisons, and then to speculate about what they might do creatively to make it better.

This is a more active and fun way to learn and doesn’t seem like ‘work’. Moreover, the practice does not need to end once a student leaves school. I still try to follow the method myself in an effort to remain creative.

It is a good way of maintaining your curiosity, enriching your existence, and developing the skills of learning throughout the whole of your life.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

  • Education