Mixed Feelings on Taxonomies

Sometimes I worry that I’m starting to seem combative or difficult on here. I’ll try to keep the negative part of this short. Like with pretty much everything else in the world, I have pretty mixed feelings on learning taxonomies. On the one hand, I have to admit, a vocal part of me wants to withdraw from anything in education like this. When I hear people start to talk about Bloom’s Taxonomy, I assume they’re going to start throwing out buzzwords like withitness next. There’s nothing wrong with either one of those things, but there’s something about them that irks me and I feel the need to fight them.  Highly formalized structures meant to in any way categorize human behavior, learning, thoughts, etc. have traditionally fallen apart eventually. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 50 years people look back at Bloom’s Taxonomy the same we look at Freud now – as a good start, but, you know. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was still roaring and popular. Part of me really rejects the formalization, the “hard scientification” of the social  sciences – the fact of the matter is that there aren’t six levels of knowledge! Or whatever number your particular taxonomy uses. I know these are supposed to be useful tools but  I feel as though, with a lot of tools and “structures” that come out of psychology, education, and the social sciences in general, they greatly oversimplify the human condition. And that irks me. I guess. I know I’m just being difficult, but I feel the  need  to reject systems that try to classify thought.

My negativity out of the way, I do agree that these hierarchies are great for two things.

Despite my curmudgeonliness, they are useful.

The first is for writing objectives. I’ve been taught in about a dozen education classes by now how to write ABCD objectives. The objective…uh…wizard(?) we looked at this week is really cool. I know a lot of people have trouble writing great objectives. I’ve gotta admit it takes me a while to boil them down and get the verb I really want in there. I sometimes hear people say not to write objectives at the Knowledge level, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s useful to be able to stack objectives for a long unit, and using these learning taxonomies offers a good stepping-stool template for you. At the end of this post you’ll see  I think knowledge level objectives can be useful (note: this post is not very related to my unit – this is deliberate). Taxonomies and learning hierarchies, even if they’re oversimplified, are excellent for teachers because they allow you to plan out student learning in increments. It’s all very Vygotskyian (Vygotskyesque?) in its approach – you can push students towards increasingly higher levels planning your units and lessons around a very simple and easy to understand progression.

The second thing that these are good for is for teaching students to metacognate. There’s a teacher at the school I interned at last year who, at the beginning of the year, always teaches his classes about Bloom’s Taxonomy. Regardless of what subject he’s teaching. He very strongly recommended I do this. I kind of balked at the idea, thinking this was a “behind the scenes” thing that only really teachers needed to be concerned with. By the end of the school year I was singing a different tune. I was very impressed with the progress his students had made whereas my students (we taught the same class) hadn’t come nearly as far as his. Bloom’s Taxonomy, for his students, became a giant triangular can-do target for them to aim at. All of their work and writing was filtered through that lens. He would make them analyze it themselves – what level is this? What were you aiming for? What did I ask you to do and what did you actually give me? The students know, from the very start of the year, where they need to be at the end of every unit. They know the language they need to describe what they’re doing. They know how to critique other students’ work. And there is absolutely no way they can fudge what they’re doing. There aren’t a lot of  maybes  when you’re looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy. If you tell a student they need to hit  analyze  and they clearly only made it to  comprehend, well, then, you both know there’s more that needs to be done.

Here are my objectives and chart. The objectives were written using some verb help from the tools that Owen gave us this week. I tried to keep it broad, as I guess there’s an almost infinite number of smaller threads each path could take. It’s confusing, and broad, and with lots of weird connections, but, hey, that’s the humanities for ya. I think it does a fairly good job covering the basics. The map and these objectives are still relating to that large survey course I mentioned a few weeks ago.

My objectives are focused on high-school level students. I’m trying to build them through different levels of the taxonomy. If this is going to be a survey there’s a billion different things they could do. I’m very stuck on the  Synthesis  step though (I keep saying steps, I guess I like the rose better, so I should call it the  Synthesis petal)  as, to be honest, I’m not sure what that looks like in an online lit survey. Or, I guess I do know, but the ideas I’m having about it are things that I feel a little uncomfortable, as a white teacher, writing up as objectives / projects without feeling like I’ve overstepped my boundaries.


  1. At the end of this unit, students will be able to identify at least three traditional purposes of storytelling / orature within Alaska Native history and culture.  (Knowledge)
  2. At the end of this unit, students will be able to apply both Western and Indigenous methods of narrative understanding  to an Alaska Native narrative structure of their choice (a oral story, a dance, etc.) (Application)
  3. At the end of this unit, students will be able to compare and contrast the purposes of pre- and post-Western contact Alaska Native literature, focusing on two  text of their choosing from the same region. (Analysis)

My objectives are very writing-influenced. Go figure! I have somewhat standard writing rubrics I could  use for assessing objectives 2 and 3. However, I guess there’s no reason to assume these would have to be  written  since we’re focusing on projects. Still working out project-assessments for distance courses that aren’t written assignments. Any suggestions anyone has there would be appreciated!


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4 thoughts on “Mixed Feelings on Taxonomies

  1. Hi Nicholas,

    Great work. Your critique of learning taxonomies resonates with my thoughts on the subject. Learning is one of the most complex of all human activities, probably even more complex than love/attraction/romance. And we think we can summarize or categorize the variability into 6 facets, levels, petals? Not likely even close. In reality, the variability is probably infinitely complex and at best, these are crude attempts.

    However, I also agree with your reluctant admission regarding their utility. What does it say about education that many teachers, for generations of school children, never asked their students to go beyond basic foundation knowledge, as if memorizing anything was an end unto itself – and the holy grail of salvation was these very crude tools?

    Despite their gross even crude generalizations, learning taxonomies may be the savior of the modern world. Heh. I don’t really know if that’s true or not, but I think you’re correct in stating that there’s a huge amount of positive potential for evaluating one’s learning experience design.

    Your objectives are concise and measurable. I like your mind map. What tool did you use?

    Well done!


    1. Long week. Late reply. Sorry!

      I agree with everything in your reply…I’m not sure if learning taxonomies will be the savior of society. It would be fascinating though – imagine it. Sometime hundreds of years from now, historians are looking back at just what started the radical reformation of Western formal education in the 2000s and they look back at hierarchical and holistic learning and doing as the spark that changed the world. It could happen.

      The tool I used was Gliffy. It’s very cool and has a lot of options. I’d used it once before but that map was entirely linear, whereas this one was not. It’s a pretty cool tool (and I don’t like graphic organizers); I just wish it was better in the pricing. You can only save five maps as a free user. Bummer.

  2. Very well-articulated post Nicholas, as usual! I too have a hard time trying to cram complex things into a neat, pre-determined box. The huge variety of learning styles, experience, attitudes, and interest greatly impact how and why a student retains and processes information. And then there are varying degrees of effectiveness with actual teaching and motivation that further complicate things. That said, I still believe using a taxonomy as a guide when choosing objectives, assessments, and activities is far better than the alternative of following a textbook writers schedule and format or simply winging it based on a gut feeling.

    Your story about the teacher you interned with really jumped out at me. What a great way to include students in the bigger picture of learning. I believe students, like adults, are far more inclined to buy into an idea, activity, or a change if they are given some control in the process. We all have a desire to know “why” we are asked to do something. Typically, I think teachers rely on the “because I’m the teacher and I said so” approach. Visibly posting a taxonomy and explaining the concept may take much of the ambiguity out of the thing they’re asked to do, leading to students being more invested in the process because they can see the desired outcome as well as the progression to get there.

    For your assessment of #2. Because you’re asking them to apply learning, I wonder if they could develop a story or dance and actually perform it. Maybe they could use class time to design their project and video record the story or dance at home as an out of class assignment. I imagine there would be considerable reluctance to perform a dance in front of classmates and that may create bias or not accurately reflect actual learning. Just a thought, but probably oversimplified.

    Oh, and I really like how your concept map shows the interrelationship among many concepts. The Bubble.us program I used only allowed ideas to be connected in a linear way. The problem is that most ideas are very interconnected, and your map does a much better job of representing that complexity.

    Nice work!

  3. I liked the idea of teaching the taxonomy as well. Once they know it, the will always be able to analyze the depth of their own learners. In effect, becoming better learners as part of the assignment. A little nod to Fink there. I think the voice recording assignment is a great idea. Oral review of oral history. Could they create their own story designed to meet one or more of the traditional purposes of story telling and then compare and contrast their own creation with a traditional one? All of this could be done via recording.

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