Standards Opinion

A Taxonomy Is Not a Sequence

By Chris M. Worsnop — October 15, 2003 7 min read
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Losing our way in the standards-based curriculum.

Did you ever plunge into the middle of a new software program at the application level before putting yourself through the knowledge, skills, and comprehension stages of learning? Millions do, and they become competent software users through their own problem-solving. They find a software tool that they absolutely need, and then use the mistakes they make as learning opportunities. Essential knowledge and skill come from a colleague, or out of the help menu, or through trial and error, but rarely—in my experience, anyway— from the manual.

Eventually, comprehension blossoms, and competence results in the form of successful application. But did you ever wonder:

  • Would you have done better if you had read the software manual first instead of plunging ahead?
  • Having learned the software this way, would you have been able to answer a set of multiple-choice questions about it?
  • If someone had asked you exactly what skills you were trying to master at the time, could you have explained?
  • Would you have been able to demonstrate your ability to perform applications in the software?

Try thinking of education as a field filled with hundreds of stakes driven into the ground. Imagine, too, that the student’s job is to work his or her way across the field gathering up the stakes before reaching the other side. Why would we require all students to journey across the field in the same way? Why would we insist that all students should gather the stakes in the same order? Why should we assume that all students should reach the other side of the field with a full set of stakes? Why would we forbid some students to go to the far reaches of the field—or even into the next field—if they still had some stakes to pick up near the start?

How many adults do you know who would still be languishing in the lower grades if they were compelled to be perfect at, say, spelling or algebra before moving on? Do you have your own secret personal educational gap?

In the modern fashion of defining curriculum by lists of “standards,” it is quite common for the standards to focus very strongly on skills and knowledge. Pages and pages of separate items are listed and sequenced to guide both the development of classroom programs and the assessment of student performance. Publishers thrive on the textbooks they manufacture to match these lists. Corporations make fortunes out of developing, administering, and marking tests that are fine-tuned to reflect these lists and sequences of knowledge and skills. The futures of students and teachers are often decided on the basis of the results of these tests.

The school system makes a basic error of understanding when it organizes curriculum in a manner that puts knowledge and skills in a ‘me first’ position.

Yet many of the states and provinces that support the use of standards- based curricula also make strong statements that they do not want the standards or the tests to unduly influence the way teachers actually conduct their classrooms. They point to the more general statements that precede the standards, and encourage schools and teachers to embrace imaginative learning and teaching practices, rather than the drills that pay off best on the tests.

There are two problems here.

First, school authorities are telling teachers to “do as I say, not as I do” when they say they want progressive teaching, yet continue to use the tests and to put so much store in their results. Second, the whole school system is perpetrating a basic error of understanding when it organizes curriculum in a manner that puts knowledge and skills in a “me first” position.

When knowledge and skills are given the “me first” position, the organizers mistake Benjamin Bloom’s famous Taxonomy of Educational Objectives for a sequence. A taxonomy is only a classification system. In Bloom’s case, the classifications describe different kinds of learning.

Remember how it goes? Here’s a refresher, with Bloom’s terminology followed by a plain-language explanation:

  • Knowledge (Information: stuff you can know about things)
  • Skill (Manipulation: some little thing you can do)
  • Comprehension (Understanding: being able to explain something in your own words)
  • Application (Practical use: doing a real-world task)
  • Synthesis (Combining: putting things together in ways that fit; finding patterns)
  • Evaluation (Judging: making critical and appreciative conclusions)

Bloom’s taxonomy is organized in a hierarchy. It moves in complexity from easy to hard. Getting factual knowledge needs little more than memory, while critical evaluation involves a lot of complex thinking and mental processing. Such an organization makes sense. What does not make sense is the assumption that there is only one route to complex thinking: the route that begins with systematic instruction in knowledge and skill. A hierarchy is no more a sequence than is a taxonomy.

Go back to the example of software learning to see what I mean. The task of problem-solving your way through software begins at the application level and moves to synthesis as you try to gather enough pieces together to make understanding (comprehension). Your target is not knowledge and skills, but successful application. You begin with unsuccessful application and figure out which bits of knowledge and which discrete skills you need to make it successful. Your purpose is not to learn knowledge and skills, but to get a job done.

Trying to teach or learn knowledge and skills without a purpose other than passing the test seems to me an exercise in frustration.

Standards (or benchmarks, or expectations, or outcomes) have often concretized the assumption that instruction and learning must pass through a knowledge-and-skill phase before advancing to any other level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Some sets of standards scarcely mention anything more complex than knowledge and skill. The message teachers get—from the standards and again, in spades, from the tests—is that the knowledge and skills are either the entire curriculum, or that teaching must emphasize knowledge and skills above and before all other things. More, the message is that the only teachers who can be trusted are the ones whose students score high on the tests of knowledge and skills. Teaching knowledge and skills through problem- solving or realistic and motivational performance tasks becomes an unreasonable risk for teachers anxious for their jobs.

Doesn’t it make better sense to think that knowledge-and-skill learning accompanies learning elsewhere in the taxonomy rather than preceding it? Isn’t having a purpose for learning the single most important part of learning itself? Trying to teach or learn knowledge and skills without a purpose other than passing the test seems to me to be an exercise in frustrating education rather than facilitating it. Surely, the learning that is “more than the sum of its parts” is far more valuable than the parts themselves.

I have a very vivid personal memory of the process I went through in learning the meaning of the expression “metaphor.” From about the age of 8, I was able to parrot off a definition of metaphor, thus:

“A metaphor, unlike a simile, is a comparison of two things without the use of ‘like’ or ‘as.’ A metaphor describes one thing in terms of the other. Two examples are:

'The moon was a ghostly galleon Tossed upon stormy seas.'"

This definition, with its two examples, got me full marks on many a test and examination from the age of 8 to 15. But I didn’t really know what a metaphor was. Then the penny finally dropped and I developed a

for metaphor. The concept emerged from my own life experience, not from textbooks. The definition I had known for years then became useful and meaningful for me. Previously, it had merely been a bit of memory work. (The chief skill involved had been the skill of getting marks.) Knowledge did not lead me to comprehension, but became relevant only in retrospect.

Good teachers know all about this. They have seen the light of learning go on in the eyes of their students, not as a result of a worksheet of questions and activities based upon a solitary skill or piece of knowledge, but because of an insight that connects things into a meaningful whole. The whole might be a concept or a competence, but I guarantee that it involves understanding and applying rather than mastery of separate bits and pieces. These teachers know that the best thing they can do for their students is to try to provide moments of insight, but they are very lucky if they work in a location where enlightened testing practices reward this kind of teaching, or where official interpretation of the purpose of standards leaves room for teachers to practice their profession to its fullest extent.

Good education is jeopardized when taxonomies are mistaken for sequences.

Chris M. Worsnop is a consultant, writer, and speaker who specializes in media education and assessment. His books include Screening Images: Ideas for Media Education (2nd edition, 1999) and Assessing Media Work: Authentic Assessment in Media Education (1996). He lives in Mississauga, Ontario, and can be reached by e-mail at worsnop@pathcom.com.

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