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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Bloom’s & SOLO ‘Are Not Just Colorful Posters We Hang on the Wall’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 07, 2017 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are practical ways teachers can use “taxonomies” like Bloom’s and SOLO - and should we?

In Part One, Meghan Everette, Dr. Rebecca Stobaugh, Dr. Sandra Love, Michael Fisher, Susan M. Brookhart, Howard Pitler, and Tony Frontier contributed their advice. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rebecca, Meghan and Michael on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Tan Huynh, Russel Tarr, Laura Greenstein, Dr. Eric Jabal, Erik M. Francis, and Andrew Miller share their ideas. I’ve also included a comment from a reader.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:

Education taxonomies such as Bloom’s and SOLO are not just colorful posters we hang on the wall. They are how I frame my approaches to differentiation and scaffolding. Additionally, they serve as effective formative assessment tools. Because these taxonomies categorize thinking, they offer practical ways to meet ELLs’ needs.

Differentiating with Taxonomies

Planning with Bloom’s is like working out in the gym. Pretend that you are a physical trainer; Each client has different skill sets and needs a personalized plan. One client needs to develop better form, so you have them use machines to guide their movements. Another client has mastered form, so you offer dumbbells to provide more creative exercises. Similarly, planning with Bloom’s allows teachers to think about offering different learning experiences that align to a particular skill set. Take for instance a science teacher who wants to differentiate instruction for his ELLs. For his students who are still trying to Understand concepts, he might design an activity where ELs draw diagrams to visually explain concepts. ELs who already possess this level of understanding are asked to Create a lab experiment to test a hypothesis. These students are taking knowledge they have already internalized and applying it to new situations.

To differentiate learning experiences, use the thinking verbs at different levels of Bloom’s to construct the objective for each learning experience. This format is structured as:

“students will be able to [verb from Bloom’s] by [learning experience]”

Scaffolding with Taxonomies

Bloom’s can also be used to scaffold instruction because the categorization clearly defines the thinking at each level. If teachers can identify students’ level of thinking, then instruction can be scaffolded to meet their individual needs. Returning to the science example, the teacher has to determine what language is needed to help students Understand concepts. Vocabulary is often the key to helping students understand, so direct vocabulary instruction is required at this level. For students at the Create level, prediction-making language is needed. The science teacher, therefore, can offer a sentence stem such as: If..., then...because....

To scaffold using Bloom’s, determine the language needed to process and communicate at each level. Create scaffolds that support the language demands to be proficient at each level of thinking.

Using Taxonomies to Assess Learning

Bloom’s also serves as an assessment tool when the data gathered from a formative assessment shapes the learning activities. Lets use the science teacher example again. The teacher ultimately wants ELs to independently design a lab experiment, but first, he wants students to create one collaboratively with people from their table groups as a formative assessment. He notices that some ELs are struggling to successfully create one even with the support of classmates. His formative assessment of ELs’ knowledge reveals that they lack understanding of key concepts such as independent, dependent, and controlled variables.

With this data, he knows they are stuck at the Understanding phase, but the learning experience is at the Applying phase. He’ll have to reteach these students conceptual language before they can be expected to apply it to designing their lab experiments.

To use Bloom’s as a form of assessment for learning, clearly identify the cognitive skills of each activity and be prepared to push ELs to the next level if they demonstrate mastery or scaffold if they are showing signs of frustration.


Because ELs come to us with a wide range of language mastery, using taxonomies such as Bloom’s supports differentiation, scaffolding, and assessment. We can and should use these taxonomies because when teaching moves from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to a more personalized style of instruction, then students become the center of our focus and not just a program or a curriculum.

Response From Russel Tarr

Russel Tarr is head of history at the International School of Toulouse in France. He is also the author of www.activehistory.co.uk and www.classtools.net and organises the Practical Pedagogies Conference:

The danger of taxonomies in education is that they can be seen as providing a rigid hierarchy of skills and associated teaching methods which in actual fact have little place in a fluid classroom setting. Moreover, it is too easy for teachers to get distracted by comparing the relative merits of different taxonomies and ending up more confused than clarified in terms of how to pursue their classroom practice. Nevertheless, if looked at from a purely pragmatic angle, there are some great ideas that can be cherry-picked from various taxonomies and tried out with your classes.

One example of how a taxonomy has informed my own teaching practice comes from a brief training session I had several years ago about SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes). This appealed to me firstly on a theoretical level: as a history teacher as the levels of understanding it refers to (for example, the ability to describe, then the ability to explain, then the ability to evaluate) closely matches the development of historical thinking. More importantly, however, I was attracted to the idea of using “SOLO Hexagons” to develop these skills. Put simply, this approach involves providing students with key pieces of information on hexagons. Their job is to organise these into categories of their choice, with hexagons being placed adjacent to each other to highlight links between the factors described. These groups are then glued down onto sugar paper and then the diagram is developed with titles being written over each category, and arrows being used to connect the different categories and to chart a ‘path’ through the diagram. The annotations over these arrows ultimately provide the opening topic sentences for each paragraph in the essay that will be the concrete outcome of the activity.

The hexagons approach can be developed in a variety of ways, for example, students can be provided with a blank sheet of hexagons (preferably in a different colour) and challenged to add at least one further point in each of their categories from further research; the class could also be given (or asked to find) some primary source extracts (written or visual) to add alongside some of the categories they have developed.

This ‘SOLO Hexagons’ approach works very well. It steers students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helps them frame categories of analysis and build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provides them with the opportunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors - contributed either by the teacher or the students - which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick!

Response From Laura Greenstein

Laura Greenstein’s passion for assessment and evaluation is evident in her work as an author, school leader, professor and school board member. She is the author of three books: Sticky Assessment (Routledge, October 2016), Assessing 21st Century Skills (Corwin 2012), and What Teachers Really Need to Know about Formative Assessment (ASCD):

Assessing Across Taxonomies

Intentional use of learning taxonomies in classroom assessment is both relevant and worthwhile. Whether you prefer Bloom’s, SOLO, or DOK doesn’t matter. What does make a difference is the deliberate and accurate alignment between the learning intentions and their assessment.

Lower levels of the taxonomies, such as knowing and understanding, are typically assessed with selected choice and completion questions in which students identify, select, paraphrase, or describe.

It is also feasible to assess these foundations of learning while simultaneously boosting students towards higher levels of learning. For example, when solving a math problem, critiquing a science experiment, or evaluating a solution to a community’s water problems, students incorporate selected content vocabulary in their multistep strategy or analysis.

If the learning objective is to develop or defend a theory or hypothesis, students can display this on a T-chart that sequences levels of the taxonomy on the left and illuminates their achievement on the right. In addition, reliance on assessment blueprints, maps, and progressions confirms that the learning intentions are clear and purposefully assessed (Sticky Assessment, pp. 14-25).

When the generation of original ideas is the aim, students can describe the ways they relied on the creative elements of elaboration, flexibility, and originality. (Assessing 21st Century Skills, pp. 74-84). I once heard a fourth grader calculate and describe multiple ways to get to school. He then explained that his design of a drone-lift would appeal to even the most reluctant learners.

Here are a few guidelines for keeping the focus on students and while assuring coherence between assessment and diverse learning outcomes:

PURPOSEFUL: The course of assessment and use of data guides practice.

Be sure the vocabulary in the question or task aligns with the intended learning outcome. For example, an evaluation question should require students to critique an editorial or justify their advice to a character. Synthesis relies on well-developed digital literacy skills in order to authenticate research and coalesce ideas into measurable results. These outcomes are then assessed by self, peers, and teacher using deconstructed and analogous rubrics.

INFORMATIVE: For both the teacher and the student.

Assessments reveal incoming knowledge, growth during learning, and attainment of learning targets. Valuable insights into thinking are gleaned by giving students wrong answers to rectify before, during, and after learning. If common misunderstandings persist, whether it is the order of operations, plot development, or evaluation of source material, they become teachable moments (What Teachers Really Need to Know About Formative Assessment pp. 102-115). As an added benefit, the visibility that emerges when students track and modify their own learning promotes a growth mindset.

STICKY: Assessment motivates, engages, and empowers students.

Sticky assessments put students at the center. They are undertaken with, not just delivered to, students. These assessments capture their interest, serving as the glue of learning. Flexible and personalized practices such as choice boards, increase student ownership and accountability. Stickiness is increased when students are goal setters, planners, and monitors of learning. At the heart of stickiness are non-cognitive skills and dispositions such as self-regulation, curiosity, and metacognition that can and should be included in everyday learning.

Taxonomies are the thread that binds together core learning with higher and deeper thinking.

Response From Dr. Eric Jabal

Dr. Eric Jabal is Secondary Principal of a bilingual (Chinese-English), K-12 MYP/DP International Baccalaureate school in Hong Kong:

Good teachers use an array of organizers to be competent and confident practitioners. But unlike charts or checklists, webs or diagrams, taxonomies organise by breaking down information, often hierarchically, to describe, identify, and classify. Taxonomies both systematize and help to conceptualise. In the case of Benjamin Bloom’s time-tested taxonomy of educational objectives, it provides a common language to make the complex simple(r) and guide how curriculum planning, learning activities, and student assessments might interface to achieve intended thinking/learning outcomes. What are some practical ways teachers might use Bloom’s in the classroom?

Bloom’s taxonomy characterises learning into six cognitive domains: 1) Knowledge 2) Comprehension 3) Application 4) Analysis 5) Synthesis 6) Evaluation. Usefully, Bloom’s can be used to show how intended learner actions (e.g. to argue) link to a learning activity(e.g. to debate). It makes visible how learner actions + learning activity = learning outcomes (e.g. to evaluate ideas from set stimuli texts) that cut across the six domains. As illustrated, Bloom’s explicitly frames teaching within learners’ prior learning (domains 1, 2). Learning builds on existing knowledge through practice of relevant knowledge and skills (domain 3). The debate activity, which entails higher-order thinking/learning (domains 4, 5, 6), challenges participants to accept or reject different perspectives, as well as to offer their viewpoint. So applied, Bloom’s breakdown maps the teaching for increasingly sophisticated thinking/learning skills to be cultivated across the six cognitive domains. Not surprisingly, given such heuristic and practical power in the classroom, the International Baccalaureate subject guides use Bloom’s taxonomy to group, according to their cognitive complexity, the IB Middle Years Command Terms and Diploma Programme assessment objectives (IBO, 2010).

In sum, taxonomies are generative tools for teachers to use when planning curriculum, differentiating instruction, and assessing. The clear and common language of a high-quality taxonomy such as Bloom’s makes for a practical and powerful learning/thinking framework in the classroom. Taxonomies can make the intended teaching and learning, processes, and outcomes more visible for students and teachers alike - important features of intentional, transparent, and accountable schooling.

International Baccalaureate Organization. (2010). Command Terms in the Middle Years Programme.

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD. He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards:

Taxonomies are effective for categorizing the levels of thinking students are expected to demonstrate. They provide a clear guide or map as to how students move from demonstrating learning at one level to a higher level. The drawback of taxonomies such as Bloom’s or SOLO is that they unintentionally rank levels of thinking as good and bad.

For example, in Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, remember is often considered to be “bad” because it’s lower level while analyze, evaluate, and create are “good” because they are higher up on the taxonomy. Taxonomies should be fluid, not restricted. Cognitive rigor as developed by Karin Hess, Dennis Carlock, John Walkup, and Ben Jones allows for more fluidity in planning and providing instruction and assessment in that they superimpose Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy with Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to categorize the level of thinking students are expected to demonstrate and designate the depth of knowledge students are expected to communicate as part of a learning experience.

However, Webb’s DOK Model is not a taxonomy. The levels act as ceilings, designating the context in which students are expected to transfer and use what they are learning. Are they expressing knowledge about the subject (DOK-1)? Are they showing how the subject can be used to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, or analyze texts and topics (DOK-2)? Are they sharing how and why they can transfer and use the subject to attain and explain answers, outcomes, results, and solutions (DOK-3)? Are they extending their learning by examining and investigating what else can be done or how else could they use the subject (DOK-4)? These levels, however, do not build upon each other. Instead, they designate the context -- the scenario, setting, or situation -- in which students will demonstrate their thinking. That’s why teaching and learning for cognitive rigor is effective. It’s flexible and fluid, and what is “bad” is when teaching and learning only stays at one level of the DOK model.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is an instructional coach and educational consultant who focuses on project-based learning, assessment and student engagement. He is on the faculty for both ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. He is the author Freedom to Fail and also writes regularly for Edutopia and ASCD:

Taxonomies can be a powerful when linked to and used for the purpose of assessment. When creating performance tasks for example, teachers align them to standards and unpack the standards for powerful verbs, many of which are higher up in the taxonomies. What does this mean? It means that the major assessments we design or co-design wither students must focus on those verbs and levels of thinking. If a standard has the “word” analysis, then the corresponding assessment needs to demand that.

However, the focus shouldn’t end there. It’s important that we formatively assess along the way and adjust instruction as needed. We can use taxonomies to design incremental formative assessments that focus on verbs and thinking skills that are at different levels, not just the “top” of the taxonomies. Before we assess for analysis, we can and should assess for identification, inference and more. We can create assessments that build on each other, like a staircase of complexity, to create a cognitive scaffold for students that prepare them for great critical thinking.

Reader Response

Becky Shiring:

I absolutely think we should be using taxonomies when thinking through our lessons and in fact, even though I’m not in the classroom anymore, I use Bloom’s almost everyday in planning PD sessions. However, I don’t think the specific taxonomy, whether it’s Bloom’s, Webb’s DOK or SOLO, is particularly important. Different structures make sense to different people. The important thing is that they are being used to plan for and assess different levels of thinking in a lesson.

By the way, allowing teachers to use taxonomy tools of their choice to arrive at the same outcome is a wonderful example of personalized learning in professional development! I think it’s actually quite common for educators to have theoretical knowledge of structures like Bloom’s (I could recite it in my sleep!) but not know how to use them in a practical way.
Personally, I find tools that align levels of thinking to classroom questioning very helpful. I have this exact chart stuck up on my wall (it doesn’t reflect the updated Bloom’s but is still relevant and useful). As I am planning, I use this guide to develop my essential questions and also to help scaffold my level of questioning from start to finish so my students are successful in answering these essential questions. If I’m stuck in a creative rut, the actions and outcomes section of the chart helps me generate ideas for achieving my lesson goals

Thanks to Tan, Russel, Laura, Eric, Erik, and Andrew, and to readers, for their contributions!

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