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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Use Learning ‘Taxonomies’ in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 04, 2017 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

Most teachers are aware of various kinds of taxonomies that categorize different levels of questioning and learning. Bloom’s is probably the most famous one, but there are others like SOLO and Webb’s.

This two-part series will examine how they can be used in the classroom, along with ways they can be mis-used.

Today, Meghan Everette, Dr. Rebecca Stobaugh, Dr. Sandra Love, Michael Fisher, Susan M. Brookhart, Howard Pitler, and Tony Frontier contribute 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.

I’ve used Bloom’s extensively in the classroom - both in planning lessons and in direct instruction about it with students.

You can read about my lessons with students at Why Is It Important For Students To Learn About Bloom’s Taxonomy? and at “Are Harder Questions Better Than Easier Questions?” - A New Activity.

You can find more extensive resources at The Best Resources For Helping Teachers Use Bloom’s Taxonomy In The Classroom and at The Best Posts & Articles About Asking Good Questions.

Now it’s time for contributions from today’s guests:

Response From Meghan Everette

Meghan Everette is a K-6 math teacher in Utah and an ASCD Emerging Leader. She is a Scholastic Top Teaching blogger and you can read more of her work here. Follow Meghan on Twitter @bamameghan:

Bloom’s taxonomy, and “new Bloom’s” have so permeated teacher preparation, planning, and professional development that the entire concept has taken on celebrity status; Bloom’s has joined the ranks of Madonna and Elvis in being a one-word entity that sums up an entire methodology. But just like those mega-stars, Bloom’s is not immune from late-life scrutiny consisting of unprofessional binges and blatant overuse.

The premise of Bloom’s taxonomy is good; it provides framework for deep critical thinking through planning using a simple shift in verbiage. When I once required my students to list vocabulary words, I might now ask that they create with them. They have depended their task and understanding dramatically because of a shift in verbiage. But have they?

Bloom’s, and other taxonomies, are a tool. Like most tools, the way they are implemented is of vast importance. Consider a teacher that hangs Bloom’s taxonomy on their classroom wall. Why? Witnessed in many classrooms, this structure is meant to aid in planning effectively, not as a student reference. The teacher plans a lesson and activities, then references the “better” levels of verbs offered by Bloom’s, and changes out a few in the lesson plan accordingly. The lesson is not changed, the intent is missed, and the quality of student activity remains the same and this is why Bloom’s gets a bad rap.

To be truly powerful, the teacher must shift their paradigm. Instead of planning and throwing verbs at a page, the taxonomy must serve as a reference before ever creating a lesson or activity. As I think of my students learning the area of a trapezoid, I could ask them to recall or state the area formula. I could ask them to solve various area problems, pushing them to application of the skill. Or, I could give them a trapezoid and ask them to develop the formula for area themselves, going so far as to prove their theory works every time. Ah, now we have the power of Bloom’s. I can take my planning as an educator from a place of teacher-directed, student-recall and shift to a powerful learning experience where students are the constructors. What’s key is that the ideology is applied before deciding upon a task and letting the taxonomy drive the lesson creation.

Consideration has to be allowed for where students are in their learning process and what the teacher wants students to learn. Like any good lesson, teachers have to bear in mind the desired student outcomes. Many teachers see a move up the Bloom’s ladder as better. Certainly, the Depth of Knowledge required at each level increases. Think again of learning the area formula. Leading with the highest depth of knowledge, construction, might lay a groundwork for students later being able to readily apply a formula contentiously. While application is a lower rung, it is ultimately a desired outcome. Similarly, teachers ready to teach theorems and proofs might only want students to be able to recall such a formula before setting off on a more difficult task. The idea that one level of task is “better” is a fallacy of Bloom’s. We desire high Depth of Knowledge from students and problem solving perseverance, but ultimately we want them proficient at all levels of thinking and application.

Is Bloom’s good? Is it bad? No taxonomies stand alone on the stage. The one-word celebrities are flanked with backup singers, musicians, and a bevy of advisors. Bloom’s cannot be credited, nor faulted, with the success or failure of a lesson, or of a teacher, yet it can be a powerful star that steals the show when applied correctly.

Response From Dr. Rebecca Stobaugh & Dr. Sandra Love

Dr. Rebecca Stobaugh is an Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University and has authored three books on critical thinking. She collaborates with Mentoring Minds to support teachers in integrating critical thinking skills into instruction. She is the author of Assessing Critical Thinking in High Schools, Assessing Critical Thinking in Elementary Schools and Real-World Learning Framework for Secondary Schools.

Dr. Sandra Love is the Director of Education Insight and Research for Mentoring Minds. Dr. Love has authored numerous articles and developed several educational resources on critical thinking and instructional strategies to help educators improve the teaching and learning processes:

Thinking frameworks like SOLO and Bloom’s Taxonomy help teachers analyze the level of student thinking in lessons and assessments. When critical thinking is embedded in classroom instruction, students experience a rich array of opportunities that inherently develop their capacity to process information on higher levels.

Teachers can use the taxonomies to evaluate their formative and summative assessments. They can identify the thinking level of each assessment item and reflect on the percentage of items that are higher level. Sometimes students successfully pass assessments; however, upon examination, all the items were remembering facts. While recalling facts can support critical thinking, assessing only low-level skills often leads to misalignment due to the higher-level expectations in content standards. Whereas work cultures emphasize students completing assignments, thinking cultures nurture students’ thinking skills (Ritchhart, 2002). Classrooms should encourage student questions and inquiries. Teachers can build lessons around questions, problems, and case studies to encourage active, experiential learning when students’ natural curiosities are awakened. Thinking classrooms are full of challenge opportunities, student choice, and tasks that pique students’ curiosity.

Teachers do not have to plan another lesson to increase the thinking level. With minor changes, teachers can easily boost the level of critical thinking. For example, a teacher has students read an informational selection and identify the reasons and evidence to support major points. To move the thinking level to the Evaluate level on Bloom’s Taxonomy, students could assess the quality of each reason or evidence. See Figure 1 for examples of higher-level task prompts.

Teachers and students can use question stems connected to higher-level thinking processes to formulate questions. Teachers often use question stems to plan higher-level questions for lessons. In addition, students can be given a copy of the question stems to develop their own questions for class discussion. Teaching students to compose quality questions, can support their content understanding and encourage self-inquiry. See Figure 2 for sample question prompts.

As schools integrate critical-thinking tasks, students are at different learning levels and need various levels of scaffolding. One way teachers can differentiate is based on a student’s readiness to learn. Tomlinson (2001) articulated, “Only when students work at appropriate challenge levels do they develop the essential habits of persistence, curiosity, and willingness to take intellectual risks” (p. 5). Tiered assignments are parallel tasks at varied levels of complexity and depth though the essential learning is the same. Lessons can be tiered by increasing the level of complexity. First, based on the content standards, identify the key learning that should occur with tasks. Second, use pre-assessment data to determine the learning needs in the classroom. The teacher then can adjust the content into two or three progressive levels based on depth and complexity. For example, three tiers might be Approaching Target, On Target, and Exceeding Target. Based on pre-assessment data, students could be assigned to groups with different tiered tasks, accommodating student readiness. The bottom tier might include reinforcement of content and more support while higher tiers would include students who have acquired basic understanding and need additional challenge. Try to develop more challenging tasks for the higher levels, not ones that simply require additional time. See Figure 3 for a tiered-learning task example.

Critical thinking is an important skill for all students to possess in order to successfully transition from high school to college and the workforce. Bloom’s Taxonomy and SOLO provide thinking frameworks to challenge students toward cognitively complex tasks. Understanding and applying these frameworks can improve the quality of classroom instruction.


Michalko, M. (2011). Creative thinkering. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Ritchhart, R. (2002). Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters and How to Get It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). Differentiated instruction in the regular classroom: What does it mean? How does it look? Understanding Our Gifted, 14, 3-6.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is an author and education consultant around Common Core, curriculum design, and contemporary learning. His books include Ditch the Daily Lesson Plan: How do I plan for meaningful student learning? (ASCD) and Digital Learning Strategies: How do I assign and assess 21st century work? (ASCD). His website is www.digigogy.com and he can be found on Twitter at @fisher1000:

Bloom’s, SOLO, Depth of Knowledge, Costa’s Levels of Questioning, and other thinking outcome hierarchies are all about increasingly sophisticated student learning. One of the trappings of standards-based curricular practices is not paying attention to these verbs when translating a standard into skills and instructional practice. Remember that standards are about student learning rather than teacher teaching. The standard is the benchmark for performance and the verb in a standard matters.

For example, students often have to identify characters in a story or describe the setting. Note the verbs, identify and describe. Both verbs involve lower level thinking but are necessary foundations for students who are interacting with and ultimately comprehending a text. The improvement zone here is to not let identify and describe be the only instructional actions. Students could compare and contrast different characters or settings (mid-level thinking). Students could evaluate a character’s decisions and the impact that decision had on advancing the narrative (mid-to-high level thinking). Or they could reimagine the text as a script that rationalizes how camera angles, lighting, costumes, or actor’s emphasis on delivered lines impacts a director’s intentions (high level thinking).

In “Hacking the Common Core” (x10 Publications, 2016), I wrote an entire chapter dedicated to the notion that teachers need to examine and analyze (mid-level thinking!) their currently documented curriculum to discover verbs that need an upgrade. This would invite conversations about sophisticated student thinking that pushes the boundaries of the original standards’ intentions or helps prepare students for success on any assessment, standardized or not. Upgrading the verbs in the skills that students are expected to learn actually helps teachers translate those learning expectations into meaningful instructional practices, because they offer a variety of opportunities to think and demonstrate that thinking at multiple levels.

I’d also like to add that this is not a linear model for sophisticated thinking. A teacher would not necessarily start with lower level verbs and work toward higher level verbs by the end of the school year. A rich and effective curriculum has varied opportunities for thinking at multiple levels all the time. That’s not to say that student outcomes or potential products may become more sophisticated over the course of a year’s worth of learning, foundations must still be laid, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude a teacher from pushing the students’ thinking at the exact moment that the opportunity arises to do so. This could be conversational and metacognitive--perhaps simply asking why do you think that or what evidence leads you to that conclusion?

Bottom line, thinking matters. The content matters too, but ultimately, the students are going to have to demonstrate both content knowledge and the thinking that they can do with that content knowledge. Content AND cognition are equal partners in instructional practice.

Fisher, Michael. “Upgrade The Verb.” Hacking the Common Core. Cleveland, OH: X10 Publications, 2016. 93-102. Print.

Response From Susan M. Brookhart

Susan M. Brookhart is an independent educational consultant based in Helena, Mont. She is an ASCD Faculty member and a senior research associate in the School of Education at Duquesne University. Her books include How to Design Questions and Tasks to Assess Student Thinking and How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom:

You see what you are looking for. Have you ever scoured your bookshelf to find that small, red book you wanted, to no avail, only to find it by chance a couple weeks later--because it really was a large, green book? Using a taxonomy in your teaching gives you descriptions of thinking to look for in your instruction and assessment. If you don’t use a taxonomy, you are more likely to overlook that feature, simply because you aren’t systematically searching for it. And that would be a bad thing, because the easiest kind of instructional activities and assessment tasks and questions to craft call for recall and retelling. This is what most people come up with by default, without deliberately using a taxonomy of thinking skills. And a steady diet of recall and retelling shortchanges students.

Many useful taxonomies of thinking skills (for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels, the SOLO taxonomy) exist, and in my view it doesn’t really matter which one you use. The point is that you do use a taxonomy to check all the activities, tasks, and questions that you set for your students, to make sure that they include higher order thinking and that they match the level of thinking called for in the standard or curricular goal you are teaching. Here are three practical ways that teachers can use a taxonomy of thinking skills for these purposes.

Prepare classroom questions. Prepare questions to use in class discussion ahead of time, at the same time you plan the rest of the lesson. Try to write at least one question for each level of the taxonomy you are using, emphasizing the higher end. These questions should require that students use the content knowledge they are learning, not just recall it. Quick tip for distinguishing “higher-order” from “not-higher-order” questions: Questions requiring higher-order thinking will have more than one good way to answer; recall questions will not.

Use a blueprint to create classroom tests. Before you write a classroom test, use a blueprint to plan it. Make a chart that shows how many questions (and test score points) you will have at each level of your taxonomy for each content objective. Then, before you write or select the questions, decide whether that breakdown of content and thinking skills is appropriate for the learning goals you are trying to test and includes a healthy dose of higher-order thinking.

“Upsell” retelling tasks to make them more substantial. We are all tempted to assign retelling tasks to students. From the infamous “poster assignments” (pick your favorite planet, state--whatever we are studying--and make a poster with facts on it) to longer “term paper” assignments that involve only regurgitation (look up everything you can find on one of the authors we read this term, and make a report), retelling assignments abound. Using a taxonomy will show this up for you, and when you do realize “oh my goodness, this is a retelling task,” revise it. For example, ask students to use facts about their planet to describe what they would need to do to live on the planet. Or ask your senior term-paper writers to craft a real research question about their author (“Why did Shakespeare use humor and puns, even in his tragedies, and what was the result?”)

Response From Howard Pitler

Howard Pitler is a facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at hpitler@gmail.com or on his website:

Is Bloom’s Taxonomy a good way to frame instruction in the classroom and are their better methodologies you should consider? The Bloom’s Taxonomy is like an old pair of jeans. It’s comfortable and you keep going back to it, even though you know there are a few holes that are growing and they are a tad too tight around the waist, but do you really understand the taxonomy? Many of us understand Bloom’s Taxonomy at the “remember” level. We know there are six levels and if pushed, we can even name most of them. We probably even have a nice chart with Bloom’s action verbs to help us write lesson objectives. Few have actually read the Taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom, et al, 1956) or the more recent “A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives,” (Anderson, et al, 2001).

There is an adage in educational research that says all models are flawed but some are useful. This is true of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Even in the original handbook the author wrote, “We were reluctantly forced to agree with Hilgard that each theory of learning accounts for some phenomena very well but is less adequate in accounting for others. What is needed is a larger synthetic theory of learning than at present seems available (p.17).” Still, there is value in the taxonomy. If it serves to remind teachers to always strive to build units of instruction to include the skills of analyzing, evaluating, and creating then the taxonomy has value.

Possibly a more valuable tool for teachers is Costa’s Levels of Questioning for Avid. Those familiar with the Avid process know level 1 questions focus on information that is right on the page. Level 2 questions require the learner to read between the lines and interpret, and level 3 questions go beyond the text. A good primer on Costa’s Levels of Questioning is found on Schoolwires.

A similar questioning model is the Question - Answer - Response (QAR) strategy. This strategy identifies four types of questions - Right There, Author and Me, Think and Search, and On my Own. As instruction is being planned it is important to move beyond the right there and author and me questions and push students to higher levels of thinking.

Yes, all models are flawed by some are useful. The usefulness of Bloom’s, Costa, QAR, and others is to serve as a vehicle for both teachers and students to help move toward more critical thinking in the classroom. I was observing in an Avid classroom a few years ago and listened as students were discussing how they might frame a level 3 question over a text they were working with. I asked one young man if learning the different levels of questions helped him learn. He immediately answered yes because it made him think deeper. He then added, “We have been taught how to frame level 3 questions to help us grow as learners. I wish my teachers asked more level 3 questions.” Teachers, if you want better answers start by asking better questions.

Response From Tony Frontier

Tony Frontier, PhD is the author of the recently published Making Teachers Better, Not Bitter: Balancing Evaluation, Supervision, and Reflection for Professional Growth (ASCD) and an Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies in the College of Education at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI:

Suppose I told you that a student scored a 95% on a test. The student earned a high grade, therefore she must understand, right? Let me ask a different question; 95% of what? The inference I can make about student understanding will vary dramatically depending on the types of learning goals measured on the assessment.

Consider two different tests. Test 1 asked students to pick the correct definition of 20 vocabulary words. From this evidence, I can interpret the 95% to mean that the student can match nearly all of the words to their correct meaning. Test 2, on the other hand, asked students to engage in a complex set of skills that required students to make meaningful connections across content and concepts to generate a solution to a novel problem. From this evidence, I can interpret the 95% to mean a sophisticated understanding of content and concepts.

The example above reveals an uncomfortable truth, numerical evidence in the form of the percentage of items that are right or wrong actually reveal very little information about how well a student understands. In matters of assessment, it is all too easy to confuse precision with accuracy. Not all learning goals are of equal depth, rigor, and importance. Not all assessment items reveal student understanding.

For scores on assessments to provide accurate measures of understanding, we need to address some important questions. How do we ensure learning goals are of sufficient depth and complexity? How do we ensure assessment items measure understanding in a manner that is aligned to the depth and rigor of the standards? How do we discern among simple and sophisticated responses? A framework, such as the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) (Biggs & Collis, 1982), can provide teachers and students with a shared language to address these important questions.

The SOLO framework consists of five levels. First, content is new to students (pre-structural). Next, they begin to understand isolated terms and concepts (uni-structural) which are integrated among other terms and concepts (multi-structural). Next, this academic content is integrated into a systems-level awareness (relational) of how the content and concepts fit together. Finally, students can take these understandings and transfer them to novel situations to create unique solutions or insights that previously would have been beyond their grasp (extended-abstract).

The next time you enter assessment scores in your gradebook, ask yourself this question; What do these numbers actually mean? Understanding the distinction among learning goals, assessment items, and student responses as unistrictural, multi-structural, relational, or extended-abstract, provides a framework for teachers and students to describe their current level of understanding, what they are working toward, and how to close the gap between the two.

Thanks to Rebecca, Sandra, Meghan, Michael, Susan, Howard and Tony for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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