Bloom’s Taxonomy

One of the more interesting vignettes from my recent conference was a seminar which introduced me to the amazing degree to which science education is a scientific field of its own. A major problem in teaching science, for example, is understanding whether your goal is to teach knowledge, or to teach understanding. The speakers highlighted this problem with a short video shot for PBS in which none of the cap-and-gowns at a Harvard graduation could correctly identify where the mass comes from when a seed grows into a tree. Most of the grads had taken enough biology to recognize the basic chemical reactions behind photosynthesis and respiration, but they had two things working against them. First, the misconception that air has no mass. Second, most classes don’t take the important step of turning knowledge into understanding. They may fit the overarching narrative into lectures, but they usually don’t test for it.

The psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1956) proposed an excellent way of ranking the intellectual level of a particular course, but the same logic can be applied to any sort of communication, including blog posts. Bloom’s Taxonomy has six levels:

(1) Knowledge
(2) Comprehension
(3) Application
(4) Analysis
(5) Synthesis
(6) Evaluation

This was a revelation for me on a number of levels. For one, I now understand how one of the best science teachers I ever had, freshman year in high school, did what he did. I also understand why some other students hated him like I’ve never seen anybody hate a teacher. The lowest Bloom levels take away any responsibility for the knowledge that you’re absorbing, which has the effect of boring the hell out of the intellectually curious and putting everybody else in a warm happy place. Knowledge of facts and dates and basic definitions may have fallen out of the sky for all the students have to care. Higher Bloom levels force you to evaluate for yourself whether information X is well-founded and accurate, which means that you can test well and still stand a decent chance of being wrong. You can find an amusing example of what I mean here.

You could say that I had a rudimentary grasp of Bloom’s work when I lectured in biochemistry this fall. A TA usually recaps the previous week’s lectures in a one-hour review, which struck me as pretty boring so instead I packaged the material into a real-world ‘problem’ for the students to work through. Prion diseases became a perfect illustration of how protein folding works, lipids gave me an excuse to indulge in my anti-margarine jihad (don’t get me started) and anybody who understands how the Atkins Diet works (and doesn’t work, if longevity is your goal) has metabolism and the Krebs cycle down cold. Without knowing what I was doing I was hovering around Bloom level three and pushing four. Pretty cool.

You can probably apply the same test to any sort of writing, including blog posts. My favorite online writers reliably score fairly high on the Bloom scale, meaning that they make an effort to integrate each news item into a larger narrative and that they evaluate both friendly and unfriendly developments with a critical eye. To pick a left and a right example, Carpetbagger and Tom Maguire both do an excellent job in that respect. My least favorites, Drudge being the most extreme example, repeat or reprint friendly info without much in the way of context or critical evaluation.

So how do your favorite writers fare? If you’re a teacher, and a surprising number of our readers are, how would you score your work, or that of your most/least favorite colleagues? Have at it in the comments.

My Turn For Meming

Looks like John has tagged me with the meme of fours. Read my answers in the extended text. To keep this moving I tag (more or less randomly) four of the great bloggers who hang out hereabouts: Confederate Yankee, Ron Beasley, Pooh and In Search of Utopia Anderson.

Four jobs you’ve had in your life: Summer-camp counselor, carpet machine operator, forklift driver (summer jobs), teaching assistant (grad school).

Four movies you could watch over and over: Contact, Fellowship of the Ring, Whale Rider, Spirited Away.

Four places you’ve lived: Boston, MA; Pittsburgh, PA; Colorado Springs, CO; Groton, CT

Four TV shows you love to watch: Daily Show, Firefly, South Park, SG-1.

Four places you’ve been on vacation: France, New Zealand, Ireland, Barcelona.

Four websites you visit daily: Carpetbagger, Kos, Josh Marshall, Boing Boing.

Four of your favorite foods: My wife’s stewed rabbit over fettuchine, Mexican-style wet burritos, habanero peppers with the seeds in, unagi (eel sushi).

Four places you’d rather be: The Sharp Edge Beer Emporium, New Zealand, a certain hacienda in the Sandia mountains of New Mexico, anywhere that you find vineyards.

Four albums you can’t live without: Yo Yo Ma, Cello Suites Inspired by Bach; The Battlefield Band, Happy Daze; Eliades Ochoa, Sublime Illusion; Various Artists, Reconquista: the Latin Rock Invasion.


It helps to check whether somebody’s already been tagged. Post in the comments if anybody else has gotten this more than once.

Time Flies

I am having a hard time believing the tsunami happened just a year ago.

It sure seems to me that even though an enormous amount happened this year, it was still a REALLY fast year. Just seemed to speed by.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

The 2005 Cole family Christmas Tree

Quick Question

I have a video in .avi format (and one in Xvid) that I want to burn so I can watch it in a DVD player.

What programs do I need (freeware preferrable), and how do I do it (please be explicit with the instructions).