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:
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.
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.