The Value of Debate

I end up not blogging as much as I’d like (once a week) because I have too many things to say and I wait until they are going to be perfectly articulated in a perfect post and it just never happens. This post was originally three different posts; one about Bloom’s taxonomy, one about rubrics and one about the project I assigned instead of a midterm test this year.  Any teacher can guess what happens and maybe why teachers have trouble participating in all the conversations about education…everything got messy and muddled together. In the end what actually happened was better than what I planned because this blog post is about Bloom’s, rubrics and the project I assigned instead of a midterm but more importantly it is about  how to disagree as teachers in civil and productive way.  Like good things often are, it was not what I planned or what I expected to come out of this post.  Why I should remind myself to blog more often is planning to write the blog post is what made me realize that the disagreements and discussion with a fellow teacher was the most valuable part of the process, and it got me through a tough week.  I was sick, it snowed a lot, we had delays and changes in schedules.  There were some disagreements with colleagues, midterms and grades were due and their was a general sense of malaise amongst the staff.  This post kept me optimistic and even made me happy to get back to teaching.

Daniel Sharkovitz (@earthbird on Twitter) is an English Teacher and the Department Head of the English Department of our high school. He is a bit of a living legend.  The kids refer to him as Shark.  He is high energy, high opinion and high standards.  Last year in my first year at the school I heard about his method of teaching students vocabulary and met with him to try to incorporate it into my science classes.  He was very helpful and we had a lot of great discussions.  As a high energy, high opinion person I appreciated talking with someone who is right there with me. I never feel like I am too loud, too obnoxious too opinionated or silly talking to Dan.  When Dan came into my class to work with them about the vocabulary methods last year we realized that Dan started teaching in 1979, the year I was born.

I don’t know how it started this year but Dan and I started talking about Bloom’s taxonomy and rubrics and he did not like either.  Dan gave me a few articles with some explanations he supported criticizing both, (see why I love this guy.)  Dan came to talk to me when he was just starting out on Twitter and I showed him how I used and loved it (lifelong learner).  He was interested in my blog so so after he shared the articles with me I promised Dan a blog post as homework on my thoughts. My own learning style is read, highlight summarize so that is how I started.

Blooms Taxonomy 

I read Brenda Sugrue PhD from October 2002.  Dr. Sugrue “summarizes the criticism (of Bloom’s) and presents two alternatives strategies for classifying objectives in order to design appropriate instruction and assessment.”  Since I was using Bloom’s to design projects for my students and to assess them it was a great place to start.  Below I summarized some of the key points and respond.  I used a lot of quotes since I wanted to make sure not to distort Dr. Sugre’s views and mash them with my own.

Invalidity

Dr. Sugrue argues that Bloom’s is 50 years old and has not evolved with current research.  She says that the levels “are not supported by any research on learning.  The only distinction that is supported by research is the distinction between declarative/conceptual knowledge…and procedural knowledge.”  As a cognitive psychology/science geek I really had to think hard about this one.  My first instinct was “I don’t care.”  Teachers can easily (and sometimes rightfully so) dismiss researchers as out of touch and irrelevant. However, I would hope one day that teachers are more in step with educational researchers.  This sounds funny but my favorite cognitive scientists is Daniel Willingham and he wrote a whole book, one of my favorites, about how teachers should be accessing the research from Cognitive Science in our classrooms (“Why Don’t Student’s Like School?  A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom”).  His book was the inspiration for this blog.  So not caring seemed a bit of a cop out to say the least.  First I tweeted Willingham this questions.  He needed more clarification than 140 characters could provide so clearly this not an open and shut topic in his eyes. I did a Google Scholar search.  It turns out that in the 1990’s Dr, Lorin Anderson, a former student of Bloom’s, led a group to update the taxonomy to make it relevant to the 21st century.

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This group changed the nouns to verbs and moved some of the levels around.  I was trying to keep an open mind but if a one minute Google Scholar search reveals this I think its hard to image that these levels aren’t supported by ANY research.  Dr. Anderson was on the faculty at the University of South Carolina from 1973 to 2006.  He is now a retired professor emeritus.  Its hard to believe that in that time he wasn’t conducting any ongoing research.  He authored or edited 17 books, contributed chapter to 18 books and is the author or co-author of 37 journal articles.  That seems to indicate some reliability and with the fear of looking lazy I will admit this is where I stopped. If I wasn’t a classroom teacher I might have the time or energy to look a bit more into this but as far as use in my classroom I think this research has reached my bar of validity and reliability.

It was hard not to share this with Dan immediately.  It was with this I realized the most important part of this blog post is not about rubrics or Bloom’s taxonomy (although I still have some more to say so stay with me here).  What is most important is that two professional teachers have strong, differing opinions and we can discuss them passionately and joyfully while learning from each other all the time. If we lose this ability in schools, in districts, on Twitter, in blogs, in school committees and in the larger political realm than think of all we are missing.  The nuances and discussion are harder and messier but as classroom teachers that is where we live.  Our world’s are not about making controlled experiments they are about meeting students where they are and that place is often messy and difficult. We have to hang on and speak up about the nuance. Its harder but we cannot give up.  

Unreliability and Impracticality

Dr. Sugrue argues that there is not way to consistently apply Blooms in instruction and assessment.  She proposes that it would be more reliable to “separate objectives and practice/assessment items into those that elicit or measure declarative/conceptual knowledge from those that elicit or measure task performance/procedural knowledge.”  I agree with Dr. Sugrue on this one.   Consistency in teaching is difficult and I would argue a dangerous goal to achieve.  Teachers are not (nor should they be) robots. Teaching is very personal and subject to any one teacher’s personality.  The biggest argument against teacher reform is that it tries to make all teachers the same and does not account for individual differences among students. The best solution to this problem I have seen is to have teachers make their own application of the levels visible to their students, colleagues and administrators.  You may not resolve the unreliability but in small groups (two teachers teaching different sections of the same class) you can negate its negative effects.  I find the unreliability worth it. When students are just beginning to do work in the higher conceptual levels (analyzing, evaluating, creating) or trying to get there I think they need more than two levels to guide their journey.

Dr. Sugrue also argues that Bloom’s makes “no practical difference in diagnosing and treating performance gaps.  Everything above the “knowledge” level is…treated as higher order thinking anyway, effectively reducing the taxonomy to two levels.”  As I described this is not how I used Bloom’s and I think students needs feedback on these distinctions for motivation and improvement.  This is especially true for students who tend to struggle in school and “live” in the attempting zone (60’s) rarely meeting or approaching standards.  At the conclusion of the midterm project I returned the students grade on each sections of the rubric as well as written comments for each section.  The students then completed a reflection on their project to help me improve implementation.  One question asked:

Decide which of the following is closest to your project/presentation and choose one below. Explain your choice and make sure to use examples of your work throughout.

  1. Explaining a topic
  2. Applying your understanding of a topic
  3. Analyzing the pros and cons of an issue or evaluating something critically
  4. Creation of something

Universally students were able to explain what their project did accurately.  In follow up to what they would do differently in the project some students explained that they would like to “create something” “make something” “paint”.  Their responses showed that the use of the levels helped them to see exactly where they were on this project and guide their future work.  As a teacher and not a researcher I would hardly call this rock solid data however I am hopeful that in future work these, guidelines, feedback and reflection will help to improve their use of both declarative/conceptual knowledge ( recall comprehension or understanding) and procedural knowledge (application and task performance).  These are the distinctions that Dr. Sugrue says are supported by research, reliable and practical.  I find that as a teacher only using two distinctions isn’t as helpful to me or the students.  I find Bloom’s useful and practical because it helps students see more with more clarity what the distinctions are between declarative/conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge.

I actually found responding to Dr. Sugrue’s gave me a better vision of what I really want from my students beyond their recall of content.  In fact I spend most of my time and energy as a science teacher trying to avoid endless march to cover content with little regard for depth of learning or acquisition of valuable procedural skills to enable application and performance.

This is as good a place as any to address the frequent criticism of rubrics that can be similar to the arguments about Bloom’s; they are too simplistic, too vague, do not allow for analyzing the true complexity of tasks.  Some of those things are true about SOME rubrics. Here is another chance to reiterate my hope that our discussion does not ignore nuance and complication.  I think well-written specific rubrics give students a vision of the many places a student can be on their journey to “meeting or exceeding the standards”. Although I think meeting the standard level should have the most detail its important to specify what approaching and beginning looks like as well.

Its Not Mutually Exclusive 

As I read Dr. Sugrue’s alternatives I find myself saying, as I do often, the use of Bloom’s is not mutually exclusive with these alternatives so really what is the harm in using it?  She proposes the following alternatives.

Content Performance Alternatives

The Content Performance Alternatives offers a description of the information to present (fact, concept, principle/rule, procedure and process) and how to remember or use the content type on a practice or assessment.  I find her table connecting the content type (fact, concept, principle/rule, procedure and process), what information to present for each and what the practice (remember) and assessment (use) looks like helpful and will incorporate it into my class.   However it does nothing to dissuade me from how I used Bloom in my own rubric and think they complement each other well.

Pure Performance Alternatives  

In the Pure Performance Alternative Dr. Sugrue suggests that students could be assessed on “the particular performance in representative task situations” such as having a loan officer distinguish between types of mortgages and describing the pros and cons of each.  This option seems interesting but not sure it is mutually exclusive with Bloom’s.  I would want to know if the loan office could merely explain the various loans or could he decide what was best for a particular client (apply) and then analyze and evaluate why the choice had been made and lastly create a loan agreement.  This would incorporate all levels of Bloom’s.

They need an entry point (explaining), a place to go (applying) and a place to to reach towards.  This is why rubrics for struggling learners are also valuable.  They distinguish and give concrete feedback and coaching.

I show this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_BskcXTqpM) which summarizes how students learn and some basic cognitive science to my students at the beginning of the school year.  I also show it at each quarter to guide their reflection on my teaching and whether I do these things in our class.  Some of Ned’s 8 such as “it stretches me”, “I have a coach”, “I think back on it” and “I plan my next steps” need or do better with a rubric. Within the rubric for my midterm project were the elements of Bloom’s.  I included the rubric below and look forward to feedback and comments on it.

Item and Criteria from Guide

Beginning (60-69)

Approaching (70-79)

Meeting (80-89)

Exceeding (90-100)

Prioritize, Plan and Manage for Results

Recognize a plan is necessary for managing a  task to meet a deadline.

Begin using the necessary steps to create plan to meet a deadline.

Create a plan and timeline and prioritize tasks in order to meet an assigned deadline.

Manage multiple tasks and critically review work to meet self-assigned deadlines.

Explore Ideas Creatively

Reproduce or restate familiar content.

Produce work that occasionally goes beyond familiar content.

Use information to produce new ideas and make connections.

Try approaches that result in connections beyond conventional subject boundaries.

Evaluate Solutions

Recognize with support that a given solution may need revision. Explaining content is an example of this level.

Recognize independently that a given solution may need revision. Applying your understanding of content is an example of this level.

Understand whether or not solution are sound and appropriate for a given context and revise as needed. Analyzing pros and cons and evaluating critically are examples of this level.

Understand critical factors that led to the success or failure of a solution. Creating new solutions to problems, new content or new technologies are examples of this.

Solve Complex Problems

Identify the problem and predict an outcome.

Understand a problem and begin to formulate steps to solve it.

Sequence steps to solve problems and create a solution.

Understand, utilize and evaluate different approaches to the problem.

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