Welcome to the first of McGraw-Hill Education’s five-part series covering important educational influencers and theories that have helped shape learning science today. We are constantly examining how we learn in order to find ways to make the learning process better. However, it’s important to remember the learning scientists who came before us and pay homage to those outside-of-the-box thinkers that helped pave our path to present day learning.
Benjamin Bloom is the first of our influencers we are going to examine, including his two prominent theories: Bloom’s Taxonomy and the 2 Sigma Problem. But before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let’s learn a little bit more about Bloom himself.
We can learn more about Bloom from a biography written by Elliot W. Eisner. Benjamin Bloom was born on February 21, 1913 in Lansford Pennsylvania. As an adult, he pursued education, receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Chicago. Bloom’s first job as an instructor was in the Department of Education at the University of Chicago. He was appointed Charles H. Swift Distinguished Professor in 1970 and showed his interest in education through being an educational adviser to the governments of various nations, including Israel and India.
It was in 1956 when Bloom and his fellow researchers published their book, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1, the Cognitive Domain. In this book, we can find Bloom’s Taxonomy – a theory that has helped shape the way we categorize educational goals in the past and present. It is also a common example used in higher education to influence the development of learning objectives and help create assessment plans. Bloom’s Taxonomy has been seen to influence all levels of education, from k-12 through to higher education.
But wait – what is Bloom’s Taxonomy?
What Bloom did was break the idea of how we think – the ‘cognitive domain,’ which is where we develop our intellectual skills and store our knowledge – into six levels: evaluation, synthesis (creation), analysis, application, comprehension (understand) and knowledge. But there’s a catch: In order for a student to perform at the highest level, they must be able to understand and conquer the levels that precede it – a hierarchal order of cognitive processes!
As described by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, Bloom’s Taxonomy has led to the formation of clear objectives – for both students and teachers – and strategies that ensure all levels of the learning process are aligned to meet them. Teachers also benefit from the framework of the six levels by having an organized set of objectives to help plan and deliver instruction as well as assess work.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is best summed up by Eisner, “Bloom was interested in providing a useful practical tool that was congruent with what was understood at that time about the features of the higher mental processes.”
The key phrase in that quote is ‘at that time’ because in 2000, Bloom’s Taxonomy was revised by a new team of researchers. These new researchers refreshed Bloom’s theory by switching the hierarchical position of evaluate and create, as well as making the six levels into verbs (Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating).
The new team of researchers also dug a little bit deeper into Bloom’s ‘cognitive domain’ or, as they referred to it, the knowledge dimension. They called more attention to the importance of the original three elements of knowledge outlined by Bloom and added a fourth: factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive. Check out an interactive description of the revised knowledge dimensions and six levels, as well as examples of how they work together, here.
Although Bloom’s Taxonomy may be seen as his biggest influence in the realm of learning science, his 2 Sigma Problem has been seen to also have a large impact on learning today.
Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem took a look at how students learn by dividing them by three different conditions of instruction:
Conventional – A classic lecture style. Students are occasionally tested to determine if they have learned the material.
Mastery Learning – A classic lecture style in which students are occasionally tested. However, these students receive feedback on their tests and are subsequently tested again to understand when the students have mastered the subject matter.
Tutoring – Students receive individual tutoring. Students are tested, receive feedback and a small amount of corrective work, followed by more testing.
Bloom found that students who were exposed to a more tailored learning experience that included feedback, like in the master learning and tutoring groups, were more likely to achieve learning objectives as well as a higher grade average. The average of tutored students was about two sigmas (or grade letters) above students in the conventional group and 98% of these students outperformed the conventional group. It was also determined that the average of students in the mastery learning group was one sigma above the conventional group and outperformed them by 84%.
What can we draw from Bloom’s findings? Traditional teaching assumes that all students learn the same and can be equally compared and graded against one another. As Eisner points out, “There were individual differences among students, and the important thing was to accommodate those differences in order to promote learning rather than to hold time constant and to expect some students to fail.”
Herein lies the title problem of Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem: how can we find a cost-effective, easily adaptable way to provide tailored learning to all students?
In his paper, Bloom describes several ways that students can be encouraged to learn more effectively. One of these ideas, one that may be most relevant to students learning in our digital era, is the improvement of items like textbooks and technology.
Bloom suggested a possible move to incorporate more computer learning courses – a trend that is presently happening and gaining momentum in classrooms globally. Bloom said the success of these computer courses can be determined by time requirements, success rates, how students perform on given assignments as well as knowledge retention.
Bloom also thought the better the computer course the more confident students would be in their academic performance, enjoy the coursework and want to learn more.
As you can see, Benjamin Bloom was a progressive thinker in the educational realm who was truly interested in finding new and better ways to help students learn. Although he may not have been called a learning scientist during his time, today we can acknowledge that it is a title he certainly deserved.