Thursday, July 11, 2013


Bloom’s Taxonomy, The Communist Manifesto, Phrenology, Unicorns, Lysenkoism, and Bigfoot


 

     The prosecution in the Zimmerman trial suffered a major blow when a key witness, a high school senior, showed she was unable to read cursive. Reading cursive used to be a skill taught in the 3rd grade, taking not all that much effort on the part of the teacher. But hey, the witness got passing grades, so she must have learned something more important, right?

     I’ve seen many a report on grade inflation (www.gradeinflation.com has pretty extensive statistics), and I have to admit grading is a bit of a puzzle. “A” is for “excellent”, “B” is for “good”, “C” is for “average”, “D” is for “poor”, and “F” is for, well, we all know that one. “Average” is something of a mathematical term, and it’s clear from the statistics that everyone in college nowadays is above average. Past that? I don’t really know what the words mean relative to each other, though I do the best I can, using the same grading system I was subjected to in school.

     One might hope that the supposed scholarly field of Education, after decades of research, would have something to say on grading and grades. They do.

     One might hope that Educationists say things about grading and grades that would be useful. They don’t.

     Unfortunately, college faculty are subjected to indoctrination of grading techniques that have little to do with anything anyone past the age of 30 saw in school. It’s a bizarre, esoteric method that I’m reluctant to show to the general public…but the public has a right to know just how insane things can get in college, and so here goes:

 

(Again, the faculty is gathered to hear an Educationist how to satisfy our SACS requirements, using the beloved Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning)

Educationist: “To show the college satisfies our core guidelines, we’ll need to set up five columns for each objective identified, organized by Bloom’s Taxonomy. Here’s an example table I made. We just need to set up this kind of rubric for each objective and we’re done.”

Informational Rubric

Statement of issues
Does not state issues
States the issues
Lists the issues
Explains the issues
Expounds upon the issues
Organization
No structure
Some attempt to structure has been made
Poor attempt at structure
Structure developed well
Structure is clearly developed
Punctuation and Capitalization
Four or more errors in punctuation or capitalization
There are three errors
There are two errors
There is one error
There are no errors

(rest of rubric omitted)

Faculty A: “Can you tell me the difference between “States the issues” and “Lists the Issues”? Same for “Explains the issues” and “Expounds upon the issues”?

Educationist: “This is just an example, but “States the issues” just states what the issues are, while “Lists the issues” means the learner states the issues in a list.

Faculty A: “…”

Educationist: “Any other questions before we split off into groups to set up the rubrics?”

Me: “You realize that we’ll have thousands of papers to grade, across a dozen general education goals, many divided into three or more sub-goals, and we’re supposed to be grading work not in our discipline. Do you honestly propose a method with multidivisional arrays divided by subtleties that experts in the field cannot reasonably define?”

Educationist: “If you had my training, it would be easier.”

Faculty B: “Where on this rubric of yours is passing? Can’t we just do pass or fail?”

Educationist: “Pass or fail is not a rubric, we need to set this up according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.”

Me: “Pass or fail is a great idea, it’s not like we’re doing student grades here, we’re just seeing if they can do what we say they can do. Let’s just define what satisfies our goal—in fact, we could just use the goal, like “student can solve a word problem”, for our rubric. If the student can do it, then we’ll say we’ve achieved the goal. Otherwise, not.”

Educationist: “ A rubric is a matrix. Pass or fail is not a matrix. You need to break it down into smaller elements.”

Me: “We’ll have two elements, one for pass, one for fail, and define what passing is. It works, and is simple.”

Educationist: “That is not a matrix.”

Me: “Sure it is, it’s a 1 x 2 matrix.”

Educationist: “You need more than that for a matrix.”

Me: “No, you don’t.”

(Educationist leaves to complain to administration that we’re not being cooperative…)

 

     Year after year, an Educationist has come to explain to us the wonders of Bloom’s Taxonomy, this amazing method that completely describes all learning. For the uninitiated, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a classification system, and the important part of Bloom’s is the system for the cognitive domain. The cognitive domain for knowledge, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, is a hierarchy. On the bottom is straight knowledge, remembering basic facts. Next is comprehension, understanding the facts. Higher still is application, using those facts you know and understand. Next is analysis, breaking facts down into smaller parts, to find relationships. Higher up is supposedly synthesis, putting facts together to create something new. Finally the highest form of cognition (although the last three are sometimes put on the same level) is evaluation, using your knowledge of facts, the understanding and applications of relationships of those facts, to create an opinion of the validity of new information.

     Now, this is certainly an interesting model and not without merit, but it’s quite often presented as absolute fact, to the point that you’ll find Bloom’s Taxonomized objectives splattered all over assignments, especially in online courses, since such courses generally have these rubrics mandated. While never have counter-arguments to Bloom’s Taxonomy  been presented (or welcomed) at an Educationist’s demonstration, a tiny dose of critical thinking reveals there is much here that is questionable.

     Allow me to take an example from the online world, for all to see that I’m not cherry-picking how ridiculous these things can get. This example (broken into three sections because rubrics can get extremely unwieldy past that) has been devised for faculty familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy (and if the Educationist above is reading this, note that it’s not even presented as a matrix)1:

CATEGORY ONE: KNOWLEDGE AND COMPREHENSION (understanding the basics)
4—The work consistently demonstrates clear, accurate, detailed and comprehensive understanding of the relevant facts / data / theories/ terms as well as the ability to organize the information for application, presentation, documentation, and/or further examination.
3--The work demonstrates an adequate understanding of the relevant facts / data / theories/ terms as well as the ability to organize the information for application, presentation, documentation, and/or further examination
2-- The work demonstrates an uneven and shaky understanding of the relevant facts / data / theories/ terms as well as a limited ability to organize the information for application, presentation, documentation, and/or further examination.
1-- The work demonstrates an inadequate understanding of the relevant facts / data / theories/ terms as well as a limited ability to organize the information for application, presentation, documentation, and/or further examination.

CATEGORY TWO: APPLICATION AND ANALYSIS (attaining the concept)
4—The work demonstrates confident ability to work with the key concepts / information / process / theory -- applying or extending them to a wide variety of new problems or contexts, making predictions, recognizing hidden meanings, drawing inferences, analyzing patterns and component parts, communicating insightful contrasts and comparisons.
3--The work demonstrates adequate ability to work with the key concepts / information / process / theory -- applying or extending them to a variety of new problems or contexts, making predictions, recognizing hidden meanings, drawing inferences, analyzing patterns and component parts, communicating insightful contrasts and comparisons.
2-- The work demonstrates uneven and shaky ability to work with the key concepts / information / process / theory -- applying or extending them with mixed success to new problems or contexts, making predictions, recognizing hidden meanings, drawing inferences, analyzing patterns and component parts, communicating insightful contrasts and comparisons.
1-- The work demonstrates extremely limited ability to work with the key concepts / information / process / theory -- applying or extending them with very limited success to new problems or contexts, making predictions, recognizing hidden meanings, drawing inferences, analyzing patterns and component parts, communicating insightful contrasts and comparisons.

CATEGORY THREE: SYNTHESIZING AND EVALUATING (going beyond the given)
4—The work demonstrates surprising/insightful ability to take ideas / theories / processes / principles further into new territory, broader generalizations, hidden meanings and implications as well – as well as to assess discriminatively the value, credibility and power of these ideas (etc.) in order to decide on well-considered choices and opinions.
3-- The work demonstrates adequate ability to take ideas / theories / processes / principles further into new territory, broader generalizations, hidden meanings and implications as well – as well as to assess discriminatively the value, credibility and power of these ideas (etc.) in order to decide on well-considered choices and opinions.
2-- The work demonstrates uneven and superficial ability to take ideas / theories / processes / principles further into new territory, broader generalizations, hidden meanings and implications as well – as well as a limited ability to assess discriminatively the value, credibility and power of these ideas (etc.) in order to decide on well-considered choices and opinions.
1-- The work demonstrates little ability to take ideas / theories / processes / principles further into new territory, broader generalizations, hidden meanings and implications as well – as well as a limited and superficial ability to assess discriminatively the value, credibility and power of these ideas (etc.) in order to decide on well-considered choices and opinions.


 

     You’re supposed to actually use these two pages of gobbledygook to grade a one page essay. I’m serious. The first issue apparent to anyone who looks at these rubrics with an open mind is how much these monstrosities rely critically upon semantic games. In the “Application and Analysis” section, does “uneven and shaky” really represent a whole new level of learning above “limited”? Exactly how? Some airline passengers would consider “uneven and shaky” knowledge to be worse than “limited.” There’s almost no way to construct these rubrics wrong, so cranking them out is pretty trivial, requiring little more than an extended vocabulary or a handy thesaurus. Take it from someone with experience, trying to precisely grade anything according to these rubrics is no more helpful than consulting a Magic 8-Ball. Such rubrics can make grading harder, not easier. Much like The Communist Manifesto is a horrible set of guidelines for what to do in the real world, Bloom’s Taxonomy seems to resist any useful applications.

     Relating to the semantics issue is the complete unreliability of rubric construction. After I diligently Bloom’s Taxonomized a course grading rubric for learners (a bunch of high-falutin’ language for “told myself how to grade my own test”), if I look to see what another math professor has done for the same test, I get a different rubric. Even more hysterically, the other professor used some of the same words I used, but in different levels of the learning hierarchy. Ultimately, the rubric turns into “pass or fail” when it comes time to assess whether a student has achieved a course objective, and past that there’s little overlap between rubrics. Compare this to the reliability of grading “Do 40 crunches in three minutes” in a physical training class…every instructor would grade that assignment in much the same way, viewing Bloom’s Taxonomy as pointless make-work. Much like Phrenology, the study of bumps on a person’s head, led to whatever interpretation the Phrenologist was looking for and varied wildly from one “expert” to the next, any interpretation past the first level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is likewise in the eye of the beholder. There is no reliability here.

     Even if various professors could independently make the same rubrics for the same material with any level of reliability, there are never any given guidelines for teaching to a particular level of understanding (assuming such a level of understanding was well-defined). What type of sentence should I say to bring the student up to the next level? How can I be sure I didn’t skip a level? Can you skip a level? With no scientifically recommended way to even reach the alleged levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, it seems pretty useless to apply it. This is as practical as reading extensively on how to perform surgery on  unicorns.

     And yet time and again this crude and arbitrary classification system is presented as critical to teaching a college course. Having it presented to faculty as established and “must follow and agree to” fact is little different than Lysenkoism, with scientific fact being purely determined by administrative force.

     Bloom’s Taxonomy was introduced in 1956, it’s been around for over 50 years. In that time, there has yet to be produced a single scrap of physical evidence that there’s any truth to it. There is, literally, more physical evidence for the existence of Bigfoot than there is for Bloom’s Taxonomy, yet the latter has a sick influence over higher education today. If this were some mindless empty-headed theory in some old book, it wouldn’t be any more dangerous than going on an expedition to find Bigfoot. Unfortunately, Bloom’s Taxonomy is used as a guideline for grading, influencing all departments of our institutions of higher learning.

     The effect of using Bloom’s Taxonomy is what is most troubling. Almost always, the “lower levels”, learning of basic facts and skills, are sacrificed, an action rationalized by a claim of achieving the less determinable higher levels of learning…a claim that’s never shown to be true, even as it’s trivial to show facts and skills are no longer learned. We’re turning out generations of people with no measurable knowledge, but Educationists say that’s fine because these people somehow know higher levels of learning without knowing anything basic, like, say, how to read cursive writing.

     Should half-century old unsubstantiated theories really have this kind of influence on higher education?

 

Think about it.


 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

1.        http://academic.pgcc.edu/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/Designingrubricsassessingthinking.html