How Bloom’s Taxonomy & Questions Changed my Life as a Teacher & Learner

I’m fond of Bloom’s Taxonomy because it helped me overcome one the earliest challenges of my teaching career. In my first year of teaching, I struggled with classroom management. I dreamed of walking into class and students treating me like Socrates, or maybe a mix between Socrates, Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society and that angel from Highway to Heaven. I imagined classes of students naturally leaning in to hear each word that comes out of my mouth, that they would love to learn whatever I set before them. In less than a week, I lived in a very different world, one where students were more interested in what others were doing during the weekend, where some couldn’t stay awake in class, where others found great joy in doing whatever it took to get me off-track and add some interest to their hour, and where the “good” students dreaded class because they hated the chaos. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the principal and, afraid and embarrassed, I explained my problem, thinking that perhaps I was in the wrong profession. In response, he pulled out a photocopy from a book about Bloom’s Taxonomy and action verbs associated with each part. He suggested that I start using this to create thoughtful questions in advance of each class, building the questions from the lowest level of Blooms (knowledge and understanding) to questions about creation and evaluation. After each question, he advised me to develop a series of follow-up questions, ways to rephrase ideas if they didn’t make sense to students. These follow-ups would also help take students deeper into the subject.

I took his advice, spending the night building a list of thirty questions for a class the next morning. In fact, in less than a couple hours I had over a hundred questions that I then winnowed down. I went to 1st hour the next day, questions in hand. The principal agreed to sit in the back and debrief the lesson with me afterward. I started the class with a short “hook”, shared some content with them, and them started with my questions. The result was life-changing. I had a group of 7th and 8th graders engaged in a wonderful blend of questions where we analyzed, applied, evaluated, and created. I played devil’s advocate. I started to ask “What if…” questions and others that invited them to use their imaginations.  I asked about how this could be used in the real world or if we were better off not learning it. I asked question that challenged them to compare what we were learning with aspects of popular culture and ideas that I gleaned from the top teen magazines of the time. I asked them to be advocates, critics, then advocates again…then critics. Soon they started asking better questions than I could have planned, and we started to have genuinely interesting conversations about United States history or any other subject in the curriculum. I don’t want to mislead, suggesting that everything became perfect. It was not, and I did not become an amazing teacher. The “sleeping” students didn’t instantly turn into Arnold Horshack overnight, but I saw subtle signs of interest. The atmosphere changed from one of pain and drudgery to one of curiosity, creativity and hope. More students were interested, engaged, sharing ideas, and asking questions. Class started to feel less like crowd control and more like…well more like a community of learners.

I fell in love with questions. I created long lists of them, and more than once imagined turning these lists into a coffee table book. I also implemented a weekly question of the day, where we spent the first few minutes of some classes…each responding to some imaginative question, sometimes related to the lesson for the day, but often just a way to explore ourselves and the world.

  • If you could travel anywhere in the universe for 15 seconds without harm and then appear back in this room, where would you go?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
  • If you had to give up one sense for a year, which one would it be?
  • If you could snap your fingers and instantly have any one book memorized, which book would you choose?
  • If you could be known as the inventor of any new idea, product, or anything else in the future, what would it be?
  • If you had a million dollars to give away, but you only had five minutes to do so, what would you do with it?
  • If you had to eat the same two foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?
  • If you could interview any person from history, who would it be?

Class became more about questions, occasionally about answers, but almost always about a ha moments, exploration, experimentation, imagination, and the desire to know and understand. Together we started to learn the power and possibility of asking and exploring questions. We learned how a single question could help break through disinterest, irrelevance, confusion, doubt, anger, and a sense of isolation. We discovered the truth in Michael Card’s question, “Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” We started to discover the wisdom behind Voltaire when he wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” We experienced firsthand why Einstein said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” We decided to conjure the magic of childhood and not simply pursue the ways of the adult, as explained by Locke when he wrote, “There is frequently more to be learned from the unexpected questions of a child than the discourses of men.” And being a U2 fan, I found new meaning in the words sung by Bono, “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.”

Over time, I started to realize that my questions were not the essence of an amazing education. I was learning more than ever, but what about the students? How might I invite students to his wonderful world of asking and exploring questions? The following presentation represents where this line of thinking took me.

Then I met Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner through their book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. They affirmed my love for questions and helped me turn it into a philosophy of education that believes in nurturing curiosity, exploration, and self-direction. Postman wrote,

“Good learners have a high degree of respect for facts (which they understand are tentative) and are skillful in making distinctions between statements of fact and other kinds of statements. Good learners, for the most part, are highly skilled in all the language behaviors that comprise what we call ‘inquiry’. For example, they know how to ask meaningful questions; they are persistent in examining their own assumptions; they use definitions and metaphors as instruments for their thinking and are rarely trapped by their own language; they are apt to be cautious and precise in asking generalizations, and they engage continually in verifying what they believe; they an careful observers and seen to recognize that language tends to obscure differences and control perceptions.” p. 30

In this little book of less than 200 pages, Postman and Charles Weingartner referred to questions over 60 times! They explained how simple black and white questions foster a mindset of compliance and conformity that does not represent much of real life. They argued for asking and inviting learners to move from convergent to divergent questions. As a result, they wrote about the “inquiry teacher” in this way,

“His basic mode of discourse with students is questioning. While he uses both convergent and divergent questions, he regards the latter as the more important tool. He emphatically does not view questions as a means of seducing students into parroting the text or syllabus; rather, he sees questions as instruments to open engaged minds to unsuspected possibilities.” p. 32

I remember reading this book and later looking at the front matter, noticing that it was published in 1971, the year I was born. I liked to think of that as more than a coincidence. My professional life is not one that perfectly reflects the philosophy that Postman and Charles Weingartner describe in the text. Mine is more paradoxical. I continue to the be drawn a the philosophy of education that values creativity, curiosity, inquiry, experimentation and exploration. It shows up in my work around self-directed learning and project-based learning. It is evident in my writing about self-blended learning, unschooling, informal learning, human agency and alternative education. It informs my desire to explore alternatives to letter grades, standardized tests, and industrial age attributes of our system. And much of it started with Bloom’s taxonomy, a way of categorizing knowledge that is largely unsupported by solid research and increasingly questioned as a valid and useful tool in education. Yet, for me, it was a means to explore a new way of thinking about teaching and learning.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

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