Music Teaching and Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Version 2When I learned Bloom’s taxonomy as an undergraduate, I always thought that the arts were short changed. Sure, there was the affective domain, but it just didn’t have the depth  to it that the cognitive domain had, and the affective domain was often presented as a sort of afterthought. When the taxonomy was revised, this changed. Bloom’s revised taxonomy is a more inclusive and complete model of how  intellectual processes work for all subjects, including music. Because of this, Bloom’s revised taxonomy is useful for writing lesson and unit objectives. In this post, I’ll examine music tasks in relation to this taxonomy.

The revised Bloom’s taxonomy  has 6 levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and applying. blooms-image-1

The levels increase in complexity from bottom to top. A major shortcoming of traditional teaching practice has been that too much attention was given to remembering and understanding, while students were asked to do relatively little at the upper four levels. The third level, applying, is really the gateway to relevant, meaningful, and lasting learning, because it is at this level that learning transitions from being abstract to practical; students can not only remember and explain, but they can also demonstrate and transfer learning to new situations and immediate needs.

Many teachers don’t realize how much of their teacher is at the remembering level. For music teachers, songs, tonal and rhythm patterns, instrument fingerings, and defining musical terms are all remembering level tasks. Questions like, “what is the name of the whole note in the first measure?” or “what does crescendo mean?” are remembering questions. If a music teacher plays or sings  a phrase of music and then asks the student to play it back the same way, that is also a remembering question as is practicing a passage over and over. These remembering tasks constitute a good deal of what students in music ensembles are asked to do. It is all remembering of fingerings, and repeating of a task until a level of competency is reached. Math teachers who give students pages of addition problems are also just asking students to remember. It is practicing something that has already been learned in order to get better at it. There is increased competency, but no new meaning is being learned, and no application of what is being practiced to a new situation is being attempted. If an objective for a lesson plan is that students will be able to play or sing a given passage of music with correct notes and rhythms, this is nothing more than a remembering objective.

So does this mean we shouldn’t ask our students to practice? Certainly not. It does mean that we need to change what we expect them to do when they practice.  I have written elsewhere about the importance of telling students why they are being asked to do a task; of students understanding the end to which a task is the means. Our subject here is different. Here we are interested in going beyond skill to reach meaning. The two phrases used in the understanding level that are of particular interest are “construct meaning” and “interpret.” In a structural sense, we construct meaning out of the patterns and groupings we perceive when we listen to music. We generally have no trouble moving to the pulse of music, of grouping a sequence of musical notes into a rhythm pattern or melodic phrase, or of perceiving the difference between a waltz and a tango.  In forming mental images of rhythmic, metric, and grouping structures, we are literally constructing meaning out of sounds. We are ascribing to what we hear an organization that enables us to make musical sense of the sounds by sorting them spatially and temporally. A student who is constructing meaning from music he or she is practicing might answer questions like, “what pulse do I perceive in the music?” “How many notes are contained within each pulse?” “How many beats or measures of music seem to go together before there is a natural break or pause, or before the pattern repeats? “At what tempo within the parameters of any tempo markings do I most enjoy playing this music?” “What can I do to bring out the qualities in this music that I enjoy so that others will notice them and enjoy the music as I do?” Answering these questions naturally leads into interpreting, which is taking meaning and performing in such a way that it is communicated or shared with listeners.

When a student has learned to answer questions like these, and to make constructing meaning and interpreting a priority for practice sessions, that student is then ready to operate at the application level. For example, once a student has learned to determine where the phrases and phrase boundaries are in one musical work by answering the question, “How many beats or measures of music seem to go together before there is a natural break or pause, or before the pattern repeats,” they can answer the same question, looking for the same things in another piece of music. They can also use prior learning to solve problems that show up in new works. Perhaps the first work had a repeated or parallel phrase, as in the “Ode to Joy” melody, so finding the phrase boundary was a matter of finding where the repetition began. Now the new work doesn’t have a repeated or parallel phrase, but instead it has a note longer than surrounding notes so that the music rhythmically pauses between phrases. Or perhaps the phrase ends on a cadence, or begins in a new register or at a contrasting dynamic. The student is still finding patterns, but the patterns are defined differently in the new work, so s/he must answer the question, “where is the boundary between phrases” by looking for different evidence.

Application has already led us somewhat into analyzing; finding the phrase structure and cadential points is surely analysis.  In analysis, the student goes further, finding out how the various parts relate to each other. We find where the antecedent and where the consequent phrases are. We find where the tension builds and where it relaxes, and what rhythmic and tonal relationships make it so. We find parallel passages and learn in what ways they are similar, and we find contrasting themes and in what ways they are different. The results of all of this analysis get folded back into interpretation, as the performer makes phrases, contrasts and similarities clear to the audience, and brings the whole practice experience to a higher, deeper, more meaningful level as the student directs his or her attention and purpose to matters far beyond the learning of notes and rhythms.

Evaluation is part of the practice process. As music is practiced, what has just been done must be evaluated so that the next action is apparent. Interpretation as well as accuracy must be practiced, and so each attempt is evaluated for how well the intended interpretation was done, and how accurately the pitches and rhythms were performed.

At the top of the pyramid is creating. I think it’s significant that creating is the highest level. We sometimes discount the creative process by throwing students into composing tasks without giving them substantial learning opportunities at applying, analyzing, and evaluating. If students spend most of their music time singing and playing instruments, then we must find ways for them to transfer what they have learned performing to creating. Taking melodies they are learning and asking them to change a rhythm or change  the last note of the phrase so that the effect or intent changes are possible activities to this end. Evaluating music others have written, and then writing similar music is also a time-honored technique. Trying out alternative interpretations is still another. It is not realistic to expect students to create music “out of thin air.” They must have the intellectual grounding from which the creative process can operate.

The top three levels of Bloom’s revised taxonomy can easily be a challenge for students and teachers alike. The new national core arts standards are helpful, because much of the standards found therein push students to those higher taxonomy levels. Pushing our students there creates a surge of challenge and motivation that students and teachers who have been stuck at the lowest levels of the taxonomy need.

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