In order to work effectively with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, we must understand two dimensions of learning: cognitive process, and knowledge. Cognitive process describes what thought task a learner is performing on a given text or focus. These include, in order of complexity from simple to complex, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Of these, understanding is the most broad and most easily misused.
Understanding answers the question, “what does it mean?” It can involve interpreting, explaining, predicting, or comparing. Understanding is essentially knowing what an author, composer, songwriter, or visual artist intended to convey through their work, and being sufficiently familiar with a creator’s genre to predict what might come next in a musical or literary work, or what a visual artist’s next work might look like based on trends and characteristics found in recent works. Students also demonstrate understanding through comparing when they select a work they prefer from two or more, and then are able to explain why they prefer that one work over the others. Understanding is essentially thinking about artistic work, and making connections with other idioms, cultures, and other artistic works. As such, understanding is an intellectual endeavor.
Applying puts what has been learned through intellectual exercise to practical use. If through interpreting a musical work a student has learned how a composer typically uses specific musical elements and to what expressive purpose, than the student can use that knowledge in using those musical elements in the same way when preparing a performance of that or another of the same composer’s work, or in determining the expressive intent of the same composer in another, perhaps unfamiliar work. Another example might be if, at the remembering level, a student has learned the definitions of several musical terms, that knowledge can be applied when those words are knowledgeably used in the course of writing about a composer’s musical work to which the student has just listened, or which the student is preparing for a performance. It is at the applying level that authentic assessments are found. These are assessment that require students to be evaluated on doing something that musicians actually do in the “real world,” rather than something that only students are asked to do and then do not do once they become working musicians or practicing amateur musicians.
These first three, remembering, understanding, and applying, make a convenient and for many teachers a comfortable learning sequence. Breaking out of these three domains can be challenging for teachers and students alike, but it is at the next three domains that the most rigorous instruction and learning take place. Analyzing answers the question “how does it work?” Many people go through life enjoying music, able to understand what they are hearing, and apply what they know to everything from singing “Happy Birthday” to their children, to reflecting with a friend or spouse on a concert they both just attended together. But to get to the “next level,” a person unpacks the sequences of musical events they heard and looks into learning “how did he do that?” We might learn that we became suddenly tense and uneasy because the chords started on a progression that brought them further and further away from the tonic, or because the pedal tone became more and more dissonant over the chords above. Whereas through remembering, students might identify what a composer did, (he used a crescendo), through analysis, students can explain how a composer used a crescendo, or for what purpose.
Evaluating is more complex. Evaluation is assigning worth or value to an artistic work, or to a performance of an artistic work. To do so requires that the student first have some criteria for judging the quality of artistic work that can be used objectively on any artistic work at least within a given genre if not universally. In other words, the student must be able to know concretely what bad art looks or sounds like, and what good art looks and sounds like, and then must be able to identify what in the artist’s execution of the elements of his or her art was done well and what was done poorly. Often, the most difficult part of evaluating is agreeing on what criteria are to be used.
Many music teachers I talk to are surprised to find creating at the highest, most complex location on the taxonomy. It is also the most advanced step in Feierabend’s twelve step learning sequence for Conversational Solfege. The original Bloom’s taxonomy had synthesis at this location. Creating requires one to pull together everything one knows and can do, and pour it into something new and original. A person simply cannot create an artistic work if they cannot understand, apply what is understood, and evaluate artistic works of others. Students need to acquire command of the elements of their art, of how artists used them to convey an expressive intent, and what particular uses of them create the very best result. Lacking this foundation, students will not have the materials they need to work with, nor will they know what to do with them, or even if they have succeeded once they have, in some way, perhaps randomly, put them together to form a work which lacks expression or quality.
Even an improvisor must have experiences with hearing, generating, selecting, and sequencing sounds and combinations of sounds before he or she can successfully improvise a melody that makes rhythmic and tonal sense. Improvising a melody on an Off instrument with all but the pentatonic scale tones removed is not an act of creating, because no understanding, applying, analyzing or evaluating is needed. The child merely needs to remember to strike any tone bar to a pulse and rhythm pattern. They may be improvising the rhythm, as if they were playing a drum, but they are not improvising a melody, though one incidentally results from their remembering domain activity.
These 6 cognitive tasks, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, are performed on knowledge. This knowledge also has domains. There are four domains of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive. Factual knowledge matches up nicely with remembering, conceptual and procedural knowledge goes well with understanding and applying, and metacognitive knowledge is useful with analyzing and evaluating, because understanding how one things, how one’s cognitive process is used helps a student select and use an analytical or evaluative strategy. It should not be surprising that higher level knowledge requires higher level thinking. If we want our students to engage in the higher domains of the cognitive taxonomy, then we can help them by giving them knowledge to work with that demands higher level thinking. For example, when assigning students to analyze a musical work, first have them plan out how they will go about doing their analysis. This requires them to have or develop criteria for determining when to use appropriate procedures. Of course, this also requires that you have taught them appropriate procedures from which they are now qualified to choose the best ones for the task at hand. Then, once they have determined what procedures they will use, they must apply that procedural knowledge, along with perhaps factual and conceptual knowledge, to actually completing the assignment. Because this is a taxonomy of knowledge domains, students must be proficient with the lower levels of knowledge before being asked to work with a higher level of knowledge. For example, if students are struggling with conceptual knowledge, teach at that level to raise their proficiency before asking them to use procedural knowledge.
Effective use of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy is an effective way to control the level of challenge and rigor teachers present to their students. The taxonomy should not be seen as a description of learning styles, because one cannot say that, for example, one student is very analytic and so should always be given analysis tasks. No, that student will fare no better on analysis if remembering and/or understanding is deficient. Whereas some students will struggle to reach the most complex domain, none can afford to skip a domain to get to a higher one.