Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and Beginning Music Students

Version 2Often, teachers ask how Bloom’s taxonomy can be used with beginning students. Because this taxonomy is usually taught to teachers in the context of teaching high order, critical thinking skills, it is easy to suppose that using Bloom’s taxonomy involves only cognitive skill that beginners or young students simply do not possess. But the taxonomy describes all levels of cognitive activity form the simplest to the most complex, and even many higher order reasoning actions are accessible to young and beginning students when taught appropriately. First, let’s quickly review what the stages on Bloom’s revised taxonomy are.

The simplest, most basic cognitive activity is “remember.” What does Allegro mean? You have taught the student that it means fast, and when they answer “fast” they have remembered. Simple recall is the most basic kind of thinking.

The next level is “understand.” Understanding involves doing something with what is remembered beyond simple recall, but short of actually applying it to an authentic situation. Suppose you have taught the student many musical terms and they remember the definition of each one. You could ask the student to categorize the terms into tempo, dynamics, and expressive. Or, you could ask the student to compare and contrast two terms, such as staccato and accent. You could also have them give an example with speech of staccato, legato, forte, piano, accelerando, and/or ritardando. Predicting is also part of the “understand” level.

If a beginning clarinet student is getting no sound, and then gets some sound by taking in more mouthpiece, they can then be asked, “based on what just happened when you took more mouthpiece, what do you think will happen if you take still more mouthpiece in your mouth?” If a student practices fast all week at home with no signs of improvement, then, after playing slowly in their lesson can play part of the passage successfully at the fast tempo, they can be asked, “based on what you were just able to do playing that little bit so well at the fast tempo, what do you think will happen if you practice the rest of that section slowly all week at home?” That is very different from telling them to practice slowly at home. The latter does not require the student to apply learning, but only to follow a direction. None of these tasks are actual music performance, but they are more advanced than simple recall, and so reside in the understanding” level of the taxonomy.

Beyond “understand,” there is “apply.” This is where the student puts what they know into use doing a real musical activity such as performing song or other musical work. The student might carry out a sequence of actions such as those of performing a ritardando with the appropriate lengthening of notes as the music slows, and while also making a crescendo. In so doing, they are demonstrating that they can “plug in” items they have learned, sequencing and combining them to create a musical performance that demonstrates advancing musicianship. It is important to point out that when the material is age and level appropriate, students of any age or proficiency can successfully operate at the understand and apply levels of the taxonomy. These levels are not only accessible to older or advanced students. Any student can understand and apply what they have learned, and should be asked to do so frequently.

The next step from “apply” is “analyze.” This can involve distinguishing what elements of something differ from the same elements in a different something. It could include selecting a portion of a theme that is being developed in a given passage of a sonata movement, or attributing a musical effect to the use of certain musical elements such as instrumentation, or dynamic change. It surely includes parsing and deconstructing musical works to understand their parts, and outlining musical events and gestures thought a given work. Neither is analyzing reserved for older or advanced students, though some iterations of it do need wait for the age at which abstractions are possible. But kindergarteners can describe elements of change from a theme to a variation, can map out A, B, and C sections in a rondo while they listen to it, or determine that the music got exciting when the brass entered, or when it started to get faster.

The next level, “evaluate,” is sometimes confused with analyze. Whereas analyze reveals what constitutes the object of examination, evaluate reveals judging and testing. Evaluate determines the quality of what is being looked at. It involves selecting the best among choices, determining the importance of one thing over another, judging relative quality, and reflecting on one’s own progress. Evaluation requires criteria so that there is a basis for making the evaluation, and so that commentary does not replace true evaluation. Evaluation is not about opinion, but about objective decisions on quality. Again, children of any age can engage in evaluation. For the kindergarten child, I can sing very badly a song I have taught them and they can most certainly tell me that I sang it badly, because I have already thought them to sing well, and have established what good singing sounds like. Likewise, can can then sing the same song for them well, and they will be able to say that it was sung much better, or very well, because it is approaches or reaches the idea of good singing that I have taught them and that they attempt to reach every class. Once an evaluation is done, the learner can go back to “apply” to put into practice what they learned from the evaluation; what they now know will make an improvement.

The highest level of cognition is creating. This is the level at which students imagine, plan and produce something. In music education, the result of creating is often composing a song or other musical work, or performing one. Unlike the other levels, the material here is generated by the student. It assumes that the student can plan using forms and structures understanding and analyzing, procedures used from applying, and impose on them ideas and plans that have risen to a preferred standing through evaluation. While it can be tempting to ask students to compose music as part of the analyze stage, creating should be put off until evaluation skills are developed, and the student has had time doing much listening, filling their imagination with patterns and sequences of music which will inform their own musical ideas and decisions on what to do with them. All children, given ample music listening experience, can generate original ideas, and then make preferences of some over others, and then sequence them into an order that makes sense to them, fashioning a musical work. These works will be very short at first; only a few seconds perhaps, but they are worthy of doing because they give flight to students using their imaginations with their own creative ideas.

Bloom’s revised taxonomy is useful for all students, as long as it is in the context of age and proficiency appropriate materials and learning activities. In no way should higher level thinking be postponed for older students, but should be required of students of all ages.

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