More On Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Version 2In 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 anticipatecan 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.

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.

If you would like to read more on this subject, please follow this link to another article.

My two latest compositions, Woodwind Quintet No. 1 in Bb Major, and Clarinet Choir No. 1 in Eb major are now available. If you are interested in purchasing either or both for your ensemble or your students, please use my contact page to request your copy.