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.

Going Beyond Liking or Not Liking a Song

2011 Symposium2

I often find that my students have a very limited view of the musical landscape. Many of them listen to one kind of music and see no reason to spend their time exploring new genres or styles. Knowing this, I have always felt that it was part of my responsibility as a music educator to introduce my students to music they would not otherwise encounter. Sometimes, students are surprised to find that they like an unfamiliar kind of music. Other times, I find that they are not aware of the fact that the music to which kids their age in other areas of the United States or in other countries is sometimes very different from the music to which they listen. In both cases, being able to bring knowledge to bear on decisions of musical preference is often the missing link. Students can easily say what they like and don’t like, and can determine if a song is within their ability to perform or understand musically. But often they have more difficulty using knowledge to select song or determine preferences.

This is in part because students don’t always know what there is to know about a song or musical genre, and they may also not know what such knowledge has to do with what they like or don’t like about a song. Students are often quick to dismiss a song they don’t like, but are not likely to stop and think about why they don’t like it. Today in a seventh grade music class, I gave students a list of popular songs and asked them to pick the ones they felt the class would most enjoy singing. One of the songs that was often selected was “If Only” by Dove Cameron. Although many thought it would be a good song to sing, when I played it many didn’t want to listen. One student said it was a “sleepy” song. I used that observation to launch a discussion of the use of musical elements in the song that made it sound that way. We included tempo and dynamics in the discussion. Why would the songwriter use a slow tempo and soft dynamics for a song?

If only I knew what my heart was telling me
Don’t know what I’m feeling
Is this just a dream?

The song is about emotional uncertainty and confusion, and about disbelief in what is real. What kind of music best expresses the emotions a person is going through who is experiencing thoughts like these? By considering the artistic choices that led the songwriter to choose a slow tempo and soft dynamics, the students realized that for what the song was meant to express, it was a well-written song. As a result of this insight, some of the students thought they would like the song more the next time they listened to it. They also realized that by usually or even always listening to songs in which the composer has utilized the same musical elements the same way, they are experiencing only a limited range of emotions in the music to which they listen. To more completely participate in the human experience, and music is a landmark part of that experience, a person must participate in a variety of music in which  a diversity of expressions and artistic decisions are made. This participation includes performing, listening, responding, and connecting; all four artistic processes in the national arts standards. It also includes going beyond the lyrics and the groove to also probe the use of musical elements to express feelings and emotions, and to create musical structure, which is what allows music to make sense to us.

Using New Learning to Focus and Structure Music Lessons

2011Symposium_1_2One of the risks of begin an arts teacher is that my lessons will be perceived as unplanned and lacking in structure. While I always have both plans and structure to every lesson I teach, the highly interactive nature of a music class sometimes gives the illusion that we are only responding to the moment without an overarching goal. For this reason, I try to build new learning into every lesson or rehearsal. By new learning, I don’t mean just improving performance through practice, evaluation and refining, though this is critical also, but I mean also that students will learn something new that they will immediately begin to use. New learning keeps long-term projects interesting, and helps me avoid just teaching skills without expecting students to use high level thinking and problem solving strategies.

In addition to writing the objective for each class on the board, I also write a list of new learning for each class. This list, which typically has two or three items, tells the students what they will need to know in order to be able to do that day’s class work that I haven’t taught to that class this year. It may be that some students know what is on the list from a previous year of music classes, or from music lessons they take outside of school. These students enjoy teaching their peers something from the list, and are encouraged by the opportunity to do so. I have found that starting a class with the new learning list gets the students’ attention, and putting the information up front at the beginning of class seems to cause more students to retain the learning, perhaps because they go through the steps of learning first and then applying what they have just learned, rather than trying to remember and apply something they learned a week or more ago, or learn as they go when they have become confused. The list also gives me a few concrete things to reinforce with students as I support their learning in small groups during the class. Reinforcing instead of introducing in small groups also helps increase retention of the material.

The new learning list also makes the structure of the lesson highly visible. The new learning items are amusic_words_large common thread that runs through the entire lesson. Activities the students are doing can be seen as opportunities to practice what they have just learned. The new learning is added in to what they were already doing, and so helps to improve the quality of the performance they are practicing, evaluating and refining. It is also helpful if new learning is easily connected to previous learning, either through application or similarities. For example, if the students learned last week that when a note has a sharp applied, the pitch is raised one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the right of the white key of the same letter or solfege name, then they will easily understand this week that when a flat is applied, the pitch is lowered one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the left of the white key of the same letter or solfege name. The half step displacement and proximity of the black key to the white key are similarities that tie the new learning about flats to the previous learning about sharps.

Once students have learned the new material, they are given something musical to do in small groups. The something musical is chosen from one of the artistic processes in the core arts standards: create, perform, respond, or connect. In the example above about sharps and flats, students were given the bass line to the song “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” in three different keys, each with a different key signature. The rhythm of dotted quarter, eighth, and two quarter notes is pervasive. The new learning list was key signature, flats on the keyboard, and dotted notes. Reinforcement occurred as I reminded students that a note was B-flat and not B natural because of the key signature, and when evaluation of performed dotted quarter and eighth note pointed out that they were played as if they were two quarter notes. Because the dotted quarter and eighth were followed by two quarter notes, students could compare the two aurally and visually, and learn to accurately. New learning can be any material related to what students are already doing with which students can create, perform, respond or connect.

Keeping Students Connected to and Enjoying Music Class

2011Symposium_1_2Often, a student will come into my classroom drumming a rhythm or singing a tune, or even dancing. Initially, I am glad to see them living with music so enjoyably, but usually, I am compelled to ask them to stop so that we can begin our lesson. Sometimes, the student will reply, “but it’s music, I’m doing music.” They don’t really expect to be allowed to continue on through the class, but the claim to their music is a fascinating one. After all, what math teacher finds students solving formulas or graphing sets of numbers, and has to be told to stop because today they are going to be reducing fractions. We music teachers have the joy of teaching a subject that students choose to use outside our classes. But what should we do when the musical activity they want to engage in is different from what we want or need to teach?

Though it’s not always possible, the first thing we can do is try to incorporate or bridge what we plan to teach from what the students are already doing. I mentioned yesterday that one way of incorporating music reading into every lesson is to transcribe something a student sings and then have the class read the transcription. I have used the music a student is spontaneously singing for such a transcription. The student is usually surprised I was even listening, and even more surprised that I can quickly write the notes for it on the board. Once I’m teaching something the student has brought into the classroom, they can hardly complain about not liking the song.

There’s also an element of being able to think on my feet. If a student is Self-Imagedrumming a rhythm on their chair, I might try to quickly think of a song they know or that I can teach them that fits with that rhythm. It doesn’t even have to be the rhythm that originally went with the song–students are open to remixes as long as it has a good beat. I might even just invite the student or students to perform the song for the class, especially if it does not pull me too far from my planned lesson. There’s a lot about spontaneous music making and enjoyment that I want to encourage. After all, that’s what I hope my teaching ultimately achieves for my students–that they will be equipped to enjoy music making for the rest of their lives.

Another approach, used when what the student is doing really is a long way from what I planned to teach that day, is to ask the student to write a lesson using that song. I ask them to think of things the class could learn from and about the song, and to write the lesson plan. I’ll give the student one of my lesson plans to use as a model. I will also give the student the option of teaching the lesson. Otherwise, I will offer to teach it, using the lesson plan the student has written. Because students are inexperienced lesson planners, I would also meet with the student ahead of time to firm up plans, making sure that the lesson will be what the student has in mind. It also does all of us good to let the students experience a class from our perspective. I find that once a student has taught a class and been in the position of dealing with classmates who are not paying attention to them, the student-teacher becomes a more attentive student when they return to their role as student.

Music really is a joy. While music teachers must be conscientious to teach to standards and objectives, we must also remember that it should be fun. Goals and objectives should lead to better teaching an learning, but not take the enjoyment away.