Learning Theories Into the Wild

Bloom visualized

I have been thinking about how some learning theories have gone "into the wild" in the way that some plants and animals have. People sometimes release pets, fish, birds or plants into the wild. Most of those will not survive, but some that do end up thriving to the point that they become an invasive species that harms the environment. 

Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist, along with collaborators published a framework for categorizing educational goals back in 1956. That "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives" has become known simply as Bloom’s Taxonomy.

It has been taught to many students in education programs. I learned it in my undergraduate education courses. I had workshops about using it in professional development when I was a secondary school teacher. I taught workshops using it when I was doing professional development for college faculty. 

Some educators might groan at the mention of Bloom's Taxonomy because they have heard it so many times. But this framework by Bloom and his collaborators has stuck. It originally consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities,” with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice. Each category also contained subcategories set up from simple to complex and concrete to abstract.

But what has stuck as Bloom's framework and gone out into the wild are those six main categories.

Do an image search on "Bloom's Taxonomy" and you will get a wide variety of visualizations of the framework as a pyramid, stairs, wheels, pie slices. (see illustration above).

Since 1956, the six major categories were changed from noun to verb forms. Benjamin Bloom died in 1999, but new versions and interpretations have continued to be developed. I have seen technology-based versions. One version released in 2001 renamed the "knowledge" level as "remembering," comprehension was retitled understanding, and synthesis was renamed as creating. The top two levels of Bloom’s changed position in the revised version. 

One sign that a theory has gone into the wild is that other people start creating variations and visualizations. Imitation may not be the most sincere form of flattery, but it is an indicator that a theory is being accepted and considered in the public. Like any species, once something goes into the wild, it begins to change. It adapts to new settings and gets further away from the original.

A few years ago, I was working on designing online training for teachers. One of the concepts we were going to cover was Norman Webb's "Depth of Knowledge" (DOK). It is a theory of cognitive rigor. That is a combined model developed by superimposing two existing models for describing rigor. The model is widely accepted in the education system in the United States. Cognitive Rigor is the superposition of Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge levels and the two are often compared. They are used to categorize the level of abstraction of questions and activities in education.

I had found a number of visualizations of Norman Webb's "Depth of Knowledge" online, but I wasn't sure which one was the "official" version and could we use it in our training. Most of them were a wheel design, but others were charts and a few had a steps design similar to how Bloom's Taxonomy is shown. So, I contacted Webb via his University of Wisconsin website.  I was not sure if I would get a response, but thankfully he emailed this response:

"Thanks for your interest in my work. I did not create the DOK wheel. I believe someone in Florida used my work to create the DOK wheel. Because the wheel is not mine, I cannot grant or deny its use. I think the DOK chart is misleading and I do not recommend its use. Depth of Knowledge depends on more than the verb. The complexity also depends on what the verb is acting on. For example, “draw” is in the DOK level 1 sector. But a student who draws a blueprint of a new building is doing more than recall of information. Explain also can be at different levels--explain by repeating a definition (DOK level 1), explain by putting a paragraph into your own words (DOK level 2), or explain by describing an analysis of the factors contributing to the economic down turn of the US (DOK level 3). So I cannot provide you the requested permission and, in fact, I discourage you from using the DOK wheel. It is a simplification of my work that does not fully represent the issues of content complexity. The only possible use of the chart I can see is if someone took a verb and asked how it could be placed in each of the four sectors."

Ultimately, we used his reply and a simple chart version of DOK

intelligencesA third theory that I would say has gone out into the wilds of education is the theory of multiple intelligences. It differentiates "intelligence" into specific modalities. It was proposed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner chose eight abilities/intelligences/modalities: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

Later, he suggested that existential and moral intelligence may also be worthy of inclusion. Gardner did not like the idea of labeling learners to a specific intelligence, but of course that is what many people have done with his work in the wild.

Before Gardner presented his theory, brain research became more connected to learning theory. When the lateralization of brain function went "into the wild," and many variations on right brain / left brain learners were put forward. Much of this kind of extending of a theory has been questioned, but the wild version of the research is still out there.

In the wild, it is generally called "learning styles" and though the right hemisphere is associated with cognitive skills (creativity, emotion, intuitiveness) the right also controls the left side of the body, so right-brained people are often left-handed. Right-brain dominant people are generalized as artistic, innovative and often random. 

Gardner still maintains that his theory of multiple intelligences (not to be conflated with learning styles) should "empower learners," rather than label them in ways that might actually restrict them. 


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