Visualising Bloom

I remember when I learned about Bloom’s Taxonomy on my PGCE. It was an exciting time. I felt like I was learning the secrets of education. Just being able to refer to Bloom made me feel like I was learning one of the basic shibboleths of being a teacher. From this point on, I could gauge if someone was a trained teacher or not. Did they know who Bloom was? If so, they were in the club. If not, I’d raise an eyebrow and hand them a pamphlet about thinking skills.

Beyond that childish attitude, I found the whole idea of a learning taxonomy kind of interesting. It seemed to make sense that if you want to apply knowledge, you have to be able to remember and understand that knowledge first. It was only later that I read critiques of Bloom, and realised that things weren’t as simple as they first seemed. Since then, I have heard teachers say they find his taxonomy restricitive and at times nonsensical. Quick example: Child A evaluates a painting as “crap”. Child B recites fifty facts about the painting. Some use Bloom to argue that evaluation is a higher level thinking skill than recollection. So is Child A operating at a higher level than Child B? Surely not. (See Tom Bennett on the existence of thinking skills here).

A lot of people have offered critiques of Bloom, most famously bickering about whether Creating or Evaluating should be at the top. I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to have a look at how the taxonomy is visualised.

Here’s the result of a Google images search:


Sure enough, it’s generally represented as a triangle, a rectangle, or a circle, and a ghastly rainbow clour scheme is the norm rather than the exception.

I’m going to assume that visualisations matter. They shape our thought, and thought shapes actions.

Let’s look at the triangle first.

We use a triangle to depict the hierarchies of society and organisations. Power is concentrated at the top, represented by a small triangle. At the bottom, we find the masses, represented by a large trapezium. Accordingly, we talk about moving “up” through society and organisations. The vizualisation reflects not only the numbers, but also the way we talk. Whether it reflects reality is another question entirely. We could argue that an organisation would be better visualised as a network, and some people have got very excited talking about rhizomes – see this RSA Animate from Manuel Lima, senior UX design lead at Microsoft Bing (10 minutes and worth watching).

When we depict Bloom’s taxonomy as a triangle, it carries connotations. It depends on the individual what these connotations are, but here are a few possibilities:

(1) Recollection is easy, like taking the first steps up a mountain.

(2) Recollection is for the many; evaluation and synthesis are for the few.

(3) Fixity. If you rearrange the levels of the triangle, it looks unbalanced and ugly. This encourages us to keep things where they are.

These connotations are reduced if we illustrate it as a rectangle (see also an upside down trapezium, via Wikipedia)

ImageThe idea is still that you go from low to high. Low power to high power. Hell to heaven. What if it was horizontal? Would that change the way we think? Probably not – we’re likely to read a left to right movement as progress, just like we would with the movement from low to high. Besides, if we take the idea of progress out of the taxonomy, we would most likely misrepresent what it’s about.

Others still depict the taxonomy as a circle. Here’s an example from Simon Paul Atkinson:


In this case, we have a neat way of illustrating how outcomes etc. link to the different levels of the taxonomy. If you want to make those links, this is an effective way of presenting it. We also lose some of the bogus ideas of scarcity associated with the top of a triangle.

Circles are egalitarian and non-threatening. They also connote not getting anywhere. Maybe this is why Bloomians often favour the triangle. A triangle looks like a mountain. Learning something is a bit like climbing a mountain, sometimes, I guess. Or maybe it’s more like building a network. Or maybe it’s like a lot of things all at once and not identical with any of them, and all of this talk of connotations is just hot air.


One thought on “Visualising Bloom

  1. Entertaining and interesting article. It reminds me of the conversations of symmetry we were having. I couldn’t bring myself to follow the link to senior UX design lead at Microsoft Bing – thats not a job role to be proud of. I found the use of colour in the triangles interesting as well, I never did like any theory that used triangles, something about the unused space at the top left and right, its very boring and imposing to me, and seems to imply hard work – as you say, its like a mountain. but where are the rivers and trees?

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