Taxonomies and learning

I have just spent the day with college instructors considering the fundamentals of learning. The facilitator was enthusiastic about Bloom's taxonomy - a hierarchy (it's in ranked levels) of cognitive abilities: from lowest level to highest it includes: knowledge, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

As I listened to his examples of how this model opens up the teaching of skills and information, I thought about Maslow's hierarchy of needs and wondered what would happen if we applied it instead. For those of you who need a refresher, it moves from a base to a peak: you can't move up the pyramid until the needs below are satisfied. They are (from the base moving up): physiology; safety; love; status; actualization. Isn't it worth asking to which of these needs a particular course will contribute? Isn't it worth asking how teaching and learning together should be contributing to each of these needs?

It turns out Bloom sets some of the groundwork: he separated out affective skills from cognitive skills. His affective skills were (from the lowest level): receiving, responding, valuing, organizing and characterizing. Dangerous stuff: it means that some of what we teach might make its way up the chain and actually become part of how someone identifies himself/herself.

When we put all this together, it says that teaching and learning is a single process in which we collaborate to exchange information in ways that range from limited, sensory, and transient to ways that change how we understand our relationships with others (love/ value/ application levels) to ways that finally change who we are (evalution = actualization = characterizing). Understanding where a particular course should fall on this continuum depends on a number of factors.

The most important of these is the teacher's willingness to be changed by the course. Teachers and learners are in connection: what impacts one influences the other. If students are to have a life-changing experience, so will their teachers.

I am left considering how much I am willing to change through the courses I am about to teach. Am I ready for a peak experience, or a hike through the foothills?


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