In 1956, the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom published a wide-ranging theory of learning, which was split into three domains: the cognitive, affective and psychomotor. These relate to thinking and learning, emotion and feeling, and movement or physical action. The cognitive domain aimed to define thinking skills in a hierarchy, ranging from ‘knowledge’ (the first, or lowest level) through to ‘evaluation’ (the highest level of thinking defined in this theory), as follows:
Evaluation: Using criteria to make hypotheses, justifying quality statements, judging ideas against criteria
Synthesis: transforming or bringing together multiple pieces of information to achieve a goal
Analysis: Comparing, contrasting, forming patterns and simple hypotheses
Application: Using principles or patterns to make logical statements
Comprehension: Understanding, decoding, etc.
Knowledge: Naming, recalling, identifying, etc.
This hierarchy has been the subject of a huge amount of research, especially in the field of education. After all, thinking is key to learning, so it follows that a model which breaks down ‘thinking’ into different levels is useful for investigating how these levels relate to the quality of learning that students demonstrate when they do different types of activity.
Why is a theory from the 1950s important now?
Despite the fact that Bloom’s taxonomy is over 65 years old, and that research into education and thinking skills has moved on enormously in this time, most language education in the world still restricts students to the lower end of this hierarchy, with a weighting towards the bottom two levels: Knowledge and Comprehension.
Think back to your own high-school language education, whether in French, Spanish or German (if you are a first-language English speaker), or in English if you are not, and think about what you did in your classes. The chances are that you focused mostly on the following:
Drilling (repeating after the teacher)
Answering comprehension questions based on reading and listening activity
Learning grammar rules and patterns
Translating from your first to your second language and vice versa
Transformation exercises, changing sentences from one form into another
Memorising lists of words or verb patterns in tables
Now compare these types of activity (and any others that you can remember), and match them with the cognitive levels on Bloom’s taxonomy. The chances are that they are mostly focused on ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’, perhaps with some application of the rules that you were learning about, in simple sentences. The result of this kind of learning, without further application and synthesis of what is being learnt outside the classroom, is a high level of knowledge, but a very low level of performance in that language.
This is shown by the very low levels of foreign language competence in school leavers in the UK, for example, even though they had studied the language for two or three hours a week for four whole years of school.
How can we increase the quality of learning in second languages?
More current methodology (especially in the well-funded and well-researched private English as a Second Language industry) puts an emphasis on higher-level critical and analytical thinking, synthesis and personalisation of taught content through classroom and out-of-class interaction, and more holistic approaches such as project-based learning, task-based learning and guided discovery. These approaches make use of the higher-end synthesis, evaluation and analysis / application levels of the hierarchy, allowing for more student thinking, less-predictable forms of interaction and more student deduction to work with new language.
As these approaches have developed, more detailed frameworks of thinking skills have emerged, defining learning and language use in more specific ways, and informing methodologies along the way. New taxonomies of thinking and learning have brought in other levels of thinking such as self-system learning (Marzano and Kendall (2007), sociocognitive aspects of learning (Weir, 2005) and social-constructivist theory.
With current teaching methodology drawing on these more clearly-defined levels of thinking, specifically with reference to language learning and how teachers interact with students at different cognitive levels , we can now move beyond the level of repetition, memorisation and rote-learning which are familiar to many of us from our own language education.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.