digitally blooming – taxonomies for a digital age

LTE (Learning and Teaching Enhancement) are busy. Next month we launch Design for Active Learning (D4AL), our toolbox of designs and activities with a focus on building in feedback data about how students are learning and how successful/or not their learning activities are.

learning activity cards spread on on a desk
examples of different learning design activities

The process has involved colleague Patrick Lynch and myself trialing a number of different learning design activities in order to build our own core framework. Underneath them all, I think I’ve found a consistent pedagogic skeleton.  Everything else is clothes and accessories, The skeleton begins with Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.

Blooming Bloom

Never has a taxonomy been so reproduced and challenged, uncritically accepted or taken apart and restructured. It’s been critiqued as linear, sequential and inappropriate for the 21st century but I don’t see it like that. In fact the opposite. For me Bloom is still relevant today. It all depends on how you view it.

Controversial as this idea might be, I want to suggest despite the different world we live in and the impact of the internet  – I’d go as far as to say Bloom could have been written for a digital higher education in 21st century.

Can I justify this?

Well, let’s try…

Bloom for beginners

Bloom had a team. There was a whole crowd involved but only himself as chairperson is remembered – a bit like Dearing being forever associated with widening participation, student fees and the implementation of virtual learning environments. Bloom et. al. were tasked with identifying the best way to construct the curriculum in the US school system. So, years and miles away in time and distance from UK HE today.  Not the best beginning I know!

What is Bloom’s Taxonomy?

It’s a classification system used to write a learning outcome. (LO). LO’s should contains a verb (an action),  an object (usually a noun identifying the subject of learning) and often the context where the learning takes place. The University of Nottingham show this example of the structure of a learning outcome in science.

worked example of a learning outcome from university of nottingham

Bloom basics

Bloom’s team identified three domains of knowledge. Learning activities today should aim to develop one or more of these domains and be capable of measuring the extent to which this has happened. When Bloom was revised (more of this below) a fourth

  • Cognitive (subject knowledge),
  • Psychomotor (dexterity/manual skills),
  • Affective (attitudes/values/emotions)

Bloom’s team addressed the cognitive domain.Critics of the taxonomy are quick to point out the difficulties of applying historical, linear systems to the complexity of real-world learning environments in 21st century but this triptych e.g VAK (Visual Aural Kinesthetic) has endured.  While research has debunked ‘the myth of learning styles’ (Coffield) it’s broadly accepted students have different learning preferences. Designing different tasks at different times which involve more than one approach can be beneficial.

The cognitive domain is most often displayed as a pyramid. This is reminiscent of the earlier hierarchy of needs by Maslow. In fact, Maslow should be incorporated into Bloom. Although the hierarchy has also been critiqued, unless students have met their basic needs, they’re unlikely to do well academically.

Learning designers should keep Maslow in mind.

MAslow Hierarchy of Needs pyramid
image from

Back to Bloom…

The original version of the cognitive domain has six dimensions. these represent what Bloom called lower and higher order thinking skills.

  • Evaluation – appraise and critique
  • Synthesis – combine and integrate
  • Analysis – compare and contrast
  • Application – apply and restructure
  • Comprehension – understand and recognise
  • Knowledge – acquire and remember

In 2001 the dimensions were revised (Anderson and Krathwohl et. al.), Synthesis and Evaluation swapped around and Creativity given the top slot.


triangles showing original and amended blooms taxonomy
image from Wilson, Leslie O. (2001)

There are dozens of versions of the original and revised taxonomy online, many of which have suggestions for understanding each dimension such as the one below from Vanderbilt University.

Bloom's Taxonomy pyramid

The most complex one I’ve seen is the rose version below. The conception of the taxonomy as a circle represents a more realistic approach for academic practitioners to follow, one where learning happens at different times in different subjects and is generally more complex and messy than the implied linear perspective originally proposed by Bloom.

Bloom's taxonomy as a circle with layers

Another aspect of Bloom to take into consideration is the division of knowledge into different types.

  • Factual  basic knowledge and facts e.g. vocabulary, definitions and specific details.
  • Conceptual  inter-relationships, e.g. information systems, classifications and categories.
  • Procedural  methods of inquiry e.g. algorithms and techniques with criteria for using them.

The revised Bloom added Metacognitive Knowledge  (awareness and knowledge of individual cognition e.g. manipulation of thinking processes). It differentiated between “knowing what” and “knowing how”. It also added greater emphasis on the sub categories attached to the dimensions. See A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview ( Krathwohl, D. 2010) for more details.

So that’s the framework.

Bloom’s taxonomy in 21st century 

21st century learning design is described by the Microsoft Innovative Educator Programme as involving communication and collaboration, with knowledge construction requiring interpretation, analysis and synthesis.

The UCL ABC types of learning design activities is based on previous work of the OU. It’s framework is represented by six cards covering acquisition, inquiry, practice, production, discussion and collaboration. It’s not hard to align these with the understanding, application, analysis, evaluation and creation of knowledge laid out by Bloom.

ABC learning activities

Digital Bloom

More recently, the taxonomy has been overlaid with a range of digital tools for achieving the different dimensions. Another indication Bloom is far from over yet.

Chart showing a digital version of blooms taxonomy

image Credit: Ron Carranza

Many of the digital models retain the triangle or stepped pyramid approach which is not helpful. Don’t think of the dimensions as sequential but think circles, continuums or quadrants. A useful adaptation is the Padagogy wheel – which is well worth an exploration.

padagogy wheel

Last thoughts

The elements of Bloom’s taxonomy shouldn’t be dismissed as no longer relevant. Who wouldn’t support the development of activities which encourage students to acquire, apply, analyse and evaluate knowledge with the aim of creating new understandings. How better to introduce digital tools and literacies than via situations which require application, analysis and critical evaluation. The heart of  higher education remains the construction of new ways of seeing and the creation of new knowledge and the core concepts of Bloom’s taxonomy can help you design opportunities for learning which support this.

The taxonomy isn’t outdated. It’s blooming useful.

It’s not what you use, it’s how you use it which counts.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals (1956).

Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.



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