Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy: Impact on Curriculum and Motivation of Students

Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy: Impact on Curriculum and Motivation of Students

The basic problem with Bloom’s taxonomy is defining the learning process as a sequence of progression from simpler memory recall function to the supposedly higher levels such as synthesis and evaluation which as Frank Smith argues below is contrary to the actual process of human learning. The problem is that the theoretical foundations of Bloom’s Taxonomy are based on the experiments done (i) on pigeons, rats, and dogs by the founders of behavioral school of Pavlov and Skinner, and (ii) involving “senseless” and “meaningless” tasks. They unfortunately forgot to compare their experimental results with the observations of children learning in real life settings as the seminal work of John Holt, Chomsky and others demonstrate using sensible and meaningful activities. In the excerpt given below, Frank Smith points out the problems with Bloom’s taxonomy through various observations of real people in real learning situations that prompted him to say:

“All of this is contrary to another educational shibboleth, widely promoted by University of Chicago professor of education Benjamin S.Bloom (who will be met several times in the course of this book) that the amount of learning depends on the “time on task.” The more time spent in studying something, Bloom believes, the more that will be learned. Bloom is right — but only for the kind of nonsense learning task that is involved in most psychological experiments. How much is learned by rote is a direct function of time and effort. …” [Full context of this quote is give below in the excerpt]

Problems emanating from the application of Bloom’s Taxonomy have further shattered the foundations of our learning system and even our assumption about a human being resulting in the loss of motivation and interest of our students in studies:

  1. Bell Curve Evaluation of Students  hightlights how a child is boxed into a corner by tools like Bloom’s Taxonomy and MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator), which destroy the future potential of the child by labeling him. 
  2. Education as Tazkia: Is a child like a clean slate? identifies how tools like Bloom’s Taxonomy assume that a child is like a clean slate which destroys the growth potential of a child before it actually starts. 
  3. How Our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) is an insult to the Intelligence of Children and eventually ends up making them hate every subject that we try to teach them. The more we increase the intensity of our teaching, the more they start hating the subject, whereas the opposing view would have effortlessly enabled them to explore and discover the subject and made them lovers of the subjects that they study.
  4. Holistic Learning and Whole Life Orientation is an alternative approach that aligns with the natural learning process of a child. 
Excerpts from the Book “Insult
to Intelligence: Bureaucratic Invasion of Classrooms” by Frank Smith
[Begin Excerpt]

Motivation, and Effort

An excuse
many people offer for failure to learn is that they have a poor memory. I don’t
want to argue about whether some people have memories that are less efficient
in every respect than the memories of others, but rather want to point out that
we can all remember some things better than others. And paradoxically, we tend
to be much more aware of the things we can’t remember than of the things we
can. We may say we have a poor memory because of problems we have with names or
dates, even though we have no problem remembering huge quantities of other
things — like the details of the language we speak, the geographies of our
homes and neighborhoods, and innumerable facts about the world in general. We
may even overlook all the names and dates we do remember because of our concern
with the few that give us trouble.

But even
if individual memories may be weak in particular respects, what makes them
function most efficiently is still not deliberate practice or determined effort
but meaningfulness. It is often argued that surely students who find learning
difficult must be drilled in just one thing at a time and tested frequently.
But if there are certain things that we have difficulty learning, it is all the
more important that they make sense to us. We can only learn from drills or
from rote memorization things we already understand.

frequent explanation for failure to learn is lack of motivation. It is true
that we do not learn if we are not interested in something, if we just don’t
see ourselves as the kind of person who does whatever it is we are supposed to
learn. But motivation, in the sense of deliberate and conscious effort, is a
different matter. I think it is one of the biggest red herrings we hear from
teachers. Most of the time we learn without motivation, without even knowing
that we are learning. And motivation itself does not guarantee learning. Often
we fail in the very things we are most motivated to learn.

We all
learn things that we are not motivated to learn, like my friend who came back
from Scotland with a Scottish accent. Children usually do not make a conscious
effort to learn to talk, walk, and dress
26 themselves like the people in the
communities to which they belong. On the other hand, we can all fail to learn
things we are highly motivated to learn, as I have failed with automobile
engines. The most that can be said for motivation is that it puts us into
situations where things are going on that we might be interested in learning.
And motivation not to learn will almost certainly result in not learning.
Motivation might raise the probability that learning will take place if the
conditions are right, but it does not carry a guarantee of success.

examples I have just given also demonstrate that effort will not take care of
learning. We learn things without trying and fail to learn when we deliberately
put our minds to it. All of this is contrary to another educational shibboleth,
widely promoted by University of Chicago professor of education Benjamin S.Bloom (who will be met several times in the course of this book) that the
amount of learning depends on the “time on task.” The more time spent
in studying something, Bloom believes, the more that will be learned. Bloom is
right — but only for the kind of nonsense learning task that is involved in
most psychological experiments. How much is learned by rote is a direct
function of time and effort.
But when the learning is meaningful we learn much
faster and, without effort. Having to spend long periods of time in repetitive efforts
to learn specific things is a sign that learning is not taking place, that we
are not in a productive learning situation.

Why then,
for all of us, should there be specific things we can’t learn, even when our
motivation and effort are high? The explanation is that we learn there are
things that we can’t learn. The brain functions too efficiently. Once we are
persuaded, by ourselves or by someone else, that we can’t learn something, no
amount of dedicated effort will produce success. The hardest problem for brain
is not learning but forgetting. No matter how hard we try, we can’t
deliberately forget something we have learned, and that is catastrophic if we
learn that we can’t learn.

offers a good example. Many people tell me they are poor spellers and prove it
by telling me the words they cannot spell. Their problem is not lack of effort
to learn the words they can’t spell. They are forever consulting dictionaries
for the spelling of these words. The trouble invariably is that they have learned
incorrect spellings as well. They have learned too much. Incorrect spellings as
well as the correct ones come to mind whenever they want to write particular
words. Writing out the correct spelling a dozen times to commit it to memory is
a waste of time. The correct spelling has been learned, but it is just one of
several alternatives. What these people are unable to do is forget the
incorrect spellings they don’t want to remember.

What I
can’t forget is that I can’t learn about automobile engines. Other people tell
me they know they can’t learn algebra, music or bridge, recognize particular
stars, or distinguish among different kinds of birds or flowers, even though
they have learned far more complicated things in their lives. It is not a
question of motivation or effort — the things that people say they cannot do
are usually things they have tried very hard to do. And it would be absurd to
suggest that they might lack unique parts of the brain that specialize in the
understanding of algebra, music, bridge, stars, birds, or flowers. We have all
excluded ourselves, or been excluded, from certain clubs, with the consequence
that we approach learning differently. We have decided that we are not the kind
of person who learns certain kinds of things, that we are not members of the

[…. Some Material not

Sense and Nonsense Upside Down

A myth
that supports all of the effort to drill into children things they do not
understand is that leaning  has to
precede understanding. To understand something you first must learn it, or
learn to understand it. And there is no point in studying something you already
understand. These are common assumptions, and totally wrong; the reverse of how
things actually are. To learn you have to understand. There is no point in
trying to learn something you do not already understand. The myth confuses
understanding something with knowing it already. We are capable of
understanding many things we do not already know; we probably do so every
moment that we are awake and not bored or bewildered.

We do not
usually persevere in reading an article in a magazine or newspaper if we do not
understand it — that would just be confusing. But we also do not read an
article if we already know what it has to tell us — that would be boring. What
we do is read something that we understand, that we can make sense of, but that
we do not know already. And as a consequence, we learn. The only thing we are
likely to learn if we are confused or bored is that the article is confusing and
boring. And if we continue to read material that is confusing and boring, we
shall quickly learn that reading itself is confusing and boring. To understand
something does not mean that we know it already, but that we can relate it to
what we know it already, that we can make sense of it.

understand when my morning newspaper tells me that my local team lost another
game last night. Every word in the report makes sense to me, but not because I
already know the result of the game. I also learn as a consequence of my
understanding of the report — I learn the result of last night’s game. I
 do not have to memorize the result, to
deliberately put it into memory, became my understanding takes care of that. I
would only have to memorize deliberately if I were dealing with something I did
not understand — but if that were so I probably wouldn’t be reading the report
in the first place. I do not have to learn anything in order to understand, but
my prior understanding results in my learning. All of this is totally contrary
to a monument of theorizing that has influenced and justified educational
psychology and instructional development for the past thirty years, formally
known as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Benjamin Bloom and his
academic associates at the University of Chicago developed their taxonomy, or
classificatory scheme, of levels of learning complexity in the 1950s, when the
systematic analysis of learning and instruction was beginning to gain momentum.

proposal was that complex types of behavior (like the kinds of things humans
generally do? are based on more simple kinds of behavior (like the kinds of
things generally done only in experimental studies), and that instruction
should similarly proceed in the same direction. Bloom’s six categories begin
with simple “knowledge,” with relating one thing to another, like
getting a fact out of a file. Learning and remembering that Lima is the capital
of Peru, or that seven squared is forty-nine, are examples of the
“knowledge” at the bottom level of Bloom’s hierarchy, scarcely
different from the rote memorization of nonsense syllables. This type of
learning is also called “stimulus-response” learning, reflecting the
origins of this kind of theory in the animal conditioning experiments of the
Russian physiologist Pavlov and in B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Next up the
scale from such “basic” learning in Bloom’s hierarchy is
“comprehension” of the very simplest kind, like being able to use a
fact in some way without necessarily understanding its implications or relating
it to any other knowledge. The ascent of the scale continues through
application, analysis, and synthesis until the pinnacle is reached at
evaluation, where the learner is able to make judgments about the value or
utility of what is learned. For instructional and testing purposes, the six
steps on Bloom’s ladder are commonly reduced to three or four, starting with
fact learning and rising through inference to application and then to
evaluation. Each successive step is supposed to be harder than the earlier one.
Mid- west Publications Company’s “Basic Thinking Skills” series,
which has been adopted for both English and math instruction in California and
other states, claims to be “related to Bloom’s Taxonomy” because the
programs lead children from following directions and recognizing patterns to
thinking about problems and making judgment.

is not the only hierarchical learning scheme in educational psychology, but it
is the most
Unfortunately, all hierarchical schemes represent the world turned upside down.
They are based on learning that is essentially nonsensical; determined by the
experimenter rather than by the learner, and rely on data collected in
controlled experimental conditions. In the real world, “fact
learning” is the most difficult kind of learning, unless it is embedded in
something that is understood. The recall of nonsense is much less efficient
than the recollection of situations that were comprehensible. Children learn
through what they do rather than doing things as a result of what they know.
They do not learn from the club members they apprentice themselves to unless
they can infer why club members behave in the ways they do and unless they
evaluate the behavior as worth emulating. They learn when they decide they
would like to do something themselves — a judgment that is at the peak of the

language learning, in mathematics and in science generally, teaching the
“skills” or the “basics”
first and
hoping that understanding will come later may be the easiest kind of
instruction for teachers who do not really comprehend what they are doing in
any case. But children learn to read and to write when they are engaged in
activities that naturally involve reading and writing, as a whole, not in bits.
Children learn math and science – when they are shopping, building, creating,
and exploring, and they can see a purpose and a value in what they do. For
learning that occurs spontaneously and continually, the hierarchy and the
taxonomy should be upended.

Rise and Decline of Mastery Learning

theories have also been directly translated into a program called “Mastery
Learning” that has been adopted by over 1,500 school districts across the
United States, one of them being its home territory of Chicago where it has
recently been withdrawn at a failure. While his hierarchy is widely taken in
support of the absurd position that something children can make sense of and
use is more difficult to learn than something they cannot, Bloom has an
underlying view that is insightful and indisputable. For thirty years he has
argued against the widespread belief that there are good learners and poor
learners, and in favor of the notion that there are faster learners and slower
learners. Bloom has also pointed out that individual differences are not so
much between
learners, as people, as between what is learned, and that in fact the same individual might be a fast
learner for some things and a slower learner for others. The realization that
everyone could learn anything if given enough time led Bloom to the notion of
mastery learning, which is one of the most influential ideas behind
programmatic instruction today.

The way
Bloom proposed that mastery learning could be translated into practice in
schools was the familiar one that subjects in the curriculum should be broken
down into parts, which he called units, and students should not be permitted or
expected to proceed to the next unit until they had mastered the one they were
working on. The idea sounds reasonable enough, but at this point a number of
things go wrong. The first snag is that subjects are typically broken down into
units, or objectives, without any regard for sense or for how children actually
learn. Subjects are broken down on the principle of “what makes an expert,”
so that instead of having an opportunity to master one thing at a time — if
indeed that is what children normally do in a meaningful context, children are
expected to progress from one meaningless chunk of learning to another. And in
practice there is usually no more sense in the sequencing of units than there
is in their content. Children “do” addition before subtraction,
fractions before decimals (or vice versa), without understanding how the
different parts of what they are doing relate to each other or to anything

second difficulty is that while schools have avidly introduced the
“mastery” part of mastery learning, they have not adopted the
“different speeds for different learners” philosophy, which of course
does not fit with the notion that children should achieve particular objectives
by the time particular tests are administered or be labeled
“failures.” So while children are forced to struggle to master
“units” that make little sense to them, standardized tests that they
are not ready for come along at regular intervals to confirm that they are in
fact poor learners.

In a
comprehensive volume on the research and practice of mastery learning — and of
how it can be administered to children disguised at play — Daniel Levine,
professor of education at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, credits
Bloom with being “the major theoretician and promulgator” of the
system. Levine goes on to indicate clearly how students who fail to cope with
such concentrated instruction are regarded as inadequate: “Mastery
learning can be generally defined as instruction organized to emphasize student
mastery of specific learning objectives and to deliver corrective instruction
as necessity to achieve that goal. Mastery learning that involves formative testing
of initial skill acquisition followed by corrective instruction for non-masters
has become increasingly popular during the part ten years. Thousands of school
systems are now utilizing mastery learning as defined here to define student

One of
Levine’s associates, Herbert J. Wahlberg, describes the methodology of mastery
alone or in groups, work through units in an organized fashion at their own
pace and must master a given amount of one unit, typically eighty percent on
end-of-unit or formative tests, before moving on to the next unit.” There
is little logic involved in deciding what constitutes a unit (which might be
the name of a letter of the alphabet or the recognition of a number) or in
deciding how units should be sequenced. There is certainly no concern with how
much sense or purpose any particular child
42 might be
able to detect in the unit to be learned, only with ensuring that there is
sufficient time for the child who is a “non-master” to persevere with
efforts to learn. The notion that children work at their own pace, which
superficially sounds as though the program is responsive to the rate at which
individual children learn, instead means that there is no escape for the child
who is having difficulty; who must just keep trying until reaching “eighty
percent” mastery. It is not surprising that mastery-learning enthusiasts
are anxious to get as much time for their drills as possible, by lengthening
and increasing the number of school days.

Levine associates-Beau Fly Jones, Lawrence B. Triedman, Margaret Tinzmann, and
Beverly E. Cox — provide “Guidelines for Instruction – Enriched Mastery
Learning to Improve Comprehension.” They offer four principles which could
be taken as the essence of all programmatic instruction: (1) Organize the
overall curriculum in terms of stated objectives. (2) Deliver day-to-day
instruction in units with a four-phase cycle of teach, test, re-teach, retest
[teaching meaning primarily the specification of what the student is supposed
to recapitulate on the test]. (3) Align testing and curriculum. (4) Keep
records unit by unit.

curriculum has to be “aligned” with four kinds of tests that are at
the heart of the mastery learning philosophy: (1) Pretests, which have the effect
of priming the student for the regime of tests that will follow. (2) Formative
tests, to “diagnose” learning errors. (3) Retests, at the end of
every unit “to document mastery.” (4) Summative tests, to assess how
much learning has been done after a series of units. It is the results of all
these tests that have to be scrupulously recorded.

R. Pringle, in “Establishing a Management Plan for Implementing Mastery
Learning,” outlines how management plans should be written at the district
level — as far away as one can get from the actual classroom. She says that
the plans, usually written by a management team centered on the
superintendent’s office, should set student-learning goals for all staff.
Teachers have to design their teaching to match the district objectives.
Mastery learning can be an administrator’s delight — until it, too, obviously
goes wrong.

learning instructional materials were first developed by Chicago school
personnel in 1975
and are
now sold by Mastery Education Corporation of Watertown, Massachusetts, under
the name Chicago Mastery Learning program. They were mandated for use in
Chicago schools in 1981. Student workbooks emphasized specific skills, such as
“learning to follow directions” and understanding consonants and
plurals. Mastery of the materials was the basis for promoting students to the
next grade and for evaluations of teachers. Charles Munoz, president of the
Chicago School Board, eventually acknowledged that a basic problem was that
children were not allowed to read books. Even parents complained that children
were bored by the exercises, and a study of the 1984 graduating class reported
that only 6,000 of the 18,500 who graduated had reached the national twelfth
grade level of reading ability; 1,000 were reading at or below the national
junior high school level. These figures took no account of the fifty percent of
the children who entered high school but dropped out before graduation.

Manford Byrd,Jr., Superintendent of Schools in Chicago, decreed in July 1985
that in the future
should employ Mastery Learning materials only on an optional supplementary
basis, for both reading and mathematics. Students would primarily learn to read
by reading from books. But another commercial program — the one published by
Lippincott — was adopted to fill the programmatic gap, and it remains to be
seen how much teachers will be able to break free from years of programmatic
instruction — and where they will turn to cope with the continuing emphasis on
demonstrating progress. Meanwhile, Mastery Learning materials are still
extensively mandated for use elsewhere, including all New York City schools.

[End of excerpt]


  1. Studying is not easy as it seems for many people, sometimes excessive studying or anxiety before coming exams can lead to various mental disorders, it is not a joke, here are top widerspread problems some students meet

  2. THANKS for a good review on Bloom Taxonomy. The components of Bloom Taxonomy as I understand are knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application, synthesis and evaluation these are simple ways for Mastery Leaning and Learning by doing.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I have now come to realize that Bloom Taxonomy does not cover the Caring Part and the Human Dimension which are significant for learning.

  4. More importantly, the major argument in this blog post asserts, the sequence is contrary to the way learning takes place. Learning does not take place from Simple to Complex. It takes place from Complex to Simple. As explained in my other post How Our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) is an insult to the Intelligence of Children

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