The false dichotomy

There are certain concepts that become so much part of the language and the cultural assumptions of one’s profession that they go unnoticed. In education, one of the most prevalent – and pernicious  – is the vapid assignation of the terms “higher order” and “lower order” skills. The labels are linked to what has become known as Bloom’s taxonomy. Bloom himself described his work as “the most widely cited and least read book in America.” On the many occasions where I have heard Bloom’s taxonomy cited, I have never heard it questioned or qualified; it is rarely even contextualised. It is simply referred to, usually briefly, as the authoritative rationale for whatever (or whoever) the speaker wants to promote.

The problem with this is that the taxonomy was developed to try to classify educational objectives. The assumption that these skills exist in a strict hierarchy was never agreed by the authors of the original text. The relationship of those objectives has been the subject of much academic debate. But the popular misinterpretation of the taxonomy  has led to a multi-generational loss of learning opportunities. It is a triumph of philosophy over science, of populism over rigour, of politics over responsibility.

The “lower order” skills – remembering and knowledge, for example – cannot be considered inferior. They are necessarily prerequisite. You cannot acquire knowledge or skills without remembering. Recall is not lower order. It is foundational. Only an fool would suggest that remembering is all that is needed for learning. But we become a special kind of fool when we think that we can synthesise “higher order skills” without mastery of the foundational skills of which they are composed.

The most obvious examples are in reading and mathematics, though there are plenty of others. According to Ofsted in the UK, 20% of students begin secondary school reading below their chronological age. The figures are similar for maths. In teachers’ rush to ensure they are teaching “higher” skills, the foundations have been neglected. It is often left up to parents to search around for ways to help their children. Despite what some educators may try to suggest, the problem is not the children’s intelligence – it is simply that the quality of instruction has not been explicit, systematic or focused enough.

The false dichotomy of “higher” and “lower” has been pervasive for decades, with two key effects: it has left children under-taught, and the teaching profession looking deservedly vacuous.

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2 Responses to The false dichotomy

  1. m. says:

    oh.lordy. so i have to speak up on this one! i work in elearning. we are an industry that notoriously misuses the taxonomy. i knew when i was “taught” it on the job that it wasn’t just about selection of the “correct verbs” to phrase an objective, but it was only recently that i managed to get my hands on the book. the pyramid structure we see everywhere on the internet actively agitates me.

    i wish posts like this, correcting misconceptions about the taxonomy were a LOT more common. it’s amazing how positively wrong understanding has managed to prevail and dominate.

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