How Bloom’s Taxonomy Gets Misinterpreted

by Justin Skycak on

Many educators think that the makeup of every year in a student's education should be balanced the same way across Bloom's taxonomy, whereas Bloom's 3-stage talent development process suggests that the time allocation should change drastically as a student progresses through their education.

Bloom’s taxonomy of learning often gets interpreted in a way that is not in line with Bloom’s seminal work that came later in his career – namely, the 3-stage process of talent development that describes the striking commonalities Bloom discovered when studying the backgrounds of extremely successful individuals across a wide variety of fields.

Bloom’s 3-Stage Talent Development Process

The 3-stage process is the main thesis of Benjamin Bloom’s 1985 book Developing Talent in Young People; a more extensive summary of these stages can be found in the 2002 paper Role of the Elite Coach in the Development of Talent by Gordon Bloom.

I’ll briefly summarize the stages below:

  • Stage I: The Early Years. Fun and exciting playtime. Students are just starting to develop awareness and interest in the talent domain. The teacher provides copious positive feedback and approval and encourages students to explore whatever aspects of the talent domain they find most exciting. Students are rewarded for effort rather than for achievement and criticism is rare.
  • Stage II: The Middle Years. Intense and strenuous skill development. Students are fully committed to increasing their performance. The teacher becomes or is replaced by a coach, who focuses on training exercises where the sole purpose is to improve performance. These exercises are demanding, and the coach provides constructive criticism to help the student perform the exercises properly. Positive feedback is provided in response to achievement; effort is assumed.
  • Stage III: The Later Years. Developing one’s individual style while pushing the boundaries of the field. Students are proficient in all the foundational skills in the talent domain. They are so committed that they center their entire lives around the talent domain, no matter the sacrifice, and typically work with a world-class expert in the talent domain. The expert helps the student identify and lean into their individual strengths so that they can excel beyond perceived human capabilities.

How Bloom’s Taxonomy Gets Misinterpreted

Now here’s the key difference between Bloom’s 3-stage talent development process and the way that Bloom’s taxonomy often gets (mis)interpreted.

Many educators think that the makeup of every year in a student’s education should be balanced the same way across Bloom’s taxonomy, whereas Bloom’s 3-stage talent development process suggests that the time allocation should change drastically as a student progresses through their education (i.e., heavily focused on the lower parts of the taxonomy in Stage II: The Middle Years and heavily focused on the higher parts of the taxonomy in Stage III: The Later Years).

In other words, Bloom’s 3-stage talent development process argues for front-loading foundational skill development and then shifting to creative production afterwards.

Why Order Matters

The natural follow-up question, then, is “why does the order matter? Why not just split the time 50-50 between foundational skill development and creative production throughout the whole talent development process?”

I think there are two ways to answer that question.

There’s 1) a quick/intuitive thought experiment, and then 2) a more rigorous answer based on research in cognitive science.

Quick/Intuitive Thought Experiment

1) The quick/intuitive thought experiment is to think about the extremes. The 3-stage talent development process is the extreme where foundational skill development is front-loaded, and world-class performance is typically created through this approach.

The other extreme would involve front-loading creative production and back-loading foundational skill development. What does that look like? Basically, give a kid an instrument that they have no idea how to play, have them mess around with it for years creating their own songs, and then have them learn proper techniques / scales / music theory afterwards.

(I think it’s clear that this will almost always result in a substantially worse final performance outcome, but if that’s not clear to you, then just ignore and read on to answer 2 below.)

More Rigorous Answer Based on Research in Cognitive Science

2) The more rigorous answer is this:

there’s a mountain of empirical evidence that you can increase the number of examples & problem-solving experiences in a student’s knowledge base,

but a lack of evidence that you can increase the student’s ability to generalize from those examples (by doing things other than equipping them with progressively more advanced examples & problem-solving experiences).

In other words, research indicates the best way to improve your problem-solving ability in any domain is simply by acquiring more foundational skills in that domain.

For a brief overview, see the following references:

Armed with this information, if you want to maximize how far you get in a talent domain, the optimal rational strategy would be a greedy approach:

  1. grab all the examples & problem-solving experiences in the direction that you're going, as quickly as possible, and
  2. only once you reach the end of the road with known examples and problem-solving experiences, do you switch over to creative production.

Creative production is a way less efficient way of moving forward so you want to save it for the end when it’s the only way to continue moving forward.

Note: To be clear, lots of people think they’re running this strategy by spending an indefinite amount of time “preparing” for whatever it is they eventually want to do –

but the problem is that the true strategy assumes your direction is narrow/focused enough to actually reach the edge of the talent domain, and this other “perma-preparation” strategy doesn’t focus the direction enough to actually reach the edge.

This is sometimes intentional self-sabotage: people

  1. reach the edge
  2. get scared to make the leap into creative production, and then
  3. artificially widen/unfocus their direction to introduce more opportunities for fundamental skill development --

but these are skills they don’t actually need to have, so it’s ultimately just busywork.