A Critique of Thinking Categories

Why are thinking skills not widely taught and used in our classrooms and curriculum? Here are some reflections and tentative solutions to two pieces of the problem: applying Bloom's taxonomy, applying skills in evaluation.

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A Critique of Education's Effort to Raise Thinking Skills: A Problem of Application

Bloom laments that 30 years after his publication of his taxonomy of thinking, it is still not well known and worse, that the quality of thinking activity is no different in American classrooms than it was 30 years ago. So, where do we go from here? I argue that Bloom and others have not gone far enough, but by this I do not mean go further in analytical divisions of thinking. Neither Bloom's work nor the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's re-analysis used by some states (e.g., North Carolina's educational system) directly connects sufficiently with real-world problem solving. Bloom's taxonomy is not a strategy but an analytical listing of the elements. When your tire goes flat or when you need to advise your state legislator on an issue, Bloom's taxonomy does not readily come to mind, even though when finished we can analyze our process and see that at different times we used the different levels of thinking skills. One might say that Bloom's thinking stopped short of his stages of application, synthesis and evaluation. Bloom has given us a set of tools, some bricks and boards, but not given us the design for how this becomes a house.

Of course, for thinkers, the primary issue is not how to construct a house, but rather how to construct or invent a solution. But bridges still need to be made between Bloom's older inventory of the basic ingredients and the models for solving problems. In fact, when problem solving (e.g., inventing, or creating) all of these levels of thinking are employed at every stage of the process. We need something in more practical language, more mnenomic in structure at a higher stage of generalization, from which Bloom's levels of thinking are employed as needed. We need a kind of design called a strategy. Different content areas have developed different problem solving models using different words to say the roughly the same things. The LEAP model is an example of the synthesis of a more generic and more recallable model of a strategy. It does not eliminate Bloom's taxonomy any more than a design for a house eliminates the need for tools and material. Because our goal is to stimulate a large number of people in quickly in assembling solutions, in raising the quality of thinking activity, it is a very simple design. More complex problems may well require a more complex design.

Beyond the design issue, but equally important, is the issue of tools. There are mental tools and physical tools that are used in building a house or building a solution. Historically, a wide range of physical tools have been used. Builders have used hammers and nails. Thinkers have used pencil and paper. Times change. Now it is the unusual house builder who does not also use power tools, e.g., a nail gun driven by a compressor, electric saws and drills and so forth. It is commonly understood that they extend the physical power of a human being, enabling more work to be done more easily, and often to be done more quickly. Every neighborhood hardware store not only has such tools on display, but someone behind the counter who can provide some detail about use on every one of them. A corollary that develops from this tool use is the knowledge that though a tool can have a wide range of application, (using a screw driver to pry up a nail), using the right tool is far more effective and thereby efficient in the use of your time, hence the crowbar for prying up nails. Further, sometimes, the manual tool is the right tool, that is, more effective and practical to use than the power tool.

Not widely known, however, at the local thinkstores (school and library) are the power tools for thinking. This is a several stage problem: first identify and acquire the tool; second, learn how to use it; and third, learn how best to apply the tool even while learning the wide range of general use to which the tool can be put. In both the case of building a house or constructing an idea to serve as a solution to a problem, use of the tool must be preceded by and stand on a set of thinking tools or skills, skills inventoried by Bloom decades ago. Schools and libraries have played a role similar to that of the hardware store. They have provided tools and people to provide detail on how to use the tools. More recently, new entities are appearing that fill a similar role, and those entities are the computer store and computer networks (the Internet being one of those networks).

Today, then, not only do we need models to apply Bloom's taxonomy in a meaningful way, but we need models that incorporate power tools into our models of thinking. The LEAP model represents steps in this direction. But even if we became universally proficient with Bloom's taxonomy through whatever higher level model that utilizes these skills, is it a sufficient end in itself for human development?

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A Critique of Education's Effort to Raise Thinking Skills: Problems with Evaluation

Evaluation too often presumes that logic and rationality can pursue cause and effect to the root of a problem and given sufficient time and resources, an answer, especially the right answer, can be found. There at least two complications with this. First, this skill can be applied, unfortunately, as easily to robbing a bank as to building a bridge. Left begging is the question of what is right, a question not easily answered by the cause and effect chains of analysis, inference and evaluation. Second, science has learned that there are severe and well understood limits to these chains of rationality, a set of discoveries about limitations in the last couple of decades that are now gathered in the literature under the terms nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. That is, the predictability of most systems in which we participate and which are important to us, diverge exponentially with time, hence with increasing unpredictability.

So, we cannot predict the long term, and depending on the rate of change in a system, the long term can be very short in the human time frame. To the degree that we can predict, even mathematically precise analysis cannot determine our goals for us. That is, we cannot compute our values. Becoming skilled with Bloom's taxonomy will only take us far, or expressed another way, Bloom's taxonomy cannot take us any where at all of significance until our values have been established. Yet in an intriguing conundrum, the peak of Bloom's taxonomy of higher order thinking skills is evaluation, a task that cannot be completed without a set of criteria on which to base ones decisions about the world. Criteria represent a set of values. Bloom's taxonomy only takes on fundamental importance when it is used to leverage a set of values. The deeper and more complex the problem, the deeper we must dig towards our most basic values. Bloom's taxonomy then mandates that we look beyond our rational skills, look to issues of faith and belief about the most important aspects of our existence. Where is this curriculum that develops this most important of aspect of thought? What percentage of our students must formally confront this curriculum in the same way that they must confront and test their skills with mathematics, literature and social studies?

As to the question of the percentage of students that must formally address this topic, we do not know. There is no data. What is the location or presence of such curriculum? It has been vanishing to the point of extinction in our public schools. The answer is that public schools in the United States have generally participated in the steady moral disarmament of our population, to the point that such curriculum about faith, belief, ethics and values would be better categorized as the null curriculum. To find such critical topics addressed with any intensity at all, students must leave the public education system for private and religious systems of education. But even though this topic has been marginalized, it has been pursued by an underground gathering of nonrationalists. This is not to say that this hidden college opposes rationale thought, but rather to say that this grouop finds additional and significant ways to complement rational thought.

We seek to be a plural and tolerant society. We must avoid the fear of one voice dominating our beliefs, not by avoiding hearing any moral voice at all, but by hearing and weighing many voices. I seek to add to the voices that would build the rationale, the philosophy and ultimately the curriculum that would fully enable our students to utilize Bloom's taxonomy. To that end, I offer a list of multiple voices that appear to be interested in doing the same. I invite email and other forms of communication that identify other voices that are interested in doing the same so that they can be included in this small beginning that follows. I invite thinkers to move beyond just my citations and to transmit a summary, analysis and/or evaluation that can be appended/linked to the citations that you find of interest.


Some Web sites

  • Pope John Paul II. For an overview, December 26, 1994, Time Magazine, especially p.57.

    Lycos Search: Moral, a partial listing of fulltext documents available on the network on the topic of morality.

    Some Non-online Resources

  • Beach, Waldo. (1992). Ethical education in American public schools Washington, D.C. : NEA Professional Library, National Education Association.
  • Bennett, William John (1992). The de-valuing of America : the fight for our culture and our children. New York : Summit Books..
  • Benninga, Jacques S. (1991). Moral, character, and civic education in the elementary school. New York : Teachers College Press.
  • Burrett, Kenneth and Timothy Rusnak. (1993). Integrated character education Bloomington, Ind. : Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Chazan, Barry I. (1985). Contemporary approaches to moral education : analyzing alternative theories. New York : Teachers College Press.
  • Coles, Robert. (1989). The call of stories : teaching and the moral imagination. Boston : Houghton Mifflin.
  • Eisenberg, John A. (1992). The limits of reason : indeterminacy in law, education, and
  • Giroux, Henry and David Purpel., eds. (1983). The Hidden curriculum and moral education : deception or discovery? Berkeley, Calif. : McCutchan Pub. Corp.
  • Hare, William. (1985). In defence of open-mindedness. Kingston [Ont.] : McGill-Queen's University.
  • Heslep, Robert D. (1989). Education in democracy : education's moral role in the democratic state. Ames : Iowa State University Press.
  • Kierstead, Fred. & Paul A. Wagner, Jr. (1993). The ethical, legal, and multicultural foundations of teaching. Madison, Wis. : WCB Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
  • Kirschenbaum, Howard (1977). Advanced value clarification. La Jolla, Calif. : University Associates.
  • Kuhlman, Edward. (1994). Agony in education : the importance of struggle in the process of learning. Westport, Conn..
  • McLean, Ryan and George F. (1987). Character development in schools and beyond. New York : Praeger.
  • Noddings, Nel. (1984). Caring, a feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley : University of California Press, .
  • Noddings, Nel. (1992) The challenge to care in schools : an alternative approach to education. New York : Teachers College Press.
  • Power, F. Clark and Daniel K. Lapsley, eds. (1992). The Challenge of pluralism : education, politics, and values. Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Snook, I. A., eds. (1972). Concepts of indoctrination: philosophical essays. London, Boston, Routledge & K. Paul.
  • Sockett, Hugh. (1993). The moral base for teacher professionalism. New York : Teachers College Press.
  • Straughan, Roger. (1989). Beliefs, behaviour and education. London : Cassell.

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    Pope John Paul II Quotations from Time Magazine's articles on their Man of the Year. "In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul locates the source of the great schism between faith and logic in the writings of the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, particularly his assertion "Cogito ergo sum" (I think; therefore I am). The Pope points out that Descartes's formulation turned on its head St. Thomas Aquinas's 13th century pronouncement that existence comes before thought - indeed, makes thought possible. Descartes could presumably have written "Sum ergo Cogito," but then the history of the past 300 years might have been profoundly different.

    ...Instead he argues that rationalism, by itself, is not enough: "This world, which appears to be a great workshop in which knowledge is developed by man, which appears as progress and civilization, as a modern system of communications, as a structure of democratic freedoms without any limitations, this world is no capable of making man happy" (Paul Gray, Empire of the Spirit, p.57).

    "His goal, says his spokesman and intimate adviser Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is nothing less than the establishment of a completely Christian alternative to the humanistic philosophies of the 20th century - Marxism, structuralism, the atheistic ideas of the post-Enlightenment. "They were simply among the tools of the age. Wojtyla said no, we have something new, we don't have to copy. Let us humbly build a new sociology, a new anthropology, that is based on something genuinely Christian." The Pople says his spokesman, believes he has at least laid the groundwork for this task" (John Elson, Lives of the Pope, p.65).

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