Dave Ferguson’s recent post on Bloom’s learning taxonomy (see Lovin’ Bloom) got me thinking about the value of learning taxonomies in learning and information design.
Learning taxonomies attempt to break down and categorize types of learning to help designers (of instruction, information, education, performance) develop objectives and learning strategies best matched to the specific type of learning targeted. They are at the core of most approaches to instructional design. Be careful not to let your inner ID geek to far out of the bottle, however. I have memories of an early project, driven by mindless adherence to ISD, where I learned the hard way the misuse of learning taxonomies and formal training objectives. For years I have kept a old Gagne style “instructional objective” from that project that would make your eyes burn. It helps me remember what not to do and a guards me against blowing my brains out in future projects.
A taxonomy of learning taxonomies
A few well known and less well known learning taxonomies…
- Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy is probably the best known and breaks learning into the three commonly used categories of cognitive, psychomotor and affective learning. Each has a number of subcategories.
- Robert Gagne had significant influence with his taxonomy which he labeled “learned capabilities”. Gagne’s highly developed system of learning design included “conditions of learning” or unique instructional strategies that were required to develop each learned capability.
- I always found David Merrill’s Content/Performance matrix helpful. I liked the distinction between knowing and doing. In her book, Designing Technical Training, Ruth Clark added “process” to Merrill’s matrix to make it even more useful, especially for business uses.
- A.J. Romiszowski developed the knowledge/skill distinction even further and added the dimension a variety of categories of skilled performance. I liked the approach he took to clarify skilled behaviour.
Using Learning Taxonomies (or not)
Almost all instructional theorists have all had their crack at learning taxonomies. But how useful have they really been in the practice of learning design?.
My observations over the years are that they are rarely used as intended. When they are, it’s often to create a hierarchy of rigidly constructed instructional objectives with all the right “action verbs” that match the learning type. These perfect instructional objectives have resulted in some of the driest and bizarrely structured learning programs I have seen.
Robert Mager, the most pragmatic of the instructional design go-to sources abandoned classifications of learning types long ago and simply focuses on statements of performance outcomes. My own use of learning taxonomies over the years has been more heuristic than prescriptive. A simple task analysis (or simple common sense) will usually reveal the types of learning outcomes you are dealing with which starts to form ideas for learning strategies to support the types of outcomes I’m targeting.
Complex learning integrates learning domains
Most recent work on complex learning argues for a more integrated (rather than deconstructed) approach to learning results. Instead of breaking learning into domains, complex learning involves the integration of knowledge, skill, attitudes and emotions. New approaches to instructional design focus on whole “authentic” learning tasks based on real life problems/tasks. This helps learners integrate and coordinate knowledge, skill and attitudes to facilitate transfer to new problem situations.
A fundamental problem of traditional instructional design has been the inability to achieve lasting transfer of learning. Traditional strategies based on reducing complex tasks into small steps of presentation/practice does not work well when the learning elements are closely interrelated (cognitive, emotional, social, behavioural). The whole is usually much more than the sum of the parts and therefore demand more holistic approaches to learning.
Instructional approaches promoting this more integrated approach to learning include Roger Schank’s Learning by Doing and simulation approaches, Bernice McCarthy’s 4-Mat methodology, Cognitive Apprenticeship and Social Learning approaches, and the 4C/ID approach of Jeron van Merrienboer
Have learning taxononomies been useful or irrelevant in your own instructional design work?