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.
Bloom's Learning Taxonomy
Bloom's Learning Taxonomy
  • 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.
Gagne's Learned Capabilities
Gagne's Learned Capabilities
David Merrill and Ruth Clark's Performance/Content Matrix
  • 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.
Romiszowski's Knowledge Schema
Romiszowski's Knowledge Schema
Romiszowski's Skills Schema
Romiszowski's Skills Schema

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 methodologyCognitive 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?

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13 Responses
  1. Tom, I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been having a number of conversations with people working on the more straightforward, procedural tasks that make up a big part of many jobs, especially entry-level or front-line ones.

    I’d add only that the sequence is mainly chronological: Bloom’s stuff is what there was for a long time, and a great improvement on “understand” as an objective. (I read Bloom and Preparing Instructional Objectives in the same grad-school semester, in the early 1970s, but as you know Bloom had been around much longer.)

    I agree that people can get bogged down into ritual formulations (and adherents of Mager aren’t immune from that). At the same time, I’m very skeptical of “common sense” as a standard. (The headmaster of a local school said once, “Common sense tells most people the earth is flat.”)

    Not that “understand” isn’t a shibboleth for me; it’s more the case that “understand” is a hint of laziness (or desperation) in trying to articulate goals. I’ve used it when a client’s insisted, or when a battle over terminology wasn’t crucial. I do take pains to get examples of what “understanding” looks like when you see it from the outside.

    I also think there’s a lot of value in van Merrienboer–though the amount of polysyllabic underbrush in Ten Steps to Complex Learning suggests that not many working instructional designers will get through the first five.

  2. Tom Gram

    yeah, the van Merrienboer work is full of gratuitous jargon and a (way) tougher read than it needs to be. And “Ten Steps” is supposed to be the simplified, practitioner version of his earlier work. Jeesh! But i like the underlying framework.

  3. Aren’t taxonomies by definition descriptive, not prescriptive? As you note, Tom, problems arise when you start using the taxonomy in a prescriptive way and get “rigidly constructed instructional objectives”. The master artisan knows when and how to use the appropriate tool.

  4. I’ve been doing some recent thinking on this issue as well.

    Let me agree that I too worry about whether these taxonomies are being used and/or used well.

    I’m thinking (not sure yet) that these taxonomies may simply be unworkable for most learning professionals. Moreover, perhaps they actually harm learning.

    Let me add a couple of points:

    A group of learning researchers (etc.) got together and published an “updated” version of Bloom’s taxonomy in 2001.

    A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing — A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives; Lorin W. Anderson, David R. Krathwohl, Peter W. Airasian, Kathleen A. Cruikshank, Richard E. Mayer, Paul R. Pintrich, James Raths and Merlin C. Wittrock (Eds.) Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. 2001.

    They have 4 Knowledge Dimensions:


    And 6 Process Dimensions


    Imagine a 6×4 table…

    Also, many others have their own taxonomies, for example there is another book, now in its 2nd edition: Marzano, Robert J., Kendall, John S. Title : The new taxonomy of educational objectives / Robert J. Marzano, John S. Kendall. 2nd ed. Published: Thousand Oaks, CA : Corwin Press, 2007.

    My sense of how these taxonomies are utilized is that learning professionals try to examine their current learning interventions in comparison to the taxonomy; THEN they see if they are over-reliant on lower levels of the taxonomies and try to enrich their learning interventions with more complex and meaningful learning events.

    Seems good, AND we learning professionals must constantly beware of too-simple of designs–BUT isn’t there a better way? I keep coming back to the Magic Question, “What do we want our learners to be able to do, and in what situations do we want our learners to do those things?” Perhaps in conjunction with this: “In what situations and under what circumstances do we want our learners to remember/utilize what they learned in our learning interventions? How can we prepare them for this?”

    I still haven’t sorted this all out, but there has to be a simpler more effective way than these complicated taxonomies.

    Maybe this is what Mager was getting at, though clearly his system has not done enough to create such outcomes, judging from the inadequate designs we see regularly.

  5. Tom Gram

    Sure, but taxonomies do have the purpose of guiding learning strategies. I think they remain useful even in more integrative, holistic instructional design. It’s helps to know what you’re integrating :).

  6. I just posted a few thoughts from my current reading (Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody). One notion that comes to me, having just read Will’s comment and Harold’s, is that the people most likely to use taxonomies are at either end of the “professional” scale.

    By that I mean: the relatively inexperienced designer of training, who’s looking for a workable model to help make sense out of the task at hand. Bloom’s verbs (which were suggestions, not entries in the Federal Register) were one way to do that. Mager’s approach, another. Me, I’m fond of the heydad test as a quick summary: “Hey, Dad, watch me while I [state objective here].”

    You can see what that does to “appreciate the advantages of SPIN selling.”

    At the other end–often characterized by the number of people at that end who have tenure–you’ve got Talmudic arguments about processes versus concepts versus principles versus instantiations. These mostly remind me of arguments about whether X is a vision statement or a mission statement.

  7. Tom Gram

    Thanks for your thoughts and references. Your “used vs. used well” strikes a chord. Most “learning designers” have not been academically trained (not that that there’s anything wrong with that :), and have likely only been superficially exposed to learning taxonomies, if at all, so they tend to use them (again, if at all) to create those horrendous hierarchies of precisely worded learning objectives we’ve all seen.

    They have been more helpful to me in identifying appropriate learning strategies than creating the perfect action verb. But, they have less a place in the more holistic learning models I mentioned, which remain performance based.

    Cammy Bean has a fun informal survey going that identifies some of the backgrounds of practicing instructional designers.


  8. Great post, Tom!

    Dave is right on, at least in regards to how I used taxonomies.

    As a beginning instructional designer with no formal training, objectives were presented to me as a formula to complete. Plug and play. The taxonomy simply provided the list of verbs you could choose from. Could have made a drag and drop exercise of all those verbs and completed the objectives that way.

    Take some good descriptive writing of how to complete a task, tack on a few learning objectives upfront and voila! you’ve created training and are now an instructional designer!

    Hopefully, I’ve advanced a few paces from that place.

  9. Dave, love the ‘Hey Dad’ test . . . “Hey Dad, watch me while I develop an appreciation for the levels of understanding demonstrated in this knowledge.”

    Cammy, I think you have advanced a few paces . . . lol

    Thanks for the post Tom.

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