Bloom’s Taxonomy: Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

Stepped Pyramid

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a well-known hierarchy of different levels of cognitive skills, often used in education to distinguish between higher-level cognitive skills and lower-level cognitive skills. (See this article for a history of the development and refinement of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Bloom’s Taxonomy by Patricia Armstrong.) A revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy often takes the following form, with “Remember” being the lower-level cognitive skill and “Create” being the highest-level cognitive skill:

Bloom's Taxonomy: (Bottom to Top: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create)

The hierarchical nature of the cognitive skills in this version of Bloom’s Taxonomy is intuitive. Understanding something is plausibly a higher-level cognitive skill or task than merely remembering something. Similarly, applying that understanding to specific examples or cases is likewise plausibly an even higher-cognitive skill or task, and so on.

Indeed this “bottom-up” approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy mirrors a typical progression of learning a particular topic or concept in many educational contexts: First you learn some new terminology, then you come to understand the meaning of that concept, then you apply or recognize that concept in some specific example, then you analyze and evaluate some scenario or case in terms of that concept, and perhaps you are then asked to create something using the concept in context.

To be clear, I do not claim that there are any serious pedagogical flaws in this “bottom-up” approach to implementing Bloom’s Taxonomy as an educational schema. I do, however, claim that sticking only to a bottom-up approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy ignores an important aspect of the educational experience, that of discovery. Beginning with terminology and concepts and steadily progressing to analysis, evaluation, and creation means that there are very few surprises along the way, serving to eliminate the “Aha!” moments and the playful curiosity of using new concepts to solve mysteries of real-world examples.

Another approach to implementing Bloom’s Taxonomy in education is what I call a “top-down” approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy: beginning with higher-level activities and examples and using the mysteries and puzzles associated with those higher-level activities as teachable moments to introduce, reinforce, and show the applicability of new concepts and terminology along the way.

For example, suppose you are taking an online course in microeconomics. A bottom-up approach would be to introduce key terminology such as “supply,” “demand,” “market equilibrium,” and so on. After remembering and understanding the terminology, you might be asked to recognize the application of supply and demand in simple examples (the “Apply” level of Bloom’s Taxonomy), probably involving supply and demand curves on simplified and abstracted graphs. From there you might be asked to evaluate (or calculate) specific market equilibrium values. And perhaps only then would you be asked to create something new using the concepts of supply and demand, perhaps by attempting to find the price point for a completely new kind of product without known values for supply and demand. This educational progression, or something like it, mirrors the typical bottom-up approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy as typified in the pyramidal representation above.

The main issue with this bottom-up approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy is that it seems to save all of the interesting things for the later stages of the overall learning experience. The interesting examples, real-world case studies, and the mysteries to be solved (such as the ideal price point for a new invention) come only after the introduction of (frankly, rather dry) terms, definitions, equations, graphs, and so on. The thrill of discovery is almost spoiled in the process of learning the basics.

An alternative to this bottom-up approach is what I call the “top-down” approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy. As the name indicates, the top-down approach inverts the typical progression of Bloom’s Taxonomy, beginning with a higher-level cognitive skill or task and introducing terminology and definitions (lower-level cognitive tasks) as needed.

An immediate objection might be, “How can you ask students to use higher-level cognitive skills without first teaching them the relevant lower-level cognitive skills?” Let’s look at what this might look like in the aforementioned microeconomics classroom. Rather than beginning with boring terminology and definitions, students could be asked to create something, perhaps a new invention or product to be sold. Without any additional context, students could be asked to figure out, through their own devices, how many instances of the product to manufacture, and what the price point should be.

Through students’ own attempt to figure out the price point of a new product, they may find that they intuitively understand some of the relevant factors: how many potential buyers there are, how much money people are willing to spend on this new type of product, not wanting to create too many products that you can’t sell, and so on. After the attempt has been made to invent a product and determine its price-point, the relevant terminology, definitions, and schemas, equations, graphs, and so on, can be introduced to systematize the lessons students learned in the course of their hands-on attempt to figure out a practical, real-world problem on their own.

In an interesting way, the objection still holds: students are not likely to be able to succeed at finding the best price point for a new product unless they already understand the key terminology and conceptual relationships at the heart of supply and demand theory. But a crucial aspect to the top-down approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy is that failure can be equally as important as success, creating a teachable moment in the process. At a certain point in their playful attempt to invent a new product and find its ideal price point, students may discover the fact that they do not have all of the relevant information to know for sure what what ideal price should be, despite their intuitive understanding of some of the economic relationships at play. At these moments, when students realize the limits of their own understanding, it’s time to reach a little further down in Bloom’s Taxonomy and provide the conceptual structure and terminology needed to turn that intuitive understanding into actual understanding, the need for which hopefully will have been motivated by students’ failed attempt to find the product’s best price point.

Each approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the typical bottom-up approach and the project-based top-down approach, has its respective advantages and disadvantages. The bottom-up approach is more systematic, less chaotic, more predictable, and more linear. But it may produce an un-engaging learning experience, a preoccupation with terms and definitions without clear relevance, and uninspired students who are put off by the onslaught of terminology and definitions they are not yet invested in mastering. In contrast, the top-down approach is more hands-on (beginning with creation or some other higher-level cognitive skill), creates a Socratic recognition that further understanding is necessary (learning what you don’t yet know), may create a degree of intuitive understanding of the relevant concepts, and provides the psychological and intellectual motivation to learn a more systematic approach. However, the top-down approach is less systematic, more chaotic, less predictable, and there is a danger of students becoming frustrated by their own failed attempt to solve a puzzle without the necessary understanding.

In reality, the bottom-up approach and the top-down approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy are not mutually exclusive; instructors and instructional designers should absolutely feel free to take the best of both approaches and weave them together in novel ways that are most appropriate for the topics and concepts at hand. In our hypothetical case study of learning supply and demand, it makes perfect sense to jump around Bloom’s Taxonomy, in leaps or iterations: introduce some terminology like “supply” and “demand” (“Remember” on Bloom’s Taxonomy), try to solve a puzzle like finding a price point (“Create” or “Evaluate”), look at a real-world case study (“Apply”), introduce the key relationships such as supply and demand curves as they relate to price equilibrium (“Understand”), and so on. This more fluid movement between levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy betrays the fact that the cognitive skills or tasks in this version of Bloom’s Taxonomy are not truly hierarchical after all. Indeed, other depictions of Bloom’s Taxonomy attempt to represent the relationship between the different types of cognitive skills in other ways besides as a linear hierarchy. (See some alternative versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy here: 14 Brilliant Bloom’s Taxonomy Posters for Teachers.)

I myself prefer to think of the different categories of cognitive skills or tasks in Bloom’s Taxonomy as puzzle pieces that can be arranged and rearranged as needed to find the most effective way to teach or learn any particular topic, concept, or process:

Bloom's Taxonomy (Non-Hierarchical): Hexagons with "Create," "Apply," "Understand," "Evaluate," "Analyze," and "Remember"

While a non-hierarchical model of Bloom’s Taxonomy gives instructors and instructional designers the freedom to take students along the most effective and most engaging educational journey possible without being constrained by artificial schemas, I do maintain that it is important for the various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to make an appearance in the overall learning process, regardless of the order in which they make their entrance. It wouldn’t do, for example, to aim for such a high cognitive level (notice how easy it is to slip back into hierarchical language when discussing Bloom’s Taxonomy) that students are never taught the basics of terminology, definitions, conceptual relationships, and so on. And it likewise wouldn’t do to stay at such a low cognitive level that students are never challenged to apply what they have learned, make evaluative judgments, or create anything of their own to demonstrate their mastery of the material. So, in reality, although it is useful to think of the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy as being more like basic building blocks that can be rearranged as needed, it’s still important not to leave any of those basic building blocks out of the learning process altogether.

As a fellow educator or instructional designer, which models of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and which approaches to its implementation in your teaching or design work, do you find most or least effective, and why? Let us know your thoughts on Bloom’s Taxonomy and its various forms in the comments section!

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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Bloom’s Taxonomy: Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

by Zachary Fruhling
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