Blooming learning outcomes

Go to any discussion among teachers about good practice, whatever one of those is, and at some point the conversation will get round to learning outcomes. “teachers need to set clear outcomes so they can assess what learning is happening,” for example, and “students need clear outcomes so that they know what they are working towards”. Very often, someone will mention Bloom’s Taxonomy and the attendant verbs connected to the “lower” and “higher” order “thinking skills”. Needless to say, as well, at about this time, someone will raise the dread zombie of SMART and so we develop “best practice” learning outcomes like “use present simple to write 4 simple sentences about daily routine” or “identify 6 details from a text”.

Trouble is, these are bollocks. Sorry to put it like that, but it’s the holidays, and anyway,  they are. They are bollocks for a number of reasons.

The first, and the biggest problem with them is down to SMART. I’ve been critical of SMART as a paradigm for any kind of learning aim, (I do it properly in Language Issues, 27.2) be it the lesson or the individual goal, because:

a) when teaching discrete language items, they are simply used as proxy evidence of learning – what the teacher is really thinking, (and what the student is most likely thinking), is that “use present simple to write 4 sentences” means “learn about, and practice, present simple”; and:

b) if the outcomes are taken at face value, then the tightly drawn nature of the outcome/target suggests to teacher and learner that said language skill, or that that structural or lexical learning is now complete, and multiply applicable – that they can now read any text and identify any four details from that text, use present simple in any context or setting automatically. What does it actually mean? – a question which takes us back to point a).

Bloom’s taxonomy makes all this even worse. I work in FE in the UK, and as such Bloom’s Taxonomy and the variations on the lists of verbs are so often presented as “go to” lists for teachers to use when structuring their learning outcomes. Gianfranco Conti does a brilliant, and utterly recommended explanation of why Bloom is problematic at best, misleading at worst (in the context of language teaching here: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/06/04/to-what-extent-does-blooms-taxonomy-actually-apply-to-foreign-language-teaching-and-learning/ (And don’t, just don’t, bloody start the “ESOL is more than just language teaching” crap here, because a) it doesn’t matter, and b) define, please, language teaching). I strongly recommend you read it, but his argument is that essentially language learning doesn’t sit at just one level of the hierarchy suggested in Bloom, but rather spreads across a whole range. In my putative present simple lesson, I would not not only be expecting students to carry out “lower order” tasks such as identify and categorise the ways in which the present simple is formed, while at the same time, depending on how I was teaching the grammar point, expecting students to hypothesise about the structures involved and how they worked, and perhaps synthesise this awareness with other language, perhaps comparing the form with other language they already know. I would later ask students to demonstrate their hypothesis through practice activities, and later, perhaps, to apply that language knowledge in a less controlled way. In one section of a two hour lesson, then, we have visited several layers of Bloom’s taxonomy, sometimes simultaneously. Like I said, however, the link above does this argument so much better than me!

The other challenge for me with the lists of verbs we are usually given (here, look, enjoy) is that lots and lots of them, in the quest for “evidenceablity” of learning, are language bound: explain, describe, repeat, state, dramatize, translate, review, rewrite, give examples, compare, contrast, tell, write, argue, appraise, justify, summarise – I could go on. These are things which are done through language, and which, if we were talking in a foreign language context, where students and teacher shared a common language, then the problem would be pedagogical and psychological, relating to what these mean. But where the language of instruction and the thing being learned are one and the same thing, then the language-focussed nature of such verbs means that the language learning is obscured by the often more challenging linguistic demands of evidencing that learning.

In the very best case, the unholy duality of Bloom & SMART makes for a set of “outcomes” which are no more than descriptions of the tasks students will do in the class, albeit obscured by removing reference to the context of the lesson. But at worst, the whole business misleads teacher and students into a false representation of what is happening in the classroom, and what processes are going on.

But wait, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, at least not entirely, Most of the baby can go too, if I’m honest, but there is a core of rightness here – we need to get rid of the performativity and accountability that SMART and Bloom imply, but we need to keep some focus to the lesson. There’s a time and a place for the unplugged lesson, and we should absolutely treasure, encourage and exploit emergent, learner led language. At the same time, however, I don’t think we can do this all the time. It’s hard on students, hard on the teacher, and just not always workable. It’s great, and I use tasks which develop and rely on learner language a lot. At the same time, however, I also do “straight” lessons where I go in and teach some new stuff to students. I have no grand justification for this except that it keeps the emergent language stuff fresh and new, and, well, I just like to do things differently sometimes. And so there is often a case for having an aim or objective in mind  a focus. Today we are going to practise reading for gist / detail, we are going to learn about present simple, find out about words to do with travel and transport. No need here for measurable outcomes, because the benefit of the measurability, as I’ve already said, is either pointless or spurious. 

 And before you start thinking that this is a fine academic discussion which we can all digest over the summer – it’s not. The use and abuse of learning outcomes is wielded as a stick by observers and inspectors. Are students aware of the outcomes, are they displayed for all to see? Can the teacher assess the learning based on these outcomes? Are there opportunities for stretch and challenge in the learning outcomes? While the first point is simply a question of practice, the latter points are rendered obsolete by pointlessness and spuriosity.  If the outcome doesn’t represent the nature of the learning, as a Bloomy-SMART outcome would suggest, then assessment is similarly unrepresentative, and differentiation is merely a question of luck and instinct. 

Do we need to lose the outcome? Yes, and no. We need to lose Bloom and SMART, yes, absolutely. They don’t help us in developing the focus for a lesson. Instead of a single, meaningless outcome, a better model might be the division of the outcome into the intention and the assessment. The assessment doesn’t belong in the outcome at all: it belongs in the lesson, and in the mind of the teacher. The intention of the lesson is a much more valid concept (nods to Dylan Wiliam), and allows us both honesty and accuracy on our representation of learning. Students are exposed to language, and will have had a chance to practice that language, or develop the skill of reading for gist, listening for detail, whatever. This is the learning intention.

The added bonus of this separation is that there is now more room for emergent language. If language arises, as it does, then there is capacity here for capturing, sharing and evaluating that language, which a closed list of learning outcomes on the Bloom-SMART model simply does not allow for. As a model, the separation of aim and assessment allows for aims to evolve and grow, and reminds us to think about how we are checking for learning, insofar as this is possible, of both planned and unplanned language. Which, really, is no bad thing at all. 

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One comment

  1. Hi Thanks so much for this article (including expletive) which was balm to my pride. Have recently had an observation of my teaching. I had explained the intention of the session (and written it on the board) : to explore the passive voice and practise the use of it in various tenses. The only area for development that the observer gave me was to re-write the outcomes of my session along SMART/Blooms lines. No change in practice required, just the wording on the session plan!! And he wasn’t happy with my first attempt either!
    Interesting to read Gianfranco’s article too. I also work in FE and like you, find that learners are up and down the Blooms scale all the time.
    Thanks again.

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