Thinking Taxonomies

I want to consider what it means to do ‘high-order thinking’ in arts education.

The terms ‘high’ and ‘low order’ is commonly associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy, the basis of many marking keys for courses and exams in primary, secondary and tertiary education since the 1950s.

In the past, I believe that its hierarchy of six levels exposes how ‘a little knowledge’ can be a ‘dangerous thing’ since I’m pretty sure that  Bloom and his associates had no intention of putting forward the model as I’ve often seen it used as ‘the six easy steps to getting the right answer’.

The Solo Model

In more recent times, John Hattie has argued that Bloom’s Taxonomy needs to be superseded by the Solo Model.

Visible Learning promotes the use of SOLO taxonomy. SOLO taxonomy has five levels: no idea, one idea, many ideas, relate the ideas, extend the ideas. The second and third are typically surface and the latter deep processing. Inquiry is more specific to relating and extending (and similar cognitive processes) but it needs ideas to work on. One of our findings is that such processing does not transfer across subject domains which is why Inquiry teaching within (not across) subject domains is likely to have a much greater effect than as a generic method.

On Visible Learning Plus, Hattie answers the question ‘Do You think Bloom’s Taxonomy is an effective teaching and learning tool? with

No. In my opinion it is outdated. There is no evidence for the Bloom hierarchy (neither the earlier nor more recent modifications) and it mixes strategies for thinking (analyse, create) with levels of understanding (knowledge). In Visible Learning we advocate the use of SOLO taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy was created in 1956 under the leadership of educational psychologist Dr Benjamin Bloom to promote higher forms of thinking in education. He identified three domains of educational activities or learning:

  • Cognitive: mental skills (Knowledge)
  • Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (Attitude or self)
  • Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (Skills)

Prior to reading Visible Learning, I would introduce my drama students to Bloom’s hierarchy as a way of thinking through the types of questions they might use, for instance, when studying a play. I called the task the ‘Facts-Verbs-Questions’ Activity

The Facts – Verbs- Questions Activity: a framework for engaging students in a rigorous study of texts

The hard work of reading texts, understanding their ideas and linguistic devices are vital. This begins with the fundamentals of grammatical structures: in fact, as one artistic director revealed to students in an after-show talk, actors need grammar like mechanics need tools!

The three parts I set out in  Facts – Verbs- Questions Activity take none of the linguistic elements for granted – from phonetics to modulation, from physical space to dramatic form.

1.  Factual Questions

As Hattie’s use of the Solo Model affirms, abstract understandings require the mastering of ‘single ideas’.  As the following diagram expresses of the Solo Taxonomy, analysis is arrived at after the identification of ideas.


The following questions were the very least that students were required to master.

How many acts and scenes make up the play?

Name the characters and describe them in terms of the age & physical appearance; role & status and relationships

What are the settings in the play?

In what year was the play first staged?

Where was it first produced?

List the creative team.

2. Exploring different types of questions

After the establishment of facts around a dramatic text, I would explore the notion of different types of questions.  When I used  Bloom’s Taxonomy I differentiated the types of questions in the following way:

  • Knowledge: How many acts and scenes are in the play?’
  • Comprehension: How do the main characters in the play relate to one another? Illustrate diagrammatically.
  • Application: Sketch the set and positioning of the actors for the opening scene of the play?
  • Analysis: Compare and contrast two different productions of [name of play]
  • Evaluation:  As a director, explain how you would present ideas about identity and belonging in a production of [name of play]
  • Creation: As an actor, explain how you would make the journey of the character you are playing evident so that you keep the audience engaged with your role in [name of play]

 Pam Hook explains the Solo Model as the movement to ‘deep learning’ in the follow way:

At the prestructural level of understanding, the task is inappropriately attacked, and the student has missed the point or needs help to start. The next two levels, unistructural and multistructural are associated with bringing in information (surface understanding). At the unistructural level, one aspect of the task is picked up, and student understanding is disconnected and limited. The jump to the multistructural level is quantitative. At the multistuctural level, several aspects of the task are known but their relationships to each other and the whole are missed. The progression to relational and extended abstract outcomes is qualitative. At the relational level, the aspects are linked and integrated, and contribute to a deeper and more coherent understanding of the whole. At the extended abstract level, the new understanding at the relational level is re-thought at another conceptual level, looked at in a new way, and used as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection, or creation of new understanding (Hook and Mills 2011).

Indeed,  my past experiences with Bloom’s Taxonomy and now my work with the Solo Taxonomy has served to motivate me to focus more on the quality of the types of questioning with my students. Or as Steven Hastings (2003) observed

When Socrates defined teaching as “the art of asking questions”, he had in mind the cut and thrust of lofty philosophical debate. The prosaic truth of the modern-day classroom is rather different. Four hundred questions a day may seem a startling statistic, but a large proportion of these (anything between 30 and 60 per cent) are procedural rather than learning-based. In other words, they tend to be of the ‘is-your-name-on-it?’ or ‘have-you-finished-yet?’ variety.

The change from an ‘outmoded’ Bloom’s taxonomy to a Solo taxonomy doesn’t change the fact that questioning requires research and practice.