Sunday, January 8, 2012

Learning objectives

The issue of learning objectives connects with two other pedagogical issues that have become important in recent years, (1) assessment, and (2) student-centered learning. Assessment means how we measure what our students are learning. The idea is, in order to assess learning, you have to start with specific learning objectives that you can measure (i.e., you can determine whether students achieved the objective or not). Student-centered learning is the idea that education should be primarily about students learning, not teachers teaching. Learning objectives are not only important because of assessment and student-centered learning; they are also useful to you as a teacher, because they help you organize your course design and your class design (my newly coined alternative to "lesson planning" because anything with "lesson" in it sounds finger-waggy to me).

Learning objectives are based on something called Bloom's taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) worked with a group of cognitive psychologists at the University of Chicago in the 1950s to define cognitive processes and types of knowledge (or types of learning) as the basis for a system of learning objectives. Like many educators, I've learned about Bloom's taxonomy from secondary sources available on the Internet, rather than from the book that Bloom and his colleagues first published in 1956, The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. To be fair to myself, I have viewed a video of a lecture by Lorin Anderson, a former student of Bloom's and one of the members of the team that revised the taxonomy in 2000. The result of this revision was A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, often referred to as Anderson and Krathwohl (for co-author David Krathwohl). Most people who refer to the system, even using the revised terminology, continue to call it Bloom's taxonomy.

Bloom's taxonomy is important, but I find that it is widely misapplied. I hope this post will both explain the basic concepts and help teachers write good learning objectives. 

Ideally, a learning objective coordinates two “dimensions” of learning: (1) cognitive processes and (2) types of knowledge. 

Cognitive processes
Cognitive processes are the skills of what we often call "critical thinking." In the list below, the terms in parentheses reflect the revised terminology of Anderson and Krathwohl. I tend to prefer Bloom's original terminology in most cases. The order of this list also comes from Bloom, and represents what he and his colleagues believed to be a hierarchy of cognitive processes. Anderson and Krathwohl flipped evaluation and synthesis (which they renamed "creating"), but again, I prefer Bloom's original ordering. 

OK, so here are the cognitive processes:
  1. Knowledge (remembering, recognition, recall)
  2. Comprehension (understanding)
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis (creating)
  6. Evaluation
Types of knowledge
The types of knowledge are the objects of learning:
  1. Factual knowledge
  2. Conceptual knowledge
  3. Procedural knowledge
  4. Metacognitive knowledge
That is, we can know facts (e.g., Zeus is a Greek god); we can know concepts (e.g., the Greek gods personified aspects of nature and humanity); and we can know procedures (how to do something, like knit a sweater, build a robot, or build a movement for grassroots social change: what the ancient Greeks called technē). Metacognitive knowledge is a bit more obscure. Metacognitive knowledge is knowledge about knowledge, and about cognitive processes in general, as well as awareness of one's own cognitive processes. Metacognition was added to the original taxonomy by Anderson and Krathwohl. In fact (pedagogish insight #3), the best illustration of metacognitive knowledge I can think of is the lyrics to the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime" ("You may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'"). 

Now, some sources, including, unfortunately, Anderson and Krathwohl, will lead you to believe that you can join any of the six cognitive processes with any of the four types of knowledge and come up with a perfectly good learning objective. But I do not agree that all cognitive processes are equally relevant to all types of knowledge. Or, to put it in more positive terms, I believe that certain cognitive processes are particularly relevant to certain types of knowledge. 

How cognitive processes mediate types of knowledge
The natural fit between cognitive process and type of knowledge, I think, is clearest for the first three types of cognition: factual knowledge, conceptual knowledge, and procedural knowledge. That is:
  1. We want students to know (remember, recognize, recall) facts.
  2. We want students to understand concepts.
  3. We want students to apply procedural knowledge.
So, for example, we might, in a course on the legislative process in the United States, expect students to "List the steps by which a bill becomes a law." That is a lovely learning objective that combines knowing as a cognitive process (what Anderson and Krathwohl prefer to call remembering, recognizing, or recalling) with factual knowledge. Then, we might ask students to "Explain the role of compromise in the legislative process." This is a lovely learning objective that combines comprehension (or understanding) with conceptual knowledge. Now, not only are these two learning objectives quite lovely, but I do not think they would be nearly as lovely if you switched them around. That is, I would not want to ask my students to list the role of compromise in the legislative process; nor would I want them to explain the steps by which a bill becomes a law. We should list facts and explain concepts, not vice versa. As for procedural knowledge, what we do with procedural knowledge is apply it; we do not list it or explain it. Thus, I might ask my American government students to "Lobby their congressional delegation in support of a legislative priority." I mean, you won't find "lobby" on any list of action verbs typically suggested for expressing learning objectives for applying knowledge; but a lobbying trip would, in effect, be a way to demonstrate procedural knowledge relevant to the legislative process in the United States. 
Metacognition: Analysis, synthesis, evaluation
I would argue that cognitive processes 4 through 6, that is, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, are all metacognitive processes. This makes metacognition a qualitatively different type of knowledge than factual, conceptual, or procedural knowledge. We can know facts, understand concepts, and apply procedures. But what can we do with metacognition? Kind of squidgy, don't you think? But not useless. In fact, quite useful. We simply need to recognize that metacognition is itself a process, almost like a subset of procedural knowledge, and very different from factual or conceptual knowledge. Thus, if I ask my American government students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a bill; or evaluate the prospects for passage of a certain piece of legislation; or draft a piece of sample legislation ("draft" is one of the verbs you will typically find on lists of action verbs suggested for expressing learning objectives for synthesizing [or creating] knowledge), then I am asking them to engage in metacognition.

Wrapping up
Now, I believe that what I said in the last couple of sections, about certain cognitive processes having a natural fit with certain types of knowledge, and about metacognition being a type of knowledge that is itself almost another cognitive process, and about the natural fit between metacognition as a type of knowledge and analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as cognitive processes (Whew!) is sort of new, and not to be found in other sources on cognitive processes, types of knowledge, or how to develop learning objectives. But I would like you, dear readers, to let me know: Do you think these observations and claims are in fact new? Do you think they make some sense? Do you think they need to be expanded upon? Please use the comments feature to tell me what you think.

And that's enough for now.

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