Learning by Creating: Turning Bloom’s on Its Head

Guest post by Library Media Specialist, David Phillips.

Blooms RevisedIf you attended a university educator prep program, you’ve likely seen Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. At the bottom of the pyramid, the most basic skill is remembering; built upon that is understanding; then applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. Now, Bloom’s proponents will tell us that this organization is not meant to be a strict progression; however in actual classroom procedures, this is usually the way it’s applied.

Since many teachers feel students never truly arrive at “understanding,” they are often stuck at “remembering.” This means they never reach higher-level thinking. Shelley Wright’s blog, “Flip This: Bloom’s Taxonomy Should Start with Creating“, proposes an idea that leverages what we know about the way humans learn: we generally start not with remembering a set of facts, formulas or knowledge sets; we start with a productive goal in mind.

In fact, very few adults would choose to learn in the format of the traditional classroom—neither would kids. Why is this important? Because we want students to learn with mastery, and learning is more important than my method of presentation. I now believe the years I spent honing my presentation skills, thinking my students would learn better if I only presented the information in a more engaging fashion, were efforts on a wrong track.

Since humans normally learn when they have a project or goal in mind, then search out the knowledge and skills necessary to gain success, perhaps we should use that natural pattern of learning in school. I believe this is why in classes like Ag and Video Tech, where students work on projects with a clearly defined product in mind, we find that the students are more engaged than they are in core classes.

In my English IV Dual Credit classes, much of the learning is project based. Let me be clear: the projects and the technology we use are not extensions of the learning or reinforcement after the learning—rather, the projects are the method of learning.

One of the most successful projects is a tutorial. In the past we’ve written a process essay, or a “how to” piece. Since today’s students, upon entering a career, will probably never have to write one of these, we started by creating a tutorial instead, giving them a valuable skill they are likely to need in the workplace. You’ve seen these online. They have images on the left side and text instruction on the right side.

For this assignment, each student does something different. This year, assignments included projects like manipulating images in Photoshop; editing sound files in Audacity; editing and posting a video onto YouTube; creating a “pushpin” in Google Earth with image, video and web address; and using Snagit to capture a map and then use the features of the program to give driving instructions. Each of these require 6-8 pages of images and text to create the full tutorial. We create the document in Microsoft Publisher and use Snagit to capture images and add arrows and callouts to them.

Now this project not only yields some useful tutorials, but there are also some consequences I had not foreseen when I began assigning it several years ago. First, I really don’t “teach” the knowledge and skills needed to create the product. Rather, I give students the assignment, start them out on Publisher with a basic setup of the format, spend about two minutes introducing them to Snagit, show them a couple of examples, then I’m simply present with them in the computer lab as they are learning the program or web tool, working with the images, and formatting the tutorial. I help when I’m asked. After the first day of work, students seldom ask for help. I allow them four 45-minute periods to create the project. Basically, they do the learning and creating on their own.

Here’s the second takeaway from this project: Last year, I asked students what they thought of it. The answer intrigued me. The whole class said that it was easier than writing an essay. I was mystified by their response. I explained that this was actually at least twice as much work as simply writing a “how-to” essay. They disagreed. It was easier, they said, because they understood what they were supposed to create and were left alone to figure out how to do it. They saw the goal and engineered their own learning experience to reach it. In effect, they were learning like vacuum cleaners: they “sucked up” the content of the lesson and then gave it back in an organized and useful form.

Since the very beginning, this is primarily how people have learned. Even small children learn by experimenting, trying out new things, wondering how something works, creating constructs that are concrete representations of abstract ideas, making mistakes and trying another way, and finally reaching the goal they have in mind. Sometimes kids need a start—as when a parent helps a child learn to ride a bike—but if the kid is ready to learn, he/she will soon be doing it on his/her own. And consider this: when we teach a child something at home, we don’t start with formal instruction, standing at the front of the room, and lecturing—rather, we start with the basics of the skill and hands-on engagement. Whether we are helping a 5-year-old learn to make sugar cookies or starting a 3-year-old on an iPad learning game, we begin with actual engagement.

Old classroomSo how did we get started with the teacher-at-the-front, student-in-the-desk model of teaching? Robert Freeman’s article explains the evolution of the idea: for the factory worker of the 1880’s the model was moderately successful. In 2013, when most high schoolers carry in their pockets the “sum of all human knowledge,” and employers are seeking, not drones, but innovative creators who can collaborate with people thousands of miles away digitally, learn new skills for projects that never existed before, and acquire and apply knowledge that exists in millions of sources. In sum, the model we’ve used for 130 years is no longer adequate.

I believe the clash between the old, industrial model and the savvy students of the 21st century is a big part of the problem we are facing. Kids, especially at the secondary level, are savvy enough to know when we’re blowing smoke, telling them that they need to learn skills they know are no longer required in the work place. They’re also pretty bored with pencil and paper and worksheets when they know they can use advanced tools to find the information they need.

They do respond pretty well, however, to projects that allow them to use their technology skills and learn new ones. They enjoy having a goal they can understand and that creates a product they can show their friends or their parents—something that demonstrates real accomplishment preparing them for a real world.

When my students create a narrated slideshow about the community where they grew up, using pictures they have taken and facts they have researched, they can produce an artifact that can be posted on YouTube and shared with the world.

When they research a major political issue and use their research to write an editorial, then create a presentation they share with the class, taking questions and defending their position on the issue as others debate with them, they are gaining and sharpening skills they need to be successful in business and also to become enlightened voters.

When they create a website as a project on a British author, using Snagit to capture images from the author’s life, documenting sources and images correctly, producing a resource other students can use to find out more about literature, they are adding to the vast compendium of knowledge on the web, and they understand that contribution.

If we want graduates to be prepared for the technology-driven workforce they are entering, we have to make best use of those tools and methods in the classroom.

David PhillipsDavid Phillips is a Library Media Specialist and a teacher at Prairiland High School in N.E. Texas. He is also Area 8 Director for TCEA.

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