Escaping Bloom’s Basement

Bloom's Taxonomy

A software developer whose company produces free writing tools makes a rather interesting observation: Edtech Is Trapped in Ben Bloom’s Basement.

The current wave of education technology has been fraught with pedagogically unsound replications of the worst aspects of teaching and learning. Rather than build new opportunities for students to move beyond the most basic building blocks of knowledge, much of Silicon Valley has been content to recreate education’s problematic status quo inside the four corners of a Chromebook, and then have the gall to call that innovation.

Bloom, of course, refers to the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives represented in the pyramid that should be familiar to every educator. But it’s also true that most edtech is stuck on the lower rungs of the scales specifically designed to assess the quality of technology use (lookin’ at you SAMR).

Anyway, how do we get the use of instructional technology out of Bloom’s basement?

Climbing up Ben Bloom’s learning hierarchy won’t be easy, but it is necessary if we want to build education technology capable of helping learners move beyond basic remembering and understanding. There are two ways to do this: better tech or less tech.

Better tech entails leveraging cutting edge research in areas like machine learning to provide students with targeted feedback that scaffolds their learning experiences as they move up the pyramid. Less tech entails building technology that knows how to get out of the way and allow for more meaningful interactions to take place in the classroom. Today’s education technologists are exploring both approaches.

At this point he heads off into a promotion of products from his company, software he puts under the “better tech” category. And this is where he loses me.

Because I would argue that “less tech”, using the basic tools in creative ways, is the better path. Especially since that “better tech” he praises sounds a lot like programmed learning systems that are more about automating that “problematic status quo” he criticizes at the beginning of the post.

Even better than “less tech” would be technology that is controlled by students and used by them to explore, create and communicate. That, however, would require changes to the education system that go way beyond selecting software and devices.


The image is from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and is used under a Creative Commons license.

This is, of course, a “modern” revised version of the concept. The original pyramid, one of “three hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity” developed by a team of educators chaired by Benjamin Bloom, had synthesis and evaluation as the top two segments.

Conversational Code

You won’t find Swift anywhere on that map.

Speaking of computer science for all (as in a post from last week), Apple CEO Tim Cook was visiting a college in the UK to promote the company’s Everyone Can Code curriculum. The UK Guardian was one of the news organizations that covered Cook’s stop, as they might for a visiting rock star.

Although the headline (“Apple’s Tim Cook: ‘I don’t want my nephew on a social network’”) hints that the article will focus on the newly-discovered issue of tech overuse, most of it is a largely flattering profile of Cook. Plus some information about the financial and tax problems Apple is facing in both Europe and the US.

But buried in the small section about whether everyone should learning programming, we find this idea from Cook.

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

I’m one who would disagree.

Coding is largely a global standard, but it is not a language for communications. Learning to code does not help students understand the world outside their borders and offers no insight into another culture. It is not more important than learning a conversational language that is not their own.

If a school was, for some reason, forced to make a choice between the two, their students would be far better off in a Spanish or Chinese language course than they would be learning to code.

The Cracker Jack of EdTech

Some of us older timers remember Cracker Jack, a snack mixture made of caramel-covered popcorn and peanuts with origins at the end of the 19th century.

Crackerjack2

Of course, the most distinctive element of the product wasn’t the edible part but the “toy surprise” buried in every box. Although, thinking back, the biggest surprise was probably why any of us cared about those trinkets in the first place.

Anyway, the edtech professional development community has its own variation on Cracker Jack: the event known variously as a “demo slam”, an “app smackdown”, or some similar title.

In these sessions, popular at EdCamps and smaller conferences, participants line up to present a two or three minute demonstration of a favorite piece of software or web service. Sometimes they try to connect the app to teaching and/or learning. But in that brief space of time, the focus is most often on the “wow factor” of the tool.

At larger conferences lacking a formal “smackdown” contest, the program is often littered with sessions completely devoted to this concept. With titles like “60 Apps in 60 Seconds” or “29 New Web Sites You Need to Check Out”, and “Tech Share Live!”.

Like Cracker Jack, these collections are a sweet mixture of cool tech stuff. With virtually no nutrition. And, if you’re lucky, a trivial prize buried inside.

Ok, I know there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a sweet treat every so often. I’ve had my share of Cracker Jack (although I much prefer Screaming Yellow Zonkers in that crap food category) and other items of questionable nutritional value.

And there’s nothing wrong with most of those demo slam, “cool tools” sessions. Occasionally it’s fun to have people rapid fire demonstrate a whole bunch of apps and maybe discover something new. I’ve even been known to participate in a smackdown or two.

However, the problem comes when we overindulge in snack food. Or in a constant search for the new, the next alternative, the techno “cool”. Looking for the toy surprise buried somewhere in the app store.

Inappropriate Optimism

Approaching the end of another calendar, the inevitable (and lazy) flood of year-end recaps and forecasts for some undefined future is beginning to trickle in.

In that latter category, one writer is very optimistic about the “next wave” of educational technology, ending his column that tries to make that case with this:

At this point, America’s education system finally has all the key building blocks in place: The infrastructure is solid, almost every student has a device and wireless internet access, schools and educators (at all levels) are now much more comfortable working with technology and data, and thousands of entrepreneurs are working—not just with early adopters, but increasingly with early mainstream schools and educators—to bring edtech and personalized learning to the masses.

This is why I’m optimistic about the next decade of educational technology and innovation. I can’t wait to see how the next chapter unfolds!

Ok. Except that he has all kinds of bad assumptions jammed into just that one paragraph

Start with the statement that the “infrastructure is solid” in schools. It’s true that the vast majority of US classrooms are connected to the internet. But the number with adequate bandwidth is much, much lower, especially in high poverty rural and urban areas.

Even worse is his claim that “almost every student has a device”. I suppose if you average out everything, it might be close to 1:1. But even if you can claim a 1:1 ratio in your school/district, that doesn’t mean every student has the same quality of device1. Or can accomplish the same quality of work with the equipment and software available. That’s true even in the very rich overly-large school district that used to employ me.

Finally, there’s the line about educators being “much more comfortable” using technology and data. I’m pretty sure most teachers are “comfortable” with the tools they use. The digital grade book, attendance systems, Word. Most are not at all comfortable with tools for meaningful learning, especially when it’s students using that technology in creative ways.

However, all of that really doesn’t matter. When it comes to being optimistic about educational technology, this particular column is not at all about student learning or even teacher productivity.

The writer is a “general partner” at a venture capital firm, one that specializes in “disruptive education” startups. His optimism is all squeezing as much profit as possible from the education technology companies in which they’ve invested. Profit which will ultimately come from schools and districts at the expense of other priorities.

After all, there’s a bear market in all that “personalization” and data collection.


1. A Chromebook is NOT a computer. Don’t tell me otherwise because I’ve used both and Chromebooks do not compute. But that’s a rant for another day.

Don’t Blame the Lecture

A few days ago, the New York Times published the latest high profile story advocating for a ban of laptops from classrooms, mostly at the college level. They all point to a “growing body of evidence” claiming to show that students learn less and get poorer grades when they use devices during lectures.

I was going to chime in with my thoughts on the matter, including more than a few questions about the methodology and assumptions behind these studies. But marketing guru Seth Godin, who occasionally chimes in on education issues (and often makes a lot of sense), has already written a high profile response that has popped into my Twitter feed many times in the past few days.

While it’s not a great challenge to this simplistic nonsense, at least Godin is exactly right that the professor who authored the Times op-ed has missed the real issue.

The times they are a'changing

Why give lectures at all?

Why offer a handmade, real-time oration for a small audience of students—students who are expected to slow down their clock speed, listen attentively and take good notes at the very same rate as all the other students?

I know why we used to do it. We used to do it because a lecture is a thoughtful exposition, a reasoned, researched argument that delivers a lot of information in a fairly condensed period of time. And before technology, the best way to deliver that exposition was to do it live.

But now?

Godin’s recommendation to replace the live lecture – basically going to the “flipped” classroom approach and have students watch a recording of the presentation outside of class – is a crappy alternative.

But he does ask the right question: Why lectures? Why do we continue with the “watch presentation-take notes-answer test questions” approach to learning? Especially since it is becoming clear that this is not an effective learning process.

Which leads to the other half of this question: if we’re not going to lecture at students, what do with do with all that “precious classroom time”?

And it is precious. It’s a curated group of thirty or a hundred students, coordinated in real-time and in real-space, inhabiting a very expensive room, simultaneously.

The K-12 experience is thirteen years built on compliance and obedience, a systemic effort to train kids to become cogs in the industrial machine. And it has worked. One component of this regime is the top-down nature of the classroom. We don’t want to train kids to ask difficult questions, so we lecture at them.

Although teachers in K12 don’t perform as many lectures as college instructors1, most classrooms are still structured around direct instruction. With material structured by the adults and presented to students, who are then expected to extract the required information, and recall it on some kind of test at some later time.

In the end, however, my biggest objection to all these “laptops are making kids stupid” stories is that the researchers – and the writers reporting on their work – always start by blindly blaming the technology and the students.

And assuming our current educational structure is above reproach and needs no alteration.


1 However, the lecture format is still a fundamental part of many high school courses, especially Advanced Placement, which is essentially a college course adapted for slightly younger students.

Picture from Flickr and used under Creative Commons license from brett jordan.