A recent visit to my old high school library left me disappointed. Gone were the days of handwritten flashcards and ten-pound textbooks. Now, every student’s face was blankly fixated on the all-too-familiar glow of their computer screens.
But the technology itself was not my concern. In fact, aside from the predictable few flickers of Facebook and Twitter, it seemed most of the students were actually working on something productive. What did bother me, however, was how many of these technologies were only adding a digital component to the same learning practices teachers used when I was a student there just a few years ago.
As a technologist by trade, I can sympathize with Silicon Valley’s underestimating the importance of good pedagogy. But, I certainly can’t excuse it. And in the process of trying to educate myself on the matter, I’ve come to a scary realization: Edtech is trapped in Ben Bloom’s basement.
Generally, Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain is represented by a graphic of a pyramid, with “remembering” on the bottom and “creating” at the top, to represent the relative complexity of the learning objectives. (As you might imagine, it’s far easier to remember a basic fact about a concept than it is to create something new and original based on that concept.)
On the trip back to my former high school, much of what I witnessed—technology and all—still focused on the bottom level of the pyramid: memorization. One student I saw navigated a playlist of videos on economics, while another flipped through virtual flashcards so quickly that I got dizzy just watching. A third loaded up a digital textbook filled with circuits, transistors and other assorted electronics diagrams.
For all Silicon Valley’s talk of “disrupting” education, most of the edtech that exists today simply digitizes ineffective aspects of education’s yesteryear. MOOCs are just digital versions of the much maligned large group lecture, virtual flashcards are simply another tool for useless rote memorization, and online textbooks are just one more problematically unidirectional method of transmitting information without cultivating learning.
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.
Education Technology and the Bloom’s Basement Problem
Ask any Silicon Valley engineer about Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain, and you’ll be met with a blank stare. Ask any first year college student studying education, and their face will light up.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a widely popular foundation behind many teachers’ classroom practices and philosophies—its most recent version has been cited more than 12,500 times in textbooks and papers, according to Google Scholar—and it’s imperative to understand for anyone who cares about assessing the effectiveness of an edtech tool. Simply put, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a way of categorizing the cognitive level of learning objectives into one of six categories, each more complex than the last:
- Remembering (learner can recall information about the topic)
- Understanding (learner can explain the topic in their own words)
- Applying (learner can use the topic to solve novel problems)
- Analyzing (learner can draw connections between different components of the topic)
- Evaluating (learner can scrutinize and debate the topic)
- Creating (learner can extend the topic to produce a novel idea or work)
Good teachers know that while it’s important for students to remember and understand the basic concepts, that’s never the end goal. Rather, the best teachers constantly nudge their students closer to the top of the pyramid.
Coming up with solutions for real-world problems requires the ability to move beyond rote memorization and rephrasing. And innovation does not result from filling in multiple choice bubbles or finding the right set of synonyms to parrot back what you skimmed in last night’s assigned reading—it comes from applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.
Yet thinking back to my stroll through the library, this is not what some of even the most popular edtech tools encourage.
To be sure, the bottom of the pyramid is important, and there’s a time and a place for that. (But, contrary to what most edtech tools would have you believe, that time isn’t always, and that place isn’t everywhere.) And yes, there are some entrepreneurs who are building legitimately innovative solutions (which we’ll come back to in a moment). But platforms that merely serve up videos and flashcards in an endless stream of rote memorization and recall are trapped deep in the bottom of Ben Bloom’s basement.
Escaping Ben 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.
In terms of better tech, companies like Duolingo and Quill.org use natural language processing and machine learning techniques to provide scaffolded feedback on answers that learners construct themselves. Rather than teach language by forcing learners to memorize a strict set of rules, these tools aim to help learners develop better critical thinking skills through a scaffolded approach that introduces them to the rules and then allows them to experiment, fail and learn from targeted feedback.
By keeping software open ended and allowing learners to enter their own responses, edtech can gently guide learners beyond the most basic learning achievements (remembering and recognizing the language rules) and to the top of the pyramid (applying their understanding of the rules to analyze and evaluate the topic and create their own grammatically correct sentences).
In terms of less tech, tools like Quizlet Live, Pear Deck and Nearpod empower educators to create experiences in the classroom that bring conversation and reflection to the forefront. Rather than students’ attention being directed toward the tech, the tech attempts to direct students’ attention toward in-person classroom interactions with their educator and peers.
By taking care of the bottom of the pyramid, these platforms also give educators room to do what they do best: encourage and inspire students to learn and grow.