The lowest layer of the pyramid is the foundation

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

It’s hard to find a teacher who doesn’t make reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Doug Lemov notes, because it’s part of the language of teaching, but there’s a problem:

Bloom’s Taxonomy is often represented as a pyramid with the understanding — intended or accidental — that teachers should try to get to the top. That’s the nature of pyramids, I guess.

Bloom's Taxonomy Pyramid

Generally when teachers talk about “Bloom’s taxonomy,” they talk with disdain about “lower level” questions. They believe, perhaps because of the pyramid image which puts knowledge at the bottom, that knowledge-based questions, especially via recall and retrieval practice, are the least productive thing they could be doing in class. No one wants to be the rube at the bottom of the pyramid.

But this, interestingly is not what Bloom’s argued — at least according to Vanderbilt’s description. Saying knowledge questions are low value and that knowledge is the necessary precondition for deep thinking are very different things. More importantly believing that knowledge questions — even mere recall of facts — are low value doesn’t jibe with the overwhelming consensus of cognitive science, summarized here by Daniel Willingham, who writes,

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just found in the environment)

In other words there are two parts to the equation. You not only have to teach a lot of facts to allow students to think deeply but you have to reinforce knowledge enough to install it in long-term memory or you can’t do any of the activities at the top of the pyramid.


  1. Ross says:

    I guess this is why Edison’s employment tests were super memorization-heavy to the frustration of many…. He saw it as critical to creativity.

  2. Aretae says:

    Nicely done. True in math. True of what I know in scientific discovery.

  3. Borepatch says:

    And thus we see why certain facts are NOT taught in school, because lack of those facts prevents real critical thinking on certain “protected” topics.

  4. Wang Weilin says:

    If you can’t remember you can’t synthesize. How hard is that to understand?

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