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Creating a New Taxonomy of Higher-Level Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The excerpt below is from the chapter, Higher-Level Learning: The

First Step Toward More Significant Learning, by L. Dee Fink,

University of Oklahoma ( It looks at a new taxonomy of

higher-level learning that the author believes is a significant

improvement over the well-known taxonomy of educational objectives

formulated by Benjamin Bloom and his associates in the 1950s. The

chapter is from: To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty,

Instructional and Organizational Development, Devorah Lieberman,

editor, Catherine Wehlburg, associate editor. Volumn 19. Anker

Publishing Company,

Inc. Bolton, Massachusetts, Copyright 2001. Order information at:

[]. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Intellectual Property: Should you be worried if you use the

Internet to teach?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


------------------ 1,660 words ------------------


PP 117-122.

***Creating a New Taxonomy***


In order to create a new taxonomy, one that goes further than the

Bloom taxonomy, I had to take a different approach than he did. Bloom

interviewed teachers about what they thought students ought to know

or be able to do, and then created a language that allowed him to

categorize and distinguish their responses. But his taxonomy was not

related to any model of learning.

I decided it would be important first to create a model of learning that

identified distinctive kinds of important learning, and then create a

taxonomy based on this model. After reading many statements about what

various writers see as significant kinds of learning and interviewing many

students about what they found to be significant in their own educational

experience, I concluded that there are two distinct dimensions of learning

that need to be understood: kind of change in the learner and the foci of

learning. All learning results in some kind of change in the learner, and

yet all learning is about something, i.e., is focused on something. I have

identified five kinds of change in the learner and five foci of learning

that I call the components of learning (See Table 7.1). Understanding these

two dimensions of learning can be of great value in explaining why an

particular learning mighty be significant or important for learners.

Table 7.1

A Model of the Components of Learning


Learning: a Change in... Learning about ...


* Caring

* Acting


* Thinking

* Knowing

* Learning (i.e, the process of learning

* Self

* Others

* Ideas

* Phenomena


The First Dimension of Learning: Kinds of Change in the Learner

The fist dimension of significant learning begins with our view of learning

itself. If we view the concept of learning as referring to some kind of

lasting change in a learner, then we can ask the question: What kinds of

change might constitute significant change, i.e., significant learning? There

seem to be five kinds of change that need to be recognized: Caring, acting,

connecting, thinking, and knowing.

CARING. Sometimes as a result of a course or other informal learning

experience, people change in the degree to which they care about something.

When this happens, the learner acquires new feelings, interests, and /or

values about something.

ACTING. A student may also develop new abilities to act, meaning a

readiness to engage in an action. This may involve learning a new skill

(e.g., playing the violin, giving a public speech, or learning how to manage

a complex project).

CONNECTING. At times people learn how to make new connections as a result

of their learning. This may come in the form of recognizing similarities

among phenomena, ideas, or processes, or noting the interaction among

various events or objects.

THINKING. One of the more important changes people report is learning how to

think more effectively about some subject. I am using this term as a large

umbrella concept that subsumes other more specific kinds of thinking. I

like the triarchic view of Robert Sternber (1998) who recognizes three major

kinds of thinking:

* critical thinking, in which people analyze and evaluate something

* creative thinking, in which people imagine and create something new

* practical thinking, in which people apply and use information and

ideas; e.g., problem solving and decision-making.

KNOWING. The most familiar change in a learner is coming to know something.

By this I am simply referring to what happens when students understand and

remember information; ideas, terms, etc.

The Second Dimension of Learning; The Foci of the Learning

Sometimes, when we learn something significant, it is not because of

a change in ourselves as learners, but because of the significance of

what we learn about. When we learn, we learn about different things.

What are the different kinds of things we can learn about that give

significance to our learning? I call these the foci of learning, and

have identified five different foci; Learning, others, self, ideas,

and phenomena (see Table 7.1).

LEARNING. In some really powerful learning experiences, people learn about

learning itself. They may acquire a new understanding of how one

learns about a particular subject (e.g. learning about the scientific

method). how to be a better student (e.g., regulating one's study

time), or how to become a self-directed learner (e.g., setting a

learning agenda and developing a plan for achieving it).

OTHERS. Sometimes, either because of the subject matter or because of the

way the course is taught (e.g., extensive use of small group

interaction), people learn about others. Students can acquire a

better understanding of and/or learn how to more effectively interact

with important others in one's life. Usually this refers to other

people, but it could include other kinds of life as well; e.g.,

animals, plants, etc.

SELF. Students may also learn about their own self. This happens when the

develop a new understanding of or feeling about what kind of person

they are (a new self-image), or when they acquire anew image of the

kind of person they could be and want to be (a new self-ideal).

IDEAS. A powerful kind of learning also occurs when students learn about new

ideas. By ideas, I am referring to interpretive perspectives that

enable a person to construct explanations and/or predictions about

objects, events, people, etc. Marxism and evolution are examples of

well-known and important interpretive perspectives.

PHENOMENA. The most familiar form of learning is when we learn about a

particular phenomenon or phenomena in the realm of the natural

sciences (bird, rocks, and weather), the social sciences

(individuals, societies, organizations), or the humanities (music,

literature, art).

Using the Components to Create a Taxonomy

Now that we have a clear picture of the components of significant

learning, we can use them to construct a taxonomy of higher-level


By grouping a few of the components that seem to be related, we can

identify six general kinds of significant learning in a way that

makes it easy to recognize the special educational value of each

category. Table 7.2 shows the six general groupings that I

constructed, and the label that I put on each category. These six

categories represent six distinct kinds of significant learning, and

as such, give us a new taxonomy of higher level learning.

Table 7.2



Key Component(s)

of Learning Involved Special Value General Label



LEARNING Provides capability for long- LEARNING HOW TO

term continuation of learning. LEARN


CARING Provides the energy (short term MOTIVATION

or long term) for learning;

without this, nothing significant



SELF, OTHERS Connects one's self to oneself HUMAN DIMENSION

and to others; gives human

significance to learning.


CONNECTING Adds power by connecting INTEGRATION

different ideas, disciplinary

perspectives, people and/or

realms of life.


THINKING, ACTING Allows other learning to APPLICATION

become useful.


KNOWING (esp. Provides necessary understanding FOUNDATIONAL

about PHENOMENA for other kinds of learning. KNOWLEDGE

and IDEAS)




***The Taxonomy of Higher-Level Learning***

These six kinds of learning offer faculty members and instructional

consultants a powerful road map for ways of providing significant

learning experiences for students in higher education. The resulting

taxonomy of higher-level learning (see Figure 7.1) allows us to

identify important kinds of learning that most of us would like for

students to achieve in our courses and curricula.


Figure 7-1


Figure 7-1


A Taxonomy of Higher-Level Learning











IMPORTANT NOTE: In the figure appearing in the article, each term is

surrounded by a circle that overlaps with the two adjacent circles,

thus indicating the interactive, not hierarchical, nature of the



Distinctive Characteristics of the Present Taxonomy

This taxonomy of higher-level learning is different from the Bloom

taxonomy in two important ways.

Scope of the taxonomy

First, this one goes well beyond the Bloom taxonomy in the kinds of

learning described. The first three types of learning in this

taxonomy (foundation, application, and integration) have different

labels but in fact are similar to the kinds of learning Bloom

described: remembering, understanding, analytical thinking, critical

thinking, creative thinking, applying information and ideas, etc.

However, the other three categories in the present taxonomy point to

new kinds of learning not easily described by Bloom's taxonomy:

ethics, leadership, dealing with cultural diversity, self-directed

learning, etc. Hence the present taxonomy seems to be better adapted

to the expressed educational needs of contemporary society.

Interactive nature

The second significant difference is that the present taxonomy is

interactive, not hierarchical. The Bloom taxonomy was always

presented as and perceived to be a vertical set: The bottom items

were a prerequisite for learning the higher items, and the higher

items had greater educational value. I do not disagree with the

validity of these relationships in the Bloom taxonomy. However, the

present taxonomy has a different character. The six kinds of

learning in this taxonomy seem to be interactive rather than

hierarchical in nature. When viewed this way, all are equal in terms

of their general educational value.

This interactive characteristic is very important for teachers

because it means the various kinds of learning are synergistic. And

this in turn means that teaching is no longer a zero sum game!

Teachers don't automatically have to give up one kind of learning to

achieve another. Instead, when a teacher finds a way to help a

student achieve a new kind of learning, this can in fact enhance, not

decrease, student achievement in the other kinds of learning. For

example, if a teacher finds a way to help students learn how to

effectively use the information and concepts in a course to solve

certain kinds of problems (application), it is easier for them to get

excited about the value of the subject (motivation). or, when

students learn how to effectively relate this subject to other ideas

and subjects (integration), it is easier for students to see the

significance of the course material for themselves and for others

(human dimension).


Sternberg, R.J., (1989). The triachic mind: A new theory of human


New York, NY: Peguin.


Dee Fink has been director of the Instructional Development Program at

the University of Oklahoma since it was established in 1979. He has

done work on student learning, new faculty members, the evaluation of

college teaching, and instructional design. He has co-directed the

workshop on getting started at the annual POD (Professional and

Organizational Development) conference since 1992. During the past

year or so, he has been leading campus workshops on how to design

instruction for higher-level learning. In his own life, he is

exploring the relationship among spirituality, leadership, and