Benjamin Bloom - International Bureau of Education

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Benjamin Bloom - International Bureau of Education
The following text also appears in
Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education
(Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXX, no. 3, September 2000.
©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000
This document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source.
Elliot W. Eisner1
About five feet five inches (1.65 m) in height, Ben Bloom was not a very large man, but his
physical stature in no way reflected his presence in a room or the stature he achieved in the
field of education. It was, I confess, a kind of anomaly to see someone who had few
physically imposing qualities carry so much weight in a conversation and with so much of an
Benjamin S. Bloom was born on 21 February 1913 in Lansford, Pennsylvania, and
died on 13 September 1999. He received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Pennsylvania
State University in 1935 and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Chicago in March
1942. He became a staff member of the Board of Examinations at the University of Chicago
in 1940 and served in that capacity until 1943, at which time he became university examiner,
a position he held until 1959.
His initial appointment as an instructor in the Department of Education at the
University of Chicago began in 1944 and he was eventually appointed Charles H. Swift
Distinguished Service Professor in 1970. He served as educational adviser to the
governments of Israel, India and numerous other nations. These are some of the facts
pertaining to his life and career. To know the man and his work, however, we must delve into
what he stood for and what he accomplished as a teacher, a scholar and a researcher in the
field of education. That is the story I would like to tell.
Bloom as a teacher
I had my first contact with Ben Bloom as a student in the Department of Education at the
University of Chicago. He was one of my teachers. The course, and I remember it quite well,
was entitled ‘Education as a Field of Study’. Our aim in that course was to try to understand
the kinds of questions that might be asked about the field of education and to explore the
various ways in which those questions might be answered. It was a mixture of the conceptual
analysis of a complex concept and an introduction to the forms of inquiry that would result in
a research project. One aspect of the course focused on the use of statistics and the
calculation of probability. The approach that Bloom took was to help us understand
probability experientially. Unlike most instructors, who would be inclined to provide a
theoretical explanation of the meaning of probability, Bloom had each of us toss coins and
record the number of heads and tails produced in a number of trials. He then had the class
combine their respective ‘scores’, which of course yielded a relatively smooth bell-shaped
curve describing the distribution of occasions on which heads or tails appeared.
His willingness to devote the time in a graduate class to the actual production of an
event in order to increase the meaningfulness of the idea of probability was emblematic of
what always seemed to me to be a kind of hard-nosed progressivism that characterized his
orientation to education and especially to the assessment of the educational consequences he
thought important.
Bloom’s strength as a teacher was not due to the fact that he was the most articulate
on the faculty at Chicago at the time; he was not. It was not because he necessarily invented
the most creative learning activities that graduate students might engage in; he did not. What
Bloom had to offer his students was a model of an inquiring scholar, someone who embraced
the idea that education as a process was an effort to realize human potential, indeed, even
more, it was an effort designed to make potential possible. Education was an exercise in
Bloom’s commitment to the possibilities of education provided for many of us who
studied with him a kind of inspiration. He was, as I have indicated, an optimist, but an
optimist who looked to the facts and who designed the studies to give substance to his
I do not think I will ever forget being in a class of his in which the doctoral students
enrolled were asked to present proposals for their dissertations or to describe pilot studies
they had completed in preparation for their dissertation research. The weeks passed and it
was my turn to present. My dissertation was to focus on the measurement of types of
creativity displayed in two- and three-dimensional artwork made by children aged 10 and 11.
The criteria for identifying each of the four types of creativity I had conceptualized were both
complex and subtle; the tasks confronting the judges were to make judgements on subtle but
important aspects of the creative features of the students’ artwork. Alas, the inter-judge
correlations turned out to be in the forties and there were some snickers from my peers when
I put these coefficients on the blackboard. Bloom was slightly irritated by the responses of
my fellow students and proceeded to the blackboard to show to my surprise and theirs how
significant such correlations were in the light of the complexity of the tasks the judges were
asked to perform. He taught me in that demonstration the importance of supporting students
in difficult times and of putting statistics in context. How one interprets a set of numbers
depends not only on matters of measurement but also on the characteristics of the situation
from which those numbers were derived. That was a lesson I do not think I will ever forget.
Another feature of Ben Bloom’s pedagogy most often emerged in one-to-one
conversations in his office on the third floor of Judd Hall on the campus of the University of
Chicago. His office was not an aesthetic delight. It had one wonderful black and white
photograph of his mentor, Ralph W. Tyler, hanging on the wall. The rest of the office was
strewn with books, papers, journal articles, and a sundry array of this and that having neither
particular rhyme nor reason as far as I could tell. But it also had a large chalkboard, and it
was in conversations on a one-to-one basis with Ben Bloom that one could experience his
obvious pleasure in illustrating on the blackboard relationships that he expected to find or had
already found in research. In these conversations the excitement of research-oriented inquiry
was made palpable. It was clear that he was in love with the process of finding out, and
finding out is what I think he did best.
The cognitive taxonomy
One of Bloom’s great talents was having a nose for what is significant. His most important
initial work focused on what might be called ‘the operationalization of educational
objectives’. As I have mentioned, Ralph W. Tyler was his mentor. When Bloom came to
Chicago he worked with Tyler in the examiner’s office and directed his attention to the
development of specifications through which educational objectives could be organized
according to their cognitive complexity. If such an organization or hierarchy could be
developed, university examiners might have a more reliable procedure for assessing students
and the outcomes of educational practice. What resulted from this work is Taxonomy of
educational objectives: Handbook 1, the cognitive domain (Bloom et al., 1956), a publication
that has been used throughout the world to assist in the preparation of evaluation materials.
The cognitive taxonomy is predicated on the idea that cognitive operations can be
ordered into six increasingly complex levels. What is taxonomic about the taxonomy is that
each subsequent level depends upon the student’s ability to perform at the level or levels that
precede it. For example, the ability to evaluate—the highest level in the cognitive
taxonomy—is predicated on the assumption that for the student to be able to evaluate, he or
she would need to have the necessary information, understand the information he or she had,
be able to apply it, be able to analyse it, synthesize it and then eventually evaluate it. The
taxonomy was no mere classification scheme. It was an effort to hierarchically order
cognitive processes.
One of the consequences of the categories in the taxonomy is that they not only serve
as means through which evaluation tasks could be formulated, but also provide a framework
for the formulation of the objectives themselves. Bloom was interested in providing a useful
practical tool that was congruent with what was understood at that time about the features of
the higher mental processes.
The publication of the cognitive taxonomy was followed by the publication of the
affective taxonomy. Bloom’s work was a signal contribution to mapping the terrain that
educators were interested in developing.
Bloom’s contributions to education extended well beyond the taxonomy. He was
fundamentally interested in thinking and its development. His work with Broder (Bloom &
Broder, 1958) on the study of the thought processes of college students was another
innovative and significant effort to get into the heads of students through a process of
stimulated recall and think aloud techniques. What Bloom wanted to reveal was what
students were thinking about when teachers were teaching, because he recognized that it was
what students were experiencing that ultimately mattered. The use of think aloud protocols
provided an important basis for gaining insight into the black box.
Mastery learning
The features that characterize Ben Bloom’s scholarship are several. First, as I have indicated,
he was interested in understanding the ways in which cognition functions and, more
important, how high-level forms of thinking can be promoted. Second, he had an abiding
faith in the power of the environment to influence the performance of individuals. He was no
genetically oriented determinist. His convictions about environmental influences led,
ultimately, to the impact that his work had in establishing the Head Start Program in the
United States. He was invited to testify to the Congress of the United States about the
importance of the first four years of the child’s life as the critical time to promote cognitive
development. His testimony had an impact. Third, Bloom believed that not only was the
environment important, but also that it was possible to arrange systematically the ways in
which learning could be promoted. Mastery learning (Block, 1971), rooted initially in the
work of John Carroll, is a good example of his effort and his abiding faith in the power of
rationally defined goals to promote the attainment of those goals through instruction.
For at least a century, the way to approach the measurement and description of
students’ academic achievement had been to expect a normal distribution and then to
compare students’ performance. Those students who made the fewest mistakes or achieved
the highest levels received A grades, while those somewhat less stellar in their performance
received B grades. Most students received C grades, those less than average received D
grades and those whose performance was not sufficient to achieve a pass were given an F
grade. The assumption was that there would always be a normal distribution among students
and that this distribution and the students’ location within it should determine their rewards—
rewards distributed in the form of grades.
Bloom looked at the matter differently. Under the influence of Ralph Tyler he
recognized that what was important in education was not that students should be compared,
but that they should be helped to achieve the goals of the curriculum they were studying.
Goal attainment rather than student comparison was what was important. The process of
teaching needed to be geared towards the design of tasks that would progressively and
ineluctably lead to the realization of the objectives that defined the goals of the curriculum.
Mastery learning is an encomium to such a conception. The variable that needed to be
addressed, as Bloom saw it, was time. It made no pedagogical sense to expect all students to
take the same amount of time to achieve the same objectives. There were individual
differences among students, and the important thing was to accommodate those differences in
order to promote learning rather than to hold time constant and to expect some students to
fail. Education was not a race. In addition, students were allowed, indeed encouraged, to help
one other. Feedback and correction were immediate. In short, what Ben Bloom was doing
was applying in a very rational way the basic assumptions embraced by those who believe the
educational process should be geared towards the realization of educational objectives. He
believed that such an approach to curriculum, to teaching and to assessment would enable
virtually all youngsters to achieve success in school. The problem lay in curriculum design
and in the forms of teaching that were appropriate to promoting the realization of the goals.
His convictions about the power of the environment to influence human performance
are perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in his book Developing talent in young people
(Bloom et al., 1985). In it he showed that even world-famous high-achieving adults—
champion tennis players, mathematicians and scientists, award-winning writers—were
seldom regarded as child prodigies. What made the difference, Bloom discovered, was the
kind of attention and support those individuals received at home from their parents.
Champion tennis players, for example, profited from the instruction of increasingly able
teachers of tennis during the course of their childhood. Because of this and the amount of
time and energy they expended in learning to play championship tennis, they realized goals
born of guidance and effort rather than raw genetic capacity. Attainment was a product of
learning, and learning was influenced by opportunity and effort. It was then, and is now, a
powerful and optimistic conception of the possibilities that education provides.
It is important to note that in many ways Bloom’s research on ‘giftedness’
undermines the typical conception of giftedness. ‘Giftedness’ typically connotes the
possession of an ability that others do not have. A gift suggests something special that is
largely the result of a genetically conferred ability. Like pregnancy, a gift is something you
either have or do not have. While Bloom recognized that some individuals, idiot savants for
example, had remarkable special abilities, the use of such a model of human ability converted
the educators’ role from inventing ways to optimize human aptitude into activities mainly
concerned with matters of identification and selection. The latter process was itself predicated
on the notion that cream would rise to the top. The educator’s mission, Bloom believed, was
to arrange the environmental conditions to help realize whatever aptitudes individuals
Furthermore, he recognized that there is hardly any human trait that is dichotomously
distributed. Abilities are related to the kinds of interactions that individuals had with their
environment and the development of appropriate environments is central to the realization of
potentialities. Thus, giftedness was a concept that had problematic associations if it was seen
essentially as a matter of all or nothing at all or if it defined the educator’s role as that of
someone concerned primarily with the identification of ability rather than with its
development. Again, Bloom’s view of the realization of human ability presented an
optimistic role for the educator.
Many of his students also studied the impact of environment on student performance.
Dave (Dave, 1963), for example, studied the educational environment of the home and in
attempting to account for differences in achievements between siblings discovered that one
needed to talk not so simply about the educational environment of the home, but rather about
the educational environment for particular people in the home. He found that parents often
provided different opportunities and support because of different expectations for each of
their children. What is provided and withheld impacts on what students are able to learn and
do, not only at school but also in life outside school.
Privilege and performance
One of Bloom’s most important works is his study of stability and change in human
characteristics (Bloom, 1964). He found that it was possible to predict with considerable
accuracy—around .8—the probable location, in a distribution of measured achievement, of
the position of individuals from data on their performance obtained years earlier. By the
second grade or at about the age of 7, the academic position of a student or students when
they reached early adolescence could be predicted. Rather than regarding this stability as a
manifestation of genetic determinism, what Bloom concluded was that such determinism
could be undermined by effective teaching. By conceiving of the curriculum as a way to
promote learning if organized sequentially and if supported by appropriate forms of
instruction and variability in time, all students could be helped to achieve educational goals.
Bloom’s view of learning is iconoclastic. Basically, his message to the educational
world is to focus on target attainment and to abandon a horse-race model of schooling that
has as its major aim the identification of those who are swiftest. Speed is not the issue,
achievement or mastery is, and it is that model that should be employed in trying to develop
educational programmes for the young. Mastery learning was an expression of what Bloom
believed to be an optimistic approach to the realization of educational goals. The traditional
expectations of a bell-shaped distribution of human performance was, more often than not, a
reflection of social privilege and social class. Children who enjoyed the benefits of habits,
attitudes, linguistic skills and cognitive abilities available to the more privileged members of
society were likely to do well at school on tasks for which those attitudes and skills were
relevant. To confer additional privileges on those who already had a head start was to create
an array of inequities that would eventually exact extraordinary social costs. And since
environment plays such an important role in providing opportunity to those already
privileged, it seemed reasonable to believe that by providing the kind of support that the
privileged already enjoyed to those who did not have it, a positive difference in their
performance would be made.
Bloom’s scholarship in education was complemented by his activism. By activism I mean
that he played a major role in creating the International Association for the Evaluation of
Educational Achievement (IEA) and in organizing the International Seminar for Advanced
Training in Curriculum Development, held in Granna, Sweden, in the summer of 1971. His
work in the IEA, since its inception over thirty years ago, has had a significant impact on the
efforts being made internationally to improve students’ learning in the dozens of countries
that are members of the IEA.
What is striking about Bloom’s views on international comparisons is that he was
aware, perhaps more than most, of the complexity of student performance and of the danger
of oversimplifying it on the basis of scores alone. One needed to know about much more than
the magnitude of test scores in order to make educational sense out of them. One needed to
understand the amount of time allocated to the study of the subject, one needed to understand
the resources provided to schools, and one needed to understand the quality of teaching that
was made available. Bloom was no mere number-cruncher. He understood full well that the
environment matters and that the ability to interpret test scores without understanding the
environment in which those scores were produced made no real sense at all. Alas, his
admonishments about such matters have not always been heeded, bearing in mind the
penchant in the United States to display league tables of school performance.
His efforts in the curriculum field to improve the quality of student learning received
a major push in the curriculum development seminar held in Sweden in 1971. Teams from
over thirty countries participated in that seminar. Individuals from these nations more often
than not had little background in the curriculum field and often used materials and
approaches to teaching in school that seldom required more than forms of rote learning. The
relevance of differences among students, differences in geographical and physical context,
and differences in forms of pedagogy was seldom considered as nations cranked out uniform
syllabi that provided little assistance to teachers with respect to how curriculum content
might be organized and how teaching might proceed.
The seminar on curriculum development was intended to provide a substantial boost
to empower those with limited training in curriculum development. Furthermore, with such
exposure, team members from the nations in attendance were expected to return to their
countries at the end of the six-week seminar to build curriculum centres by means of which
more effective materials and pedagogical approaches could be developed. Bloom saw the
seminar as a way to begin a process of institution-building, the institution of the National
Curriculum Center. Centres in Israel and in India are examples of the fruits of his leadership
in this domain.
Institution-building for Bloom was not restricted to institutions away from home. In
the Department of Education at the University of Chicago, he almost single-handedly
developed the MESA (Measurement, Evaluation and Statistical Analysis) programme. This
programme was designed to prepare scholars who had the quantitative and analytical skills to
think through in great depth what needed to be addressed in order to design genuinely
informative and educationally useful evaluation practices. The alumni of this programme are
currently stars in the system. The genius of the programme was that it never confused
statistical and educational significance. Always at the forefront were questions having to do
with the educational value of what was being addressed; Bloom’s students were no mere
technicians. His commitment to the possibilities and potential of education as an exercise in
optimism infused his views about how young scholars should be prepared in the field of
Ben Bloom’s activism and leadership in education did not stop with his major
contributions to the IEA. Nor did it stop with the Seminar for Advanced Training in
Curriculum Development. It went beyond the organization of the MESA programme in the
Department of Education at the University of Chicago. He also served as chairman of the
research and development committees of the College Entrance Examinations Board and was
elected President of the American Educational Research Association in 1965. Scholars
recognized the stature of this physically small man from Chicago and honoured him with
appointments, honorary degrees, medals and election to office. He had a nose for the
significant, and he had the rare ability to formulate research problems that responded to what
he believed to be significant.
Ben Bloom not only provided a model of scholarship, he also provided to those who
had the good fortune to work with him a kind of inspiration, an opportunity to see someone
deeply engaged in the satisfactions of his work and infinitely convinced of the possibilities of
education. He left an imprint that will not soon erode. The field of education, and more
important, the lives of many children and adolescents are better off because of the
contributions he made.
Elliot W. Eisner (United States of America) Lee Jacks Professor of Education and Professor of Art at
Stanford University. He has lectured throughout the world on the development of aesthetic intelligence. His
major publications include The enlightened eye: qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational
practice (1991), Cognition and curriculum reconsidered, 2nd ed. (1994), The educational imagination: on
the design and evaluation of school programs, 3rd ed. (1994) and The kind of schools we need (1998). He
studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of
Technology, and the University of Chicago. He has served as president of the National Art Education
Association in the United States, the International Society for Education Through Art, the American
Educational Research Association and the John Dewey Society.
Block, J. 1971. Mastery learning: theory and practice. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Bloom, B. 1964. Stability and change in human characteristics. New York, John Wiley & Sons.
—— et al. 1956. Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I, The cognitive domain. New York, David
McKay & Co.
——; Broder, L. 1958. Problem-solving processes of college students. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago
——, et al. 1985. Developing talent in young people. New York, Ballantine.
Dave, R.H. 1963. The identification and measurement of environmental process variables that are related to
educational achievement. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.
Books authored or co-authored by Bloom
1948. Teaching by discussion. Chicago, IL, College of the University of Chicago. (With J. Axelrod et al.)
1956a. Methods in personality assessment. Glencoe, IL, Free Press. (With G.G. Stern and M.I. Stein.)
1956b. Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I, The cognitive domain. New York, David McKay &
Co. (With D. Krathwohl et al.)
1958a. Evaluation in secondary schools. New Delhi, All India Council for Secondary Education,
1958b. Problem-solving processes of college students. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press.
1961a. Evaluation in higher education. New Delhi, University Grants Commission.
1961b. Use of academic prediction scales for counseling and selecting college entrants. Glencoe, IL, Free Press.
(With F. Peters).
1964a. Stability and change in human characteristics. New York, John Wiley & Sons.
1964b. Taxonomy of educational obectives: Volume II, The affective domain. New York, David McKay & Co.
(With B. Masia and D. Krathwohl.)
1965. Compensatory education for cultural deprivation. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston. (With A. Davis
and R. Hess.)
1966. International study of achievement in mathematics: a comparison of twelve countries. Vols I & II. New
York, John Wiley & Sons. (T. Husén, Editor; B. Bloom, Associate Editor.)
1971. Handbook on formative and summative evaluation of student learning. New York, McGraw-Hill. (With
J.T. Hastings, G.F. Madaus and others.)
1976. Human characteristics and school learning. New York, McGraw-Hill.
1980. The state of research on selected alterable variables in education. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago,
MESA Publication. (With MESA Student Group.)
1980. All our children learning: a primer for parents, teachers, and other educators. New York, McGraw-Hill.
1981. Evaluation to improve learning. New York, McGraw-Hill. (With G.F. Madaus and J.T. Hastings.)
1985. Developing talent in young people. New York, Ballantine. (With L.A. Sosniak et al.)
1993. The home environment and social learning. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. (With T. Kellaghan, K. Sloane,
and B. Alvarez.)
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