Friday, September 6, 2013

Professor Bell Teaches us about Bloom's Levels

Another classmate has joined the discussion. Following my last blog, "He Who Carries Fire" weighed in to add her point of view on why I deserved to be kicked out of school. I say "her" because I think she's a girl. She greets me with "Shana Tova" and I don't remember any other male Jewish students in my classes. To dodge the issue I'll just call him/her HWCF.

I didn't ask a lot of questions in class. People who remember me as an Engineering student thirty-some years ago will find this incredible, but hear me out. I didn't start out as a questioner. My university career began in1975 as a student in the Faculty of Music. For my arts/science option, I took a second-year math course called "Basic Concepts in Mathematical Analysis" , or Basic Con for short. (I already had first-year calculus from high school.) I had always breezed through my math courses, so I was pretty shocked on the first test of the year to find I had gotten a mark of 4 out of 50. I realized I was understanding nothing of what was going on in class. Starting the very next class, I started listening very carefully and interrupting the prof every time he said something I couldn't make sense of.  And if I didn't understand his answer, I'd argue the point.

They didn't kick me out of university for that. In fact, I passed the course with an A. From then, asking questions (and sometimes arguing the answers) became an essential part of my learning style. There is nothing acrimonious or confrontational about this kind of argument. It's a way to learn, whether you win or lose. In fact, it happens to derive from a millenium-old Jewish tradition called pilpul, a form of Talmudic analysis which many people consider to be the reason why we have produced Einsteins and Spinozas so far out of proportion to our numbers in the general population.

Professor Bell actually taught us that there were four different learning styles, which he listed by name. I don't actually remember what they were, but I remember waiting for an opportunity to ask the question, where does arguing fit in to your paradigm? Because "arguing" was not one his four canonical learning styles. I never asked the question because there was never a time in class where we actually talked about the meaning or significance of the different learning styles. So I would have had to interject out of context in order to bring up the point. The occasion never arose, so I let it slide.

There's another reason I didn't ask the question. It seemed clear to me that in general, the professor was simply going through the motions of putting information on the board, and that most of the time he had no particular interest or understanding of what he was telling us. So asking a question would just be a waste of everyone's time. It was different with my math profs or my engineering profs, who actually had some knowledge to impart. In the case of Professor Bell, what benefit was there for me to ask him a question when I had no confidence that his answer would be worth anything? I certainly did not expect to gain any useful insights from anything he might have said.

But things got a little complicated when he started teaching us about Bloom's Levels. This was something that I was actually interested in, and it had some importance for me. It seemed that Bloom had identified seven levels of cognitive thinking: I'm working from memory here, and I can only remember six of them, but in order from lowest to highest they were:
  • knowledge
  • comprehension
  • application
  • analysis
  • synthesis
  • evaluation
I was going to be teaching Basic Electricity to my Grade Nine Practicum in a few weeks, and one of the big topics in electricity is of course Ohm's Law. So in my mind I tried to make sense of Bloom's Levels by applying them to Ohm's Law. And it turned out they were not quite right. To see why, let me backtrack a little.

Before I took Engineering, I actually started the Electronics Technology program at Red River College. The very first class the instructor wrote on the board:

 V = IR

 He told us that this was Ohm's Law, and it related to Voltage, Current (I) and Resistance. I thought this was pretty exciting. Then he told us that since it was the first day of classes, we weren't going to do any more, and he was dismissing us early. We'd get into things when we returned the next day.

Well, I spent the rest of the morning walking around the campus thinking about Ohm's Law. It was amazing. What if you had a big resistor and a small current...what did that mean for the voltage? And what if your resistance went to zero? How could the current be infinity? It was all mind-boggling. I could hardly wait to see what we would learn on Day Two.

The next day the instructor started of by saying, "yesteday we learned about Ohm's Law". Yes, yes, I was thinking, what new laws will we learn today? "So today I've prepared some exercises." He started walking around the classroom handing out worksheets, and when he got to me I saw it was fifty problems on Ohms Law. "A stove element draws 8 Amps at 120 Volts. What is the resistance? An amplifier speaker has a resistance of 8 ohms and is driven by a signal of 6 volts. What is the current?
And so forth. Well...I didn't really need fifty question to hammer home the point, but this was Commnity College...what did I expect? I might as well go with the flow. At least it's a chance to think about stove elements and speaker coils...

But then the prof started circling the class a second time. When he got to me, I saw that he had another worksheet. It was problems 51  through 100. All exactly the same! This was not going to work for me. I left Red River that day and transferred to Engineering at the U of M.

Now, getting back to Bloom's Levels: it seemed pretty clear to me that when the prof wrote V=IR on the board the first day, that was Knowledge. And when I walked around the campus thinking about what it meant, that was Comprehension. And when we went through the worksheets doing 100 calculations, that was Application. But according to Bloom's Levels, "Application" was considered a higher cognitive level than "Comprehension". But it didn't feel that way for me...surely, when I was walking around thinking about what Ohm's Law meant, I was operating at a higher cognitive level than the next day when I was mechanically plugging numbers into formulas on the worksheet? In other words, for Ohms Law, "Comprehension" should rank above "Application".

This was something I really wanted to bring up in class. But I didn't. Why not? Because, to put it simply, the opportunity simply never arose. To be sure, there was some further discussion of Bloom's levels. In particular, Professor Bell told us that when we wrote tests, we had to make sure that our test questions operated at all six (seven?) of Bloom's Levels. Now, obviously, to do that, you would think we would need to understand what Bloom's Levels were all about. So I eagerly waited for the chance to talk about my point of view. (By the way....isn't that what teachers are supposed to be...people who want to share their knowledge with others?) But the opportunity never came.

Professor Bell simply told us how to identify the various levels. "If a question starts with "what", it's Level One. If a question has the words "describe, list, etc." it's Level Four. If it says "explain, analyze" etc. it's Level Three. Or whatever. We had a table of key words that lined up to each of Bloom's Levels, and we had to make sure we covered all the levels by cross-referencing out keywords.

Now, maybe you don't find this so appalling. If not, there's nothing I can add to explain what is so very wrong about this whole scenario. Or maybe you think it's appalling the way I describe it, but that I must be couldn't have been that bad the way it actually happened. Maybe so. But all I know is that it was a topic of great personal importance to me; that I had a story I wanted very much to tell; that I attended every class and waited patiently for the opportunity to have my say; and that the moment never came.

From this I was prepared to conclude that Professor Bell was an awful instructor. But wait...there's more.

I've described two incidents where I didn't pick an argument with the prof, even though I felt very much that I had something that needed to be said. The reasons why I held back were a combination of lack of reasonable opportunity to initiate the discussion, and lack of any reasonable expectation that the discussion would be engaged in a meaningful way by the professor. And yet my newest correspondent, HWCF, lambastes me for "hijacking class time and...what was it...

"I often found myself wanting to leave class when you got up on your proverbial soap box; I was reluctant to give you an audience and validate the manner in which you opposed our instructors' course content, ability to teach, right to teach, etc...telling professors they are wrong after stating you have not taken the time to read the course material"

This mini-rant echos the type of generalized complaints previously voiced by Miss Anonymous, but in fact it actually refers to a single incident, which HWCF identifies only obliquely but nevertheless, for those who were there to recognize the context, quite unambiguously. It is the third incident of the series I have been talking about in today's post, and it is the occasion on which I felt I had no choice but to challenge the professor directly. I think it is noteworthy that HWCF (like Miss Anonymous before her) does not see fit to discuss the actual content of my remarks or why they found them to be so out of line; rather, it is apparent that they are both of them supremely offended not so much by what I said or the way I said it, but by the mere fact of my expressing public disagreement with the professor! To emphasize the point, both HWCF and Miss Anonymous express particular pride in the fact that although they and their fellow students found many of the assigments and things they were taught to be silly, pointless, or a waste of time...that they nevertheless kept their mouths shut and did what they were told. And this is to their credit, while I am guilty for being to stubborn to do the same!

I'm going to leave off the story here and continue when we return with my version of what happened next. We'll see what it was that finally motivated me to "hijack the class" and use it as "my own personal soapbox".

POSTSCRIPT: I'm re-reading what Miss Anonymous and HWCF wrote, each independently patting themselves on the back for just doing the work that was assigned even if they thought it was stupid and pointless, and blaming me for not doing the same. In a nutshell, that's exactly what's wrong with the education system, and why we need a few more teachers like me instead of them. They'll go out there and expect their students to be like them: whatever the teacher tells them, they should do it without complaining even if they think it's stupid and pointless. That's exactly the opposite of what I do, and what I expect of my students. I take those same stupid pointless assignments, like the Calvin and Hobbes analysis, or the Concept Chart, and make something fun and interesting of them. I never complained about the homework, and even the profs should admit that this is true. I had fun with it, even if I had to stretch the boundaries. That's what I do, and that's what I would encourage my students to do. That's why I would have been an infinitely better teacher than the people who are criticizing me.

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