Using Ashman’s taxonomy

Yesterday, I suggested a slightly frivolous replacement for Bloom’s taxonomy. Today, I am going to take it a little more seriously. Does such a taxonomy have anything to say about how we should approach teaching or the curriculum? Possibly.

The taxonomy is based on Geary’s distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. It makes clear that biologically secondary knowledge rests upon and co-opts biologically primary knowledge. In addition, I have tried to incorporate ideas from cognitive science popularised by Dan Willingham and others that suggest that capacities such as critical thinking and problem solving are domain specific and rest upon both domain general primary knowledge and domain specific secondary knowledge.

So what does this mean for teaching? I would suggest that most of the time it means this:

We can typically assume that students have the required biologically primary knowledge because they will usually pick this up as part of normal development. The available evidence suggests that models that start with applications of knowledge and then only cycle back to discovering, looking-up or having mini-lectures on the required knowledge as and when required – models such as inquiry learning, problem-based learning and so on – are less effective than those that explicitly teach required knowledge from the outset. That’s why I suggest that we should usually start with knowledge building.

One exception would be training relative experts to apply knowledge they already possess in slightly different ways. In this case, the knowledge-building is already done. This is equivalent to the later stages of a teaching sequence that starts with knowledge-building.

Another exception would be students who do not reach mastery through initial teaching. I have been keen to promote the Response to Intervention model as an alternative to popular conceptions of differentiation. Response to Intervention involves screens that will identify students who have not mastered the content and a tiered approach that starts with whole-class teaching at Tier 1, proceeds to intensive, small group teaching and Tier 2 and then individual intervention at Tier 3.

There are some aspects of biologically primary knowledge that probably cannot be directly taught, such as means-ends-analysis for problem-solving. However, specialists such as speech pathologists often work on improving skills that bridge the primary/secondary divide and that most young people acquire through typical development.

I am not an expert on such interventions, but I did learn a little about Developmental Language Disorder when I co-authored a piece for American Educator with Pam Snow. Young people with Developmental Language Disorder often misunderstand certain cues or say things that are inappropriate. We give an example:

“Imagine the child who, on being introduced to a distant relative for the first time, asks, “Why have you got hair growing out of your nose?” Most families have amusing, if sometimes excruciating, stories to tell of toddlers whose still coarse pragmatic language abilities meant that an alarming level of candor was used in a social situation. Such blunt honesty can often be laughed off when it comes from a 3-year-old, but it can cause serious social consequences if the speaker is 9 or even only 6 years old.”

Although understanding the social context around speech is a primary ability, presumably it can be explicitly taught to students who lack this understanding. Usually, such an intervention is likely to take place at Tier 3 of the Response to Intervention model, but it could conceivably happen at Tier 2 in a sufficiently disadvantaged school where a significant minority of students present with such difficulties.

The model below attempts to map Response to Intervention to the taxonomy. It assumes that Tier 2 includes more intensive knowledge-building and less application than Tier 1 and that biologically primary deficits are addressed at Tier 3:

Clearly, any attempt to impose a generic model on different subject domains is always going to oversimplify, but is it still useful? I would be interested in your thoughts.


5 thoughts on “Using Ashman’s taxonomy

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    One area where the RTI model has been most frequently used is in early reading instruction–in England, at least, it was a great improvement on unstructured approaches to reading failure. However, no real purpose was served by delaying intensive individual instruction for those who ended up in Wave 3, as the amount they learned from the first two waves was negligible. I worked closely with Sue Lloyd and Ruth Miskin, and their results clearly indicated that immediate intervention in the first term of Reception enabled nearly all pupils to avoid being designated SEN.

    Unfortunately, this was not a popular message with the EYFS lobbly, and Jim Rose was forced to compromise on this issue in his 2006 Review.

    • Yes. It is often said that RTI is a framework and not an intervention. Its success therefore depends on the quality of the programmes used at the different Tiers. If whole-language or balanced literacy is your Tier 1 approach and reading recovery is your Tier 2 then it won’t be as good as a more evidence-based set of Tiers. However, I think fewer people realise that RTI is also heavily reliant upon the quality of the screens used and when these screens are deployed. If you can screen kids early on and determine that Tier 1 is not working then you can rapidly move them into a more effective intervention. You are also right to note the political problems with this. Too many people delay reading intervention due to various Rousseauian notions.

  2. panoptical says:

    I’d say that biologically primary knowledge and skills are actually addressed in Tier 1 in many cases. The clearest examples are physical skills. Surely running is biologically primary, but everyone could probably benefit from learning a running technique and having running practice in the context of a physical education class or a sports program. There’s an argument that throwing things is also biologically primary, and yet I recall explicit instruction in throwing a football (the American kind) and a basketball. People usually need to be taught how to lift heavy objects properly in order to avoid injury. These are all the types of things that PE classes might implement as universal instruction.

    Social skills are another pretty clear example. We all naturally figure out basic skills for joining a conversation, starting up a game or activity, resolving disputes and conflicts, asking for help, etc. And yet, often our intuitions about these things are wrong, or simply unrefined, and so we do them in a way that doesn’t meet our needs or that causes disruption to our environments. PBIS suggests explicitly teaching these types of skills as a Tier 1 universal support.

    A more academic example might be logic. We all have some capacity for logical reasoning. And yet, we often have trouble formalizing and abstracting this capacity for application in domains like mathematics or computer science – for instance, people perform well on the Wason selection task if it’s framed as a police officer checking for underage drinkers at a bar, but poorly if it’s presented as cards with numbers on one side and colors on the other. People fall prey to numerous logical fallacies in mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and debate. We often have to unlearn our natural assumptions or evolved shortcuts in order to learn a principle or rule that can be adequately generalized.

    Finally, you mention “understanding the social context around speech” as a primary ability, but I think versions of this are explicitly taught right up to the university level. We certainly teach it to students acquiring a second language, and in cross-cultural communications classes, but it’s also addressed to some extent in literature and humanities courses. And just in general, there are a lot of things we do with language that are not novel from an evolutionary standpoint but that we explicitly teach students – public speaking skills, persuasion, rhetoric, even vocabulary.

    I think I would say that in general, RTI tiers don’t map well onto any kind of taxonomy of skills, whether it’s Bloom’s or yours. My other objection to this mapping is the idea that a Tier 3 intervention would target more basic skills. The issue is that when a student doesn’t respond to Tiers 1 and 2 it’s usually more complicated than a basic skills deficit. Often it’s a complicated knot of factors, in which skills deficits and motivational deficits feed into each other in a vicious cycle and in which natural and environmental factors (learning disabilities, trouble at home, medical conditions, emotional issues) are often the root cause. Say you have a student who often won’t respond to instructions and has trouble following along in class – and Tier 2 interventions didn’t work – well, it could be a skill deficit in language processing, but it could also be chronic lack of sleep, depression, partial deafness, absence seizures, etc.. Part of Tier 3 is often bringing in specialists to test for and treat stuff like this. Often, once the root cause is addressed, the student can catch up with the basic skills using only Tier 2 supports or even in the Tier 1 general education environment.

  3. Pingback: Learning through Play? Why We Should Play It Safe – 3-Star learning experiences

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