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Abundance and Scarcity
Spicy takes from Benjamin Bloom
Let’s step back to 1968, the year that Benjamin S. Bloom wrote this article:
Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2), 1–12. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED053419). Available for free at ERIC.
Bloom is best known for “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” which is at the heart of designing clear standards for assessment. But he is also one of the key figures in the development of mastery learning1, a set of principles for course and assessment design.
“Learning for mastery” is a foundational article. When I first read it (which I admit was just a few weeks ago), what really caught me were not the details, but the philosophy. Bloom incisively lays out his core principles not just for assessment, but for what matters and what doesn’t matter in education as a whole.
Then it occurred to me just how controversial some of Bloom’s statements still are today. All of this gets at something that has been spinning around in my head for a while: What are some basic principles that help set an instructor on a trusting path that believes in an abundance of student learning, rather than an adversarial and scarcity-based path? What are some core ideas that can help me make good decisions that will benefit students and build trust?
Bloom hit the nail on the head for me. So for the rest of this post, I’ll let Bloom do the talking, with a bit of commentary. This post may be preaching to the choir: If you’re reading it, you’re probably already invested in some of these ideas. It’s worth asking yourself: What are some ways that these ideas might affect my own practice?
To begin, a core principle:
Most students (perhaps over 90 percent) can master what we have to teach them, and it is the task of instruction to find the means which will enable our students to master the subject under consideration.
Do you believe that all students can learn? I’ll admit that I struggle with this sometimes, especially in the middle of a semester when I’m feeling overwhelmed. But I have found that starting with this basic principle improves the choices I make, and the ways I interact with students.
Undoubtedly some readers are queuing up objections already. Bloom hedges a bit later as well: There are preconditions, such as educational opportunity, time, and interest. These are nontrivial things, especially when so many factors still—more than 50 years later—artificially exclude people from educational opportunity.
But Bloom’s point goes beyond that. How many instructors do you know—today!—who still believe that some students, regardless of opportunity, are incapable of learning a topic? That there exist students who cannot understand factoring, or angular motion, or organic chemistry? This belief, whether explicit or implicit, lets instructors excuse their choices that artificially exclude students. Bloom’s core point is that with enough time and tailored instruction, almost anyone can learn almost anything that they want to. It may not be easy, it may not be fast, and it may not even be practical given the constraints we have, but essentially all students have the potential to learn even the most complex topics.
This is the idea of abundance, and it has immediate application. Beginning by embracing value of educational abundance, not scarcity, leads to big changes in our own classes. It affects our choices with assessments, teaching strategies, and how we respond to students. It won’t solve all of the systemic ills of the world, but it is a most excellent place to begin.
Speaking of scarcity, Bloom spends several paragraphs describing the traditional role of schools and exams. Their purpose, in a society that can only support a limited number of people in secondary and higher education…
… is to find ways of rejecting the majority of students at various points in the educational system and to discover the talented few who are to be given advanced educational opportunities.
Is that what I want my classes to do? Hell no!2 Besides:
The complexities of the skills required by the work force … means that we can no longer operate on the assumption that completion of secondary and advanced education is for the few. … [W]e cannot return to an economy of scarcity of educational opportunity.
Remember that Bloom was writing more than 50 years ago. We have only moved farther in this direction since then. A whole separate issue, which Bloom doesn’t address, is whether the needs of the work force should be a controlling factor for educational opportunity anyhow.
So what should be done? First, vigorously reject anything that creates artificial scarcity. Bloom devotes an entire section to tearing apart that old nemesis, the normal curve:
We have for so long used the normal curve in grading students that we have come to believe in it.
The normal curve is of course the key tool in “grading on a curve,” in which instructors enforce a bell-shaped grade distribution, thus also enforcing harmful competition between students.
There is nothing sacred about the normal curve. It is the distribution most appropriate to chance and random activity. Education is a purposeful activity and we seek to have the students learn what we have to teach. … In fact, we may even insist that our educational efforts have been unsuccessful to the extent to which our distribution of achievement approximates the normal distribution.
Spicy! I love everything about that quote.
I can hear the criticism now: “So it’s just OK if everyone earns an A?” Yes! If that’s the standard that a student achieves, that’s the grade they earn. If everyone meets high standards to earn an A, then that’s an incredible win. There can be an abundance of success.
That our students vary in many ways can never be forgotten. … Our basic task in education is to find strategies which will take individual differences into consideration but which will do so in such a way as to promote the fullest development of the individual.
If the distribution of student skills and knowledge has the same shape at the end of a semester as at the beginning, then something has gone wrong.
What about competition between students, which is created whenever we use norm-referenced evaluation criteria?
We recognize that competition may be a spur to those students who view others in competitive terms, but we believe that much of learning and development may be destroyed by primary emphasis on competition.
Much more preferable in terms of intrinsic motivation for learning is the setting of standards of mastery and excellence apart from interstudent competition, followed by appropriate efforts to bring as many students up to this standard as possible.
In other words, clear standards, understandable by both instructors and students, are critical to building motivation and interest.
Bloom spends most of the core of the article describing how this can be done, a set of guiding principles that eventually became known as “mastery learning”. Specifically, instructors begin by dividing class topics into modules and establish clear standards for learning. After each module, students take a formative assessment, aligned to those standards, and intended only to help students (and instructors) understand their progress. Bloom specifically calls on instructors to avoid using points: Marks should indicate progress. The result of this formative assessment is a “diagnosis”, and “The diagnosis should be accompanied by a very specific prescription if the students are to do anything about it.” In other words, clear, actionable feedback, together with access to resources that let the student make use of the feedback. In later articles, Bloom and others focus in on offering specific “corrective activities” in class (with enrichment activities for students who have already made satisfactory progress), followed by a parallel follow-up assessment that allows students to demonstrate their learning. Summative assessments come later.
This might sound familiar: Our four pillars of assessment are inspired in part by Bloom’s approach, although we are focused primarily on assessment in higher education (Bloom was focused on K-12 schools). As you may notice here, Bloom isn’t talking just about assessment, but rather about the entire classroom and school environment. This, too, is an important idea: Assessment is just one part of a student’s experience. The core philosophy behind humane, abundance-focused assessments also applies to, and should affect, other parts of class.
Bloom’s article is well worth reading, as are the many studies and follow-up articles written by Bloom, his students, and others.3 For now, I strongly encourage you to think about these words that Bloom wrote—in the 1960’s!—and how they still apply today.
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As you may recall, Robert wrote last year about how we are no longer using the term “mastery.” Other than when it’s necessary to quote Bloom, we’ll follow that principle here, keeping in mind that Bloom always means “comprehensive understanding of a subject.” The article contain plenty of other examples of language that make me cringe a little. Every instructor and every student is “he,” for example.
Ask me what I think about “secondary admission” programs that ask other programs to act as gatekeepers on their behalf, filtering out students through “weeder” courses.