Is our current framework for thinking skills helping our pre-service teachers BLOOM or should we consider going SOLO?

Four people holding lightbulb images to indicate they are thinking.

Almost anyone involved with the curriculum for excellence (CfE) in Scotland will be familiar with the framework of Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Building the curriculum 4 ‘Developing skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work’ back in 2009 introduced Scotland’s teachers to the framework of Bloom’s taxonomy without naming it as such. A quick google (other search engines are available) for those less familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy returns a range of different presentations of Bloom’s taxonomy, some featuring ‘synthesis’ others featuring ‘creating’ but almost all of which are contained within a pyramid structure.

So where did this framework for thinking skills come from on which our pre-service CfE teachers so often heavily rely? The original 1956 version of Bloom’s taxonomy sprang into life through informal discussions at a USA psychology association conference, the purpose of the framework being to “facilitate communication among examiners” (Bloom, 1956, p. 4). For eight years Bloom and his post-graduate students worked to categorise banks of university test questions to formalise the framework before publication, the focus still being on examinations at university level. There is little in this origin story of Bloom’s taxonomy which immediately signals it’s importance for primary and broad general secondary education in Scotland. In 2001 the taxonomy underwent a revamp at the hands of two further psychologists, Krathwol and Anderson. It is this revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy which features in Building the curriculum 4; the original nouns were replaced with verbs, synthesis was removed and creating added at the top of the framework.

The use of verbs in the revised version may well sit better with pre-service teachers conceptions of learning as a process of doing rather than the categorising of assessment questions, but this new terminology comes with some new complications. Firstly, the meanings of the terms within the framework have considerably different meanings in different disciplinary areas. For example the term ‘evaluate’ predominantly means ‘calculate’ in mathematics, ‘look for improvements to experimental procedures’ in science and aspects such as considering if you are dealing with a ‘primary or secondary source’ in history. Secondly, the term ‘create’ is often misunderstood by both pupils and teachers as the production of an output such as a poster rather than creative thought. For example, science requires creativity of thought for hypothesising, experimental design and theorising. It is not intuitively obvious that the device on which you are reading this is mostly empty space because the atoms of which it is made are themselves mostly empty space! Rutherford, and the scientists ideas on which he built, demonstrated great creativity in coming up with theories about the unseen atom.

Some of the criticisms initially aimed at the original Bloom’s taxonomy by educational academia, still apply to the revised version. For example, the usefulness of the framework is potentially weakened by its naivety. Remembering or knowing when Mary Queen of Scots was born is very different from remembering or knowing how to ski safely down Cairngorm mountain. An additional criticism would be that the framework provides a classification of educational behaviours rather than a measure of thinking skills. If we ask a pupil a question such as ‘What is 9 x 8?’ and we get an answer of 72 … Did the pupil remember it was 72? Did they remember how to use the fingers trick to get 79? Did they do 10 x 8 then subtract 8 to get it? Did they add 8 together 9 times? The answer doesn’t tell us how complex the pupil’s thinking was.

Among educational practitioners confusion still exists between the versions of Bloom’s taxonomy and the implications of its use in the processes of learning. Neither of the versions were presented by their original authors in the familiar pyramid form and the prevalence of this structure for the

framework adds an additional complication. It is very easy to read too much into the pyramid arrangement which leads to a range of commonly held ideas about Bloom’s taxonomy which were not part of the original author’s intention. These include ideas such as: more time should be spent on remembering than creating or remembering is more important than creating because remembering is a larger section of the triangle; analysing is more important than applying or analysing comes after applying because analysing is higher up the triangle.

The Structure of Observed Learning Objectives (SOLO) may offer an alternative framework for thinking skills which avoids the pitfalls of Bloom’s taxonomy which have been described so far. The SOLO taxonomy as a framework for thinking skills was generated by Biggs and Collis (also psychologists) in 1982 during the period between the publication of the two different versions of Bloom’s taxonomy, however, it was conceptualised in a very different way to that of Bloom’s taxonomy. Biggs and Collis asked school pupils reasonably open questions such as “Why is the side of a mountain that faces the coast wetter than the side that faces inland?” (Biggs and Collis, 1982, p. 4). Biggs and Collis categorized the answers provided by the pupils by the depth of understanding they perceived the answers to demonstrate. Answers demonstrating no understanding were classified as ‘pre-structural’. Those demonstrating one correct idea as ‘uni-structural’ and those with multiple correct ideas ‘multi-structural’. Answers where ideas had been connected together were categorized as ‘relational’ and as ‘extended abstract’ where the depth of understanding went beyond this and the answers began to explore new ideas. This categorization led to a framework with five hierarchical stages. (More details about the SOLO taxonomy can be found via the reference list at the end of the article). A framework for thinking skills based on the categorization of pupil responses to questions rather than a categorization of university test questions may sit more easily with primary and broad general secondary education in Scotland.

The SOLO taxonomy as a framework for thinking skills is an alternative to consider to Bloom’s taxonomy for pre-service teachers but it isn’t without it’s draw backs. Firstly, the terminology of the SOLO taxonomy is unlikely to be useful directly with pupils and agreement as to what relational thinking means in different disciplines may be difficult to achieve as it is with Bloom’s taxonomy. Secondly, both frameworks can incorrectly be interpreted to imply that progression between stages within a lesson should be attempted or that lower levels of the framework only apply for younger children. Finally, one of the limitations of both frameworks is that they provide an end point measurement rather than a means. They don’t tell our pre-service teachers how to develop the pupils’ analytical thinking skills or how to move from evaluative to creative or relational to extended abstract thinking. There is no perfect or ideal framework for thinking skills for our pre-service teachers. There is no need to ditch the familiar Bloom’s taxonomy, but our pre-service teachers can only bloom when they understand the strengths and weaknesses of the frameworks for thinking skills on which they draw.

Reference List
Anderson, L. W. and Bloom, B. S. (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. London: Longman.

Biggs, J. B. and Collis, K. F. (1982) Evaluating the quality of learning: the SOLO taxonomy. London: Academic Press.

Biggs, J. B. (2012) ‘What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning’, Higher education research and development, 31(1), pp. 39-55.

Bloom, B. S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. London: Longman.

Hook, P. and Roberts, J. (2018) ‘The who, what, when, where, and why of SOLO taxonomy’, Set, 2, doi: 10.18296/set.0109.

Hughes, E. (2012) SOLO taxonomy explained in LEGO. Available at: (Accessed March 2023)

Pring, R. (1971) ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy: A philosophical critique (2)’, Cambridge journal of education, 1(2), pp. 83-91.

Sockett, H. (1971) ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy: A philosophical critique (I)’, Cambridge journal of education, 1(1), pp. 16-25.

The Scottish Government (2009) Curriculum for excellence building the curriculum 4 skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work. Available at: (Accessed March 2023)