Tuesday, May 10, 2016

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ESL Writing for STEM 1 - Bloom's Taxonomy

This is a multi-series post on my ESL writing experiences this past semester.


As educators, we wear many hats. Besides imparting knowledge and skills, it is natural for us to feel the duty to instill values and a sense of responsibility and initiative. In an intensive program, our main focus is to prepare our students for success in their mainstream classes. They need not only academic language skills, but also study skills and intercultural competence. They need to learn how to respect their peers, manage their time, and think critically. And being the noble teachers we are, we try to tackle it all. Just as a parent.

A topic that often resurfaces is critical thinking, and I believe Bloom’s Taxonomy (1954) has been the most influential work here. In many a staff meeting, I have heard the argument for more focus on critical thinking. It is true that many of our students come from educational backgrounds where little critical thinking is required of them beyond answering test questions and memorizing facts. Instructors have bemoaned the fact that students struggle to come up with “something new” and “creative” in their essays. We all nod our heads and get out Bloom’s triangle and talk about how to move them up from the basic foundation of recalling knowledge to the tip, which is synthesis and evaluation.

I do agree that helping ESL writers progress through these academic processing stages – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation – would be ideal. In order to foster the type of critical thinking involved in some of these higher-level stages, many ESL and English composition instructors adopt standard rhetorical patterns. Some standard models are the argument and summary/response models. For the past five years, I have taught an advanced ESL writing class each semester and have worked to help my students develop their arguments and bring in outside sources as support; however, it is like banging my head against the wall to get them to give any new type of argument I haven’t heard before. When they do come up with something “creative,” it is difficult to comprehend due to the language limitations.

Because of the challenges in expressing new ideas, most teachers and students prefer to stick to the basic ESL topics: education, the environment, and technology, to name a few. We are all familiar with these topics. Our textbooks are built primarily around them. I suppose that many assume liberal arts topics are the right place to plant the seed of critical thinking in our students. But is there really anything new about environment, education, and technology? These are actually safe places for our students to pump out trite sentences like, “Studying abroad is beneficial because it helps students learn a new culture and language. For example, I had a friend who…”

As most of my students plan to matriculate into STEM-related undergraduate programs, I realize that in reality much of what they will be doing, language-wise, relates in fact to the lower-levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy - knowledge and comprehension. Isn’t that a better place to begin for language learners? They will need to learn critical thinking skills at some point, but perhaps it would be wiser if as language educators we focused on the main hat we wear.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.