Applying critical instructional design

This is the final assignment for Critical Instructional Design. The prompt:

How do you design an exercise, create content, open a discussion, or build an assessment that is truly critically pedagogical in its design?

What you create as your final project is up to you. But some guidelines include:

  • Create something practical, something that can actually be used in an online or hybrid course;
  • Build into the work a space for reflection, or a space for learning to happen, whatever that looks like to you;
  • Make the work reflective somehow of your thoughts about critical instructional design.

The assignment

In this course, we have broadened our definition of what “counts” as public history, emphasizing collaboration with the public rather than more traditional forms of public history in which professionals “do history” for a public audience. You need to keep this distinction in mind for your final digital project, which calls for you to engage with stakeholders.

This final digital project has three parts:

  1. A wireframe, mock-up, minimum viable product, or other proof of concept of a digital public history project (explained in detail below).
  2. A mock NEH grant application (or other proposal of similar scope) to support the project.
  3. A reflection on the project and mock grant.

The digital project (submitted as a group)

In a group of no more than four people, you will plan, and then begin to build, a digital public history project that serves an underrepresented or underserved audience.

The topic is up to you, but I recommend selecting a topic:

  • that is underexplored;
  • that is of interest to a large number of people;
  • has existing, readily available primary-source images or texts or has informants you can interview easily; and
  • about which you have some background knowledge, or about which you can acquire knowledge quickly.

If you’re casting about for Idaho topics, I encourage you to explore the finding aids for collections in Albertsons Library Special Collections, the Idaho State Archives, or the archives of local corporations.

In the past, for assignments similar to this one, students have proposed or created:

  • a retrofitted bus that visits neighborhoods to help residents collect oral histories, scan photos, and begin a neighborhood history site;
  • an app template for local historical sites to promote their programs and services to tourists;
  • an on-site, augmented reality tour of the Morris Hill Cemetery, with “pop-up” names over graves, biographies of Boise’s notable dead—some in video form that incorporated audio from oral history projects;
  • an educational app for Idaho fourth and fifth graders that dives into the history of Idaho’s diverse native peoples;
  • self-guided walking tours of Boise’s disappeared Chinatown and the African-American River Street neighborhood, complete with QR codes posted on today’s buildings that allow tourists to see what sites looked like in the past.

You will undoubtedly wonder what project scope will allow you to succeed in this assignment. I don’t have a single answer, as my response will vary with group size, topic, audience, and proposed tools; your group should come to me to determine a reasonable project scope.

You will turn in all work and/or documentation of work to the instructor, and you will present your project to the class.

A few things to consider


We have spent a good deal of time in this class considering public reaction to public history projects and programs and to thinking about who the stakeholders of a particular project are and how best to work with them. (Recall in particular Tom King’s Our Unprotected Heritage and its case studies illustrating how stakeholders too often are underconsulted.) In the early stages of your project, you need to figure out who its stakeholders are; these likely will include the audience for the project as well as people connected to its subject (or their descendants), but may comprise other groups as well. How do you plan to identify stakeholders, approach them, recruit them, process their contributions, and maintain their enthusiasm for the project?


You need to be sure you have access to the materials you need and will have permission to share them via your digital project. Figure out the rules for things such as archives’ digital permissions, reproduction fees, and contracts (for archives or oral histories, for example) early in your project planning.


Consider your digital toolbox, or proposed digital toolbox, carefully. Some questions to consider:

  • Will the platform you are using or proposing to use be around in another year or two, or is it the product of a brand new startup? (Funders want to see stability.)
  • Is the tool electronically accessible to people with disabilities? What steps will you take to ensure your project is accessible?
  • Does accessing the project require broadband access?
  • If you are proposing building a digital tool that requires programming or other development skills beyond your expertise, what kind of developers will you propose hiring? How will you find them and vet them, and what will their services cost?

The grant (submitted as a group)

You will write a grant application in response to a call for proposals for a program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Unless I tell your group otherwise, you will need to complete all parts of the proposal, with two exceptions: You need to merely tell me from whom you would secure letters of reference rather than having them actually written, and you can use a simple spreadsheet for your budget rather than using the forms the NEH provides.

We will discuss in class how to identify grant opportunities and craft a proposal narrative.

The reflection (submitted individually)

Your reflection should be at least 750 words. (Some of you will barely break 750 words, while others will write 3,000. I will read whatever your submit.) It should address at least some of these questions:

  • Why did you choose your subject?
  • Why is this project needed at this time, and why did you choose to serve your particular audience?
  • Are there audiences who will find your project controversial, offensive, or otherwise challenging? Explain. Did you intentionally exclude anyone from your audience, or design “against the grain” to provoke a particular audience or type of viewer/user? If so, why and how?
  • How did you go about selecting your particular methods and tools?
  • What challenges did your subject or sources present?
  • What challenges did your research and content creation present?
  • What challenges did your collaboration (in your group or with stakeholders) present?
  • What would you do differently next time?


  • Sketchy project proposal and work plan: TBD
  • Polished project/project proposal: TBD
  • Group presentation: TBD
  • Mock grant proposal: TBD
  • Individual reflections: TBD

My reflection on the assignment

This assignment is designed for my graduate seminar in applied historical research, which I teach as a public history seminar with an emphasis on what it means to “do history” in a digital age. The assignment, however, could be adapted for an an upper-division undergraduate course.

In this course and in all my courses, I aim to increase students’ digital savvy by an order of magnitude. For some, this means collaborating via Google Drive or simple video editors for the first time. For others, it means learning some PHP as they tweak a WordPress site the class is building. While it may appear this project tosses them into the deep end, so to speak, the course assignments scaffold students’ digital skills—though there still is for many students a considerable gap between where they are and where they want the project to end up. The group nature of the project helps to quell anxiety over technology, as students work together to solve technical challenges before coming to me for help; only very rarely do students come to me for technical support.

Idaho’s past has been underexamined by professional and public historians, at least in ways that challenge the traditional narrative that begins with Lewis and Clark and white contact with Native Americans, then continues through fur traders, mining, logging, pioneers, and farmers. There are plenty of opportunities for students to interpret the state’s past, as there are two easily accessed, large public troves of primary sources here in Boise. Despite such archives, I did not require students to focus on Idaho history exclusively, for two reasons: First and most obviously, students may have their own interests outside Idaho history. Second, I’m hoping some students will opt to serve underrepresented audiences that are not well represented in the local historical record; many of my students have not considered race in any substantive way, yet I’ve found some are eager to tackle the subject. (In the past, students have begun to address the historical Chinese and African American presence in Boise, but the primary sources for these communities are largely inaccessible to our graduate students, either because they are not well-catalogued in local collections or because they are in Chinese, and many of the secondary sources are of questionable value.)

As I scan the field of local and regional public history, I’m frustrated by the very traditional nature of many projects and programs. The social web makes it easy to make friendly first contact with strangers and even recruit participants without even leaving one’s desk. I teach my students that consultation with stakeholders is an essential part of any project. Designing an app for fourth grade history? Talk to fourth-grade teachers. Talk to fourth graders. Is the app about historic Native peoples? Consult their descendants.

My insistence on consultation with public stakeholders isn’t just to promote ethical standards or inclusive excellence, though those would be sufficient reasons in themselves. In addition to helping my students to be thoughtful and inclusive, this requirement may increase the quality of historical practice among amateurs and laypeople. The public is already trying to make sense of the past on sites like Ancestry, Wikipedia, countless blogs, and HistoryPin. A well-developed digital public history project that solicits public participation may help the public better understand both the past and what historians do.

At the same time as I try to build my students’ digital skills, I also caution them to keep in mind the relative lack of broadband internet in Idaho and other remote rural regions of the U.S. Idaho has the slowest internet in the 50 states, and even some of my faculty colleagues don’t have broadband or wifi in their homes here in Boise. If they are assuming an Idahoan or rural audience for their project, students need to balance any newfound enthusiasm for a new technology with its accessibility to rural users or users with disabilities.

This class assignment is not an entirely new one, though I have made more explicit here my own commitment to inclusive design. I believe all public history is pedagogical, and I’ve designed the assignment itself to be a critical pedagogical project.  In On Critical Pedagogy, Henry Giroux writes,

Critical pedagogy is not about an a priori method that simply can be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, and available resources. It draws attention to the ways in which knowledge, power, desire, and experience are produced under specific basic conditions of learning and illuminates the role that pedagogy plays as part of a struggle over assigned meanings, modes of expression, and directions of desire, particularly as these bear on the formation of the multiple and ever-contradictory versions of the self and its relationship to the larger society. (4)

Giroux might as well be talking about the kinds of projects my students will be asked to create and manage during their careers. It makes sense, then, to infuse this final class project with principles of critical instructional design.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

This post is another response to an assignment in Critical Instructional Design. This week’s prompt:

This week your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to dismantle and re-mantle one common assumption about instructional design. We encourage you to tackle one of those assumptions that you hold most closely—because discomfort can often be terrifically productive.

I’m tackling Bloom’s taxonomy.

Why? I find I refer to it often, but I realize I’m frequently using it as shorthand for something else.

Bloom’s taxonomy emerged from a series of educational conferences in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but ended up being named after Benjamin Bloom, who served as chair of the committee of educators that formulated the taxonomy. Those of you who are teachers or professors very likely will have seen this diagram or one like it:

This is actually one of three taxonomies and represents what the committee termed “the cognitive domain.” It’s the part of the taxonomy that remains most popular in higher education. The way I’ve seen Bloom’s taxonomy described—and honestly, how I usually explain it—is that these cognitive skills build on one another as they grow increasingly complex. The common implication, then, is that these skills need to be scaffolded—though I confess in my classes I’m not particularly good about careful scaffolding. In my courses I try to get students into application, analysis, and synthesis almost immediately.

In the 1990s, some of Bloom’s students revised the taxonomy so that it looks more like this:

Lorin Anderson, one of the authors of the revised taxonomy, described the process and previewed the changes in a 1999 paper; Anderson explained that the next taxonomy emphasized the contexts in which cognitive processes take place and acknowledged more than the academic context—the authors added two additional knowledge categories or dimensions: the “strategic/motivational” and “social/cultural.” Anderson writes,

The first, strategic/motivational, recognizes the importance of knowing as a legitimate educational goal. This category contains what has been termed metacognition and includes the learning strategies students employ, the links they make between their efforts and their accomplishments, and their perceptions of themselves as people and as learners. The addition of the second category, social/cultural, reflects our appreciation of the cultural-specificity of knowledge. It also recognizes the role of social learning theory in explaining how students learn.

The revision, therefore, infused the original taxonomy with additional complexity and nuance. Whereas the original taxonomy suggested students should be climbing ever upward on the chart, another of the creators of the revised taxonomy, David Krathwohl, made clear that students may more freely move up and down the chart:

Like the original taxonomy, the revision is a hierarchy in the sense that the six major categories of the Cognitive Process dimension are believed to differ in their complexity, with remember being less complex than understand, which is less complex than apply, and so on. However, because the revision gives much greater weight to teacher usage, the requirement of a strict hierarchy has been relaxed to allow the categories to overlap one another.

Krathwohl implies, then, that the skills don’t necessarily need to be scaffolded. This freedom from moving systematically up the taxonomy frees up faculty to take risks as they pose greater challenges to their students, asking them to take cognitive leaps rather than plodding steps.

Krathwohl added an additional layer to the revised taxonomy by suggesting the cognitive skills be used as column heads across the top of a table, with different varieties of knowledge—factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive—forming the row headers. Instructors could place their individual learning objectives in the table’s cells, mapping in one visual what kinds of cognitive skills and knowledge a course aimed to develop in students. While filling out this taxonomic table may feel a bit mechanical to some instructors (myself included), the completed table makes transparent what kinds of knowledge and skills will be cultivated in a course. Should all of these skills and knowledge be grouped into a single area of the table—say, the upper-left quadrant, which focuses on remembering, understanding, and applying factual and conceptual knowledge—the instructor may want to reconsider the course objectives. Some instructors may be comfortable conducting a 100-level course in this quadrant of the table, but uncomfortable if their upper-division courses also fell there.


Bloom’s taxonomy in both its forms has been both popular and influential, but it has not been free of criticism. As Robert Marzano and John Kendall note in The New Taxonomy of Educational ObjectivesBloom’s original taxonomy has proven especially useful in evaluation, though less influential in curriculum design. In particular, Marzano and Kendall write, developers of the standardized state tests that arose in the 1970s leaned on Bloom’s, sometimes heavily, to define skill levels. In the past few decades, such tests have come increasingly under attack from parents and teachers alike. Anderson acknowledges Bloom’s utility in and application to such evaluation, but defends the new taxonomy from critics who might say the original taxonomy lends itself to oversimplified assessments: “We believe that the diversity of cognitive processes represented in the taxonomy requires a comparable diversity of assessment strategies and techniques.”

That’s an important acknowledgement and correction, as one of the biggest criticisms of the original Bloom’s taxonomy is that it’s unscientific and out of step with current theories of learning. In particular, the levels, which Bloom et. al. claimed were hierarchical, are actually quite muzzy. Drawing on others’ criticisms of Bloom’s, Marzano and Kendall point out that higher-order skills can be prerequisite to allegedly lower-level ones. For example, they write, analysis of a subject can be central to comprehending it.

Syntheses of Bloom’s

Those who criticize the original taxonomy’s embrace of hierarchical levels of cognitive skills can indeed hold the original taxonomy responsible, but the synthesis of Bloom’s with other learning theories strengthened this hierarchy. Take, for example, the three theorists perhaps best known for their uses of various kinds of scaffolding: Vygotsky, Bruner, and Rogoff. Each scaffolding theory holds that learners need assistance, usually from other people, in moving to higher orders of thinking and understanding.

These theories emphasized the social aspects of learning: people learn in community, whether it be in a formal classroom or in an informal setting. And once we introduce the social component, the multitudinous learning scenarios become impossible to track. As our networked, digital age has increasingly made clear, knowledge lives and thrives in networks, and it’s situated in bodies (h/t Donna Haraway). Depending on which nodes (people, learning artifacts, contexts) are connected and activated at any given time, different kinds of learning take place and different knowledges are created. As John Spencer suggests in a blog post, the original taxonomy’s clean modernism does not stand up in a postmodern age. That said, the modernist tendencies of Bloom’s are written right into the model’s name: it is a taxonomy; it names, classifies, and orders.

Even in the midst of this analytical chaos, however, Bloom’s remains useful as a shorthand in introducing learning theory to faculty who have never considered the subject. I frequently refer to “pushing students up the pyramid.” On the one hand, the metaphor is a bit coercive. On the other hand, it suggests we have students’ backs and are trying to support them in their journey. I’ve used the expression with students as well as faculty, and it seems to help students understand what’s going on in my (to them) unconventional online course. I even used Bloom’s to explain my course’s activities in a recent wrap-up post in the online course I taught in the spring.

Bloom’s, scaffolding, and employability

I want to take a look at that same closing post from my online course, as it captures a moment when I was trying to make sense of the first course I’d taught fully online, and it references Bloom’s, then immediately swoops into a discussion of career outcomes.

That course, HIST 100: Themes in World History — Engineering the Past, is meant to serve primarily as a general education course for non-majors and secondarily as a place where we might recruit majors. It was my first time teaching online and my first time teaching world history (which I last took in eighth grade), and I complicated the semester by using WordPress as an institutionally unsupported LMS and by trying to use as much free course material as possible. It was messy and not too far beyond what Silicon Valley types might call a Minimum Viable Product. When I teach it again, it will look very, very different.

I’m fortunate to be at an institution where we aren’t mandated to use the supported LMS, Blackboard, though I did use Blackboard’s gradebook because students like to have a place to track their grades, and I didn’t trust any gradebook I could set up in WordPress would be compliant with FERPA.

There are many benefits to working outside the institution’s LMS—benefits I’ll try to remember to elaborate in another post—but one disadvantage in teaching a 100-level online course on a platform that’s new to students is that it requires a good deal of technological scaffolding and hand-holding. I’ve used WordPress in my face-to-face courses, where students can easily help one another with technical questions before, during, or after each class meeting. In an entirely online general education course, however, there doesn’t tend to be the same sense of community because, at least at my institution, many of the students sign up for online courses hoping they’re a smaller time commitment than face-to-face courses. Students enter the semester, then, already reticent to invest time, let alone emotional energy, into such a course.

Accordingly, I found I needed to show students how to do simple technological tasks, such as logging into WordPress, writing and publishing a post, adding visual or audio media to a post, collaborating via Google docs, or finding a journal article in the library’s databases. As the semester progressed, I expected students to remember what I had already showed them how to do, then apply those patterns to other technological challenges in the course—e.g., finding other library resources or collaborating digitally on a much less structured group project.

It was clear to me some students felt more than a little lost during the course, and for every student who gave polite voice to their frustrations or confusion, I suspect two or three remained silent. At the end of the course, then, I felt the need to tie everything up with a neat bow, explaining that what may have seemed like a scattershot approach to world history was actually (somewhat) carefully planned to provide students with a lower-division course experience that expected more of them than a typical 100-level course.

Furthermore, although I had not done so intentionally, I realized many of the course activities and outcomes aligned with an entirely different but relevant taxonomy: my university’s “Make College Count” initiative, which encourages students to find opportunities to practice the skills employers most seek:

  • analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting information;
  • thinking critically;
  • solving problems;
  • taking initiative;
  • contributing to a team;
  • managing time and priorities;
  • performing with integrity;
  • effectively communicating orally;
  • building and sustaining working professional relationships.

I don’t like to think of higher education as vocational training, but when I view many of my courses from my students’ perspective, I understand students see college as key to developing the knowledge and skills that will let them earn a better living in a state that ranks first in the nation for minimum-wage jobs per capita. Student can develop these skills in any number of disciplines, but as an advocate for the humanities, I try to ensure students practice such skills while coming to appreciate the value and utility of the humanities in everyday life.

And so, yes, I practice scaffolding in some of my courses, and I found it to be especially valuable in my online course. I scaffold skills—from collaborating with others in a digital environment to analyzing material culture to better understand the habits, beliefs, and values of artifacts’ users—more than I do content. Content is just a way for students to get to the skills. And so I tend to skip very quickly over remembering and understanding in favor of emphasizing application and analysis through the act of creating a digital project that synthesizes text and multimedia elements.

Looking forward

So. . . What will I change in my courses and my instructional design practice now that I’ve taken a closer look at Bloom’s taxonomy and its critics?

Honestly, not much. Bloom’s remains a useful tool for me in my current context. Were I teaching at a selective small liberal arts college or an R1 university, both of which often have more middle-class and wealthy students than my institution does, I might not have to think as explicitly about how the skills we use in class affect students’ immediate career prospects. Like the educators who reformulated Bloom’s Taxonomy in the 1990s, I’m compelled to take the learning context into account.

Still, I appreciate the opportunity to reconsider, and then defend, one of my core ways of thinking about skills and outcomes in my courses.

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