Using Narratives and Images to Nurture Bloom’s Higher Order Thinking Skills

An initial draft of this was first posted on Tales From The Reach on 15 March 2017. A full version was posted on the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 15 April 2019.

As a teacher, especially one involved in ITT provision, CPD and professional mentoring, I have often advocated Bloom’s taxonomy as a way of goal setting when lesson planning or collaboratively planning with mentees. The taxonomy was the result of a number of specially convened conferences on teaching and learning chaired by Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s. However, Bloom’s initial findings have been extensively developed and updated (see, for example, Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) as well as criticised. Nonetheless, the basic taxonomy identifies three key domains of learning, which are: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.  Each of these domains has six levels of learning that are ranked in order of challenge to learners. The most referenced domain is the cognitive domain, which starts by classifying the so-called ‘lower order thinking skills’ of knowledge, comprehension and application and then moves onto the supposed ‘higher order thinking skills’ of analysis, synthesis and evaluation – most updated versions remove synthesis and put creativity at the top of the taxonomy (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Bloom’s cognitive domain. (Source: the University of Colorado).

It is important to note, however, that I do not necessarily see the ‘lower order skills’ as easier or less important than the ‘higher order skills’. My view is that the lower order skills are the foundation – or even gateway – to the implementation or use of the higher order skills. Moreover, you cannot have the higher without the lower and, importantly, the lower are dependent on memory and knowledge retrieval, which are skills in and of themselves (see Doug Lemov’s field notes blog on this). Nevertheless, any academic use of knowledge will eventually involve the more astute implementation of the higher order skills as pupils work with the knowledge they have learned.

As part of a Lesson Study Triad (see previous posts), three colleagues and I decided to see if we could explore the role of narrative in developing Bloom’s higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This, we felt, was an interesting area of study as too often narratives merely involve the lower order thinking skills of knowledge, comprehension and application; as pupils basically listen to or read a narrative before recalling and applying the narrative in lesson activities, such as written comprehension in response to questions.

In order to move beyond the lower order skills, we initially reviewed how we delivered narrative as part of our combined Humanities course, which includes History, Geography, RE and Citizenship. We found that too often we simply got pupils to read narratives and answer questions on them. Therefore, we explored ways in which to develop the skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation (plus the latter addition of creativity), and decided to look at activities that involve prediction as well as sequencing re-arranged narratives. Subsequently, our first stage of planning and observations (as part of the Lesson Study process) centred on developing these ideas.

Here, our success criteria included getting:

  • pupils to ask questions about the chronological and/or logical order of narratives (Bloom’s ‘analysis’);
  • pupils to predict narratives from a variety of choices of ‘what comes next’ (Bloom’s ‘analysis’);
  • debate the meaning of stories in relation to their own experiences (Bloom’s ‘synthesis’);
  • create alternative meanings from the narrative that could be different to the religious meanings/symbolism (Bloom’s ‘creative’).

In order to meet this criteria we narrowed our focus of study to the use of card sorts, which we often use after pupils have been introduced to a narrative. The basic function of these card sorts is to get pupils to recall the narrative in the right chronological – or sequential – order.  These card sorts tend to be texted based (i.e. short paragraphs or simply sentences of key events).

Subsequently, our first round of ‘diagnostic’ lessons observations involved a lesson on the Hindu god Ganesh that used text-based card sorts (see example uploaded below). This lesson has previously proved popular with pupils – who are fascinated by Ganesh’s elephant head – and is part of a sequence of lessons on the Hindu gods. This sequence, in turn, is part of a wider unit on Eastern religions and moves onto a series of lessons on Buddhism.


Nonetheless, although teachers and pupils say they enjoy the Ganesh lesson, we did question whether the ‘more able‘ (and engaged) pupils were fully stretched and challenged as the main learning activity largely involved reading the full narrative, briefly discussing it and then completing the text-based card sort where events had to be put in a chronological order. Pupils did this in groups of four. For our more able pupils (as well as those enjoying the topic) the card sort was often completed swiftly, with a minimum of fuss and little debate; collaboration simply involved quick agreement or deference to the pupils who seemed to know the most (this data on pupil collaboration came from some small pupil focus groups and interviews as well as whole class surveys and an observation).

The second round of teaching and observations involved tweaking the narrative centred activity that used text-based card sorts to a narrative centred activity that used image based card sorts instead. After reading a text on the life of the Buddha, pupils again had to rearrange the cards in the correct chronological order, but the more ambiguous imagery made the sequencing of events more open to interpretation and the collaborative consensus within the groups more department on how well pupils made the case for each image ‘coming next’. This lesson/narrative focused on the basic life of the Buddha (see examples below; the first slide shows the pupil instructions and the second shows four of the eighteen pictures used). Some images were selected as they would be analogical to the narrative (see Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion (first edition) technique 12 for more on this). For example, example slide 2 includes a boy covered in bubble wrap, which [arguably] corresponds to how King Suddhodana protected his son, the Buddha, from suffering as a child. 

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 18.42.06
Example slide 1 – pupil instructions
Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 18.41.20
Example slide 2 – four of the twelve images

Initial observations showed that the activity took more time, involved more debate and seemed to intellectually tax the most able far more than the text-based card sort. Moreover, our small focus groups (three groups of four) and pupil surveys showed that the pupils also identified the image based card sort as far more difficult and challenging.

A summary of  pupil responses to both lessons included:

  • Pupils saying they enjoyed piecing together the narrative on Ganesh from the text (in the first lesson). They acknowledged that this involved collaboration through discussion. However, some said it was ‘too easy’ and the story was ‘too straight forward’ and not particularly difficult to figure out chronologically.
  • However, pupils found the Buddha card sort (in the second lesson) that used images instead of text more challenging (as peer observations and surveys also testified). Although one pupil did not like the image card sort, most suggested it was challenging and got their imaginations working. For example, ‘[it] got my imagination to think differently’ and ‘[it] made us think deeper into the story’.
  • Interestingly, one pupil responded that using imagery to retell narratives was more ‘spiritual’! They stated, ‘I thought of the life of the Buddha in a more visual/spiritual way instead of literally.’
  • Although we wanted to take pupils out of their comfort zone, some suggested that they were not clear on how secure their knowledge needed to be in order to attempt the Buddha card sort activity. For example, ‘they [the cards] were great because it helped you understand the story easily, but I felt like my answers could be wrong as others disagreed with me on the order. We did agree on the main points though.’ This suggests the image based card sorts needed more interpretation than the text-based ones to justify their place in the sequence. 
  • However, the pupils also responded that they would have liked more time for the more ambitious Buddha card sort. For example, ‘You got to explore the story more, however, we weren’t given enough time.’
  • Furthermore, we gave them too many cards. This had practical issues, for example: ‘They were really entertaining, but the cards were a bit hard to clear up.’

The Lesson Study did show that both activities were – overall – engaging and made the pupils think. Nevertheless, when we tried to make the second narrative card sort more difficult by focusing on images, we clearly challenged the pupils far more. By and large, pupils answered affirmatively in terms of engagement and challenge. For example, almost 90% of pupils said the tweaked ‘Life of the Buddha’ lesson was ‘more difficult’ than the previous lesson on Ganesh and just under 99% said it was ‘more interesting’ (see charts below).

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 14.42.28

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 14.44.02

Importantly, in terms of Bloom’s ‘higher order thinking skills’, pupils were clearly ‘analysing’ the meaning the images in relation to the text they read beforehand. We saw and heard this through observation and pupil interviews. Disagreements on what images meant and whether they related to different points of the story resulted in clear ‘evaluation’ of some of the images, especially where their inclusion in the order of events needed articulating or defending to convince others; many pupils also changed their minds in the process and plenty of considered hesitation was observed.  We also felt that some level of ‘creativity’ was needed as not all the groups put the cards in the same order (this arguably relates to synthesis as well). However, although all the key events were in the same place (this suggests a sound understanding of the story), some of the more ambiguous cards were interpreted differently, but still allowed the pupils to relay and tell the same story through Q&A feedback at the end of the lesson (this also hints at an element of synthesis). Using non-historical and non-religious imagery also allowed the pupils to relate the story more to their own day-to-day lives, which suggests a level of synthesis between the Buddha’s experiences (as told in scriptures) with their own. 

Nonetheless, we need to find a more engaging way to prep them for the card sort, find a way to make them more resilient for the challenge and use less cards and give them more time to make it more practical.

In conclusion, it is clear that ambiguous imagery made for a longer and more thoughtful card sort than one based on straight forward text (this does not rule out using more complex text in card sorts to achieve similar results). In this sense, we met our success criteria and will consider using similar activities with narratives in other lessons.


Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. (New York: Longman)

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach Like a Champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. (San Francisco :Jossey-Bass)

Further reading

“Bloom’s Taxonomy.” University of Waterloo. Retrieved from

“Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Retrieved from

Overbaugh, R., and Schultz, L. (n.d.). “Image of two versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Norfolk, VA: Old Dominion University. Retrieved from

Featured image: from Wikicommons and used under a Creative Commons Licence.



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