Connecting GIS Education to Bloom’s Taxonomy

12-22-2020 01:12 PM
Esri Notable Contributor
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Connecting GIS Education to Bloom’s Taxonomy

One of the most influential and commonly used frameworks guiding the creation and teaching of educational content over the past 60 years has been the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from Benjamin Bloom and colleagues (1956).  The framework from Bloom et al. included six major categories:  Knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  These categories have been organized in many graphical forms over the years, but one of my favorites has long been the ‘light bulb’ graphic from Fractus Learning, shown below:


blooms1.pngGraphic showing Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs and descriptions.  Creative Commons, from Fractus Learning. 

One of the reasons why I believe that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is such a powerful instructional tool is because it ties in so beautifully with Bloom’s taxonomy and moreover, with sound educational practice.  By “sound educational practice” I refer to the core tenets of what drew all of us to education in the first place—teaching and learning that truly excites students about their communities and their world, being curious, discovering, analyzing, investigating, collaborating, and communicating.  Using GIS engages students in using real-world tools to solve real-world problems.  In so doing, students act as scientists in engaging ways that build data and media literacy.  Using GIS builds spatial thinking, as students use and create 2D and 3D maps, infographics, dashboards, and other visualizations.  As they collect data in the field, they become familiar with data collection tools (such as Survey123) and instruments (such as smartphone apps and water quality, weather, and other probes and other digital environmental sensors), along with field methods and data quality issues.  As students consider the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and anthrosphere, using GIS encourages “systems thinking” and a holistic view of the Earth.  Indeed, one of the Bloom’s objectives is synthesis—the putting together of elements and parts so as to form a whole.”  The “S” in GIS is, after all, “System.”  It is a system of software, hardware, tools, procedures, and people.  Using GIS also fosters awareness of the interconnectedness of such systems and the complexity of these interactions. 

Using GIS also builds critical thinking—about the data that they are using (“Who created that data?  At what scale?  How often is it updated?  Can I trust the data?”), about how the methods that students choose can influence the research results (“intersect vs. union” for example), and about the tools themselves (“Do these tools meet my needs?”).  All of the verbs in the above graphic—from stating to defending to concluding and dozens more, are ones I have used countless times in GIS instruction over the years.  Using these terms is not forced in GIS instruction—rather, using them is a natural consequence of using these tools. Indeed, many of these terms, such as select, classify, analyze, summarize, and many more, are built into the GIS tools and are the actual names for these tools! 

The aim in using GIS is typically not to learn more about GIS.  Using GIS in education is almost always a means to higher goals—the ultimate goal is not to “learn more GIS”.  Certainly, GIS skills are in high demand in the workplace. Rather, the higher goals are the ones I mentioned above, such as critical and spatial thinking, with an aim for deeper understanding of an issue or a theme.  Even in GIS programs in a university, learning GIS is aimed at understanding GIScience in a deeper way.  When students use GIS, they gain skills, content knowledge, and the geographic perspective on a typical lesson’s theme, whether it is plate tectonics or renewable energy or ocean currents or a historical battle.  I explain what I believe to be a three-legged stool of geoliteracy and why it matters, here. 

As my colleague Charlie Fitzpatrick has written, GIS is and always has been a “thinker’s tool.”  It was created during the 1960s to be a toolset for solving problems, and this remains its focus today.  Professionals use GIS daily to solve problems in human health, supply chain management, transportation, energy, land use, and in hundreds of other sectors of society.  In education, students from primary school to university level use GIS to solve problems in biology, environmental science, earth science, geography, mathematics, history, data science, computer science, business, and in many other subjects.  They make keen use of the geographic inquiry model:  They ask geographic questions, gather data from a wide variety of sources, scales, and formats (tables, maps, satellite imagery, ground photographs, point clouds, and more, including their own collected data), assess the data quality, analyze patterns, relationships, and trends using GIS tools on that data, make recommendations, and present their results graphically and orally using story maps, other web mapping applications, videos, and other presentation tools.  This leads to additional questions and the cycle continues.

Let me use a fundamental activity that is frequently taught using GIS at multiple levels of education and in geography and science courses and show how it is anchored to Bloom’s Taxonomy—teaching about plate tectonics through GIS.   You could open this map in ArcGIS Online to see what I am referring to, or go through this lesson in Teach With GIS or this Learn Path with geoinquiries using plate tectonics data.

Bloom’s Taxonomy Verbs

Example from teaching plate tectonics with GIS


Learn about faults, the zones underneath the Earth’s surface, continental vs. oceanic crust, types of plate boundaries such as transform, converging, and diverging, types and heights of volcanoes, and the magnitude and depth of earthquake.  Learn these terms, what they mean, and be able to use them in a sentence.  Point to them and refer to them in an interactive ArcGIS 2D map or 3D scene, seeing where these features are located, and the underlying processes that are occurring.  Use cardinal directions (north, northeast, etc.) and other spatial terms (adjacent to, clustered, dispersed, linear, etc.) in describing the mapped data.


Change the symbology and the classification method of the earthquake and plate boundary map layers to visualize the map layers in different ways.  Interpret the earthquake, volcanic activity, and plate data to determine how many earthquakes typically occur each month, the pattern of the earthquakes by magnitude and depth, and how many have occurred within 10 km of a heavily populated coastal area, or within 250 km from a plate boundary. 


Determine how many earthquakes have occurred over the past 10 years within 100 km of your own city.  Consider soil types and building construction materials used, and how these influence potential damage from a major earthquake on the types of buildings in your community.  Extrapolate plate movement data to determine where the Hawaiian Island chain will be in 10,000 years.  Assess continental vs. oceanic earthquakes and apply this knowledge to earthquakes in each scenario.


Analyze the relationship between frequency, depth, and magnitude of earthquakes to converging vs divergent boundaries.  Measure the offset from the Nazca-South American plate boundary to the Andes Mountains, and investigate the reasons for the offset.  Open and sort the data tables behind the map layers to determine the largest and deepest earthquakes that have occurred over the past 30 days.  Measure the distance from your community to these earthquake, and the distance from these earthquakes to the nearest plate boundary.  Investigate specific earthquake events such as Peru 1960, Alaska 1964, Indonesia 2004, and Japan 2011, damage, and resulting policy changes.


Consider population density, earthquake and volcanic activity, proximity to coasts, construction materials, soil types, and other variables to understand risk and vulnerability posed by plate tectonic-related natural hazards around the world.  Create a presentation about earthquake risk around the world and in your own city using maps and applications such as story maps and spatial data, and present your results visually and orally to your instructor and peers.


Compare the ocean floor base map to the plate boundaries layer and assess the spatial differences between the two, consider the reasons for the differences, and discuss the implications.  Make recommendations on how to build resilience in cities and among individuals and households in the face of increasing population and continued Earth dynamism.


As I hope the above details communicate, despite the tendency by some to discount or give short-shrift to the “lower order thinking skills” and pay more attention to the higher order thinking skills at the expense of the “lower”, using GIS requires all of them.  Instructors and students move from knowledge to evaluation and back again, frequently, during their use of GIS.  I believe each component plays a key role in the inherent nature of teaching and learning with GIS—that it is interactive, emulating real scientific investigation.  The components are not linear in that one can ignore knowledge and comprehension once one is working in the analysis and synthesis zones.   In the above example, when students are exploring the notion of resiliency in their evaluations, they reach back to knowledge and comprehension of this term and its implications.  When they are analyzing data, they reach back to application, as they create new maps and visualize the existing map layers in new ways. 

There are many ways in which GIS—even the above plate tectonics lesson, can be taught, but one thing is clear—using GIS is not “memorize these terms and concepts, fill out this worksheet, and prepare for the exam”.  Exams and worksheets have their place, but teaching with GIS is not linear, it is multi-directional.  This implies that choices can and must be made in GIS-based instruction, which is both wonderful and challenging at the same time.  To help educators meet these challenges are one reason my colleagues and I write essays in this education blog on GeoNet, and why we and others create resources such as GeoInquiries and ArcGIS Learn lessons.   

Space doesn’t allow me to go into the many other uses of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but I will encourage the reader to consider the following:  (1)  Use Bloom’s Taxonomy’s framework to help plan and deliver appropriate instruction, design valid assessment tasks and strategies, and frame course goals when using GIS.  (2) Use the revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy with the title A Taxonomy for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (Anderson, Krathwohl, et al. 2001)  as an additional guide.  This title and the verbs used nudges people away from the notion of static educational objectives and toward a more dynamic environment.   The revision includes a cognitive process dimension and a knowledge dimension.  The cognitive process dimension represents a continuum of increasing cognitive complexity.  A set of  “action words” describe the cognitive processes by which thinkers encounter and work with knowledge.  The six cognitive processes of remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create are all inherent to what happens when students use GIS to investigate their world. 



Visualizing Bloom’s Taxonomy, Creative Commons, from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

These cognitive processes can be effectively taught using a myriad of GIS based activities; selected examples are indicated below:

Cognitive Process

Example through GIS Instruction


Define terms such as variables (median age, land cover, migration), spatial analysis tools (enrichment, intersect), spatial patterns (hierarchy, flow, adjacency), or earth features (continent, ocean current, biome).   Understand and define concepts (fronts and weather, urbanization, business site selection) and illustrate with real-world examples.


Create maps using different classification methods and compare results for median income in a region; describe the relationships between lifestyles and health variables; explain how patterns of commuting have changed over the decades and their impact on urban patterns and city size; explain the relationship between flood control, land use, and flood hazards.


Use symbolization, classification, and data skills to make a new map for a different demographic variable or in a different region; create a drive time, walk time, and distance map to a school campus and compare the results; interpret the relationship between extreme high and low temperatures at different times of the year to proximity to coasts, elevation, and latitude.


Compare and contrast different physical or cultural regions; question the difference that imagery at a different scale would make on your assessment of land use change; organize your story maps on 3 types of wildlife in a grassland steppe region into a collection.   


Create a plan for urban greenways in your community; defend a policy on tree planting in a city and where trees are needed while considering material and labor costs; consider ethical and communications implications of your choice of variables, colors, and map projections in your final visualizations on the routes of historical Antarctic explorers; critiquing advantages and challenges in using the wildfire perimeter data set you chose.


Design, create, and give a presentation using multimedia web-GIS maps and web mapping applications on proposed wind power facility; investigate the feasibility of bike-sharing program and locations in your community.

The second part of the revised Bloom’s is the knowledge dimension, representing a range from concrete (factual) to abstract (metacognitive).  In this revised taxonomy, knowledge is at the basis of these cognitive processes, but the types of knowledge here includes factual knowledge, conceptual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and metacognitive knowledge.   Applying the plate tectonics example again to these types of knowledge:

Type of Knowledge

GIS instructional example in plate tectonics activity


Understanding terms such as plate, continent, ocean, fault line, crust, volcano, earthquake, depth, magnitude, and others. Understanding relative sizes of oceans, continents, and countries and where they are located on the planet.  Knowledge about a subset of major volcanic eruptions and earthquakes of the past.


Understand types of plate boundaries and volcanoes.  Understand the theory of plate tectonics including seafloor spreading and subduction zones.  Understand the interrelationship between plates, faults, volcanoes, and earthquakes.  Explain how different variables (conductivity, pH, etc.) affect overall water quality of a river or lake.


Learn how to perform specific tasks in a GIS—run a proximity buffer, create a map of statistically significant hot spots, add a summary field to a table, create and share a web mapping application.   Learn how to create a crowdsourced field survey, collect data into it, and map the results.  Understand the temporal and spatial distribution of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.   Design an efficient GIS-based project workflow.


Apply strategic knowledge about how to approach a problem using GIS, spatial data, and the spatial perspective.  Reflect on what you learned and the value of the spatial perspective and tools on this newfound knowledge.  Identify strategies for mapping change over space and time.  Predict the impact of current agricultural land use in Saudi Arabia over the next generation.   Deconstruct one’s biases in analyzing certain variables or using certain colors on maps.


Consider the following:  Get the students involved in their own learning by self-reflecting about it.  Ask students to create a list of verbs indicating the things they have done when they have been working with a specific GIS-based activity (or, the activities of the current semester), and then give a short sentence describing each verb.  


Sample list of verbs that are intertwined with using GIS in instruction.

Also use Bloom's Taxonomy to connect it to the tasks that GIS professionals do on the job.  Ask students to watch selected videos (such as those in our Virtual Job Shadow series, here: or the people I have interviewed in the Geoinspirations column in Directions Magazine, here:  Then, ask students to identify 10 tasks that their selected person(s) in the videos and interviews do routinely day to say, along with the verbs associated with Bloom's cognitive processes).   This I believe would help students see that the tasks they are working through in your courses are actually used in the workplace!  It might also help students focus their own career pathway to the tasks that they find most rewarding.   In addition, for those of you already in the GIS workplace, see one of the comments to this essay, below.  Share with us the tasks and domains that you most frequently use, and consider how you can deepen your own journey in geotechnologies. Finally, I think it is worthwhile to also examine the skills identified as important to GIS professionals, by the researchers at the GeoTech Center.

For more information

See Iowa State University’s helpful grid of the cognitive processes and the knowledge dimension.  See  Andrew Churches’ thorough Bloom’s guide.    See Larry Ferlazzo’s helpful guide and graphic.   Common Sense Education’s video discusses a digital revision or addition to Bloom in this video.  This chapter by Mary Forehand in Instructional Methods, Strategies, Math, and Technology to Meet the Need...

Use these connections to demonstrate the value of teaching with GIS to your colleagues and administrators. Use these connections as a guide for planning your own GIS-based curricular activities and course goals. While the linkages between GIS and Bloom’s have not been extensively discussed, some researchers are beginning to investigate these linkages to help educators incorporate spatial t... One reason I created this essay is to spark such a discussion.  I look forward to hearing how you are using Bloom’s in your own instruction and your reactions to this essay.

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.