Climbing the Cognitive Learning Ladder

Using Dr. Benjamin Bloom's principles of learning can make your safety training much more effective.

The general consensus of those responsible for on-the-job safety is that unsafe acts cause most all on-the-job injuries. The safety field recognizes that companies with world-class safety have a certain culture in which people do not engage in the unsafe acts that result in an actual loss. Because most injuries result from human actions, the key battle in the safety war is for the minds of the workers. Training is a major part of many safety professionals' job responsibilities and an important tool in changing the minds, and subsequently the behaviors, of the workforce. Because this training is a vital part of the communication process to change the behavior of the workers, it is safe to say a professional responsible for safety must have every bit as much understanding of how adults learn as he or she does about the technical aspects of safety in order to maximize the training provided to the workforce.

All of the technical knowledge in the world is for naught unless we can communicate with the workforce and get the workers, as well as management, to truly value safety. Unfortunately, too many risk and safety professionals, while well trained in the technical aspects of safety, are not prepared to provide not just training, but optimized training. Fortunately, there are learning theorists who understand how to relate this information to those with a limited preparation in adult learning theory. One of those theorists is Dr. Benjamin Bloom. "Bloom's Taxonomy" can be a valuable tool in helping to understand how adults learn in order to optimize your training program.

Too often, people responsible for training have no background in how adults learn. An ironic but good example is at the college and university level, where the faculty members usually have earned a Ph.D. The Ph.D. is primarily a research degree, as opposed to the Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), that has much less emphasis on research but deals with teaching and learning. College faculty members often are sitting in the class one day and standing in front of the class the next. While they might be an expert in the technical aspects of their chosen fields, many are not prepared to relate that knowledge to others. Anyone who has been a college student for long has had him or her — that brilliant teacher who is a master of his/her discipline but just can't relate it to students. This example serves to demonstrate just how widespread the problem of poor teaching is, even at the university level. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in a 1964 decision he did not know how to define pornography but would "know it when I see it." (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184) Unfortunately, many trainers are the same way, not knowing what makes up good training and, although they know it when they see it, not understanding how to get there when they are responsible for the instruction. People too often assume teaching is just talking and cannot be too difficult. Unfortunately, this is much like people who believe safety is not a real discipline because, after all, safety is just "common sense." Maybe teaching is just talking, but effective teaching is something of an art, just like the practice of safety.

One of the key theories of adult learning is attributed to Dr. Bloom (1956). He developed a framework of understanding for adult learning known as Bloom's Taxonomy. Understanding this taxonomy will help risk and safety professionals who train understand how adults learn and, as a result, better understand how to become effective teachers.

Bloom explains learning as falling into three different domains. One type is psychomotor learning. This type of learning is action and motion. An early example of this type of learning is found in kindergarten, when children walk across a balancing beam on the fl oor to help them develop their coordination. Another example is having children crawl on the fl oor under a canopy to simulate the smoke in a fire. An adult example could be in emergency response training, where workers are trained to don protective gear when an alarm goes off. The concept of seeing an action, practicing an action, and then doing the action under the watchful eye of the instructor is an important part of psychomotor learning.

Another type of learning is affective. Affective learning involves the values and attitudes of workers. A childhood example could include how, in the early grades, the teacher works with the children about being respectful of others and not interrupting people. An excellent adult safety example is how, in a company with an advanced safety environment, the workers not only wear PPE on the job — they also wear it off the job. It is an ironic tribute of safety's effectiveness in a company where the concern goes from working to get workers to wear PPE on the job to having the workers take PPE off the job for home use.

The third domain of learning in Bloom's Taxonomy is cognitive learning. This type of learning involves facts, rules, principles, and procedures. Cognitive learning occurs in the elementary school classroom, as well as in the college classroom. It also occurs on the job. Cognitive learning is broken into six progressive steps. As the learning progresses up the ladder, a higher level of learning occurs. As we will see, the purpose of your training should be to get the learning to move as high as possible up the ladder in order to maximize the training and, hence, the safety effectiveness.

Levels of Cognitive Learning

The first level in Bloom's cognitive learning is "knowledge." This is the most basic level and involves simply knowing. Knowing how to put on a lockout/tagout device, an SCBA, or label a chemical container to comply with the HazCom standard are several examples. Knowledge is very basic and requires that the worker see a task, practice the task, and then do the task with the help of the trainer. It is here that most training programs fail, because many managers and trainers don't understand that people have free will. Simply put, just telling workers and giving them knowledge is almost certainly bound for mediocrity, if not outright failure.

Another adult learning theorist, Dr. Malcolm Knowles, indicated good training for adults requires that the learner not only know what, but why. Think about it: Do you as an individual do better when you simply know what, or do you understand better and have more buy-in when you know why? Children in the early childhood grades can be simply taught what and, because of their respect for the authority of adults, will comply with "what." However, as the individuals get older — the parents of children who reach the "tween" and preadolescent years will attest — they want to know why. While frustrating for parents, it is the natural progression from child to adult psychology. The child turning adult wants to know why they have to do something and why it is worth their time.

Does your company's training system treat your workers as children, expecting them to simply do as they are told and to essentially "shut up" about it? Then, at the same time, does your company expect the same person to exercise judgment as an adult when it suits the company? While a "tween" will openly defy this type of learning, the adult learners have figured out such open rebellion will lead to negative job consequences, so they simply do what they are told, but only as long as someone is watching. The company that takes the position of expecting to teach adults like children and then act like adults when the time comes to exercise independent authority on the job is completely ignoring human nature, and doing so at its own peril.

Comprehension. At the very least, adult learning needs to move to "comprehension," Bloom's second level of cognitive learning. Keeping in mind the theories of Malcolm Knowles, as well as the simple logic that adults should understand why they are doing something, this is the very minimum level your training program should progress the worker to regarding cognitive learning. Still, this level of learning, simply knowing "what" and "why," will produce mediocre results. That is because, in our complex world, workers often have to make independent decisions and exercise judgment.

Application. The next level is "application." Better than just doing a task (knowledge) and understanding why (comprehension), application requires that the learner be able to apply the knowledge in different situations. While knowledge requires the learner to see a task done, practice the task, and then perform a task, application of learning requires the learner to apply the knowledge in circumstances that might be different from how the task was learned. A very simple example average workers can understand is egress. This sequence is when a worker is taught to exit a specific door during an emergency (knowledge) and knows he could die if he fails to exit when the alarm is sounded (comprehension), application requires the worker, without further instruction, to go to another door should the first door be locked. Egress is a simple application, but it is the application step that separates poor and average training programs from excellent ones. Certainly, the "average" worker will have the "common sense" to egress to another exit, should the first be blocked. However, will the "average" worker know what to do in a more complex scenario, such as going into a potentially dangerous confined space that can host a multitude of different hazards?

Analysis. The next step in the cognitive learning process is "analysis," which is where the learner can separate one part of the system from another in order to see patterns and diagnose potential problems. For example, a maintenance worker is trained in locking out a machine (knowledge) and knows that failing to lock out the system could result in someone turning on the machine, catching him inside (comprehension). The worker's lock key is lost, so the worker gets another (application). However, analysis requires the worker to go a step further and see patterns. When the worker analyzes the situation, he realizes another lock might not be secure, meaning there could be another key, which could result in the lock's being taken off and, although he locked the system out, someone could still be at risk. While a worker with "knowledge" doesn't know, a worker with "comprehension" does, but only about his own specific situation, not the situation as a whole. A worker with "application" doesn't know about the situation as a whole, while the worker with "analysis" comprehension will see the whole risk picture. It is at this point that the worker can start to act like an adult in regard to safety; he doesn't need a safety professional or a manager to baby-sit him on a minute-by-minute basis, but can start taking some active, decision-making responsibility for his own safety. The worker still needs safety professionals to help with more advanced risk analysis and keeping abreast of the latest information in accident causation and prevention, as well as occupational health development.

Synthesis. The fifth step in the process is synthesis. At this level, the worker is able to break down a system into individual parts and reconstruct the system to form a better system. It is at this level where workers can be invaluable in helping to develop the safety system. For example, it is safe to say the average safety professional does not have the knowledge of electricity that the average union electrician has. The electrician has the electrical knowledge while possibly lacking the safety knowledge to make the system he/she works in safer. The safety professional has general safety knowledge but lacks the information about the technical aspects, as well as the day-to-day operational aspects of the electrician's job. However, when you put the skills of the electrician and safety or human resources professional together, when they can communicate with each other, a great synergy occurs where the sum of the parts is greater than the individual parts themselves. When this occurs, the safety program moves into an advanced level as the HR or full-time safety professional is able to deal with safety problems that he/she would have never known about, absent the input from a trained electrician. However, it is the job of the manager, not the electrician, to make this happen by communicating in the electrician's language.

Evaluation. The final step in Bloom's Taxonomy is evaluation. When the worker reaches this threshold, he/she is able to judge the effectiveness of programs in an everyday environment, including emergencies. When the worker reaches this level, he/she is able to be a great resource for the safety or HR professional, who can use the worker as a brainstorming partner to see how one safety program might interact with another. The confl ict between closing doors for building security and opening them for egress serves as a good example.

Achieving World-Class Culture

The value to your safety program in Bloom's Taxonomy of the cognitive domain is better understood when merged with an understanding of Bloom's views of the affective domain, which affects values. There are four levels of the affective domain. The first is "awareness." At this stage, the worker simply knows of a value or an action, such as working safely, but doesn't necessarily follow it. Contrast this with the next phase, which is "reinforcement." In this phase, the worker knows of a value or action but follows it only when there are positive reinforcements, such as a safety incentive program, or negative reinforcement mechanisms, such as being written up or fired for safety violations. It is because of these reinforcements that the worker acts in the way he/ she does, not because he/she believes in safety as a core value.

It is at the third phase, "promotion," that the safety program begins to take off. At the promotion phase, the worker believes in safety, follows safety procedures without reinforcements, and encourages others to do the same. Before this phase can occur, the worker must value safety. Before the worker can value safety, the worker must understand why. As discussed earlier, this understanding that leads to valuing does not occur in the lower phases of Bloom's Taxonomy (knowledge and comprehension) as it relates to cognitive learning.

The final phase is "defense," where the worker believes in safety so strongly, he not only will act safely without any external motivators or punishments and not only will encourage others to follow safety procedures, but also will actively defend the general concept of safety or a specific safety program or procedure in the face of criticism. Safety and risk professionals should be at the "defense" phase in their daily lives.

The problem regarding the workforce's posture of the "affective" domain within Bloom's Taxonomy comes in that many, if not most, workers and managers are at the lower two phases: They don't value safety and follow safety procedures only when they are forced by negative consequences or encouraged by positive rewards. The result is that the risk and safety professional is a safety cop, not a professional who is valued and sought out.

A perfect example of the two parts of Bloom's Taxonomy, cognitive and affective, is an experienced safety professional, risk professional, or HR professional with a solid background in safety. Off the job, do you wear PPE when doing work around the house — not because of negative or positive reinforcement from an outside force but because you truly value safety? Do you buckle up because you are afraid of the traffic officer or because you know good and well what will happen to you if you are involved with an auto loss and are not buckled up? Do you keep a fire extinguisher handy and the batteries in the smoke detector fresh? Do you teach your children these things and encourage your spouse and extended family to do the same? If so, why?

Dr. Bloom didn't claim to know anything about safety. However, his insights into adult learning, the way we learn, and the way we come to value something such as safety are too important a lesson to ignore as we strive to make the workplace a safer place.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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