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33. Decide upon "top-down" and "bottom-up" teaching ratios.

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33. Decide upon "top-down" and "bottom-up" teaching ratios.

The majority of courses taught in schools, are probably expected to be primarily top down --that is, it is expected that students are to be fed with what teachers deem important and in the teachers' chosen order. Is this not the purpose of school? In that sense, teachers are seen as "dictators of knowledge". This dictatorship is a historical outgrowth of the need to create laborers and managers for the industrial revolution that occurred some 200 years ago. Naturally, back then they had a limited knowledge of how the brain worked. The standard top-down teaching was mostly some form of rote memorization of and the testing of facts that were assumed to be helpful in helping laborers be better laborers. It was all designed to be a short-cut to learning the ropes for those jobs. However, pre-industrial revolution real world learning was mostly bottom-up; nature does not provide classrooms on how to survive in the jungle.

Which is more natural? Which is more humane? The defacto assumption that top-down teaching is always more effective and/or elegant can be utterly false, depending upon your goals. Young children learn languages bottom-up -- that is, they learn languages in their own order, and by their own 'choices' to some extent, although it is all primarily context dependent. Around and after puberty, learners begin to desire top-down learning more strongly because their bottom-up foundation has firmed into and formed their basic self; top-down learning does not affect the established self the way bottom-up learning does. It is not as childish. It is seemingly more elegant. It is indeed the adult way. Pride is not bruised with top-down learning/teaching as much; facts can be learned objectively whereas bottom-up is necessarily objective (humans cannot normally make subjective learning choices). Another reason for the change in preferred learning style around puberty is because the frontal cortex (the executive of the brain) is not, comparatively speaking, as functional at younger ages. Therefore, high brow top-down processing only becomes capable at older ages. These are the physical and psychological reasons why adults often prefer top-down learning and teaching -- and seem to want to teach their students in a top-down format as well. The egocentrism of the adult teacher (and parent) causes adult teachers (and parents) to want to teach top-down. However, now that we have a better understanding of our own cognitive development, and can combat our own egocentric assumptions, we can make a choice -- do we want to teach our students with a top-down methodology for the content before us, or a bottom-up?

Which is the 'better' way? What is the best ratio? This ultimately depends upon the goals and ages of the students. Are you a private language school teacher who wants to retain paying adult language learners? Perhaps the solution would be to supply more top-down nuggets in fun decodable sizes with game-like feedback. You can't expect huge improvements within your student body with such a methodology, but it will keep most adults students coming back for more.

Do you want to produce balanced bilinguals? This is not an easy task. You certainly need to teach more from the bottom-up though. Expect pride to get in the way with adults; you must expect revolt, and therefore, quitters. Bottom-up teaching, if done well, shakes adults' wordly foundations. It is unsettling. However, if your goal is the creation of a well developed L2 self from the bottom up, it is a pragmatic necessity. Many adults are not prepared to be shaken up in this way, even the basics of life have to be relearned in the L2. This is where creativity and liberal thinking makes or breaks the deal. What can be done to enhance bottom-up learning/understanding of the L2? For example, experience a dinner in L2 (bottom-up); don't just read about it from a textbook, that would be top-down. Students must be allowed to follow their passions, experience their passions in L2, access their learning in L2 (metacognition in L2), and ultimately share/present their emotions and understanding in and of the L2.

Q. Think about the different types of teachers you had in your life.Try to recall top-down and bottom-up activities that the teachers had you do. What were the ratios like? What pros and cons do you see with each approach for your own classrooms.


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