esl concept

Teaching from the top-down: flipping Bloom’s taxonomy


How many of us have learned about Bloom’s taxonomy, back in the days we went to college?  Very likely, one learned to start teaching at the base: knowledge and comprehension, before moving on to the higher levels of application and analysis.  And maybe, just maybe the children would be clever enough to move on to the highest levels of thinking: evaluation and creation.

And oftentimes, that’s how it works.  We teachers design lessons along this bottom-up line: first words, then phrases, followed by sentences, finally ending in some form of cumulative project such as short dialogues or stories.  Then we start over in the next unit or theme.

Then comes the “what-if?” In this case: what if we started from the top?

What if we first presented our children with a problem to be solved, before giving them all of the building blocks needed to complete the cumulative project?

What if we tickled their imaginations with a product that needed to be created,  allowing them to provide input where they could, asking questions when they came to an obstacle?


What would happen?

First of all, I suppose some children might feel intrepid or even anxious.  Often unused to the risk-taking involved in exploration, they would find themselves faced with an open field of possibilities in this new learning experience.

Secondly, I suppose we teachers might first feel a bit guilty for allowing children fall flat on their learner’s faces, sometimes more than once.  We might feel frustrated because our learners might be less efficient than we’re used to.  Especially the first time around, when everything is new, and everyone is getting used to the process of learning from the top-down.

But what else might happen?

Some children have been chomping at the bit for a chance like this, and will happily move into the space you created.  They will discover a new zeal for learning and might even propose some projects of their own to work on.  Instead of writing a letter to a pen pal in Europe, they might wish to write that same letter to an alien on Mars.  And what’s to stop them?

We teachers might discover that lesson planning changes to a more flexible set-up, so that we have space to address questions that pop up in the middle of the lesson.  We will need to plan more towards what the children need, and less towards our own desires.  We will have to ask ourselves, how to play into that field, so everyone is productively busy?  More importantly, we will need to know what the children already know.  Which children will need support when going into a new project, and what sort of support will they need?  Will they need didactic scaffolding during the lesson?  Or will they need more pedagogical support in the form of encouragement and coaching?

We also might find out that some children don’t do well with a flipped task at all.  Some cihldren really do thrive on a bottom-up approach.  However, we might find that once certain children get the hang of a top-down, problem-based approach, their learning takes off in ways we could only imagine before, allowing us to give our attention to those needing the extra support offered by the bottom-up approach to learning.  We might also find out that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Something else we might find out is that children start taking ownership of their learning.  But also that they need guidance from us, their teachers.  They need to learn to think about their own learning, to self-reflect.  They need to learn how to answer questions such as:

  1. What is the problem all about?
  2. What makes this an interesting problem?  What does it have to do with me, and my own life?
  3. What do I already know about this problem?
  4. What do I need to learn so I can solve this problem?
  5. What can I use to help myself?  Who can help me?
  6. How will I know when I’ve solved this problem successfully?  (what are the success criteria?)
  7. kwlimage

    K-W-L is one way to help structure children’s knowledge about a topic or problem.  It focuses on the lower-level thinking skills.  Blank forms can be found by googling “KWL form” (images).

This K-W-L chart can be expanded on a bit, with another example of the K-W-L form:


Recently, I tried out this sort of teaching with my own students.  I gave them a rather large, complicated problem for them to work on.  Each class had to make its own book of English lessons for the children they were teaching.  At first, they had no idea what they needed to do, but as the course developed, they started to make the connections between what I was offering them in class and the problem they had been given to solve.  Piece by piece, they each solved their part of the puzzle, resulting in some very interesting, challenging, out-of-the-box solutions.  At the end of the course, each class had its own book of lessons.  In the meantime, the students had developed a wonderful sense of professional creativity while creating their lessons, a wonderful side-effect of flipping the taxonomy.

For further reading, here are a couple of articles I found that deal with this idea in more depth:

Feel free to have a read and find out more!

Transfer and L1 Interference: tools to play with

transferWhat makes a foreign language easier or harder to learn?  There are many different factors involved, such as inflection, grammatical issues, and “gender” of nouns which differ from language to language.  What a lot of these differences come down to, however, are the concepts of transfer and L1 interference, a.k.a. negative transfer.

Transfer, as defined in wikipedia, is what happens when speakers of one language (L1) apply that knowledge to a new language they are learning (L2).  When two languages are closely related, such as English and Dutch, or French and Spanish, learners can find similarities between the old and new languages, making the new language easy to learn.  For instance, if we compare a few words between English and Dutch, we find the following similarities: three – drie (“dree”), floor – vloer (“flure”), or knee – knie (“k-nee”).  EFL learners pick up the fact that these similarities exist and listen for more similarities when confronted with new input.  It’s actually a rather efficient way to learn a new language: listen for the stuff you recognize, then figure what out the leftover, unknown, input means.

The trouble comes when learners start overgeneralizing and applying their knowledge of L1 in ways that don’t fit the new language.  This is called L1 interference, or negative transfer.  This becomes visible when, for instance, learners try out new words by simply pronouncing the original word in L1 using the pronunciation of L2.  For example, Dutch children will say they are “keeking” tv, when they mean to say they are watching tv.  In this case, “keeking” is an Anglicization of the Dutch term “kijken” mixed with the present progressive verb formation in English.

The mind is an amazing thing.

Another common example of L1 interference is when learners apply the rules of grammar as they know them from their first language to the new language.  “Walk you to school today?” is a common error caused by L1 interference, and one I heard many times while teaching EFL to grade school pupils.  The use of an auxiliary verb (“helping verb”) in question formation is a new concept for speakers of Dutch grammar, so I often spent many lessons prompting the use of the “magic word” at the start of each question.

Teachers can make use of the concepts of transfer and L1 Interference when designing their own lesson plans.  For instance, words and grammatical concepts that “match” between L1 and L2 will be easily learned.  It follows that less time is needed to learn those concepts.  Words and grammatical concepts that don’t match, however, are subject to L1 interference.  It’s really important to give those concepts extra time and find ways to teach these concepts.  Explicit attention for issues that cause interference is never a bad thing, in my experience.

Squirrel or acorn?

Squirrel or acorn?

One example of how I would do this was with words related to Autumn.  I would often teach the words like leaf, tree, squirrel, and acorn.  In Dutch, these words are blaadje, boom, eekhoorn and eikel.  And therein lies the problem: the English word for acorn sounds just like the Dutch word for squirrel.  While introducing these words, I would explain the meaning of each word using separate flashcards, and note that squirrels eat acorns. the children often thought it quite strange that their “acorn” would eat acorns, resulting in questions, explanations, and then laughter as they caught on.

I also found examples of transfer and L1 interference when dealing with the other language skills of reading and writing.  Children applied their knowledge of reading in Dutch to reading in English.  In general, much of their reading knowledge was quite useful, were it not that English spelling leaves much to be desired in the area of letter-sound correspondence.  The same holds for writing words in English while using Dutch spelling rules.  Incidentally, reading and writing are really interesting areas of EFL education, which I will have to address at some other time.

My own experience of teaching EFL applies to situations when the first and second languages are closely related.  What I don’t know is this: when two languages are less related (such as English and Japanese), in what measure do the concepts of transfer and L1 interference play a role?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!