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!


The ZPD, not just for kids


How many of us have learned about the Zone of Proximal Developent (the ZPD) when learning how to teach our young learners?  I’ve written about this in earlier blog posts, in relation to how we teachers can best decide on what material to teach our young learners.  However, as a college teacher, I’m realizing more and more that the ZPD is just as applicable to our older learners.  For instance, I spend a good part of my lessons convincing my students that they don’t really have to follow the English textbook (in Dutch fittingly called the “method”) when they teach their classes. In fact, I often encourage them to write lessons of their own, based on the interests and language level of their classes.  The game of Minecraft, Disney’s Frozen, dinosaurs, it’s all fair play in the world of ESL as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve gotten used to the incredulous reactions of my students when I tell them to “try it, they’ll like it,” feeling every bit the Sam I Am in Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.  “Will you try this here or there?” I ask, and slowly but surely the students start to catch on to the excitement of trying out something they’ve never done before.  When needed, I scaffold their learning by giving ideas, working them out and providing search terms.  I encourage them to play, experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and most importantly to try again.  I remind them of the rule of three: the first time one tries anything new, it’s a mess as the children struggle to learn the content and the new game at the same time.  The second time, the children have a better idea of how the game works, and the third time, the children know the way of the road and can concentrate on the content.

As stud3f26d2d4355d1d01edc2769a921a276dents start to navigate the roads of experimenting and teaching, they start to grow in confidence, and I follow along, ready to encourage them to move into the next zone of development, be that CLIL, using children’s literature in the lessons, or incorporating yet another new game into their teaching.

For myself, I realize that the ZPD is an ongoing development.  Not just for the young learners, and not just for my students, but also for me, an experienced ESL teacher.  New levels of development continue to reveal themselves to me a step at a time as I develop in my own teaching.  I keep that in mind while coaching my students, remembering that learning new things requires learners to let something else go.  They need to make a leap of faith, and I need to be there to catch them.  That’s what learning is all about: letting go, making that jump, trusting that one will be caught before the landing goes wrong.  It’s about making space for a certain amount of play: practicing something “for pretend,” before having to go out there and do it “for real.”   Sometimes, it’s a bit of a trick, getting students to understand the parallel between the lessons they follow and the lessons they teach, but on occassion I see one of them light up and I know they “get” it and how they can apply that learning in their own teaching.

It’s a humbling realization, I think, that we’re all learners, with our own ZPD to move into from time to time.  May we never stop growing and learning!


Trees have hope – ode to life after a burnout


Let me tell you about this picture.  It’s a tree, hit by lightning years before I came across it in the French Pyrenees during a morning hike.  Half of the tree is dead, lying among the ferns, decaying and enriching the soil below.  The other half stands, hollow, deformed, with fresh leaves forming on its branches year after year.  Its deformity, and its survival nonetheless, struck me as I walked past.  My family took a break a bit later, and I went back to take this picture.  Something in me knew I’d be needing this image later on, but for what, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Years later, I heard my husband chattering away about the coming school year as we biked together through the summer afternoon sun.  I had just had five weeks of summer vacation, but somehow couldn’t get my head wrapped around the idea of another school year.  I wasn’t ready, I was too tired, and panic clawed its way upwards as I found myself in tears on the side of the road, because I just couldn’t take the idea of going to work and teaching one more child.  My burnout was manifesting itself, and I fought it back, tooth and nail, yet again.

How had it ever come this far?  I remember sitting across from my doctor, who matter-of-factually told me that I had just hit the wall that everyone hits, sooner or later.  My experience was normal.  In my case, as an intelligent, strong, talented woman, I had managed to hit this wall quite hard, so I may as well relax, accept this twist in life, and take the time I needed to recover.  It was when my employer replaced me with two people that I realized that I really had been working too hard, and I finally learned to accept my burnout – a key step in my later recovery process.

I remember the questions asked by well-meaning colleagues and employers: the summer visit from your mom, was that too much?  Was it the care for your father-in-law?  What was it that pushed me “over the edge”?  And of course, when could I come back, and take over my old work again?  I knew that people were caring, and really trying to understand me and what I was going through, but none of them really addressed the core of the problem.  I needed to get stuff straightened out in my head, and in a time when my brain was so fried that speaking in full sentences required my full concentration, this process of sorting was a challenge I could only dream of surmounting.

A friend of mine later remarked that my recovery would take at least as long as the build-up to the burnout.  I laughed it off, saying I could hardly afford that much recovery time, as it had been at least five years in the making.  Outwardly, I laughed it off, but inwardly, I knew that I was going to have to take a very serious look at all aspects of my life, if I wanted to avoid ever having a burnout again.

In the coming few blog entries, I’m going to take a look at what it means to have a burnout, and to explore various aspects involved.  This is an important topic, especially in education, where the burnout rates are higher than in any other employment sector, but where it is taboo to speak about this openly.  I will argue that only when we, as educators, dare to break the taboo on this topic, will we be able to turn the tide and actually work to prevent burnouts.  It is important to spread knowledge about this topic, especially to those who have not (yet) had a burnout, so that we can learn to recognize the symptoms and undertake appropriate action.  We must take action, in order to retain our intelligent, creative, and caring professionals.  It is my hope to take a step in that direction with this blog.

Bridging the generation gap


It’s something every teacher has to deal with, sooner or later: the generation gap.  Or more aptly put, bridging that gap every time one enters the classroom, be it filled with kindergarteners, adolescents, or older teens.  It’s the issue that arises every time the teacher looks a child in the eye and wonders what on earth compelled that child to take a scissors to her own hair.  Or purposely fail a test.  Or send text messages during class.  I remember those things, all of them, from my own childhood.  And it’s those memories that keep my sense of pedagogical balance in place when I address the issues at hand.

Keep your hands out of your pants and on your knees, please.

It’s okay to fail, try again later on so you can prove to yourself how well you know your stuff.

You may send your messages after the lesson, your friends will still be there…

Eaach time, I find myself suppressing a smile as I remember my own acts of development at that age.  I can never get mad at “my kids”, not really.   Who could, when faced with the facts of one’s own foibles “back in the day”?

My inner child keeps me constantly aware of these things.  So I take some time, every day, to look at the world through new eyes.  What makes this sky so beautiful?  What makes that tower of blocks so sturdy?  What is so amazing about the language I teach?  What makes that word sound so funny?


Even now, teaching at the teacher’s college, I recognize the struggles my students go through and find myself recognizing the steps they make.  These young adults-in-the-making are learning so many things at once: how to be a teacher, how to take care of themselves, how to take care of their room, how to cook, how to be social, how to create a balance between play, work, and school.  So much to learn, in so little time.  They are busy learning how to “adult”, as would put it.  “Adulting” as a verb, not as a noun.  Learning how to grow up, and take things seriously, they wish to be taken seriously.  No more kissing the boo-boos away, but serious let’s-deal-with-these-grownup-problems talks.  No more games and childishness in the classroom, but serious theory, work, and note-taking so they can sweat their way through multiple-choice exams and prove to the world that they are, really, adults who deserve to be taken seriously.

I remember being there, in those shoes, working hard to be taken seriously, so I respect that need with my students.  At the same time, I want them to remember their inner child, that part of them that makes it possible to make contact with the children they will be working with for the rest of their lives.  But how do children learn?

Inner Child

By playing, of course!

There are many of us who might agree that young people learn best by playing.  Four, five, perhaps even six year olds.  But when do we stop playing, really?  It is my view that people learn best by playing, no matter how old they are.  It’s just a matter of how we define “play”.  If we define “play” in the most narrow sense of the word, then we might see it as that “spontaneous activity of children” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).  In that case, play is something only children can do, adults are excluded from this activity.  Another definition places play as something that is only done for amusement, or recreation (

I disagree with these readings.  My personal view of play is that it is something often done by (young) people as a serious means of learning.  Just think about playing house, playing school, jumping rope, climbing on the monkey bars.  Playing board games, role playing, telling ghost stories during slumber parties.  Practice teaching, playing sports, painting, moving out into the world,  It’s all part of the bigger game called “what happens when I do ….?”  All this learning takes place in practice situations where there is some form of back-up.  If it all goes wrong, there is somebody around to help clean up the mess, kiss away the boo-boos, and figure out how to fix the problem.

During all of these forms of practice/play, learners are exploring and conducting research, be it social, physical, emotional, or otherwise.  They are learning and their play is serious work.  It needs to be taken just as seriously as the learning taking place among their older counterparts, the students.

So I call upon my inner children – the kindergartner, the adolescent, the young adult-in-the-making – to help bridge the gap between my own, earlier experiences and the experiences of my students now, to understand where they are and give just enough information to help them help themselves, as Maria Montessori once put it.

As a teacher of future teachers, I try to keep their inner children well-fed.  We play games and have serious fun so they can use these games with their own children.  We sing, we dance, and we read books aloud.  Sometimes, the students understand what I’m doing, but occasionally they don’t.  And when they don’t, they get upset, claiming that I’m treating them like little children.  And that’s when I explain the concept of Multiple Hats.


Every student, every adult-in-the-making, wears two hats during class.  One of those hats is the Very Serious Student who is learning to be a teacher.  The other hat is the Teacher Hat, with which they apply their learning to their profession.  During my lessons, I talk about these hats very explicitly.  Which hat have you got on now, I ask.  And if you put on your Teacher Hat, how can you use this information in your classroom, with your own children?  How would you adapt this learning activity so that it would be easier for your children?  How would you change the content of the game?  How would you organize it so your class will understand it better?

That’s when the students understand.  Aha, they say, and I see the connection being made between their experiences now and the experiences of their children.  I see the bridges being built and know that we’re on the right road.  It’s not always clear to them, but they’re catching on, one game at a time.

As long as they remember how to play.


Mirror, mirror… why bother with self-reflection?


I sat across the table from a young student while perusing his semester reflection.  “I don’t understand why we have to do this,” he said, “it’s just a waste of time, when I could be using the same time to write lesson plans or study for my classes.”  Why bother, indeed, I thought.  What was the point of the whole exercise?

Of course, I knew what the point of the exercise was, but how to get it across to my student, so he might learn to value the experience as much as he valued studying for his upcoming exams.  I started by asking questions.  What, in his experience, stuck out as a real success?  What made that particular experience so successful?  What did he do to create that experience?  Were there other factors contributing to that experience?  We continued to explore these and more questions in a short discussion.  He came out of this armed with resolutions and plans, without even realizing that we had just completed an entire cycle of reflection.  When I pointed this out to him, he began to understand that reflection is a tool, a means of improving his style teaching so that he can knowingly re-create successful experiences and be less dependent on coincidence.

There are many models one can use for self-reflection.  At the university I teach at, the model our second-year students use is called Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection.  Korthagen is a Dutch educational specialist who developed different models for reflection.  Using the Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection, students systematically explore their actions in a given situation.  This tool allows students to inform themselves about their own practice and make decisions about their future dealings.

korthagens-spiralKorthagen’s Circle of Reflection has five steps, as illustrated here.  Each step has specific questions that should be answered as part of the reflection exercise.

1.  Action:  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

2.  Looking back:  What actually happened (from the teacher’s perspective and from the perspective of the pupils)?  What did we want?  What did we do?  What did we think?  What did we feel?

3.  Awareness:  How are the answers (from the previous step) interconnected?  How does the context (school) influence the whole?  What does this mean for me?  What is now the actual problem?

4.  Alternatives: What alternatives do I see?  What pros and cons are there to each one?  What will I take with me for the next time?

5.  Trial (step 1, but as a step into a new cycle):  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

When coaching my students, I tell them to choose one specific incident that occurred during the lesson or in the course of the day, and to focus on that.  It can be something that went well, or something they want to improve, but it has to be one specific incident.  I look at their reflection and check that each step has been taken.  Sometimes, students skip a step or two, or stop when they are only halfway through.  In order to achieve improvement in their teaching, however, I insist they complete the entire cycle of reflection.  They groan, but they also grow, and they see that, too.

As a lecturer, I try to set an example for my students.  I hadn’t thought a lot about how to set an example in the area of self-reflection, however, until I received a box of notebooks from my own dad, who had worked in the field of education for decades before changing careers.  There were journals for each of the various positions he had held: as a teacher, a principal, a superintendent and later as a doctorate student.  His journals are a collection of practical items (what needs to happen this week), reflections on incidents, personal goals and business strategies, among other things.  Upon seeing his collection of journals, I decided that the best way to be a role model would be to start my own reflection journal.

When talking with my students, I teach self-reflection as a skill for life-long development.  Sometimes, I show them my own journal, (briefly!) to depict self-reflection as a healthy habit.  It’s not just something one does to appease the teachers that be, but it is also as a tool for steering their own growth.  This revelation often comes as a surprise to them, and helps them understand how important it is to not just think about their teaching, but also to record it in some fashion, so they can refer back to it at a later time.  They begin to view self-reflection as a valuable use of their time, and I, in turn, see their teaching improve as they move into greater awareness of their dealings.

Note:  Factual information for this blog entry was retrieved from: