Top down, Bottom up, It depends…..Lesson design in Physical Education (PE)

This reflection rehashes past reflection themes to make sense of comments recently came across on learning/teaching strategies that are labelled Top down, Bottom up and It depends…These phrases are often thrown up to support a certain point of view in learning design and this is a personal perspective.

I ended off my last reflection with this thought – End of day, do we want to create big warehouses of ready-made implementation strategies or much leaner experts of learning processes that is able to produce strategies on demand?

From my microsphere of influence and the larger sphere I have some access to, e.g. through social media platforms, discussions with colleagues, there are many either-or debates taking place that pits one practice against another, one theory against another. We can see this in research as different schools of thoughts try to present theories and evidences, representing different epistemology opinion on what to us teachers should be very straight forward processes. At times, these schools of thoughts even try to counter or contradict another in order to present itself as the more lawful one. I see a bit the hand of research processes influencing this need to counter or contradict, i.e. along the lines of hypothesis testing and needing to draw a conclusion. I also observe the strong influence of the presenter’s own experience acculturation influencing these differences.

Over the past year, much of my reflections begin with this versus positioning and trying to make sense of it. In most cases, my personal conclusion is mostly that the dichotomies we put so much energy to build up actually represents very similar implementation processes and expectations which leads me to put much faith in that the actual eventual truth, if that is that is something we haven’t achieved yet, is multi-layered and contextual, underpinned probably by foundational laws. Universal basic laws on the way inputs are turned to learning does not necessarily means that learner experience and outcomes are straight forward and outcomes highly predictable. On the contrary, the complexity of learning needs probably allows only the most foundational underpinning to be set in stone while the various layers of physiological mechanisms (or follow up laws) after this being very organic and dependent on what is needed. In a way it depends.

This it depends perspective is one view that troubles many believers of pure laws of sciences being able to aligned and be articulated for all circumstances. The argument is that if a particular underpinning theory is robust then the pedagogical practise it supports will be demonstrating very similar influence for any activity design, almost seemingly regardless of learner needs or learners needs are all approached the same lawful way. I can imagine what a daily practising practitioner like a teacher will have to say about this! The social constructivist (to me roughly meaning learning through living it) educational influence that we teachers seem to rely on resonates with the infinite life experiences we suppose to teach going together with an infinite equivalent of strategies. The million dollar question for me is, are all these strategies girded by basic foundational laws, i.e. aligned to some common theory. Or rather, should we as teachers operate this way, from the bottom up via understanding how information is used in learning? Or do we take cue from outcomes, top down, to build up our lessons, e.g. to teach a throw, we demonstrate and articulate a throw and expect students to follow? Of course, as in every dichotomy that is usually suggested in theory, chances are that its practical existence is a continuum.

I believe we tend to focus alot on an outcome based planning process, top down (it depends), while underestimating the need for a bottom up approach in physiological learning understanding. I will add that it really depends on what stage of the teaching-learning continuum that we are alluding to before it is ok to say it depends (top down). I reiterate here my believe that the physiological learning process exist in a narrow band of aligned processes (bottom up/it does not depends) and the implementation strategies as a result of it is varied and broad in its existence, commensurating with the varied outcomes needed (top down/it depends). Closely related to this is the role of embodied cognition with the body-context inter-play in learning and the ideas of classical cognition where the context provides the primary fodder for learning.

Top down Bottom up

Example what PE lessons might look like with different emphasis. Caveat: Most of us take the vast middle ground!

So, what is the big deal if we just ignore the above and carry on as usual with a very clear view of outcomes and working towards it? Then, again reiterating a previous view, do we want to create a big warehouse of ready-made implementation strategies or a much leaner expert of learning processes that is able to produce strategies on demand (for the learner). I will add that it is always good to aim for both.

This brings to mind an interesting blog posting by @ImSporticus, creator of the much appreciated PE Playbook, where he explored the role of the different phases a teacher might go through (from apprentice, journeyman and finally mastery – Robert Green from his book Mastery) and the notion of the bricoleur – a French word that means a handyperson who makes use of the tools available to complete a task. @ImSporticus also shared on the metaphorical view of the Hedgehog’s single lens view, as opposed to the Fox’s wide variety of experience (read https://drowningintheshallow.wordpress.com/2019/05/12/the-path-to-expertise/). One of the suggested view here is that we don’t be fixated by one approach but rather be very cognisant of the need to meet student needs with a repertoire of approaches. The conversation here becomes complex if we don’t differentiate what “approaches” means or rather not acknowledge the different layers of expertise and knowledge that goes into a teaching approach. This will include my frequent rant about pedagogy beginning with philosophy and ending with strategies, with a big dose of theoretical underpinning and its influence in the middle! It should be more convergent at the beginning philosophy level and much more divergent at the strategies level. So, while we do use different tools, we need to not stray from stable philosophy and theories.

The representations above tempt me to equate it to the warehouse metaphor and I will add that even the expert craftsmen, the fox or the bricoleur builds their experiences up successfully based on basic fundamental laws that allows teacher capacity building and not just replicating novel strategies at every new experience. The fundamentals used can be true and basic but the eventual strategies incredibly varied and adaptable. Guess the clear lesson for me is that there is a varied journey with fixed milestones from the apprentice to mastery level and it is a professionally required journey that negates the possibility of a short cut by just replicating mastery level strategies, i.e. not realising the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings behind the strategies. These fixed milestones in a varied journey is sometimes overlooked as the curse of knowledge (forgetting one’s own journey to expertise in favour of more emotional acculturation memories) tends to effect even the master!

In a way, the it depends mentality reflects the fraternity’s much favoured approach of always on the look out for novel teaching strategies that works for others. This possible mentality even for professional development also results in cases where schools adopt flavour-of-the-moment commercial implementation strategies (sometimes packaged as pedagogy or proven educational process) that leaves many teachers wondering how to fit it into their own existing capacity and practises. I can see this it depends approach as being attractive as it connects to our education systems mantra of meeting the changing needs of what is happening at the moment. It is easy then to forget the it-does-not-depends foundational laws and philosophies that underpins the various established approaches that we see in teaching and learning.

Let’s look at a possible example of this conflating of different aspects of the teaching-learning cycle to the detriment of neglecting the understanding of learning processes within the learner. Recently on social media, or more likely because I was looking for it, I see very frequent sharing of lists of good to know strategies/ways of formative assessments, questions to ask, checking-out activities, things to look out for in teaching/learning, etc. These sharing are highly attractive as teachers pour through them to build up their own knowledge repository. A big possible spanner that needs to be thrown into this habit is the importance of the pedagogy associated with each of these share strategies. Can you embrace any strategy without understanding the pedagogy behind it (think pedagogy, content and assessment being the building blocks of curriculum)? Does this mean that all teaching strategies for implementation are only useful if there is a clear understanding of the learning approach, and thus also the understanding of the pedagogy developed as a result of, behind that strategy? If there is no underlying understanding, does it explain the incredible friction that seems to exist between supporters of different strategies as they struggle to comprehend each other?

All the above have incredible possible ramifications to professional development approaches, making sense of shared practises, building up of individual and department capacity, etc. I have met many who insist that our job is a straightforward job. We take what works and we use it. That we are only concern with the nuts and bolts of sciences (a paradox as it is not possible to know a science merely from its implementation strategies). While our existing pressure cooker working environment seems to favour this nuts and bolts mentality, I also sense a deeper longing to really make sense of our profession and not wanting it to be just an instructing, top down, it depends job but with a good dose of bottom up understanding!

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