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"Bottom Up" vs. "Top Down" Teaching/Learning

I got into a discussion with some colleagues about this subject. We needed to develop a program to teach the essentials of the TCP/IP stack to high schoolers in a few days. Part of our discussion was the order in which to teach the layers: do we start with Physical and then proceed to Application, or the reverse? In other words, do we take a bottom up approach by starting with the foundations of the system, then progress to higher level abstractions? Or, do we take a top down approach and present the abstractions, then drill down into the details?

INTJs tend to be systems-oriented thinkers, so I thought I'd present this question here. What is your preference, and do you think there's an objective advantage to either approach?

If you're curious, we ended up going with a top down presentation.

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Top down works best with most everything. You present the big picture and then refine it into ever more detail. If you start with the detail, then the brain cannot pull together the big picture so easily and it all seems pointless. The ISO 7-layer model is the top most abstraction, branching into the function of each of the layers.

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Posted (edited)

For the playful, not yet keenly interested, easily distracted, younger groups, or topics that come across as complex to most students, and when time isn't too much of a constraint, bottom-up seems to work better. 

Otherwise, top-down. I personally always prefer top-down, but from observation of my students (high schoolers are in this mix) and the types described in the preceding sentence, bottom-up can sometimes work better. 

Objective advantage to either? My personal opinion is 'whatever works', and towards long-term interest and learning as much as possible. 

Edited by zonsop

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I prefer a top-down approach so that things have a good context.

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Top-down: what you're going to do and why (very briefly)

Bottom-up: how you're going to do it and remind them where you are in the big picture at each step

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Posted (edited)

It depends how much time you have and what do you want to achive in the end. Ask yourself one question. "What do I want my students to take away from all of this?"

Depends also on how motivated the students are and what they already know.

If they know something and already have the motivation then your approach will be different from those who dont know anything and dont care much.

Edited by Cacao

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8 hours ago, thod said:

Top down works best with most everything. You present the big picture and then refine it into ever more detail. If you start with the detail, then the brain cannot pull together the big picture so easily and it all seems pointless. The ISO 7-layer model is the top most abstraction, branching into the function of each of the layers.

This was my thought at first as well, but then I considered how this would apply to math. Indeed, many students (myself included) questioned the point of doing arithmetic in primary school, then algebra in secondary school, until tertiary school where education became voluntary and subject-focused and the "big-picture" was either immediately evident or easily found through independent research. Basically, where does one start with the top-down approach to math education? I suppose some details/foundations must be simply accepted before the greater picture can form.

8 hours ago, zonsop said:

For the playful, not yet keenly interested, easily distracted, younger groups, or topics that come across as complex to most students, and when time isn't too much of a constraint, bottom-up seems to work better. 

Otherwise, top-down. I personally always prefer top-down, but from observation of my students (high schoolers are in this mix) and the types described in the preceding sentence, bottom-up can sometimes work better. 

Objective advantage to either? My personal opinion is 'whatever works', and towards long-term interest and learning as much as possible. 

I work in industry so teaching kids was a first - it definitely gave me a new appreciation for teachers! The students were reasonably interested to start and because we started at the "top" they immediately wrote a networked application in Python (requests did most of the leg-work hitting a small API we'd set up). They were engaged, but obviously most of what was going on was magic to them unless they had previous experience. After that it seemed like they split into two fairly distinct groups: those who started exploring what else they could do at the current level of abstraction and those who wanted to learn how it worked (perhaps some MBTI hypothesizing could be done here). As the program went on, the first group was a bit less interested, and the second group remained at the same level of engagement or became more interested (from a very unscientific and subjective observation). I think your last sentence is likely right - people learn in different ways and the most effective approach will differ. Unfortunately, it's difficult to implement a different lesson for each type of student.

3 hours ago, Cacao said:

It depends how much time you have and what do you want to achive in the end. Ask yourself one question. "What do I want my students to take away from all of this?"

Depends also on how motivated the students are and what they already know.

If they know something and already have the motivation then your approach will be different from those who dont know anything and dont care much.

Good points. I think for a time-constrained situation, top down worked better. Motivated students definitely helps! Although, I hope the motivation was more than just parental pressure.

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Posted (edited)

On 5/10/2017 at 8:24 AM, thod said:

Top down works best with most everything. You present the big picture and then refine it into ever more detail. If you start with the detail, then the brain cannot pull together the big picture so easily and it all seems pointless. The ISO 7-layer model is the top most abstraction, branching into the function of each of the layers.

I subscribe to keirsey on this subject and as such gotta disagree in part.

Some personality types, namely the abstract thinking types, benefit from going big picture to detail.  Other types which focus on concrete thinking work best going detail to big picture.

 

Some people learn better when you tell them how to turn the equipment on first ad it's purpose second; others learn best when you tell them the purpose of the equipment first and finish by telling them how to work it.

Some folks are better at quickness of comprehension (big picture first) and  others are better at completeness of comprehension (detail first).  You gotta adjust your training style to which end of the spectrum your trainee tends towards.

Edited by Shadeylark

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I do a sandwich.

I will first present the historical reason of why such a thing was needed and was developed in the first place.  This could be some technical problem some time ago that was unsolved.  If there is sufficient time, I would even suggest letting the students have a hands on on the problem themselves.

Then, introduce the core idea or core concept of this new solution.  Let them have the big picture of why it works.

After they are comfortable with the concept, then it's best to go down to the details.  This is the stage where you can link back to the problem you introduced before, and how this thing solves it.

 

e.g.  Whenever I teach integration, I always draw a curve and ask them to try estimate the area of the curve for me.  Even if they have never heard of Riemann sum, they would try to cut up the curve into shapes they know (or at least after I give them some hints).  Then I will push for a more accurate estimation.  They will essentially do what we actually do while taking limit.  Then I told them that's the basic idea of integration.  Then core concept.  Then actually doing the integration, and other stuff.  So it's detail (for context and history) -> big picture (the concept) -> detail (for application and actual operation).

You can speed things up if the students are really bright.  But I still recommend putting a little historical background in it.  I sometimes hate it when we were all introduced to a concept as their most polished form, and we all forget that before this "simple" ingenious new idea came into being, things were actually pretty difficult to the rest of the world.  Without appreciating this, it really does not highlight how ingenious that idea is.

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Posted (edited)

Learning style depends on a variety of factors; I'd imagine it'd change by subject and by the students' preferences.

Personally, I'm more of a hands-on and visual learner, with a preference for a top-down approach. I cannot learn with a bottom up approach; it will inevitably lead to frustration and inhibits my creativity. Simple bottom up approach leads to simple memorization of rules with no understanding as to the basis of why the rules exist, but mere application of the rules to appear competent; there is no true mastery. For example, I wish my professors had started us on learning the philosophy behind physics before learning application; the big picture helps in understanding when and how to apply concepts than does learning the step-wise procedure of how to solve problems, and having to rely on experience and practice to expand on that. 

If going by MBTI, and considering how 70% of the population lean towards S than N, I'd imagine a bottom up approach would be more effective for a majority of students. But I guess it depends.

Edited by scroses

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Posted (edited)

On 5/9/2017 at 9:35 PM, ccd said:

I got into a discussion with some colleagues about this subject. We needed to develop a program to teach the essentials of the TCP/IP stack to high schoolers in a few days. Part of our discussion was the order in which to teach the layers: do we start with Physical and then proceed to Application, or the reverse? In other words, do we take a bottom up approach by starting with the foundations of the system, then progress to higher level abstractions? Or, do we take a top down approach and present the abstractions, then drill down into the details?

INTJs tend to be systems-oriented thinkers, so I thought I'd present this question here. What is your preference, and do you think there's an objective advantage to either approach?

If you're curious, we ended up going with a top down presentation.

great question....I'm pretty sure I go in both directions.  At first, gotta be gentle so I'm on the bottom let her have the view and control, then once she's into it, I like to switch it up and be on top.  Then we switch and play roles and then.... of course food gets into the sequence then all hell breaks loose, lol.

Just kidding.

I go both ways.  In song creation, I have to start at the bottom with a motiff that triggers a feeling which is what the concept of the song's about (the top): feelings, love, love in theory, love in history, our history, the history or setting in history when we fell in love...and any adjacent meaning.

Then lyrically, I start off with a generic set of ideas: 1. ooh baby I love you; 2. I always got you on my mind; 3. you're so special to me...and then, with those primitive feelings, ask myself (from the top): "Do you really love her dude?  I mean, beyond all these cliches?  If so, prove it, otherwise can this song idea."

So in song creation there's a dialogue in my mind from the top speaking to the bottom.

The top is like the architect or visionary who knows that the song's brilliant.

The bottom is like the workers, foreman, construction crew pounding drum beats and humming and playing the guitars.

Once the sound at the bottom improves it keeps going up the elevator until at the top and there's this view of the song.

But the top's always talking to the bottom thru sound production and suggesting fills, effects etc to make the song more meaningful. 

 

Edited by ENFPEACE

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