Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Learners

I am probably giving away my age here (I now understand why my mother told everyone she was only 29 for years), but when I was in school, there were simply good students and poor students. If you were lucky enough to be a good student, it meant that you were disciplined, respectful, and innately smart. If you were unfortunate enough to be a poor student, it meant that you were lazy, inattentive, and destined to a life of failure. Students listened to lectures and completed worksheets, and everyone was expected to do well in this setting. If you didn’t, it was your fault for not trying hard enough.                                                 Oli

While the concept of different learning styles was probably known among educators way back then, the use of alternate teaching techniques to accommodate these different learning modalities was rarely employed. I am willing to bet that many of those supposedly poor students were actually trying extremely hard to do well but couldn’t succeed because their individual learning styles did not correspond to the teaching methods used in traditional schools.

Both of my children had a couple of experienced and extremely talented, primary school teachers who first introduced me to the idea of different learning styles. I used to volunteer frequently at my boys’ school, and I had noticed that some of the kids responded quite differently to different projects. They would excel at a coloring exercise but struggle immensely with a listening activity. I was soon researching all I could about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and started to understand why these students were performing so disparately on different assignments.

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When I began homeschooling my boys, I thought I was armed and ready with this newly acquired knowledge coupled with my suspicions of which type of learning style each of my children possessed. Has anyone else noticed, that as soon as you think you have this education thing all figured out, some new issue emerges, and you feel like you’re back at square one?

Well, it turns out there is a lot more to learning styles than just visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. There are numerous sub-types of each of these categories and any individual learner may possess a unique combination of any or all of the various styles. These personal learning preferences represent difficult enough issues to address when teaching, but there is also a fundamental, overriding framework through which students learn new concepts that must also be recognized to effectively instruct them. This framework is referred to as top-down and bottom-up learning.                                                           yves_guillou_double_arrow

Bottom-up learners tend to learn things best in small sequential steps that gradually build upon each other until you have a complete concept. These learners are comfortable mastering each incremental step without necessarily being aware of what the final product or process will be. A bottom-up learner will learn to nail two boards together, then learn how to connect groups of boards, then learn how to cut a hole in the boards, etc until they have built an entire house complete with windows, doors, and chimneys. They do not NEED to know beforehand that the skills they are learning will eventually be used to complete a home. I am unequivocally a bottom-up learner.

Top-down learners tend to learn things best when they can visualize the final concept or product and are then allowed to deduce the steps used to get to that final destination. These learners absolutely NEED to know what the final idea is before they learn any of the steps used to achieve that concept. A top-down learner must see the completed house before they can master nailing two boards together, then connecting groups of boards, and then cutting holes in the boards. Both Aristotle and Archimedes are one-hundred percent top-down learners.

“Great,” you say! You’re a homeschooling mom who knows that Aristotle is a top-down, auditory learner and that Archimedes is a top-down, visual-spatial (unbelievably visual-spatial), kinesthetic learner. You’re all set! You can now choose appropriate curriculum, experiments, and projects that will complement their learning styles. You can now demonstrate or explain complex concepts in terms they will easily comprehend. Well, sort of. The problem lies in the fact that I am a bottom-up learner, and I have an incredibly difficult time understanding the boys’ top-down perspective.

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Intellectually, I understand the concept of top-down learning, but when it comes to actually presenting a new topic in a true top-down fashion and structuring the delivery of information in a way that works for my sons, I am often completely at a loss as to how to do this effectively. I simply don’t see things in a top-down way.

My husband is also a top-down learner and tells me, as do the boys, that he just “sees” the answer to problems. In fact, he often cannot explain the steps one would take to find the answer; he just knows it.

Aristotle and Archimedes also have an extremely difficult time showing their work in part because they also just see the answer or because they have developed their own way of solving the problem. Aristotle has frequently amazed me with his explanations of how he adds two numbers together; he divides the first number by 3 and multiplies the answer by 10 and then subtracts 24 and then adds 13 or some other long set of calculations. I kid you not that these strange and, in my mind, excessively difficult and seemingly unnecessary, extra manipulations always gave him the correct answer to all his practice math problems. He had deduced his own method of solving equations because he “saw” that was the way to do it.

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Although this is an ongoing area of frustration for me, I have found that providing an overview of a topic and an actual real-world example of the concept has been helpful for my boys. I have also learned to trust that whatever technique they have developed to address problems is usually very effective, accurate, and reliable. I am doubtful that I will ever be able to truly comprehend how Aristotle and Archimedes process information, but it is something that I work on every single day in the hopes that I can teach them in a way that is understandable and workable for them!

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