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[SXSWedu 2016] Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Education

Monday, April 4, 2016 -- Madison Michell

Over the last four weeks you’ve heard from different members of the Edmentum team reflecting on insights and key takeaways gained from attending SXSWedu 2016. To bring this series to a close, I want to direct your attention to more than just a specific session or speaker, but to a larger conversation felt throughout the conference—the conversation about top-down vs. bottom-up education.

As I attended different educator-led panel discussions, heard policymakers debate, and listened to researchers expound on their findings, this theme of top-down vs. bottom-up education emerged time and again. So, after four enlightening days spent in Austin, I came back with pages of notes attempting to shed light on what the differences between top-down and bottom-up education are and what’s behind the shift toward the bottom-up model. Here’s my overview:

Top-Down Education

This is the traditional form of education many of us grew up with. A teacher guides the instruction, the activity, the conversation, and the specific output. In this approach, the student receives knowledge from an instructor, then tests that knowledge through application, building greater understanding and clarifying confusion along the way.

This approach gives the teacher direct control over how students access material and allows the educator to focus student attention on exactly what students “need to know.” In many cases, this approach provides a tried and true method for teaching content, but it doesn’t always foster development of critical thinking skills and creativity for students.

Bottom-Up Education

To some, this feels like a New Age brand of education. Phrases such as “self-directed,” “inquiry-based,” and “student agency” all fit under the umbrella known as bottom-up education.

In this approach, the student starts with a topic or a question, performs self-directed research or experimentation, and ultimately, arrives at explicit knowledge. The general rule of this approach is that students use inductive reasoning gained from observation to arrive at deeper understanding. Many tout the benefits of this approach, as it teaches students how to seek knowledge on their own, even outside of the classroom.

So, what can bottom-up education look like? Here are three distinct models:

Project-Based Learning

Big Picture Learning, created by cofounders Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, offers one example of project-based learning with a groundbreaking educational model. The two creators hosted a “Car Talk” session, where they shared their school mission via interviews with three current students. They established their school model in 1995 with the mission to allow students to identify their interests and engage in authentic and relevant learning experiences through semester-long projects of their choosing. At the center of their approach, they strive to ensure that students are actively invested in their learning and challenged to pursue their interests—something that holds true for all of those who dip a toe into the project-based learning pool.

The Maker Movement

Keynote speaker, Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of littleBits, probably covered this topic best in her conversation with Education Week editor Sean Cavanagh. Her easy-to-use electronic building blocks, known as littleBits, made it into the classroom long before they were ever marketed as education tools. Throughout her presentation, she shared many examples of students utilizing littleBits as the basis of scientific exploration, invention, and even community building. These manipulative objects illustrate the popularity of the maker movement and the desire for real-world problem solving as a means of exploring complex concepts in the classroom. Even more important than the specific tool that is used, Bdeir remarked on the future of education as involving a shift from learning that is imposed on the student to the student pulling learning out of an experimental task.

Game-Based Learning

Jackson Westenskow, school design team lead with Institute of Play, participated in a panel discussion specifically on the topic of student-centered learning, citing gaming and playing as key principles for creating powerful learning experiences. The Institute of Play views the ability to think, solve complex problems, and interact critically through language and media as skills on par with reading, writing, and math. In accordance with these values, Westenskow highlighted the abilities of gaming to infuse such higher-level skills into the learning process. Through gaming, learning happens by doing, failure is reframed as iteration, and feedback is immediate and ongoing. Recognizing the power of gaming will be key to understanding and continuing to shape the future of education, as the trend of gamification finds its way into more and more classrooms.

SXSWedu 2016 presented an outstanding chance to hear and participate in some of the most important conversations currently taking place in education. Want to learn about some of our other key takeaways from the conference? Check out these posts on the conference keynotes, thinking types and skills-based learning, and the power of storytelling in education!

Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s online solutions to support and empower both students and teachers? Find out how we’re Moving Education Forward.