Critical ThinkingEducationPedagogy

Teaching Topless

I’d like to share a really nice presentation below by Valerie Otero, professor of science education, and Edd Taylor, assistant professor of math education, both with the University of Colorado at Boulder. And then I’ll bother you with some thoughts about it.


The unifying theme here is the pyramid presented by Otero starting at about the 5-minute mark. At the top of this pyramid are, essentially, formal discipline-specific knowledges and skills, and at the bottom are “experience-based notions.” The middle ground—the space occupied by teaching (and education in general)—is the classroom context, where connections are drawn, with effort and over time, from bottom to top and also from top to bottom; from the messy, “real,” chaotic quantum level at the bottom to the smooth classical level with solar systems and gravity at the top—and vice versa. The references to physics are apt, since this middle space is the place where we try—as unsuccessfully, to date, as physicists—to unify seemingly un-unifiable forces.

Topless and Bottomless Teaching

Otero then demonstrates two ways this model of activity in the classroom context can go wrong: through what she calls “bottomless” or “topless” teaching. And I think readers can guess what these terms refer to. Bottomless teaching involves pulling from the top—formulas, principles, rules, for example—with little or no concern about students’ experiences and everyday notions. And topless teaching refers to “activities [that are] tied to the specific experience . . . but [are] not generally applicable.” Or “misapplications of ‘inquiry’,” as Otero says.

I highly recommend the whole video. What struck me more about this first part of the presentation is the relief I felt when I saw that it was balanced. Because, you know, we don’t have this education thing figured out yet. Not by a long shot. Ideological leptokurtosis (<–nice, right?), while likely warranted in some small areas of educational concern, is offensive in just about all other areas. Opinionated confidence is great, but almost always out of place, and that includes the confident opinion that all opinions are valid.

(Edd Taylor is good in this presentation too, in my opinion.)


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J.D. Fisher

J.D. Fisher

Josh Fisher is an author and designer for K-12 mathematics curricula, currently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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