The Flipped Pyramid and the Snaggle-Toothed Edifice

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), creator of the well-known Hierarchy of Needs, posited that only when our lower order needs (starting with survival: such as air and water) are satisfied can we concern ourselves with higher order needs such as status, achievement and personal development. If the lower order needs are not fulfilled, or are withheld, we can no longer maintain interest and motivation towards higher order needs. There have been many versions of the Hierarchy of Needs, and they are nearly all in the form of pyramid diagrams (even though they look like triangles). However there are no pyramids in any of Maslow’s work, even in his original ground-breaking book Motivation and Personality, published in 1954.

Who knows what Maslow would have made of this interpretation, which has wifi internet connection as its lowest order of needs, because… without it nothing else can function/life is not worth living/…


This meme has been around (in various forms) on the internet for a while now. Although tongue-in-cheeky it does contain certain truths: We can all relate to the existential angst that kicks in the moment some inexplicable internet crash leaves us cut off from the world. Also, Maslow could not possibly have predicted how the internet, and social media in particular, would impact on his snug and dated construction around human needs. Thirdly, the scribbled addition of the ‘wifi’ layer shows how easily pyramids can be subverted, undermined from below. They may look robust but they are built on sand.

On the theme of pyramids, Bloom’s Taxonomy is another model that has been tinkered with over the years. The familiar pyramid-shape is often shown with lower order thinking skills (LOTS) at the base. Each subsequent level, moving towards higher order thinking skills (HOTS), depends upon the student’s ability to perform at the level or levels that precede it. It is an effort to hierarchically order cognitive processes.

The model was first introduced in 1956 but even today the idea of such a hierarchy is used in arguments about the validity of rote-learning and memorizing (LOTS) and examination performances (example: when considering the outcome of the recently published PISA results). It has been reinterpreted and reconstructed many times, however it is worth noting that Benjamin Bloom, like Maslow, never used a pyramid to illustrate his original idea. Notwithstanding, here is my take with an added ‘cognitive domain’:


The most radical revision of the Bloom pyramid has been to flip it. The Bloom 21 model (the 21st century Bloom) by Shelly Wright now has creating as the starting point for the student task, and then works through the phases to end up at remembering what has been discovered and revealed. The thinking behind this *flipped Bloom* is that as we are living in a world where innovation and creativity are increasingly important, so learners should be encouraged to spend more time creating, evaluating and analyzing rather than acquiring rote knowledge. There are interesting connections here to the task-based learning approach, and in particular the critical moments training, that are espoused and discussed elsewhere on this blog.

And what about pyramids of language levels? The widely-accepted Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) goes from A1 for beginner up to C2 for advanced, and although these ‘can-do’ levels were (also) not designed to be a pyramid they are now often represented in that form. A whole industry of examinations, teaching and preparation materials, and other services has sprung up around the CEFR with the purpose of getting learners up to the top of the stack.

This version would seem to suggest that starting off at the lowest level requires the greatest amount of effort, with what for many learners may be entirely new grammar, phonology, syntax and lexis to wrestle with. Once the underpinnings are in place, more rapid progress is more assured.

But there are also flipped versions around and they might suggest the opposite: that at A1 initial progress will be rapid, because a small amount of vocabulary will allow basic conversation and comprehension. Thereafter, progress may seem slower as it takes longer to master more complex structures. As the learner advances from one level to the next, the time and effort required to progress increases.

So you pays your money and you takes your choice. Either way, teachers are always going to be asked by their students: ‘What level am I? And when will I reach the next level?’ and it would be nice to have something as neat as a pyramid (even a flipped one) to assure them, but in reality the way forward is probably more like this:

brick wall

I’m not suggesting that they are going to be confronted by a brick wall, merely that progress in language learning can resemble a snaggle-toothed edifice rather than something smooth and geometric. Of course nobody would set out to construct a wall like this one, but allowing for the course of time, and weathering, a few shifts in the foundations and a bit of cracking, many can end up looking that way. Even the Great Pyramids (they were built of bricks) do, at least on close inspection.

Anyway, to pursue my metaphor: As the edifice progresses there will always be a few loose bricks, or even some missing ones, and some that don’t fit. Certain wobbly parts will need revisiting, re-working, re-pointing. There will be attempts at underpinning, at plastering over cracks, or even attaching a superficial fascia to hide what’s underneath. And there are bound to be slumbering fossils in amongst the layers.

So, from flipped pyramids to slumbering fossils. And there are many other images and metaphors (some of them just as unlikely) that get applied to the mysterious process of language learning. If you don’t like the idea of a straight-ahead linear approach, how about a learning curve or a spiral curriculum or fractals or something more holistic like concentric ripples spreading out from a central point? How do you ‘see’ language learning and how do you explain to your students how things are progressing?

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