Searching for the Topless Classroom

When we teach, topless may be better than bottomless.

Posted Feb 25, 2015

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of observing a class taught by Dr. Valerie K. Otero, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  The class was about friction, energy, and other concepts in physics.  Students worked in groups answering questions about observations they themselves had made during the previous class period.  Then each group presented their answers to the class. 

Lively discussions ensued, and much of the talk centered on such topics as Slip’N Slides, skiing, running, what they had talked about the day before, and other things that students were very familiar with!  At various points in the discussion, Dr. Otero would make sure that students were (a) using the concepts they were learning in the course, (b) explaining so that others could understand, and (c) making inferences from their data and observations.  

Here’s the kicker: The students were making these observations and inferences before they had read (or were lectured to) about what physicists say about these concepts.  They were developing their knowledge—not memorizing somebody else’s.

Active learning is not new (to most of us), but I found Dr. Otero’s explanation of what she was doing to be a very useful way to conceptualize what was happening in the classroom, and I wanted to share it with you.  Here is Otero’s diagram:

Courtesy of Valerie K. Otero
Source: Courtesy of Valerie K. Otero

At the bottom of the triangle is students’ own experience—and the inferences (right or wrong) they draw from this resource.  Essentially, it’s the knowledge they have coming into a course. At the top is what professors know from years of study and from the methods and traditions of their disciplines.  It’s usually a pretty far distance from the top to the bottom, with lots of activity and effort required to make connections between them. 

Many professors teach in a bottomless way: They pretty much present the “top” information—in the form of lectures, books, etc.—and hope that students understand.  Demonstrations, films, and other presentations can help many students grasp those concepts.  But there’s still work to be done in the middle of the process, and that’s where the topless classroom comes in.

Dr. Otero strives to have students start with what they know—what they’ve seen with their own eyes and what they infer from their observations.  She then teaches them how to observe more closely and how to make inferences only from what they observe (the second level of the triangle).  Then, students can develop their own models to organize what they are experiencing (level three).  It’s only at that point that student read about the “scientist ideas” at the top.

The class I observed was “topless,” because virtually the entire class period involved students moving up the diagram.  Here’s what I observed:

  • Students were active.
  • Students were engaged more in their activities than many would have been in a lecture.
  • Students were thinking critically.
  • Students were doing science—practicing it’s processes—rather than just hearing about what scientists know.
  • Students were speaking up in class.
  • Students were taking risks.
  • Dr. Otero worked incredibly hard to prepare the materials, activities, questions, and scientist idea readings.
  • She also worked hard during the class to manage the group activities, monitor the discussions, guide students, and—perhaps most important—monitoring the effectiveness of all her preparations.

One final observation:   I have a different experience in this class, versus many "bottomless" classrooms I’ve visited:  I had great fun, saw one fascinating way for students to learn, and even learned a little physics….


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.  His most recent book is a collaboration with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.  Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).


Harlow, D., & Otero, V. (2005) Collaboration physics: Elementary teachers and university researchers join forces to help students construct understandings of friction—and discover something of the nature of science in the process. Science and Children, 42(5), 31-35.

Otero, V., & Gray, K. (2007). Learning to think like scientists with the PET curriculum. In L. McCullough, L. Hsu & P. Heron, (Eds.), 2007, Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings. Melville, NY: AIP Press,160-163.

© 2015 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved