Which way is it to Madrid?

Just over a month ago, after an incident in the car approaching Murcia, I posted about top-down processing. Well, I’ve just been back to Murcia, and have had a great time working with staff at the city’s Universidad Católica, and at the Politécnica de Cartagena.

As fate would have it, on my way back up to Madrid I had another of those bottom-up versus top-down processing moments as a driver. I was on the ring road around Murcia when I saw this sign (don’t ask me how I took the photo):

Which way to Madrid.JPG

Yep. A classic motorway sign. A driver’s life is heavily peppered with them. The trouble was that neither this sign, nor any of the multiple signs over the next 40+ kilometres, indicated which was the way to Madrid. Alicante, Andalucía, Albacete, Alcantarilla…  The E-15, the A-30, Exit 143 …  The data was pouring in, though not so fast that eagle-eyed me couldn’t process it. Name by name, number by number, bit by bit. That is to say, bottom-up process it.

The problem was, however, that the answer to my question (Which way is it to Madrid?) wasn’t available from the data I was processing. In fact, to know which way to go at each of the succeeding junctions, I needed to add data from inside my head. In other words, I had to use my prior knowledge and to top-down process in order to make sense of the message.

I knew that Madrid was to the north of Murcia, and that Albacate was also to the north of Murcia, but to the south of Madrid. Thanks to this ‘knowledge in my head’, I was able to choose the right road when the moment came ten kilometers later. Without this knowledge I could just as easily have ended heading east to Alicante or west to Andalucía.

So, next time that you’re in the classroom working on listening (or reading), remember that unless you activate their prior knowledge, your learners will most likely default to bottom-up processing, which, as I’ve tried to show, is often not enough to allow you to understand what you’ve just heard or read, however perfectly it’s applied. You really do need to bring prior knowledge into your listening/reading and apply a top-down approach instead.