Why Inside Out Learning is better than Top Down

Whether it’s a training course or a school curriculum, just ‘delivering the goods’ doesn’t cut it for learning professionals. And it frequently doesn’t cut it for those on the receiving end – the people doing the learning.

Learning and change is a complex – and a complex system that depends on external control is not sustainable, precisely because when the external controls lose their power – or relevance – the system collapses. What’s required is internally motivated evolutionary learning and change at all levels.

Research shows unequivocally that ‘top down’ high stakes assessments actually depress motivation for learning, impacting negatively on people’s sense of identity, self-efficacy and agency. And it’s the learning designers as much as the learners themselves who are impacted – they teach to the ‘test’ and ‘cover the curriculum’ rather than design and adapt to the purposes and needs of their learners: their professional judgement is inhibited.

This is why we tend to associate the word ‘learning’ with formal education, with classrooms or training events. It’s about acquiring new knowledge or learning how to do something. It’s split off from the authentic world of the learner – separated from the ‘job to be done’.

But to flourish in conditions of radical uncertainty – such as life as we now experience it – we need a much richer and more fluid understanding of learning. Regulatory frameworks or prescribed curricula are not enough to fuel innovation, changed mindsets and personal or social transformation or behaviour change. There’s so much overflowing data out there that what matters is our ability to collect, curate and use the information we need to achieve a meaningful purpose.

What if we could design learning from the inside out?

Human beings are complex systems in their own right and they relate to other humans in ever more complex networks of relationships.  If we start from the inside of the person, of the team or the organisation, then we have to start with purpose. And purpose is closely related to our identity – our sense of Self.

Dimensions of Learning Power

Learning Power for Purpose Definition and Knowledge Building

Purpose is the starting point for learning design.  As Neitschze said ‘he who has a Why to live can cope with any How’. Uncovering, exploring and firming up a purpose for change (or learning) is the antidote to ‘just delivering the goods’.  Actually, it’s harder than it might seem – particularly when we’re not used to exercising autonomy or self-leadership.  Sometimes it’s easier to allow yourself or your team to be ‘done to’ and not have to find the energy and agency to engage.

Finding and articulating a purpose means we have to ask the question – what really matters to me?  Or what matters to our team?  Or what matters in our business?  This is the starting point for any authentic self-directed learning journey.

It’s a question of value – it requires Mindful Agency and all the dimensions of learning power – creativity, curiosity, belonging, collaboration, hope and optimism and sense making.  And of course – sufficient openness to change to lean into the inevitable vulnerability and challenge.

Once we’ve articulated and embraced a sense of purpose in learning – using our learning power – we’re then in a position to begin understanding our problem space and the challenges we face.  We can begin collecting, curating and working with relevant ideas, data and information we need to achieve that purpose.  And once we’ve achieved it – we can evaluate performance using ‘fit for purpose’ measures.

These are the elements of learning as a journey which provide a framework for learning how to learn and for designing inside-out learning experiences for others.

Learning power is a useful way of linking the inside with the outside.  By being Mindful about ‘why?’ we have to look inside, listen to our stories and the stories of those around us in order to formulate a purpose.  But Mindful Agency is also about figuring out how to go about achieving that purpose and managing the emotions, processes and challenges along the way.  Being the pilot and not the passenger!

Three reasons why inside out learning is important

1. It’s purpose driven.

People don’t learn and change unless they have a reason to do so – a purpose that matters.

2. It’s sustainable.

systems which depend on external control are not sustainable.

3. It’s ethical.

It operates at individual, team and organisational levels and creates space for conversations about values and shared purpose.