The redundant pyramid: how hierarchical learning structures are collapsing

The pyramidal view of learning is where you stand at the top and pour the knowledge down the sides, reaching ever increasing numbers of people as the truth flows out from it’s source. I think that today that model is expanded, with wider layers of discussion and collaboration contributing far more to the experience: social learning.

There are two structures that we can map across groups: the first is the formal hierarchy, identifying how people report to each other and who gets to have the best office, the second is the communication hierarchy, showing how information, knowledge and creativity flow within the group (and between the group and it’s extended network). It’s rare that the two match up.

Whilst learning used to be a relationship between the organisation, which owned and shaped the experience, and learners, who were taught, today it’s a more nuanced picture. Learning is more experiential, less transactional. Learning which used to be abstract, taking place in a classroom, now, increasingly, takes place over longer periods of time in a wider range of spaces (e-learning, classroom, on the job performance support and personal coaching and mentoring).

We tend to see less activity where the ‘teacher’ stands at the front and the learners listen in reverential silence: replaced instead by more active discussion, with a focus on critical thinking and methodologies for learning. The result of this is a greater ability for learners to integrate learning into everyday activity, to develop skills and behaviours over time in a more applied and meaningful fashion.

At the most informal end of the spectrum, we see the increasing use of social learning spaces to surround the formal aspects of learning. These sit very far outside the historical pyramid of authority. Within these spaces, we tend to see a more fluid adoption of roles, where people may take on a leadership role in some cases or a subject matter expert role in others: roles tend to be less fixed. This can lead to more discussion and reflection (although may require moderation to keep it ‘on track’) although it does change the fundamental way that understanding is constructed. Meaning emerges from the discussion rather than being imposed from the outside, from the ‘teacher’.

The pyramid view of organisational hierarchy was relevant when communication was a chore: when you had to get people together in a room to speak and in the days before email, when it took time to write, print and post letters. Today, that’s all changed. Communication is instant: communities form around individual projects, specific challenges and special interests: agile groupings with fluid roles. There is still value in an organisational structure, in management and reporting lines, but they are only part of the picture: it’s valuable for us to explore these less formal relationships, the hierarchies of communication and creativity, which drive learning.

The stories are still important: our learning messages need curating. I am not suggesting that we are seeing the complete democratisation of message, where everyone is free to contribute: this is not about crowd sourced ‘truth’, but rather a change in the way we explore the subjects, a change in the way we take on board new knowledge and a change in the way we embed that learning into our everyday reality.

Older, formal, pyramidal learning structures are giving way to more fluid, more agile and more collaborative approaches. The skills of the teacher or trainer are more about engagement and storytelling: the skills of the learner more about social capital to be effective in community, collaborative learning spaces and the ability to learn and learn again over time. It’s a more continuous process of change: less about learning in abstract classrooms and then going back to work. Learning is ongoing.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Agile, Authority, Blended Learning, Change, Collaboration, Community, Education, Hierarchy, Informal Spaces, Instructional Design, Learning, Learning Design, Social Capital, Social Learning, Storytelling and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to The redundant pyramid: how hierarchical learning structures are collapsing

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  10. ak says:

    Great read, Julian! I agree with most of what you say here, and will be sure to explore your blog more often. But just from this post and your latest one on creative learning, I feel you’ve sidelined history. We learn from history as well. History is our only proof of what we as mankind are capable of. Sure, every mind is different and the future holds many possibilities. But we’ve been around for a while and sometimes we’ve been good to ourselves, other times not so much. Perhaps history needs to be taught more often in order for us to remember why we are here, what is important about culture, and how we relate to one another. This fits in with what you say above, that this isn’t about a crowdsourced truth necessarily, but about a new way of collecting knowledge. I propose that this

  11. ak says:

    [please tack on to the last comment – sorry!] I propose that this knowledge involves historical awareness. Cheers.

  12. Pingback: The redundant pyramid: how hierarchical learning structures are collapsing | college and career ready | Scoop.it

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  16. julianstodd says:

    Reblogged this on "Exploring the world of social learning" and commented:

    Exploring how old structures around learning are redundant, how social models are taking over

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