Akosua Bonsu, Director, Live your dream CIC

The term ‘inside-out education’ is not yet widely used and has no precise definition. This is unfortunate.  A lack of clarity means that we regularly miss the significance of this approach to teaching and learning and we are discouraged from taking a systematic view of its topology.

As inside-out education is one key innovation in the development of education into the future, it is important to understand what it is, why it is necessary and how to support it to take root in classrooms.

Understood better through contrast

In theory, inside-out education is a philosophy of the function and value proposition of education that prompts an integration of what can be loosely called ‘psychological skills development’ into the curriculum. 

In practice, inside-out education can be described in contrast to outside-in education, the latter being the dominant philosophy of education for several decades now. In other words, we better understand inside-out education by asking what is outside-in education and why is it fast becoming redundant? 

Outside-in education

When we move from the outside-in, education is understood as the presentation of facts, figures and skills, i.e., information, which is transmitted by teachers and absorbed by students in a dynamic interplay of dialogue, demonstration and discussion.

To be sure, this process is dynamic, especially in independent colleges, where lecturing has been supplanted by different modes of teaching, including experiential learning, project-based learning and collaborative curriculums directly involving prospective employers and industry professionals. The problem of outside-in education then, is not so much with the delivery methodology as with the function of this approach.

Outside-in education is suffering an existential crisis because it invariably takes on the mechanistic input-output model. This process involves inputting information, in the best cases with some flexibility and creativity in how that information is inputted, and following this, concept checking inputted information either through tests, coursework or assessments, which are the functional outputs of the process.

Vocational courses offer their own distinct brand of the input-output model, and so also conform to a mechanistic structure, where apprentices are taught particular techniques and through vocational assessment, are tested on the application of those inputted concepts. That is, concept checking through activities in practice. 

The input-output model is suffering an existential crisis

Richard Buckminster Fuller, the American architect and futurist wrote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is precisely the case with the mechanistic approach to education. The mechanistic model is currently quietly being replaced by something that never sought to compete with it: computation and AI. Specifically, the main function of the input-output model as a means of teaching and learning is quickly becoming outmoded or obsolete through computation and with the rise of AI.

Computers are increasingly being programmed with expert knowledge and skills that had previously taken an individual several years to master. Amazon’s Alexa holds more facts than any individual person could possibly amass in a lifetime, computers are being called upon to drive cars and to create architectural designs, and robots are being programmed to remove tumours with a level of precision that the best surgeons would envy.

While much has been written about AI eventually usurping jobs, there is not yet a clear focus on the ways in which AI will transform the nature and function of education itself. Any parent who has undergone the muted pleasure of home education will know the value of Google for finding information, such as strategies for long forgotten maths problems: input-output. Stripped down to the most basic level, what computers easily replicate is the mechanistic structure: a model in which certain proscribed inputs are placed and through computation produce a range of programmed outputs that are ever more sophisticated in their ability to be context dependent.

No doubt the sophistication of computation underscores the utility of the outside-in model for education, but as computers become more complex, and their outputs become progressively more nuanced, the focus on the outside-in model of education for us, in the classroom, becomes increasingly redundant.

Computers will do the job of feeding information quicker and with more accuracy than any educator can. While there will continue to be a place for outside-in education, it will not represent the dominant philosophy of educational institutions once we are fully immersed in an AI and computational landscape.

This is no great pity. This mechanistic model of education at its most sophisticated level represents the “intelligence” of AI. Stripped down to basics level however, it is the equivalent of training a parrot to repeat specific words on command.

Three examples of Inside-Out Education

Independent colleges in the UK have for a long-time been attempting to embed inside-out education into the curriculum without using the label of ‘inside-out education’. These colleges, realising that the mechanistic approach needs to be supplemented, have done so by focusing on a range of topics which are often offered as discrete courses-types that are auxiliary to core curriculum.

The most prominent of these are Critical Thinking, Character Education and Emotional Intelligence.  However, without the existence of an appropriate language for the new inside-out approach taken in these classes, or any conceptualisation of how they are related or overlap, their significance is often missed. Let’s look at them now to make these connections explicit and to begin to clarify the requisite language of inside-out education.

#1 Character Education

Character education has seen a resurgence of interest, particularly since the publication of the Framework for Character Education by the DfE. Possibly among the most complex areas of inside-out education for educational institutions to master, character education focuses on psychological traits and dispositions of behaviour required to live happy, meaningful and fulfilled lives. What Aristotle calls Eudemonia. This is a life that includes academic success but is not limited to it.

Exercises in character education include exercises designed to explore values, develop ethical and pro-social behaviours (the virtues), to reflect on and evaluate personal habits and to develop psychological traits such as motivation, resilience and grit in practice. Motivation, grit and perseverance are, of course, essential qualities for academic success, however the purpose of character education is not to achieve a particular outcome that can be measured in concept checking assessments.

To think that would be to slip back into the mechanistic, input output model. The function of character education from the perspective of inside-out education is to improve or build the psychological dispositions that equip students to respond appropriately to the plethora of situations that they face, inside and outside the classroom.  The intended outcome is the shift of mindset; it is something that happens internally, in an individual’s psychology.

#2 Critical Thinking

Those familiar with marking essays in any Humanities or the Social Science subject will be aware that the highest grades in assessments are awarded to students who demonstrate critical or evaluative thinking. Typically it involves students demonstrating their understanding of the plurality of perspectives on a particular topic and/or synthesising that plurality into coherent perspectives, or creating their own views through the use of the views of others.

While all of this is great, it does not encompass the whole of critical thinking and is not the function of critical thinking from the inside-out perspective. Critical thinking is, in fact, a nebulous concept, involving a disparate range of skills. It is essentially about how the brain interprets, evaluates and transforms information.  It requires a marriage between the reasoning faculties of the mind, for deconstruction of ideas, as well as the imaginative functions of the mind, for reconstituting and reforming ideas.

With these two mental faculties students are taught to unpack ideas into constituent parts, they can flip them, reorganise them, decontextualise them, amongst other things. Thus the function of critical thinking from the inside-out perspective is not the output essay that demonstrates the fusion of perspectives, but rather mental dexterity and agility. A psychological ability, backed by reason and imagination, to transform, collide, dismantle and reshape ideas at will.

#2 Emotional Intelligence

Coleman’s four dimensions of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and relationship management. Under this umbrella can be found Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset, which relates essentially to a process of conceptualising  mistakes so that they do not collapse into feelings of failure that sabotage future effort and success. Emotional intelligence includes developing a vocabulary for emotions and recognising emotional reactions in ourselves and in others.

These lessons can include mindfulness techniques and sometimes meander into areas of mental health management. Students who are more emotionally intelligent fare better academically however, once again, this is not the point. From the inside-out perspective, the function of emotional intelligence is self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Specifically, it is to understand the impact of our own emotions, attitudes and moods on our own behaviour and the behaviour of others, and to develop a set of strategies to shift, modify or dissolve emotions that do not serve us, given the view we have of our ourselves at our best (identity), the relationships we with to maintain with other (sociality) and our goals (pursuits). Thus self-development, self-knowledge, self-actualisation and cooperation, i.e., psychological skills and tools, are primary function of emotional intelligence from the inside-out perspective.

The three examples given above are not the only examples of inside-out education that can be found. However these board categories begin to map a landscape, which gives us a rudimentary topology of inside-out education, and gives us some insight into the focus and function of this terrain.

So, what is inside-out education?

Inside-out education is an approach to education that does not focus on what goes into the mind, as the mechanistic model does, hoping for outcomes that act as concept checkers for inputted information. It is an entirely different model of education, underpinned by an entirely different methodology.

The focus of inside out education is improving the architecture of the mind in such a way that whatever information is inputted, in the creative and innovative ways that educators educate, lead students to develop the mental architecture required to produce optimal results using a psychological toolkit including creativity, compassion and resilience, among other things.

The results of this exercise far exceed the rather mediocre objectives of concept checking prized in outside-in education. It is about explicitly building the capacities of the mind to create, cooperate and innovate.

The mental architecture developed by inside-out education is designed to serves students in all situations. It is therefore an approach to teaching and learning that takes a holistic view of the student:  student are seen not just future employees or contributors to tax revenue, they are parents, business owners, friends, and participants in civic society. Inside-out education works on a students’ psychological toolkit to pave the way for students to master and unlock the unique magic they have within themselves leading to happier, more purpose driven, more creative and more innovative people.

We might think of this more dryly as an approach to teaching and learning that focuses on the kind of transferable skills that bridge success in all areas of life: academic, professional and personal. In focusing on the psychological architecture, inside-out education offers a preparation for a life of Eudemonia, rather than the next assessment, recognising that the assessment is but one of many situations that students will need to respond to in order to achieve optimal results

Inside-out education: What’s it all about then?

Inside-out education enables students to do things effectively with their minds. It’s about flipping, slicing and reforming information in such a way that it can be used for productive ends. It’s about learning how to find positive solutions to complex problems. It’s about developing courage and resilience. It’s about reflecting on values and purpose and supporting students to make unique and positive contributions to their environments.

It’s about sharpening mental faculties such as reasoning and imagination and a mental solidity and agility that allow you to reposition alternative perspectives as you would reposition the pieces of a rubric cube to find a combination that is the optimal fit for your situation. In the end, inside-out education is a people game.

It’s a holistic approach to learning because it puts the development of the person first, by putting the development of minds at the centre of education, we move away from passing the test towards the underling principles of success widely construed (including character, problem-solving, imagination, cooperation and so on).

Here we can see that input is still important but input is not, or at least not primarily, to produce an output, it is to develop the processor.

Why do we need inside-out education?

The mechanistic model of education, with its input-output focus will have most of its functional utility usurped by computation and AI. This seismic shift will free both students and educators to reinterpret the significance and function of their activities as computers will be relied on more and more to take on the functional side of outside-in education in classrooms.

At this stage, the human mind, our distinct endowment will have new opportunities to shine, and we will see so much more of the magic and wonder that people are capable of.

Education will need to shift to accommodate the change, and begin to place far greater weight on inside-out education if it wishes to continue to have a role to empower and equip students with the skills they need in a world dominated by computation and AI.

By working to build our unique human endowment, the mind, we are working from the inside-out, that is to say, we are working with the understanding that this psychological toolkit will sufficiently equip students to successfully navigate a plethora of situations in the outside world. Hence the new frontier of education is the systematisation of inside-out education, so that more educators can place it at the centre of their teaching.

While the development of computation and AI will force a shift in the meaning and function of teaching and learning, we need not wait for automation to dominate for education to innovate. We should be equipping students with the resources to build their mental architecture and unlock the magic of their minds now.

In doing so we are helping to creative a new generation of disruptive innovators, who are purpose driven and resilient, who proactively create the lives that they want, and who have a positive impact on their communities.

Akosua Bonsu, Director, Live your dream CIC

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