Learning in Context – From the Bottom Up

I’m getting close to finishing up The Blue Sweater by Jaqueline Novogratz, a personal memoir in which Novogratz  tells the story of the journey from her “first stumbling efforts as a young idealist venturing forth in Africa” to the creation of the Acumen Fund, the philanthropic venture capital firm she runs today. Along the way I have been thinking about how much context contributes to effective learning – and how often learning gets pushed in from outside, or down from above, rather than being allowed and encouraged to emerge from the context in which it really matters.

Here’s how it often works:


Not unlike water off the roof of a house.

It’s how learning tends to happen (or not) in so many universities and corporate training situations. It’s also how so much of the aid to struggling communities and countries – which nearly always has or should have a significant learning component – works (or doesn’t).

I think it’s probably not a coincidence that the prototypical “dunce” cap has this same sort of triangle shape to it. Arguably, the supposed dunce doesn’t have much of a chance!


Whether you are trying to change yourself, your organization, or the world, this top down approach rarely makes much sense if real learning is the goal. My colleague Tommy Re likes to talk about flipping this triangle. Doing so creates a nice metaphor. Giving the bottom – the context in which learning is applied – the highest priority is like flipping a funnel so that learning can flow in rather than just run off the sides.

Obviously, this flip also turns the traditional notion of hierarchy on its head. Indeed, this isn’t hierarchy at all – it is simply starting broad and narrowing to what works.


A simple illustration for an obvious point, but one that so often gets overlooked: Whether your aim is to teach or to learn, context should lead, content and “solutions” should follow.

Stay tuned for more on The Blue Sweater.

Jeff Cobb
Mission to Learn

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