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Heutagogy: Designing for Self-Directed Learners

Here’s another unlovely word to blame the Ancient Greeks for—Heutagogy.

Pedagogy has long had a place in the eLearning bluffer’s guide: when someone is banging on about the latest much-hyped phenomenon—be it mobile learning, informal learning or MOOCs—a safe counter has always been to put the head on one side and say, ‘yes, but what’s the Pedagogy?’ Advanced students of lifemanship will have learned to sidestep any counter-counters to this play by moving swiftly on to Andragogy, which is Pedagogy for grown-ups. But Heutagogy trumps even this.

Putting one-upmanship aside for a moment though, what is Heutagogy—and do you really need to bother with it? We think you do.

Heutagogy vs Pedagogy vs Andragogy

Increasingly, using the term ‘Pedagogy’ has come to produce a degree of exasperation in some quarters, since better-informed members of the profession know that Pedagogy has been ruled inappropriate and out of fashion so far as workplace learning goes, ever since Knowles (1970) started banging the drum for Andragogy. Knowles asserted that Andragogy (Greek: “man-leading”) should be distinguished from the more commonly used Pedagogy (Greek: “child-leading”). And since organizations are, after all, teaching adults, not children, this would seem a more appropriate approach.

Even at the time Knowles was writing, however, the implicit assumption that there should be any sort of leading at all going on with regards to adult learning was coming into contention in the world of educational psychology. “We cannot teach another person directly: we can only facilitate learning,” said Rogers (1969).

Rogers argued that people have a natural inclination to learn throughout their lives, and that teacher-centered learning had been grossly over-emphasized. His beliefs, together with a whole bunch of other ideas including Action Learning (Kemmis & McTaggart, e.g. 1988), double loop learning (Argyris and Schon 1996), learner managed learning (Long 1990) and learning capability (Stephenson and Weil, 1992) fed into the work of Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon, who in 2000 coined the term Heutagogy.

The main differences between Heutagogy and the other two are:

  • It does not assume the presence of an instructor, given Rogers’ dictum that you can’t teach adults; you can only facilitate learning
  • It calls for a focus on process, not content (Hase & Kenyon take this further, saying perhaps controversially, that the focus should be on process, not outcomes)
  • It makes an assumption that people naturally want to learn—that early formal education beats this desire out of people in many ways, so the task is to help them ‘relearn’ how to learn, and the organization just has to get out of the way and let them get on with it

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t problems for L&D as it is currently organized with the way this theory has been propounded, but let’s look at the positives to start with. And they are significant.

Why Heutagogy Matters Now

We are seeing a move in organizational learning from courses to resources, and a proliferation of new ways to access learning in the workplace. Increasingly, it’s not about ‘the course’, taken through a single medium (classroom or desktop PC), but about a learner journey encompassing multiple modes and channels. With the downgrading of the course as the default unit of instruction, we also see less prominence for the role of instructors.

This paradigm shift leaves something of a theory gap. Anyone who tries to approach designing a learning program for this new world armed only with a traditional model based around TNA, learning objectives, ADDIE, etc. will soon find themselves floundering. Figures such as Clive Shepherd, in his book The New Learning Architect are working to address this gap with practical guidelines, as is LEO Learning, with its work on Learning Architectures—but for those who want some academic underpinnings; something to replace Pedagogy, Heutagogy has a lot of useful insights.

Further, the paradigm shift we see happening in learning now is roughly analogous to that described by Hase & Kenyon in their paper. And a lot will be familiar here to anyone acquainted with the work of well-known eLearning gurus such as Harold Harche and Jay Cross of the Internet Time Group, and many others. In other words, Heutagogy is well within the mainstream of contemporary guru-speak in our industry, so there are a lot of ideas and resources out there to support anyone who wants to explore it further.

Why Heutagogy Might Have Problems Getting Traction

For the same reason, however, that learning gurus often seem to suffer a disconnect from the real world issues faced by L&D, Heutagogy might also have some problems. It’s time, in the interests of balance, to play devil’s advocate.

Just a look at the date of Rogers’ foundational pronouncement about not being able to teach another person directly—1969—tells you the world and the time it was from. Not to put too fine a point on it, for some people this stuff is straight out of the hippy bag. The idea that you could let a 21-year-old new starter in the oil and gas industry, for example, dictate his or her own curriculum for basic health and safety training before turning up on an oil rig? Whacked out. In sectors and territories and training types where a highly directive training model is the norm, Heutagogy will seem far divorced from reality.

Even in situations where more open models of learning are being explored, there are concepts within Heutagogy that raise big questions about the alignment of individual goals with those of the organization.

Heutagogy explicitly privileges the development of the individual over the needs of the organization. Need there be a conflict? Enlightened organizations will always look for win/win situations: learning that benefits both the learner and the organizational objective. But in situations where the two aims are just not compatible—for example, if we educate this PA to MBA level have we suddenly lost ourselves a PA?—observable reality tells us that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Another important pillar of Hase & Kenyon’s conceptual edifice is double loop learning (Argyris & Schon, 1996) which, in a nutshell, says that the learner should be able to question, and if he/she feels it necessary, to rewrite the learning objectives. Even the more up-to-date leadership models like situational leadership admit a place for command-and-control styles of management in certain circumstances: are we going to completely restrict the rights of the organization to lay out and mandate a curriculum? In which case how does the Head of Compliance make a satisfactory response to external laws and regulations, if any learner has the right to challenge basic objectives of the training?

Assessment is also a problem. If learners can change the goal, how do you assess knowledge against an external standard? True, a great deal of workplace learning is not rigorously evaluated, but Heutagogy is impractical in a credentialing institution, and therefore for large swathes of professional development.

Heutagogy privileges capability over competency, whereas we know that many organizations are completely driven by their competency frameworks when it comes to learning. Competencies have been a positive step in helping Defence training, for instance, move from a focus on attendance to a focus on attainment. Another baby lost with the bathwater?

Uses for Heutagogy

Although Heutagogy places specific emphasis on double loop learning, universal learning opportunities, a non-linear process and true learner self-direction, it need not be in conflict with the culture of L&D within actual organizations—as long as it is judiciously applied.

A learning architectures focus, for instance, can make use of insights from Heutagogy while also ensuring that ‘learning how to learn’ and appropriate levels of scaffolding (coaching, mentoring or peer support) are embedded in order to truly achieve a 21st Century, mature learning approach.

While a Heutagogical approach may seem out of place in highly directive training situations (e.g. procedural or compliance learning), it will be found far more appropriate for leadership, for instance, or induction—both training types where we have successfully brought these insights to bear.

While acknowledging that the whole concept of self-determination—or ‘Google learning’ as it has been called, pejoratively, in certain circles—is fraught with the potential for missing the point, being distracted into rabbit warrens or just getting bad information, we would like to emphasize that this is only a potential. Any learning theory is only as good as the way in which it is applied and worked through, and we have seen it produce highly successful results where correctly applied, in the right circumstances. Watch this space for chapter and verse, as we will soon be publishing case studies of several recent programs that feature high levels of learner self-direction.

Learners are changing, learning is changing—and Heutagogy can give important clues about rebalancing the burden of responsibilities and permissions in an always-on, networked, instructor-less, post-course world.

For more tips on designing effective eLearning, download a copy of the LEO Learning’s ebook ‘How to Create Digital Learning That Works‘

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