Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner
Recently, we blogged about ‘lifelong learning’ and while doing research for it, we regularly ran into the term ‘heutagogy’. It also caught our attention because it had frequently popped up on social media in the last couple of years. Initially, we thought it was similar to ‘self-directed learning’ (which we have blogged about here, here, and here) but there seemed to be more to it. After taking a dive into the literature on heutagogy we must admit we were left with more questions than answers. Heutagogy turns out to be quite a ‘hotchpotch’ of stuff. Also, it seems as if the heutagogy literature ignores the learning sciences research that we already have and that matters in the context of heutagogy.
We didn’t write this blog to dismiss heutagogy as, in itself, it’s important to think about when and how learners can determine and direct their own learning. We just want to discuss the questions we have and the challenges we see.
We start by discussing the origin of heutagogy and then dive straight into the challenges.
The term ‘heutagogy’ was coined by Hase and Kenyon (2000). According to them, it refers to the concept of ‘truly self-determined learning’ which they, interestingly enough, don’t actually define. What’s clear is that it’s not derived from from Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (Agonács & Matos, 2019). Jones, Penaluna, and Penaluna (2019) explain that it means that learning starts with the individual’s interests and motivations, which creates a focus area for new learning that is (at that point in time) independent of an educator.
Heutagogy is underpinned with assumptions grounded in humanism and constructivism. The idea of the learner being central to the educational process is a humanistic concept and, similarly, constructivism is based on the notion that people construct their own versions of reality using past experience, their own knowledge, and their current experience (Nikolovska, Grizhev & Iliev, 2019). So, we can ask ourselves why we need a term like ‘heutagogy’ at all.
Lisa Marie Blaschke (2012) states that pedagogical and andragogical (andragogy is the method and practice of teaching adult learners as opposed to pedagogy which is about the method and practice of teaching children) educational approaches are not sufficient to prepare learners to thrive in the workplace. Hase and Kenyon suggest that the concept is “appropriate to the needs of learners in the twenty-first century” (p. 1); here we go again with 21st century skills and learning! Basically, they play the popular tune that we live in a world with an abundance of information that’s readily available and easily accessible and where change is so quick that ‘traditional’ methods of training and teaching are inadequate. They even state that discipline-based knowledge is inappropriate for today’s communities (e.g., workplaces). Sound familiar?
Blaschke (2012) puts web 2.0 and ‘technological affordances’ at the heart because, according to her “[W]ith its learner-centered design, web 2.0 offers an environment that supports a heutagogical approach, most importantly by supporting development of learner-generated content and learner self-directedness in information discovery and defining the learning path” (p. 56).
Now for our first real question.
Question 1: What need is heutagogy trying to address?
On the one hand, heutagogy scholars seem to emphasise the need for heutagogy to address critical issues (e.g., fast change, uncertainty, obsolescence) that people face in the workplace, but on the other hand the literature discusses arbitrary areas, such as lifelong learning, higher education, e-learning, distance education, primary school education, and teaching practices in general, to just name a few. Each of these areas need its own specific considerations and questions. For example, do these scholars actually believe that the purpose of primary education is to prepare 4-12 year old children for the workplace? How is lifelong learning defined (as we explained in our blog here, lifelong learning is a terribly broad concept)?
Agonács and Matos (2019) analysed 69 publications on heutagogy and conclude that “researchers are interested in understanding certain phenomena related to heutagogy rather than explaining and predicting them” (p. 233). Moore (2020) also concludes that there’s a lack of empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the heutagogical approach.
What heutagogy includes and how to design for it
Heutagogy includes (e.g., Blaschke, 2012; Hase & Kenyon, 2000):
- Action learning processes where, for example, a small group of people work on real problems, analyse them, implement proposed solutions derived from the constructive criticisms of colleagues; monitor results, and through being held responsible for these actions, learn from the results so that future problem solving and opportunity taking is improved (Pedler, 2011).
- Argyris and Schon’s double loop learning (1996)
- A distinction between competencies and capabilities. According to Blaschke (2012), competencies are defined as a proven ability in acquiring knowledge and skills, while capabilities are about learner confidence in their competency, including traits such as self-efficacy, in knowing how to learn and continuously reflecting on the learning process; communication and team work skill, working well with others, communicating openly; creativity, in particular applying competencies to new and unfamiliar situations and by being adaptive and flexible in approach; and positive values.
Blaschke (2012) summarises it as follows: “When learners are capable, skills and knowledge can be reproduced in unfamiliar situations. Capability is then the extension of one’s own competence, and without competence, there cannot be capability (p. 60). How is this different from what the rest of the world calls near and far transfer? Blaschke, unfortunately, doesn’t discuss this.
Blaschke provides an example of what the design for a ‘self-determined learning experience’ requires (interestingly, she doesn’t mention that because of the partly ‘ubiquitous’ character of heutagogy, the experience isn’t necessarily always designed, think ‘informal learning’). This design includes:
- Learner-defined learning contracts. These individualised contracts define what will be learned, how it will be learned, what will be assessed, and how it will be assessed (see, for example https://www.esc.edu/policies/?search=cid%3D104471).
- Flexible curriculum. Learners create the learning map, instructors are ‘the compass’. The curriculum adapts and evolves according to learner needs.
- Learner-directed questions. The learners’ questions and discussions that result from them guide learners and serve as the mechanism for helping learners make sense of course content.
- Flexible and negotiated assessment. Learners are involved in designing their own assessment. The assessment should include measurable forms of assessing understanding or content and achieved competencies.
- Reflective practice, such as using learning journals, action research (experiment with real-world scenarios), formative and summative assessment.
- Collaborative learning. Learners create shared meaning, reflect on, and think about how they learned and how to apply it in practice.
Question 2: How is this approach scalable?
Of course, we could say that it’s scalable as learners are in the driver’s seat. However, we can all see from the example above that it’s not that simple.
First, if each learner determines what they learn, then this means that the teacher (or trainer or facilitator or educator or whatever you want to call that other person) must give individual attention to each learner. If, for example, there are thirty learners and the heutagogical sessions last an hour, then that ‘heutagogy-driven’ facilitator can spend an average of two minutes on guiding/facilitating each individual learner. It also means that they have to be knowledgeable about any and all things that the learner might choose. As you can imagine, this might prove to be quite tricky!
Further, heutagogy scholars expect formal educational institutions to change their practice but don’t really discuss what it takes to do this. What makes a skilled ‘heutagogy-driven’ facilitator? How can a facilitator make sure each learner gets the guidance and support based on their personal needs and preferences (if we would agree what preferences are and if they should be supported, ‘cause that isn’t necessarily the case. See all of the research on debunked learning styles, for example this article)? Is there a difference between teaching (facilitating?) for ‘knowns’ (e.g., facts, concepts) and ‘unknowns’ – or at least ‘more flexible stuff’- such as project-based work?
Also, do we need to address the potential that a heutagogical approach increases inequality?
For example, neuroscientist Stanislas DeHaene (2020) writes that:
When schooling begins early, it can transform lives: numerous experiments show that children from disadvantaged backgrounds who benefit from early educational interventions show improved outcomes, even decades later, in many domains – from lower crime rates to higher IQs and incomes to better health (p 141)
Mind you, this is based on ‘traditional education’, which is considered insufficient by the heutagogy proponents. We know from research on so-called learner-centred that such approaches increase the knowledge gap as learners from advantaged situations have fewer problems with those approaches than learners from disadvantaged situations (e.g., Flores & Kayler, 2007; Grossen & Ewing, 1994; Kim & Axelrod, 2005; Rowe, 2006; Rowe & Stephanou, 2007).
We also need to carefully consider that learners are not magically self-directed and self-determined, and thus we must think about what learners need to learn and practice in order to become self-determined and self-directed learners. This leads to the third question.
Question 3: How do we know what it takes for the learner to be an effective and efficient self-determined learner?
Nowhere in the heutagogy literature that we found is this question even considered, let alone discussed. This is highly problematic. Interestingly, Agonács and Matos (2019) state that heutagogy is ‘grounded in neuroscience’ and that the evidence from neuroscience “reinforces the idea that humans are hardwired to learn and use exploration, hypothesis testing, all senses, experience, mimicry, reflection, context, and memories” (p. 224).
If this is the case, then why then is it nowhere discussed what it takes for a learner to learn in a self-determined way? Why is it nowhere acknowledged that we actually know a lot about what it takes for people to drive/direct their own learning?
To be honest, we don’t even know where to start. Where’s the acknowledgement of what we know about executive functions and their development (e.g., the cognitive abilities needed to control our thoughts, emotions and actions)? Where is the evidence on how, when we’re new to something, we need guidance and support? Where’s the research on information literacy and why it’s so critical when using, for example, Internet? Where’s the research on self-directed and self-regulated learning, on collaborative learning, on informal learning? Where’s the evidence on what it takes to design for performance and far transfer (e.g., Van Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2018).
Moore (2020) suggests that researchers should design empirical-based studies to seek to validate heutagogical learning approaches, so that we can distinguish between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy. But why?
We dare to say that the distinction between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy is flawed and not helpful. Do adults really learn differently than children? An adult can be just as unknowing (i.e., be a novice) in an area as a child, and a child can have expertise in areas that adults might not know about. Expertise, and thus the cognitive schemata that we possess, comes with increasing knowledge and skills and not with increasing age. Holmes and Abington-Cooper (2000) even ask “What is an adult learner?” Is it solely about age? Is it that the older you are, the more ‘mature’ you are as a learner? Even Knowles admitted that andragogy is simply another model of assumptions about learners and that it can be used alongside the pedagogical model of assumptions. Which one is most suitable depends on the situation.
We do know certain things about how people drive their own learning. For example, people with more expertise are better at directing and regulating their own learning and one characteristic of a strong self-directed learner is to know when to ask for help. We also know that self-directed learning isn’t an ‘all-or-nothing’ concept. If you’re a strong self-directed learner depends on the subject matter, the degree of choice over goals, intrinsic motivation, and so forth (Neelen & Kirschner, 2020).
We invite heutagogy scholars to focus on what we know about how ‘self-determined’ and ‘self-directed’ learners create their own learning paths and use what we already know. Especially when we include informal learning experiences and non-linear paths, as well as learning for ‘known’ outcomes (e.g., competencies) versus unknown future needs (e.g., capabilities), how do we capture those processes and how do we figure out how to support learners best? These questions are difficult to answer, yet are worthwhile and fascinating to investigate.
The problem is that they’re nowhere discussed in the heutagogy literature. The current hotchpotch of heutagogical stuff isn’t helpful. Let’s move from hotchpotch to helpful, would be our suggestion, if heutagogy really is a thing.
Agonács, N., & Matos, J. F. (2019). Heutagogy and self-determined learning: a review of the published literature on the application and implementation of the theory. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 34(3), 223-240.
Argyris, C and Schon, D. (1996). Organisational Learning II, Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Blaschke, L. M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(1), 56-71.
Flores, M., & Kayler, M. (2007). The effects of a direct instruction program on the fraction performance of middle school students at-risk for failure in mathematics. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34(2), 84-94.
Grossen, B., & Ewing, S. (1994). Raising mathematics problem-solving performance: Do the NCTM teaching standards help? Effective School Practices, 13(2), 79-91.
Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. In UltiBase Articles. Retrieved from http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec00/hase2.htm
Jones, C., Penaluna, K. and Penaluna, A. (2019), The promise of andragogy, heutagogy and academagogy to enterprise and entrepreneurship education pedagogy, Education + Training, 61(9), 1170-1186.
Kim, T., & Axelrod, S. (2005). Direct instruction: An educators’ guide and a plea for action. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6(2), 111-120.
Knowles, M. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy versus Pedagogy. New York: Associated Press.
Moore, R. L. (2020). Developing lifelong learning with heutagogy: contexts, critiques, and challenges. Distance Education, 41(3), 381-401.
Neelen, M., & Kirschner, P. A. (2020). Evidence-informed Learning Design: Creating Training to Improve Performance. London: Kogan Page.
Nikolovska, A. I., Grizev, A., & Iliev, A. (2019). History of Heutagogy as a self-determined learning. Proceedings of Papers, p 146-152.
Pedler, M. (Ed.). (2012). Action learning in practice. London: Routledge.
Rowe, K. (2006). Effective teaching practices for students with and without learning difficulties: Issues and implications surrounding key findings and recommendations from the national inquiry into the teaching of literacy. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11(3), 99-115.
Rowe, K., & Stephanou, A. (2007). Effective ‘Third Wave’ intervention strategies for students with learning difficulties who are in mainstream schools in Years 4, 5 and 6. Retrieved, from http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/school_education/publications_resources/profiles/Inve stigate_Effective_Third_Wave_Learning_Years_4_5_6.htmStephenson, J. & Weil, S. (1992) Quality in Learning: A Capability Approach in Higher Education. London: Kogan Page.
Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Kirschner, P. A. (2018). Ten steps to complex learning: A systematic approach to four-component instructional design. New York, NY: Routledge.