This article focusses on the competency of learning itself. In particular, the article explores the benefits and limitations of heutagogy as the conception and practice of learning in organisations – i.e. stimulating self-determined learning in the workforce – and the development of learning agility.
Disruption and flexible working
If 2020 was a year of radical change, much of that change that is being consolidated in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic has deepened changes already underway (gig economy, connected world, online business models) and forced a rethink of conventional approaches that were already being questioned in key areas (economic, welfare and environment) and are now revealed to be more unsustainable than ever. We have an opportunity – and the framework in place – to develop more sustainable practices and to discontinue the same environmentally destructive and dysfunctional tendencies that have defined the consumer-based industrial model. Among these is the standard working model of mass travel to and from the organisational workplace at the same time every day.
Flexible working is here to stay as organisations see the cost and logical benefits and individuals become accustomed to remote working, already facilitated by digital technology. Flexible working does necessarily mean working from home, which for some people will not be practical, so new flexible working solutions are emerging.
Besides the technology, logistics and premises, functional and effective flexible working requires three key prerequisites:
1) effective remote management, including oversight, trust and support, from the organisation
2) a family/parental context that can accommodate or adjust to flexible working
3) a high degree of autonomy, commitment, self-motivation and learning agility from the flexible worker.
This article concentrates on the third of these prerequisites, specifically the role of learning agility and self-determined learning. Each of these capabilities are rapidly evolving in most modern societies, but it is the third one that holds most promise for an empowered, informed and enlightened society and workforce.
Learning strategies can help us cope and flourish
“Learning to learn, continuing to learn” has been identified as one of the most essential transversal competencies for the 21st century. Learning strategies have been identified among the top skills for the near future by the World Economic Forum and several other international studies, including the Future of Skills: Employment in 2030 by NESTA, Pearson and the Oxford Martin School.
Let’s start by posing a rather broad-based question. What might be the key factor that makes a difference in a learner’s transition from the traditional educational approach to that of the modern, complex, fast-evolving work environment? To clarify, by “traditional educational approach”, I mean instructor-led, knowledge transfer-driven and formal assessment-focussed approach to learning, which typically derives from formal education but is also very much a part of professional education.
One could argue that the key differentiating factor is the extent to which initiative, agility and application are deployed in the process of learning. This applies both to younger people entering the workplace from traditional education, older people steeped in the traditional education approach as much as professionals who are accustomed to that approach as their modus operandi, whether because of sector norms and practices or because the traditional approach is embedded in their professional development.
Indeed, there is a growing belief that traditional learning methods are no longer fit for purpose in equipping the workforce for the volatility change and complexity of the modern globalised workplace (physical and virtual). Hence the widespread drive to modernise and diversify post-16 learning approaches both in formal and informal education. But how does heutagogy feature in the debate?
Is heutagogy part of the answer?
The original call to action for heutagogy came from Australia in 2000 by Stewart Hase of Southern Cross University and Chris Kenyon. Heutagogy was presented as the next step in evolution of learning, from pedagogy to andragogy (Knowles, 1970) to heutagogy, i.e. self-determined learning. Whereas in pedagogy learning is teacher-led, in andragogy, self-directed and instructor-guided, in heutagogy, learning is self-determined and self-adjusting.
This last aspect, which involves double-loop learning, incorporates the process of reflection and public testing of what is learnt, then action to adjust to one’s methods and assumptions, as a result of the learning. Problem-based learning is particularly effective in a heutagogical model. While in andragogy the questions asked (at both both micro and macro levels) are generally defined by the curriculum or the instructor, in heutagogy, learners ask their own questions.
Self-determined learning does not mean self-focussed learning though. As Etienne Wenger, and others such as Jarvis have persuasively argued, learning, and the creation of meaning inherent in the learning process, is in essence a social activity, because we are social beings. So, a key aspect of heutagogy in practice is testing what is learnt in the diverse public and social context as part of critically examining information and knowledge, adjusting our own assumptions and approaches.
In a 2003 conference paper, Hase and Kenyon made a strong case for heutagogy as a way of enabling learners, and therefore both organisations and individuals, to develop the capability to cope with complexity. This is obviously a persuasive notion, and an essential capability, given the increasing complexity and ambiguity of the global context in which workforces and organisations operate.
Other features of the heutagogical learnng model According to Blaschke, Natalie Canning and Sue Callan from the Open University found in their 2010 study that a heutagogical approach to learning supports critical thinking and reflection, develops self-awareness and improves the level of control the learner has over their learning. They found the approach helped learners engage in discussion more, develop independent ideas and improve self-confidence. All the above benefits are key enablers of professional development – crucially not just in one linear profession, which is no longer sufficient to solve problems and create solutions in a fast-changing and ultra-connected world – but professional development of the individual so that they may apply their knowledge, skills and values in a variety of professional fields.
How practical is self-determined adult learning?
The heutagogical approach is made more feasible and practicable due to the profusion of the digital world and the rapid access to a vast range information, communities of practice, knowledge, opinions, advice and all sorts of up-to-date content, which before the internet would have been unthinkable.
However there are three key qualifiers we need to highlight here:
1) the lines between public information, opinion and entertainment are very blurred in this context, so inherent in the heutagogical approach learners need to deploy well-developed critical qualities, including analysis and synthesis, judgement and independent thinking, decision-making and systemic perspective;
2) knowledge in the digital world is not as accessible as conventional assumptions suggest it is: despite important progress in open access (and the related business model complexity), access to research (except health-related) remains predominantly highly guarded, costly and not a realistic option for anyone unaffiliated to a university or the publishing house. This denies the self-determined learner a vast range of authoritative and well-researched knowledge, unless they have those connections;
3) heutagogy is not a quick-fix (Stoszkowski and McCarthy, 2019) or an easy solution; heutagogical practice, depending on the qualities outlined above and on one’s previous experience of education, requires guidance, gradually increased familiarisation, commitment and careful oversight, stimulus and support by any organisation aiming to benefit from genuinely self-determined learners.
As Stoszkowski and McCarthy (2019) have shown, successful heutagogical practice in a learning system is partially dependent on the learners’ attributes and willingness; many learners are product of the traditional teacher-led system, so for them the cycle of learning, reflecting and adapting is a big ask when they are used to learning, memorising and replicating for exams. Further, a marketized education system as in the UK where grades and quantification of outcomes (earning power) are increasingly seen as critical returns on the investment of tuition fees (typically £25,000-30,000) and therefore influence the subjects taken (recently it was reported that the Australian government has reduced the cost of science degrees and made arts and humanities degrees less financially accessible to the majority).
How can we stimulate heutagogy in adult learners?
In eLearning, or professional CPD online, the learners tend to be mature adults and so are likely to be used to traditional andragogical practice but may not be fully equipped for heutagogical practice. This is why, in general, remote learning or eLearning programmes benefit from strategic oversight, communication campaigns, built-in self-assessment and most importantly, opportunities for shared learning reflection and application among peers and colleagues in context, both within and beyond the organisation.
Heutagogy relies on a high level of learner autonomy, so online learning material needs to be designed in such a way that enables the learner to exercise that autonomy, or responsibility for their own learning. To stimulate a heutagogical learning process in diverse types of learners and thus within organisations, then, the content needs to be firstly widely accessible and deeply engaging, not only in terms of format, media and technology, but also in terms of offering different doors to learning (Kolb’s, Honey and Mumford’s and Race’s theories of experiential learning are explained here), since people have different learning style preferences.
Further, the learning material needs to engage multiple learning domains, including cognitive, affective and psychomotor, and will also prove more effective, stimulating and engaging if it involves multiple intelligences (Gardner’s theory, e.g. linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual and spatial, musical etc), and engages multiple senses (auditory, visual, tactile, kinaesthetic etc).
All of these key design aspects help to galvanise the learner’s agency and process of critical reflection, testing what has been learnt, applying it and adjusting personal reference models, since they engage with the content through different lenses, and in so doing they develop their learning agility, a critical capability in the 21st century, especially in the world of work.
Not only is heutagogy a natural evolution of learning development and individual adaptation to a VUCA world, it is also a more liberating form of learning for the individual, and crucially, as Blaschke points out: “distance education inherently supports heutagogical practice”, that is to say, it is to some extent, facilitated by remote working and remote learning, as long as effective learning practices are put into place by both the organisation and the individual.
But what makes heutagogy critical for the modern word is that it develops learner capability and therefore also learning agility – the learner is able to apply their learning in new, unanticipated and unprecedented situations (Hase and Kenyon, 2007): a capability, together with futures thinking (a natural by-product of heutagogical practice), manifestly essential for the “VUCA” COVID world.
 Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2001) Moving from Andragogy to Heutagogy: Implications for VET, AVETRA, Adelaide, March. Available at http://www.avetra.org.au/Conference_Archives/2001/abstracts.shtml
 Adult Learning in the Social Context, Peter Jarvis, 1987, Routledge