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Learner Defined Curriculum: Heutagogy and Action Learning in Vocational Training

Learner Defined Curriculum: Heutagogy and Action Learning in

Vocational Training

Hase, S. (2011), Learner defined curriculum: heutagogy and action learning in vocational

training, Southern Institute of Technology Journal of Applied Research, Special Edition

on Action Research. Available at Sitjar.sit.ac.nz.

Abstract

This paper describes the application of learner-centred learning techniques in the conduct

of short to medium term training programs in organisations. The approach is underpinned

by action learning and heutagogy or self-determined learning. It involves the full

engagement of participants in developing, delivering and ensuring the flexibility and

relevance of the curriculum. The theoretical basis for the approach is discussed in detail

as are the techniques involved in conducting the training, it’s implications and reactions

of participants. Some readers may need to take very slow, deep breaths while reading this

paper.

Keywords

Heutagogy; learner-centred learning; action learning

The Guru Within

For several years now I have been experimenting with how to make learning more

learner-centred. This has involved a number of contexts including higher education, elearning,

and vocational education and training. I’d like to recognise Mr Cook, my

primary school teacher for bringing me to this point. I now know that Mr Cook in 1960

was way ahead of his time and provided the opportunity for a bunch of excitable ten year

olds to engage with their learning in a meaningful way. I never remember him giving a

lecture. It was all about self-directed learning and letting our natural instincts for

exploration and inquisitiveness have full rein. He was a great believer in the imagination

and creativity. He was a pioneer of learner-centred learning.

This paper, however, concerns my own experiments with learner-centred learning in

short training programs that are usually conducted in organisations to meet some specific

training or organisational needs.

My experiments have been of the action learning kind and influenced by people such as

Revans (1982) and Dick (2000). Maybe my research efforts could loosely be called

action research, if indeed there is a distinction between it and action learning that is worth

making. Certainly I have tried to inject some rigor into the process so that it has been

more than trial and error. The experiments have been participative and the co- researchers

have been the participants in my training programs who are constantly asked for and

provide feedback during the process. There has also been dialogue with my colleagues

and, in particular, spirited discussions with those who have had to co- facilitate training

with me and who sense the anarchy inherent in some of the approaches I have wanted to

use. It has not always been easy or even possible to convince CEOs and managers of

organisations who wanted to hire me that we should do something a little different, even

risky perhaps.

I am acutely aware that there is nothing much under the sun that is original and, to some

extent, this is one of the guiding principles of learner-centred learning. The learnercentred

techniques I have been using are based on the work of Alan Davies who was

challenging traditional approaches to learning in the early 70s, based on the tenets of

Systems Thinking (Davies, 1977; 1978). His method was to undertake a shortened Search

Conference method with participants undertaking courses in which they would identify

their learning needs and how they might meet them, rather than simply engage with predetermined

content in the time-honoured custom. I’ll talk more about what Davies did a

little later in the paper. However, in a recent personal communication Davies (2011) told

me that, his approach created considerable angst among other educators and

administrators who thought it much too anarchic. Participants, after initial anxiety, loved

the process and the outcomes were excellent.

In the early 1990s Davies used the same approach in a doctoral program in which he

taught research methods using the same technique. The learners found the method to be

highly effective as well as extremely motivating (personal communication with the

participants, 2011). As Davies pointed out (personal communication, 2011) the

candidates knew more about research methods than he did, could read the required texts

without his assistance and what they needed was his assistance in developing context, the

focus of their PhD, and how to negotiate the doctoral process.

It is possible that others have been doing similarly innovate things that is either

unrecorded or is in the ‘grey’ literature. However, my observation of training programs

(and education in general) is that the teacher-centric approach is preferred to one that is

learner-centric.

The learner-centric approach to training I have been using is underpinned by a relatively

new concept called heutagogy. The origins of heutagogy have been covered elsewhere in

detail (e.g. Hase & Kenyon, 2000; Kenyon & Hase, 2004; Hase, 2009; Kenyon & Hase,

2010). However, in short, it is informed by a large body of knowledge and some clever

ideas such as: constructivism (e.g. Friere, 1972; 1995 ); reflexivity and double loop

learning (Argyris & Schon, 1996); systems thinking (Emery & Trist, 1965); capability

(Stephenson, 1996; Stephenson & Weil, 1992); and complexity theory (e.g. Doolittle,

2000; Waldrop,1992). There have also been a number of educationalists who draw on

complexity theory, have challenged some prevailing views about learning (Davis et al,

2000; Doll, 1989; Phelps, Hase & Ellis, 2005; Sumara & Davis, 1997).

Heutagogy refers to self-determined learning. Thus, the learner learns at a time

determined by the learner, not by the teacher. It suggests that learning is an extremely

complex process that occurs within the learner, is unobserved and is not tied in some

magical way to the curriculum. Learning is associated with making new linkages in the

brain involving ideas, emotions, and experience that leads to new understanding about

self or the world. Thus, learning occurs in random and chaotic ways and is a response to

personal need and, often, occurs to resolve some ambiguity.

In defining self-determined learning we made an important distinction between

knowledge and skills, and learning. The acquisition of knowledge and skills does not

necessarily constitute learning. The latter occurs when the learner connects the

knowledge or skill to previous experience, integrates it fully in terms of value, and is

able to actively use it in meaningful and even novel ways. It is more than simply

reproducing behaviour.

For example, a person undertakes a safety training program in which the importance of

wearing a hard hat, safety glasses, steel capped boots, overalls that cover the whole body

and gloves when on a worksite is explained. The training might even involve highly

emotive experiences such as watching oil-rigs blow up or mines collapse. Various

competency assessments demonstrate that the person is competent at replicating the

behaviour. However, at home the person happily uses the lawnmower and the whipper

snipper in the hot sun in bare feet, and no hat or shirt. They can be seen up a tree

chopping limbs with a chain saw with no safety equipment whatsoever. Learning has

clearly not occurred but they are competent in a single context!

More importantly, when I come across new knowledge (or a skill) it is likely to have

effects beyond creating a simple change in behaviour. It may link with previous

experience in quite unpredictable (to the teacher in particular) ways, solve a long lasting

dilemma, connect previously unconnected ideas, and create the ‘Ah, Ah’ experience.

Suddenly, the needs of the learner might change and new directions sought to now

address new questions, new dilemmas. It is this latter notion that is central to the learnercentred

experiments described in this paper.

Let me allay concerns at this point that I am not suggesting we throw the baby out with

the bathwater. Competencies (knowledge and skills) are essential to civilisation. I am

suggesting that there is a need for something more and it is here that the notion of

capability has been influential (Stephenson, 1996; Stephenson & Weil, 1992).

Competence concerns the past and is the ability to replicate a behaviour. Capability is the

capacity to use that competence in novel circumstances, which demands more complex

cognition that is tied to experience, self-efficacy, adaptability, interaction with others,

emotional stability, and the ability to solve problems. It is important to be competent but

learning goes beyond this but it is often at that point that a good deal of training and

education stops.

Fostering capability and heutagogy is more in tune with the needs of the world in which

we live. It is a world characterised by complexity and dynamism and which has the

following implications: (summarised from Phelps, Hase & Ellis, 2005):

• systems are open and non-linear

• systems are affected by their environment (and visa versa) in complex ways

• environment systems are not in equilibrium but are constantly adapting to changes

• these changes are unpredictable and non-linear but are self-generating and selfmaintaining

(autopoiesis)

• the system is greater than the sum of its parts, and hence, we cannot understand a

system by only considering its parts

• outcomes are dependent on initial conditions that may be unknowable and, therefore,

attempts at prediction are often futile (the butterfly effect)

• adaptation and then stability (bifurcation) occur as a result of stress on the system

• big events may have small consequences and small events may have large consequences

• change is natural and evolutionary.

When Chris Kenyon and I wrote the first paper on heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon, 2000) we

did so because we felt that education practice in universities was not keeping pace with

these environmental realities. Since that first paper there has been a considerable growth

of interest in heutagogy in the higher education and the vocational and education training

sectors (e.g., Albon, 2006; Bhoyrub, et al, 2010; Chapnick & Melloy, 2005; Eberle &

Childress, 2007; McAuliffe et al, 2008 ). It seemed a natural progression to apply some of

its principles to the idea of training: the topic of this paper.

Curriculum with a Twist

There are a number of implications of heutagogy for designing the educational or training

experience (for a detailed account of these see Kenyon & Hase, 2010; Hase, 2009; Tay &

Hase, 2004). In summary these include: flexible and negotiated assessment (see also,

Eberle & Childress, 2007) having the learner generate contextually relevant content (see

also Whitworth, 2008); true collaboration regarding content and process between teacher

and learner (see also Bhoyrub, et al, 2010); the involvement of the environment in the

learning; spontaneous and organic learning experiences (see Chapnick & Melloy, 2005;

and, flexible curricula.

Although most of these issues can be challenging to any formal educational organization

(Kenyon & Hase, 2010), it is the notion of the flexible and negotiated curriculum that

might pose the biggest problem. The idea of a flexible curriculum is not a new idea and

was suggested by complexity theorists such as Doll (1989) who criticized the fixed and

linear curriculum as a modernist symptom. Heutagogy advocates the idea of an open and

negotiated curriculum based on the conceptualization of learning described above: that

the learner’s understanding is a moving feast and unpredictable (complex and emergent).

Clearly, especially in the competency world, there is a need for some givens that are

essential in terms of content, context and process. However, there needs to be

considerable room for extension.

There are a number of ways of overcoming this type of dilemma in any educational

setting. However, I’ll confine this discussion to the training program that might take

place over half-a-day to several days either sequentially or spread out over several weeks:

the typical organizational training program that trainers run all the time.

Since it is often the main sticking point in trying to get people to think about the

heutagogical curriculum, let’s deal with the knowledge aspect of things first. The current

technologies available mean that the knowledge that participants need can be presented

outside the training room on the organizational intranet or the Internet. Instructional

design technology for remote learning has come a long way since the 1970s when

distance education first started to find its feet. It is not difficult these days to develop

exciting, interactive, and learner-relevant packages that use various media for getting the

message across. Sometimes it may be enough for participants to look at a couple of

documents and a video.

My preference is for participants to engage with content prior to the face-to-face sessions.

This means negotiating with the CEO or manager in charge of the training to ensure that

this happens and is seen as an integral part of the program. Explaining that this is also a

cost saving measure assists with acceptance. One strategy I have found useful is

encourage participants to engage on-line and be involved in their management of the

content. Experience in managing e-learning is useful her because it requires: a good deal

of persistent communication; clear instructions; material that is easy to read and

understand; easy to manage technology; and the ability to motivate. Sometimes

participants (for whatever reason) access content after or between the face-to-face

sessions and this can work just as well. In fact, ambiguity can be extremely motivating if

not too excessive.

The main point about knowledge, and skill for that matter, is that you have no idea about

what the participants know and can do. This approach means that the participant can

engage freely at a level that is appropriate for them: it is learner directed. Moreover, the

design can also incorporate the opportunity for the participant to develop context that is

appropriate for them. They can find their own case histories, tell their own stories and

find resources that make sense to them, and submit them to the site. In his approach,

Davies (1977; 1979) also provided ‘non-negotiable’ content although this was presented

in a workshop format but was restricted to less than two- thirds or so of the total program.

Whatever the approach used, the key is to be less infatuated with content, at least until

you have met the participants and understand their actual needs.

Let’s also address the problem of competency assessment, which could potentially get in

the way of using more learner-centric approach since it requires a defined output. The

assessment tools, expected behaviours, expected outcomes or whatever the assessment

might involve, needs to be made available to participants in advance. They can be invited

to examine the assessment items and determine the extent to which they already have

expertise or where they need to focus their attention. This is not an alien concept given

that most competency-based programs provide the opportunity for assessment of prior

learning. In this sense the assessment tool becomes an instrument of learner-centric

learning.

At the workshop and after the ice-breaker and getting to know you session I warn

participants that this experience will be a little different. Sometimes I talk about gurus

and my deep distrust of anyone who thinks that they have the answers to life, the

universe, anything. The participants are already formed into groups as I have already setup

the room in a cabaret style format with tables of around six to eight people. Symmetry

is not one of my strong points so odd numbers work well for me. More obsessive

colleagues might be uncomfortable with that and prefer the number eight! A flip chart

and plenty of colored pens are located at each table. Using this sort of room layout ‘sets

the scene’ for involvement, action, participation and moves the eyes from the front. In the

same way a screen, projector, table and whiteboard out the front sets the scene for a

teacher-centric experience. Expectancy theory is a very important psychological

phenomenon and sometimes underrated by educators, in my view.

The next step that I use is to quickly do an overview of the stated objectives, expected

outcomes and general content of the program. I then ask the groups to address the

following questions in terms of the current workshop topic:

· What do you think are the reasons for this workshop? Why are you here? 5

· What is the nature of the current workplace environment and what do you need to know

and do in order to address issues, concerns, problems and to be more effective?

· What is the nature of the external environment to the workplace and what do you need

to know and do in order to be more effective?

· What are you current strengths and weaknesses in relation to this topic?

· What are your war stories in relation to this topic?

· What would you personally like to learn in this workshop?

Responses are written on flip chart paper and read out by a member of each group. A

time limit is applied to this feedback to prevent an inordinate amount of time being spent

on the process. If time is a problem there is no reason why this process cannot be

undertaken using email or a chat room (better) prior to the face-to-face encounter.

Once we have this information the workshop can be designed either with the group or

during the ensuing coffee break. If the workshop is being conducted over a number of

days (more than one) then I often discuss with the group the possibility of using

additional resources. These might include people, papers or even places to visit.

Consistent with this approach and with heutagogy, I try to organize programs that are

being conducted over more than one day to have a break in between the workshops of

over a week or more. This means people can try out new things in their workplace and to

think more about context in the real light of day. In fact, I am inclined to try and negotiate

any potential learning experience to be conducted over several sessions with gaps in

between even for a short program. Another, and probably better, way of engaging

participants in developing learning is through individual coaching sessions following the

initial workshop.

Techniques that enable in-vivo practice, monitoring, feedback, reflection and further

development is in keeping with both action learning and evidence-based change

methodologies such as cognitive-behavioural psychology, for example. Needless to say

there is an opportunity at subsequent workshops to redesign the curriculum. In fact,

throughout the program the curriculum needs to be seen as fluid and open to negotiation.

The approach used by Davies (1977; 1979) was much more structured and extensive

although he was concerned with larger and longer programs. However, the principle of

having participants actively engaged in developing the curriculum was the same.

The response by participants has been largely very positive once initial anxieties have

been overcome. These fears are usually about the sense of lack of structure, which some

personality types find disconcerting. Most anxiety is shown by CEOs and managers while

negotiating the process prior to signing the contract. Most participants state that they find

the process: engaging and motivating; that it provides an opportunity for dealing with

real, rather than assumed, problems; flexible by providing an opportunity to follow areas

of real interest and need as they become apparent during the program; relevant; and

empowering.

One of my key observations is that managers or CEOs sometimes see the need for

training in a particular area but the participants may not share the same perception. The

training need may be linked to systems issues or may be far more complex than initially

imagined. The approach I have described means that issues of relevance and scope can be

cleared up very early. The motivational advantages of making sure content, competence,

context and capability are aligned with the individual’s perception of what she or he

needs are obvious.

There are a number of implications for the facilitator. Clearly a thorough understanding

of one’s subject area and access to resources is essential. The latter is vital since the

facilitator will not be able to answer every question or negotiate every problem in this

type of experience and the ability to work with the participant to solve the problem is

critical. Facilitators need to be skilled in how to deconstruct problems, analyse them,

search for solutions and work out how to apply them, while working with the

participants. In this sense the process is Socratic rather than directive. It is

not enough to give trite answers to problems. Rather it is exploratory in an effort seek

options and possibilities on which the participant can reflect and then make relevant

choices.

Death by Powerpoint is not an option. However, I make sure I have lots of video clips,

experiential exercises, diagrams, stories, metaphors, models, summaries of theories and

so on that I can pull out of the hat at a moment’s notice. The process might be

unstructured but it is not necessarily messy. Hopefully it raises more questions than

answers in the minds of participants. If it does that then it has indeed done its job.

Conclusion

Hopefully this paper has provided some food for thought and maybe some innovative

thinking about fostering learning. It sometimes frightens me to observe that the essence

of how we understand teaching has probably not changed much since the nineteenth

century. What we now know about how humans learn, the brain, and human behaviour

should point us towards thinking more about learner-centred learning. We need to seek

the guru within the learner rather than the teacher. This points to a whole new set of skills

for teachers/facilitators/educators that involve working with learners to work through and

solve problems, finding resources, being empathic, listening and questioning,

collaborating with the learner, and inquiry that are found more in the domain of

psychotherapy.

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