Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Heutagogy (Because We Need New Education Jargon)

There are, apparently, three siblings in the Gogy family-- pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy.

Pedagogy you already know, at least in some vague way. Andragogy is the method and practice of teaching adults. Heutagogy--well, heutagogy is a made-up word. Miriam-Webster hasn't heard of it. The word was coined in 2000 by Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon "to describe self-learning independent of formal teaching." Those two scholars were, at the time, at Southern Cross University in Australia.

That short, simple definition suggests why the term has been gathering steam over the past several years (a Google Ngram search shows an almost uninterrupted explosion of the term's use). If someone in your immediate vicinity starts using it, should you be alarmed? Well.....

On the one hand, learner-directed learning is pretty much what most grown-ups do. If I want to learn about something (like heutagogy), I start digging and reading and asking and cogitating. It was one of the things my liberal arts education explicitly aimed to do--to set me up to be able to teach myself whatever I wanted or needed to know for the rest of my life. 

But that's as an educated adult, and some heuta-fans are clearly intending that a heutagogical future should be in the cards for learners of all ages. And some of their materials are not entirely encouraging.

For instance, there seems to be a tendency to stack the three Gogy siblings and simplify their explanations in ways that feel like: peda is the sage on the stage, andra is the guide on the side, and heuta is fly free and follow your educational bliss. Here's instructional coach Lauren Davis:

Meanwhile, the heutagogical approach encourages students to find their own problems and questions to answer. Instead of simply completing the tasks teachers assign, these students seek out areas of uncertainty and complexity in the subjects they study. Teachers help by providing context to students' learning and creating opportunities for them to explore subjects fully.

This is where my traditionalist flag flies. I think there's always a place for the sage on the stage (if she knows what the hell she's talking about) and the guide on the side is also a useful classroom role (if, again, one knows their way around the territory). But in my career, I would have been embarrassed to say that I learned as much from the kids as they did from me. Nor would I have claimed not to have any real knowledge of the material, or have suggested that I could aid education by giving neither lecture, guidance or nudging. As a teacher, if I'm not the subject matter expert in that classroom, what the heck am I doing there? That doesn't mean I'm the God of my subject matter or that I can never gain anything from actually listening to my students, but if I'm not the most knowledgeable person in the room and my roll is to sit in the corner while the students wander unguided and unaided, why are the taxpayers paying me? 

Some of the folks in the heutagogy game are not encouraging. One name that pops up is Jacki Gerstein, who writes blog posts about "user-generated education" with titles like "I do not teach for a living--I live teaching as my doing...and technology has amplified my passion for doing so." Terry Heick ("education expert interested in modern knowledge demands") has written a piece about the gogy siblings in which he posts a set of presentation slides based on Gerstein's work that includes things like a slide that asserts (with a nod toward the discredited learning styles approach) that we learn 100% from participating in activities, but, below "viewing pictures" or "teaching the activity" we find reading coming in at 10%.

Heutagogy is popping up all around the globe. Here's an article from just last week from India (and heavily lifted from this Schoology article from 2018)  touting heutagogy as "the new lifelong-learning shift" and defining it as "a student-centered instructional strategy to teach lifelong learning and aims to produce a learning ecosystem that is well-prepared for the complexities of today's workplace."  There's a heutagogy community of practice on line, though like many of these sources, it has been pretty sleepy for the past few years.
There are plenty of definitions offered for heutagogy, but certain ideas keep turning up.  Self-determination. Autonomy. And technology. 

Reading about heutagogy reminds me of the open school movement of the sixties. My aunt opened a school in Connecticut; the idea was that the children would be immersed in a rich environment where they would simply follow where their curiosity led them. It did not last long. Turns out that small humans don't exactly thrive in unguided adult-free situations. 

Heutagogy, like many 21st century education ideas, appears to think that computers can magically change the equation, much like presenters I heard two decades ago breathlessly announcing that students would soon all be carrying mini-computers in their pockets. Which has turned out to be true--but students consider them as remarkable and inspiring as pencils and pens and books. One of my own crusades for my last very many years in the classroom was to try to convince students that they could use those mini-computers to find answers to questions and not just to play with this week's hot app. It's the great paradox of computers and education--they change everything, except that they don't change anything. 

And some heutagogical types seem to get this. There's talk about "competencies and capabilities" and the idea that students need tools if they're going to self-direct their learning. But there's also talk like this: "the heutagogical approach encourages students to find their own problems and questions to answer. Instead of simply completing the tasks teachers assign, these students seek out areas of uncertainty and complexity in the subjects they study. Teachers help by providing context to students' learning and creating opportunities for them to explore subjects fully."

You can see why the approach is going to be popular in some quarters. The "prepared for the complexities of the workplace" part fits those who think corporations shouldn't have to pay to train their workers. And the self-directed technology use is right out of the personalized [sic] learning playbook-- give the kid a computer and let her figure out her education on her own. No need to pay for a teacher--just a "coach" or "mentor", and not even that much need for highly-developed educational software. 

Is there room, even necessity, for some self-direction in education? Sure, and even more need for a teacher who can identify and respond to the directions that would be most useful for students. But abdicating all adult responsibility to say, "You students just go ahead and educate yourselves" is a lousy idea, even if you slap a cool made-up Greek name on it. 


  1. And there's a perfectly good technical term for the practice of teaching oneself already, one that's been around since the 18th century: autodidacticism. The problem was, no doubt, that they wished to avoid the implications of the root term "autodidact", since these carry the connotation of genius or exceptionalism, and rightly so. Very few people can actually be autodidacts for many more complex subjects, but they'd much rather pretend that anyone can teach themselves anything, which is patent nonsense, no matter how much technology you throw at the problem.

  2. Proponents of Huetagogy have overlooked some basic truths of teaching novice, concrete learners (which includes virtually all 50+ million students across the K to 12 spectrum):

    1) Serious students do not want to teach themselves. Why? because they know better.(Note the failure of the debunked constructivist/discovery method)

    2) Unserious students would welcome this, recognizing it for what it is: an open invitation to a "path of zero resistance"; one in which there is no answer to the questions, Does this count? and, Will this be on the test?

    3) The duration of the school year (180 days X 40 min ÷ 60 X 8 periods = 960 hours) is in direct opposition to
    the intensity, self-discipline, and maturity required of students.

    4) Huetagogy is used in small doses in a version teachers call the open-ended research paper. (although I imagine that actually writing down what you learned would fly in the face of this fantasy version of schooling).

    5) Bad fads like this rarely live past toddler-hood

  3. So many good things in this post...I particularly like your take on the "sage on the stage" fixation in education. It's become absolute dogma in science education that "teacher centered" instruction is a no-no that I feel like some kind of a rebel for giving lectures every once in a while.

    1. Unfortunately in science, the term "lecture" has become equated to "boring strings of disconnected facts without context forcing kids into rote memorization". Nothing could be further from the truth and completely disparages how fascinating and utterly remarkable the principles, laws, and theories of science really are. Hopefully you're not stuck in an NGSS state where being a "sage on the stage" is forbidden in lieu of the failed and debunked discovery/constructivist methodologies. We just need a new term to replace "lecture" given the apparent stigma it comes with. Keep the fath and just do what's right.

  4. In an article from 2009, Erica McWilliam coined an additional teacher-type - the Meddler in the Middle (see - Teaching for creativity : from sage to guide to meddler.
    Put rather simply (and perhaps a bit too simplistically), there's a place in teaching for the expert knowledge that teachers attempt to impart to their pupils, and also a place for letting students "construct" their knowledge by themselves. Good teachers don't negate the use of one or the other, but instead know how to effectively mix the two.