As a journalism major and a long-time English teacher, I have a deep interest in words and the way that they are used. If you’ve been following along here for a while, you know that I struggle mightily with many of the words and phrases that we bandy about in education because I find many of them to be either a) not very clearly defined, or b) co-opted by other interests right out of the box. The most obvious example is “personalized learning” which purports to mean giving students more choice and autonomy over their learning but in practice means a more individualized path through the curriculum. In fact, the phrase missing from most of the terms we use like “learner-centered” or “student-centered” or “collaborative learning” is “of our curriculum” tacked on to the end. Very rarely do we really mean giving kids more agency not just over how they learn but, importantly, what they learn as well.
Another one of those popular phrases is “self-directed.” Of course we want our kids to be self-directed learners who have more autonomy and agency over their learning. But again, in practice in schools, those things are still limited by “our curriculum.” It’s not about learning to learn as much as it is learning to learn “our stuff.” Now, we can debate the value of “our stuff,” but at a moment of abundant access where one’s ability to learn arguably supersedes what one knows, I think we have to push our thinking even further when it comes to how we help our students develop that ability to learn. Enter the idea of “heutagogy” or “self-determined” learning where students don’t just choose “how.” They choose “what” as well.
Why is that distinction important? Well, since I’ve been on a Sarason binge (again) for a couple of weeks, the concept of “self-determined” learning is resonating with his overarching goal of school: that kids leave us wanting to learn more about themselves, each other, and the world around them. And that to do that, we have to start with where they are, what their questions and concerns are, what their passions are. That our goal as educators and teachers is to make sure that they not only love learning but that they’re good at it, and that the best way to achieve that is to funnel our efforts through their choices.
No question that this concept can be applied more easily to adult learning, especially in the age of social media. In fact, I would count myself as a heutagogical learner (if that’s a word) as I pretty much have full control over the direction that my learning activities take, the questions I ask, the artifacts of learning that I create, and the ways in which I assess my learning work. It’s arguable that adults who are not self-determined learners, those who do not know how to frame their own questions, make literate choices about the curriculum they build, find and engage their own co-learners and teachers, those folks will be struggling to compete with those who are doing that. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the future workplace (and in many cases, the current workplace) will be dependent upon workers who are fully in charge of their own learning and not waiting for a course or for a scheduled training. (I’m reminded here of Harold Jarche’s “Work is learning and learning is the work.”)
But how do we bring this concept more fully into a school setting? It will no doubt require that we rethink the goals of schooling to begin with. That in and of itself is a long, difficult slog as the move away from teaching cultures to learning cultures in schools disrupts almost every facet of the institution. And if you really want an example of what it looks like, try the Big Picture Schools founded by Dennis Litky and Eliot Washor. In an post from MindShift this week, the Big Picture concept is clearly heutagogical, even though it’s not named that:
A big part of the Big Picture Learning approach is to make the learner accountable for his own education. When a student sits down with his adviser and guardian to set quarterly learning goals, he has much more power than in a traditional school when the same student might receive a schedule of required classes. The adviser works with students to scaffold skills like time management, goal setting and interest discovery, which are crucial to an independent learner.
“Accountable for his own education.” I love that phrase, and that is one that simply does not resonate at all with the experience of the vast majority of students in our schools who are simply following the lead of someone else’s idea of what an education is. And, no surprise, but Big Picture kids are highly successful in college or their career depending on the path they choose.
We’ll see if the whole heutagogy concept starts showing up on the vendor floor of various conferences with enticing claims of raising achievement and whatever else. My sense, however, is that real student-determined learning will be hard to co opt because the learner won’t stand for it. The bigger challenge, no doubt, is moving traditional schools to become places where the learner, not the teacher, creates the path forward.
Would love to hear your thoughts, and sincere best wishes from the EML team for happy and healthy holidays! See you in 2016.
Image credit: Marcus Hansson