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Nigel Paine

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Four stages to embedding a self-determined learning culture

Could heutagogy be the learning method that will enable your workforce to thrive in the current crisis?

I’ve watched how organisations responded to these unprecedented times. Some were not at all impressive.

Knee-jerk reactions, attempts to micromanage staff, taking the face-to-face world online without considering people’s circumstances – the general rabbit-in-headlights air. It is very disappointing. Senior management that can see no further forward than the following Friday are doing a poor job! 

We need ways to see beyond this crisis; to rebuild our organisations so they are fit for the future. Our society and our employers could emerge invigorated and healthier if we use this time to undertake a process of deep thinking about the core purpose of our learning and development. There is a golden opportunity lurking in the gloom, but only if we seize the moment.

Introducing heutagogy…

A marvellous little book called Self-Determined Learning: Heutagogy in Action (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) could set us on the right path. It is edited by two academics Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon who, as well as making a substantial contribution to the content, draw together the views of several educators and practitioners to explore this mode of learning. 

The term heutagogy was coined around 2000 and should be better known. It stands alongside pedagogy and andragogy as three distinct models of learning. But rather than see these different modes of learning as stages in intellectual development, the book demonstrates how each approach is applicable at any stage in an individual’s development, and the choice of mode depends on the context and what is being learned. 

It is clear that top-down management has no place in this new world. It destroys productivity and prevents individuals becoming self-determined learners.

Essentially, the pedagogical mode is broadcast learning, with the teacher front and centre dispensing wisdom. Physical classroom or webinar, the impact is the same and works well for the transmission of information, and for telling people what to do and how to behave. 

Andragogy is constructivist learning, with the teacher as facilitator. Their role is to encourage learners to make sense of a topic by collaborating with peers to gain clarity and support. In other words, making sure that we all work it out together, and help everyone move forward. 

Andragogy helps people understand why they need to change behaviour, or turn insight into action, and is connected to research by Russian psychologist Vygotsky. He recognised that learning was most effective when peers work together. He called this “the zone of proximal development” – a sense of being slightly out of your comfort zone but in no way scary or too big a challenge.

Heutagogy is different again. This is ‘self-determined learning’ where everyone is both teacher and learner. If you are serious about building a learning culture, you must put self-determined learning at its very heart. 

In these times of disruption and working from home, this concept is more relevant than ever. It could even be the critical indicator that will determine which organisations come out of this crisis stronger, and which will be broken by the process. 

Hearing tales of colleagues desperately trying to focus and do meaningful work, often in strange circumstances and with a difficult home environment, while being harassed by a micro-manager who expects them to be online 9 to 5, truly frustrates me. 

It is clear that top-down management has no place in this new world. It destroys productivity and prevents individuals becoming self-determined learners.

Here’s how heutagogy can help you move forward.

As they say, “every cloud has a silver lining”. This is your silver lining.

Stage I: fix the culture

The model of a learning culture I developed for my book, Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development (Kogan Page, 2019), reveals the four critical components of an organisational culture that must be fixed before anything else. 

These are: build a high-trust environment, build an engaged workforce, empower the workforce to think and operate as autonomously as possible, and develop leadership behaviours that embody those three concepts. 

Michelle Ockers and I also built an instrument to help people work out their change priorities to build a foundation for such a culture. There is a note at the end of this article to show you where you can get a free copy of that instrument.

Stage II: encourage a new type of learning

This emerges from work, is based around everyday activities and is fundamentally about sharing and working with colleagues to solve problems as they arise in the workplace. You have to think about how people learn, and then ensure the conditions are in place to allow this learning. 

Stage III: ensure leaders are on board  

The top tier of your organisation must walk and talk this new way of operating. You need their buy-in.

Stage IV: craft a purpose for the organisation and ensure that it is clear to every single member of staff 

This is more than a clear statement, it’s a code to live by that drives every single person who works there.

These four building blocks allow you to begin the process of creating an agile, resilient and confident workforce. This will carry you through the current crisis and, with a bit of luck, lead you out the other side ready to recommit and flourish. 

As they say, “every cloud has a silver lining”. This is your silver lining. Take the time to think through your organisation in order to make sure it is fit for purpose in the new world that will eventually emerge. Good luck.

For your free copy of the learning culture evaluation instrument, email [email protected] with 'culture instrument' in the subject line.

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