Heutagogy Explained: Self-Determined Learning in Education

Heutagogy Explained: The Power of Self-Determined Learning
Contributed By

Lauren Davis

EdTech Editor, Former Department Chair and Instructional Coach

Heutagogy Explained: Self-Determined Learning in Education

Posted in Pro Tips | April 20, 2018

Heutagogy, otherwise known as self-determined learning,  is a student-centered instructional strategy that emphasizes the development of autonomy, capacity, and capability. The goal of heutagogy is to teach lifelong learning and, as Lisa Marie Blaschke wrote in the The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning put it, to produce “learners who are well-prepared for the complexities of today’s workplace.”

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By nature, heutagogical learning is not necessarily linear or planned, but much more informal and parallel with how people learn best outside of a school setting. The teacher serves more as a coach—a valuable resource to be tapped if necessary, but not the primary source of knowledge.

Heutagogy is an interesting concept that can have a huge impact on your students, so let's dive in.

The Etymology and Pronunciation of "Heutagogy"

Normally in these explainers, we don't go as far as how to say the word, but in this case it seems necessary. If you're going to talk about it, let alone study it, it's important to know how to say it.


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Heutagogy (pronounced hyoo-tuh-goh-jee) is a term derived from the Greek word heuriskein. According to Graham R. Parslow, "Heureskein is the Greek verb to discover and underlies the etymology of the word heuristicthat is defined as a method of teaching by allowing students to discover for themselves. Deriving from the same Greek root, the term heutagogy was coined in 2000 by Hase and Kenyon to describe self learning independent of formal teaching."

The Differences Between Pedagogy, Andragogy, and Heutagogy

Whereas pedagogy is teacher-led learning and andragogy is self-directed learning, heutagogy takes an approach that’s different from both. In pedagogical environments, teachers determine what students will learn and how they will learn it. Students rely on their teacher and learn topics in the order in which they are presented. In contrast, students in andragogical environments use the teacher as a mentor or guide, but aim to find their own solutions to the tasks the teacher sets.

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.

As the image below illustrates, heutagogy requires the most student maturity and the least instructor control. Pedagogy, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

the difference between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy
Image based on images by Lisa Marie Blaschke and N. Canning.

Heutagogy in Education

Consider this: the overall purpose of pedagogical oriented teaching is scaffolding—or teaching basic skills as a foundation for future experiences. For andragogical oriented teaching, the goal is to establish some structure so learners can be self-directed. But, for heutagogical oriented teaching, the purpose is to establish an environment where learners can determine their own goals, learning paths, processes, and products. The learner is at the center of the learning process, rather than the teacher or the curriculum.

In our current state of education, there are no barriers to knowing, and the skills required to be an effective learner today have changed dramatically, so with the heutagogical approach, the learner evolves from passive recipient to analyst and synthesizer. These are some of the most valuable skills for students as they interact with a world in which knowledge management—or curation—is more valuable than access.

An important concept in heutagogy is that of double-loop learning. In this style of learning, students not only think deeply about a problem and the actions they have taken to solve it, but also reflect upon the problem-solving process itself. The idea is that students will begin to question their assumptions and gain insight into not only what they are learning, but also how they learn.

With its emphasis on providing a learner-centered environment that supports students in defining their own learning path, heutagogy also equips students with skills that will help them transition into the workforce. Employers need employees to have have a wide range of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills, like innovativeness, creativity, self-directedness, and and an understanding of how they learn—all foundations of the heutagogical approach.

Self-Determined Learning in Action: 4 Tips for Applying the Heutagogical Approach

One important note is that you don’t need to go all in and make your entire course heutagogical. Students can benefit from a few lessons or units designed this way.

So if you or your institution is considering practicing heutagogy, here are four essential elements required to facilitate the method:

#1 Learner-Defined Learning Contracts

Designing a learner-defined learning contract is the first step to implementing a heutagogical approach. During this phase, the learner and teacher work together to identify learning needs and intended outcomes.

You’ll answer questions like:

  • What does the learner want to learn or achieve?
  • What results should we expect from the learning experience?
  • What specific curriculum objectives are required?

Learning contracts help students decide what they want to learn and shape their own individual learning paths. Each student signs an individualized contract that defines what they will learn, what learning methods and activities they will use, and how their learning will be assessed.

#2 Flexible Curriculum

A heutagogical approach is only possible when the curriculum is flexible and takes into consideration the learners’ questions, motivations, and how thinking shifts as a result of what they’ve learned. Students must be able to create a curriculum for themselves that can adapt to their individual needs.

Student may be required to build their plans based on a set of defined learning objectives, but they have the freedom to identify what and how to they learn. This personalization can help students feel empowered and encourage greater engagement.

#3 Flexible and Negotiated Assessment

Assessment is an important part of all instructional approaches, including heutagogy. However, in this style of learning, students design their own assessments rather than undergoing standard tests. This creates a less threatening environment for students and can encourage deeper learning.

It is important that the assessments students design include ways of measuring the understanding of content and skills they have acquired, because at the end of the process students will be assessed to determine if the agreed upon outcomes have been achieved.

#4 Collaborative Learning

Due to its independent nature, learning in a heutagogical classroom can cause inner conflict for the learner, especially if they are not accustomed to taking responsibility for their learning. However, once students have a taste for self-determined learning, few want to revert to the confines of a rigidly structured curriculum.

One way to ease the transition into heutagogy is to encourage collaboration in the classroom. By design, the heutagogical approach facilitates students working together to share knowledge and reflect on their progress.

Since learners are encouraged to work together—in person and digitally—to achieve a common goal, they can solve problems and reinforce their knowledge by sharing information and experiences, practice concepts, and experimenting. These collaborative sessions are an opportunity for students to learn from each other, as well as think about how they can apply their new skills in practice.

Exploring Heutagogy with Your Students

Heutagogy is a powerful learning strategy—one that gives students the tools to learn and grow throughout their lives. While this strategy tends to be reserved for professional settings and graduate courses, heutagogy isn’t an all or nothing strategy and can be woven into settings where longer term student autonomy might not be warranted.

Guiding your students, regardless of their grade-level, through heutagogical lessons and projects introduces them to the power of self-determined learning. It gives them the opportunity to practice with tools they will be expected to use after they graduate.

Regardless of your preferred instructional approach, the goal is to prepare students for success in life. And the skills and experience students gain from self-determined learning are among the most important.

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