Underlining the ‘U’ in Heutagogy:

A Conversation on Learner Autonomy and Future-Proofing Education with YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil, President & Vice-Chancellor, OUM

BY DR DAVID CL LIM (david@oum.edu.my)


Dr David Lim (DL): In the years that you have been leading OUM, you have constantly encouraged OUM academics to continually and critically reflect on their practical approaches to teaching and learning, relative to the wide range of adult learners under their care. Recently, you have been refocusing on the teaching-learning continuum ranging from pedagogy to andragogy and now extending to heutagogy. Please could you comment on this?

YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil (DM): If you ask me, it is truly to our advantage that debates on approaches to teaching and learning are perpetually ongoing. They compel us, teachers and policymakers in higher education institutions like OUM, to engage with the changing educational landscape, and to assess our own practices, the assumptions underlying our practices, and the possibilities afforded by fresh or different perspectives thrown up in these debates.

Before we get to the relationship between these debates and heutagogy, let me first quickly recap the two more familiar-gogies: pedagogy and andragogy. As we know, “pedagogy” derives from the Greek words paid, meaning “child”, and agogus, meaning “leader of”. “Pedagogy” literally means “the art and science of teaching children.”

Pedagogy is essentially teacher-centric, as Malcolm Knowles famously put it. The teacher makes all decisions about the what, how and when of learning, while the learner’s role is to passively submit to following the teacher’s instructions. “Andragogy”, by contrast, is derived from the Greek words anere and agogus. Anere means “adult” and “andragogy” as a unit translates to “the art and science of helping adult students to learn.”

The pedagogical approach may be appropriate when applied to young learners who are still very much dependent on the instructor for learning. Over time, however, as the learners become more mature and autonomous, pedagogy becomes increasingly untenable. Here, then, enters andragogy.

The andragogical model rests on the assumption that adults learn differently from children. It was groundbreaking when Knowles popularised it in the early 1970s. The idea may be commonplace today but it continues to implicitly undergird much of how open universities globally approach teaching and learning.

I need not go into the details of andragogy, except to say that it emphasises self-directed learning. By self-direction I mean, firstly, learners’ ability to take control of the mechanics and techniques of teaching themselves in a particular subject.

Secondly, I understand the term as referring to personal autonomy, to learners actively taking control of the goals and purposes of learning, and assuming ownership of learning. Now, of course, we have to bear in mind that, while we might expect adult learners to be self-directed in these senses, the reality is that not all of them are. Anyone who has ever conducted adult learning classes will know that adult learners often come conditioned to be dependent on their teachers.

To uniformly expect all adult learners to be self-directing inquirers without the university expending effort in gauging their levels and helping them to achieve that aim is not likely to be particularly productive.

At OUM, we constantly cover these bases with our tutors and facilitators who conduct classes in face-to-face, blended and online modes.

We do this in the tutor-training sessions we routinely run. Informally, also, all our academics, including Cluster Chairs, Course Leaders and Programme Directors, provide teaching guidance and support to our tutors and facilitators. These are often embedded in conversations and briefings we have on OUM expectations.

In all these sessions, we cover such issues as the wide variety of OUM learners which tutors and facilitators are likely to encounter on the ground, and the various practical strategies they could employ to facilitate learning. Tutors and facilitators who are new to the OUM system have been particularly appreciative of this.

Because adult learners possess varying levels of self-direction, OUM also ensures that virtually all of its first-year courses have baked-in elements of learning-how-to-learn. These are designed to orientate learners requiring support to gradually acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, as well as the requisite confidence, to be self-directed and self-responsible for their own learning. All this, even before heutagogy comes into the picture!

DL: Those of us who have facilitated adult learning in online and distance mode would be happy to attest to our learners’ wide-ranging levels of self-direction, among other things. Because we invariably encounter such varied learners in a single class, we have learnt to be nimble in the way we facilitate learning so that no learner is left behind.

DM: Being nimble in the face of diverse learner-types is indeed a basic OUM expectation of our academics, tutors and facilitators. But even as we mindfully scaffold our learners’ learning and help them to own it, we ought to, at the same time, keep an eye out for what has recently been gaining currency as a learning approach: heutagogy. Heutagogy is described by Steward Hase and Chris Kenyon [2000] as the concept of self-determined learning, as opposed to the self-directed emphasis of andragogy.

Regarded as an extension of andragogy, heutagogy goes one step further in its conception of learners and their needs in the twenty-first century. In the full-blown model, learners not only direct themselves through self-teaching and self-ownership of learning, they also actively determine what will be learned and how it will be learned.

DL: It would appear that heutagogy isn’t entirely foreign to us, considering that elements of it have long been put into practice at postgraduate research level.

DM: That’s correct. At postgraduate level, learners should have the maturity and life experience to make informed decisions about what they want to research and how they should go about it. All this with the guidance of the supervisor, of course. So, yes, to an extent, an aspect of heutagogy already figures in our current practice, except that learners do not get to determine how they will be assessed, as they do in heutagogy.

The idea of grappling with heutagogy, though, is not to adopt it wholesale because it is a trending educational framework. Nor is it to reject heutagogy outright in view of the share of wariness with which it has been apprehended in higher education due to its placing of full control of all aspects of learning in the hands of the learner.

The idea, if you ask me, is rather for us to think about where we stand as educators relative to the principles and practice of heutagogy. It should be part of our constant keeping tabs on the ever-changing environment in which we operate – an environment that is, I might add, both complex and unpredictable.

DL: Could you share with us an aspect of heutagogy that strikes you personally as the most urgent?

DM: One of the many issues raised in debates on the place of heutagogy in adult education that currently occupies me is the radical change that the world is subtly undergoing and the resultant competencies and capabilities that will be in demand in future employment.

If futurists’ predictions are borne out, and if machine learning and automation, for instance, were to render obsolete jobs that are routine, repetitive and predictable, what then will be the role of the university?

Will it be sufficient for the university to continue promoting the traditional concept of learning as the simple acquisition of teacher-prescribed skills and knowledge to be applied in familiar situations?

Or will the university need to think about how to teach learners to teach themselves in developing the capability to creatively and effectively acquire and apply competencies in familiar and unfamiliar situations?

Will the university, in short, need to start underlining the “u” in “heutagogy”, bearing in mind that the term “heutagogy” is derived from the ancient Greek for “self”?

DL: Could you clarify what you mean by underlining the ‘u’ in heutagogy?

DM: Let me put it in another way. Given current predictions about the future, the challenge for higher education institutions like OUM and learners alike, as I see it, is this: how should we conceive ‘u’ in heutagogy – ‘u’ here referring to the conceptual self or learner at the heart of teaching and learning?

It is not for the university alone to define the ‘u’, for that would be to negate heutagogy which emphasises learner self-determination. What is important is for the actual learners themselves to decide on the kind of learners they are and want to be, the future they expect to unfold, and the capabilities and competencies they need to acquire ahead of that future.

If all learners come to us armed with informed answers to these questions, then that’d be great. But I feel it is incumbent upon the university to lay out the scenarios and options for its learners, and to guide them in determining for themselves how they should go about things. That, perhaps, could be the first step towards practicable heutagogy.

DL: How do you think the naysayers will respond to this?

DM: Imaginably there will be those who would say that heutagogy aims too high, that it overrates learner autonomy, and that the country’s education system predisposes learners to be dependent rather than self-determining.

Perhaps they are right. But even if they were, are we to give in to pessimism? Would it not serve us better to establish an ideal that we can strive to achieve in the long run? Should we not strive nonetheless to avoid being overtaken by the impending future? These are some of the questions I hope OUM academics, tutors and facilitators will ponder on as they serve our varied learners and future-proof their education.

DL: Thank you, Dato’, for sharing your thoughts with us.