Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

Providing A Compass: Neuroscience & Heutagogy

Thanks to John Loo on Flickr for making this image available.

Thanks to John Loo on Flickr for making this image available.

by Stewart Hase

For anyone who cares to look, the neuroscientific evidence that a great number of the assumptions that underpin education and training practice are wrong is mounting (see some of the literature on heutagogy). Some commentators such as Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg (in Turning Learning Right Side Up), as only one example, have been scathing in their critique of educational systems using qualitative research and anecdotes. Since the mid-twentieth century the constructivists and others such as Steiner and A.S. Neil have provided alternatives to traditional education methods, with little success at changing the prevailing conservative dogma about education and training.

We now have another line of evidence based on relatively new research and explanations of how the brain works. I’d like to just outline some of this research. At the same time I am providing support for heutagogy as a way of thinking about how we conduct education and training programs, and how we view informal learning in society and, more specifically, in workplaces.

It is clear that the human attention span, in the absence of new stimulation, a change of direction and, particularly, action is limited to less than 10 minutes. After that time the brain starts to wander off. You see this in lecture situations and I have observed it in psychotherapy sessions and coaching. It is quite easy to send someone into a light trance when talking to them if the conversation is one sided and not very animated, and doesn’t involve the other person in doing anything. Thus, I have the eight-minute rule. Only talk for eight minutes and then have the ‘audience’ do something.

Doing something also has the advantage of repeating the concept, idea or piece of information. We know that human memory is enormously fragile without repetition and the opportunity to check the accuracy of our recall.

It is also important to remember that our brains work better when information is provided in small bytes: we just can’t take in and, therefore, recall lots of information. Memory is essential to learning after all. Our short term memory has limited capacity and moving new information/concepts/ideas into long term memory can take a long time and repetition. It also takes effort to call up memories and stored information in what Kahneman calls ‘thinking slow.’ We are much more likely to use less effort initially by thinking fast but we take in less detail and jump to conclusions based on insufficient information. Again repetition, using different senses, application or doing, frequently, as a counter to just gathering information are vital for learning.

It is also clear that we remember things better when they have an emotional tag. The example of post traumatic memories being difficult to resolve illustrates this point. Emotion in the right dose can also be highly motivating. This is where the constructivists come in with relevant, perhaps confronting, experiences that consolidate learning and enable the learner to make sense out of the concept, idea or information. I take to my workshops a relative battery of activities and pick from them those that are relevant to the agenda that the participants design.

The more elaborately we learn something the more likely it is to be stored. Again, we need to involve as many senses as possible and have the learner engaged in doing as well as absorbing.

Children are great learners. They explore, watch others, try things out (test hypotheses, in other words) and draw their conclusions, sometimes after careful analysis. Parts of the brain have been identified that are responsible for these activities and this makes sense from a survival perspective at least. Some commentators such as Ackoff, Emery, Kosol and others have suggested that school in fact interferes with this natural process due to its emphasis on the curricula, and as others would say, teacher-centric approaches to learning. Our education and training needs to enable this natural tendency to be reinvigorated. Even more important is how we harness informal learning in workplaces, for example, because that is where the real action exists.

The work on what has become known as brain plasticity, the capacity for the brain to rewire itself,  suggests that this capacity for learning goes in all our lives even into old age and after quite catastrophic brain damage. It is the way that we then access the ‘wires’ that becomes important and therapists, for example, have come up with quite clever ways to help people relearn that doesn’t just involve telling. Teachers and trainers can learn a lot from their approaches.

Images are a far more powerful learning medium than text since we have a lot more neurons dedicated to visual cues. As John Medina quips in Brain Rules, it is time to toss the powerpoint slides with dense text and replace them with images. In my view it is time to toss the text altogether and just deal with concepts.

Different people have different interests, ways of perceiving the world, different questions about phenomena. This is obvious but the neurological explanation is important to how we manage training and education programs. Our brains develop depending on what we focus on, what we emphasize. It has been found that when we practice a particular craft then that area of the brain responsible for the skill becomes more highly developed-there is an abundance of neurons. This much the same as attending the gym and increasing muscular strength. Thus, people will focus on different things and almost certainly draw different conclusions from each other. New pathways in the brain will vary depending on these different perspectives.

So, from a learning (and heutagogical) perspective it is vital to keep asking questions of learners to see what insights they have now developed, and how future learning needs to be nurtured. We are not all the same, will not end up with the same conclusions necessarily, and will have different perspectives. Some of the most important questions need to be asked at the beginning of a learning experience, which is why heutagogy advocates involvement of the learner in program design.

The condition of state dependent learning has been known for a long time. Essentially it suggests that we tend to recall a piece of learning under the same conditions that we acquired it. If you want someone to learn a skill then they need conditions that are similar to those in which they need to use it. Simulators are very cleverly designed to recreate real life conditions. It stands to reason that if we want people to be problem solvers, creative, innovative, learners, self-efficacious as learners, confident and active, then we need to design our learning experiences accordingly. Teacher-centric approaches are much more likely to develop dependent learners.

This brief summary of some of the recent, and not so recent, neuroscience supports the tenets of heutagogy. That is, we need to:

  • involve the learner in designing their own learning content and process as a partner;
  • make the curriculum flexible so that new questions and understanding can be explored as new neuronal pathways are explored;
  • individualise learning as much as possible;
  • provide flexible or negotiated assessment;
  • enable the learner to contextualise concepts, knowledge and new understanding;
  • provide lots of resources and let the learner explore;
  • differentiate between knowledge and skill acquisition (competencies) and deep learning;
  • recognise the importance of informal learning and that we only need to enable it rather than control it;
  • have confidence in the learner;
  • and recognise that teaching can become a block to learning.

We need to facilitate rather than teach, step back and guide, and provide a compass rather than a map.

In summary, the neuroscientific evidence suggests that we need to rethink what we do in the training room, the classroom and with e-learning. We need to create a much closer relationship with our learners as partners, shifting to a much more learner-centric approach. The ease of content access in this internet age, and the ready access to people via social media, is a game changer for education and training. Our emphasis as ‘teachers’ can now shift from guru to guide, if we care to follow what neuroscience is telling us about how we learn.


11 comments on “Providing A Compass: Neuroscience & Heutagogy

  1. Kranstan
    April 1, 2013

    Stewart, I found the article of particular interest. In my numerous global travels I like to visit Museums of Natural Science and the various Exploration Centres contained therein. I am left to my own devices and not interupted by a Tour guide so to speak. I can open the drawers and cupboards according to my whim and I find it a fascinating way to learn about my particular interests. I am the master of my own destiny so to speak. Sometimes our learning opportunities are limited so this approach works for me.

    Tnak you Stewart.

    Kranstan Bradley

    • stewarthase
      April 2, 2013

      Thanks Kran. Great example of how we really learn. Out there doing it and not sitting in a classroom victim to someone else’s whims.

  2. Paul
    April 1, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more Stewart 🙂

  3. Shankar Sankaran
    April 1, 2013

    Hi Stewart,

    Great site. I am about to experiment with my first subject using flipped learning from tomorrow. I understand flipped learning as”learning helps teachers move away from direct instruction as their primary teaching tool toward a more student-centred approach.’ Seems like they have similar ideas to yours. See http://flippedlearning.org/Page/1 site. I will let you know how it worked.


    • stewarthase
      April 2, 2013

      Hi Shankar,

      Thanks for the info. Let us know.

  4. Richard Delisser
    April 1, 2013

    There are also a number of interesting parallels to successful leadership practices within this article. Especially when we compare and contrast a leaders role as coach and learning guide, as opposed to teacher.

    Perhaps Winston Churchill was one of the early heutagogy pioneers when he said “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught”.

  5. stewarthase
    April 2, 2013

    Yes indeed. For me, it is the capacity to inspire and motivate that makes a great leader and a great ‘teacher’. Then there are just skills to do the rest-skills we can learn. But how do you learn to inspire? I think you can- or at least some people can. I suspect that personality gets in the way for some-patterns are too entrenched

  6. Matthew McNeill
    April 4, 2013

    Hi Stewart, very useful piece – I will keep trying to put these ideas into my practice.

    • Stewart Hase
      April 6, 2013

      Thanks Mathew. Hope you can be a regular on the site

  7. Pingback: Providing A Compass: Neuroscience & Heutagogy | hasnainzafar

  8. Phil Rutherford
    October 7, 2013


    My particular interest is in how the emerging neurosciences (particularly neuroplasticity) can help inform us of how humans learn and how we, the trainers / educators, can enhance such learning through our practices.

    More particularly, I have been involved in adult education for 40 years (next year) and, I am afraid to say, have heard before all of which you posted above. It seems, therefore, that the worst learners are ourselves – the teachers. Why else is it that we have failed to learn the lessons handed down to us from as far back as the great philosophers?

    I don’t recall who first said it but I agree with the contention that we have learned all we need to know by the age of 3 – the rest of our lives is spent putting such learning into practice. I fully support the concept of heutagogy – without using this term my Ph.D centres on this idea – but I would suggest we consider whether or not the ability to ‘learn how to learn’, that is, to understand what we don’t know and determine for ourselves the best way of learning it, is innate and was ‘learned’ (so to speak) well before we started the formal learning processes. How else could we have survived all those years at school, college and university?

    Thanks for posting the above thoughtful piece. I have only just discovered this site and from now on will be a frequent visitor.

    Phil Rutherford

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