Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

The Limitations of Linear Thinking

by Stewart Hase

In our first paper about heutagogy or the study of self-determined learning as it is defined, Chris Kenyon and I mentioned that people don’t learn linearly. After reading a presentation by Ron Barnet in the UK the other day, I noticed that he had referred to this idea. It occurred to me that this idea could do with a bit of explaining and perhaps expansion.

Before talking about linear learning, I need to firstly point out, for the uninitiated that one of the issues raised by heutagogy is that dictionary and psychological definitions of learning are a little out of date. More recent neuroscience evidence has led me to think that learning can be thought of in at least two levels. There are probably more but two will suffice for now. On the one hand is the acquisition of knowledge and skills or what are better known as competencies. On the other is deeper learning, when we make associations in our brains that lead to Ha! Ha! moments or new insights. This deeper learning means that the learner is now seeing the world in a new light and has a whole set of new questions to ask based on this learning. It changes the course of their inquiry. This learning may not happen when learning competencies or when the teacher thinks it will. It may be days, months or years later and usually occurs when the person is doing something. Competencies are essential, no question of that, but they are the first step in learning, the minimal level.

Humans have a habit of thinking in a linear fashion. It’s not hard to know why we do this. Like a lot of human mental activity, it’s a short cut that saves us effort and energy: like fast thinking that Daniel Kahneman talks about. It also simplifies a complex world. We like to think in terms of this leads to that, then that and so on.  Humans like to find causation even when phenomena are only associated by temporal proximity. Explanations are important to us and if there isn’t a convenient one at had then we find one: hence our predilection for superstition in all its various forms.

While we like to think in a linear fashion, this is not actually how we learn in situ. By ‘in situ’ I’m referring to learning that occurs naturally, out of the confines of educational systems. It is the learning that occurs minute by minute in our lives and, as one example, accounts for about 70% of learning in workplaces. Learning as a matter of course is pretty well non-linear, with a random component based on serendipity, or misfortune if it is an unpleasant outcome, and the ‘learning moment’.  Learning mostly occurs when our attention is captured by need, trial and error, doing, and an innate desire to master and to know. There is something highly motivational in have unanswered questions residing in the mind. Watch a bunch of people on a mining site, on an oil rig or in a hospital, for example, master a new piece of equipment by themselves and with no ‘teacher’ and only a badly written manual and you’ll know what I mean.

Most curricula found in education systems or training programs are designed in a linear fashion. They are unnatural. Teachers and trainers, like other humans, want to order ‘stuff’ in such a way that it apparently makes sense: this leads to this leads to that thinking. Most curricula, despite sometimes referring to higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the objectives, is at the competence level of describing, explaining and demonstrating. This leads to rather stilted forms of didactic teaching, the ubiquitous slide show, the passive learner. All of which is unnatural and we wonder why learners have problems in motivation and learning.

Thanks to Birkenkrahe / Wikimedia Commons for allowing this image to be used.

Thanks to Birkenkrahe / Wikimedia Commons for allowing this image to be used.

How about if we did away with the linear curriculum, the linear way of teaching? Please note, I am not advocating getting rid of curricula or of the need for competencies. Both are essential. What I am talking about is thinking about the curricula in a non-linear fashion. The flipped classroom is a start in the right direction in that it at least takes the emphasis out of delivering content and more about discussing it or doing it.

But let me give an example from my own experience.

I’ve been messing around with conducting learning experiences by leading with a complex issue that encapsulates pretty well all the objectives. In a longer program or course one could split this into many complex issues. The learner than has to find the way to solving the issue using the provided resources. The teacher is the facilitator. I’ve been able to expand this idea in workplace training programs to having the participants define the issues first and then finding what is required to solve them. Yes, that’s right!  Go into problems, issues and the complex before acquiring any initial pre knowledge or skill. Forget linear.

Think again of how we learn in situ. It is demand based and we then use our smart phone, tablet, computer, a library, or some wise sage to find the answer to the questions in our mind. It is usually in response to a problem we need to solve. If we know how to learn then we have all the tools we need.

The curriculum, in whatever form, would then take the form of a set of issues, real life problems, rather than a linear set of competencies. I’ve found, as did Chris and I in the 1990s in the work we did that led up to the idea of heutagogy, that a non-linear approach works very well. The learner becomes very motivated and can pursue their own process, new questions that arise and express new insights. Assessment of the core competencies can still be disclosed and undertaken. Assessment of higher order learning will take more imagination on the part of the teacher (facilitator) and is the topic of a future discussion.

So, what I am advocating is the demise of linear thinking when it comes to education and training programs. Turn the curriculum on its head and construct it differently. It may be that we could design a whole qualification with subjects. Replaced, perhaps, by complex ideas, questions or problems as the defining themes.

I’m sure you can think of heaps of ways to design curricula in a non-linear fashion.


One comment on “The Limitations of Linear Thinking

  1. copheutagogy
    August 28, 2013

    This post really resonates with me right now. 2 months ago I started a new job, and since Day 1 I’ve been on this incredible learning journey that is ALL problem-based and contextual. No new employee training program or orientation could adequately prepare me for what I need to learn and do. It’s not at all linear, and what’s more, the context and circumstances change frequently (as is the case in any complex organization, I suppose), so just as I think I’ve “mastered” something (ha!), I have new learning to layer on top of it all over again and my learning “outcomes” become qualitatively different. I need to remind myself that my learning path here is not linear; that I need to be a flexible, adaptable learner; and that each new experience deepens my learning, my understanding, and my ability to do good work. Thankfully I have good colleague/mentor/teachers along this undetermined path to help guide me through potholes, point out trails or short-cuts, and hold my hand as I cross bridges. How will I and others will assess my learning remains to be seen …

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