Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

Systems Thinking and Heutagogy: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

Thanks to loop_oh at FLICKR for making this image available.

Thanks to loop_oh at FLICKR for making this image available.

by Stewart Hase

I have been messing around for a while with an interesting design for corporate training workshops. Those interested in a detailed account of my early work with this approach will find a paper titled “Learner Designed Curriculum”.

There is also an extension to this in a chapter in our new book, Self-determined Learning: Heutagogy in Action.

In short, the workshop is based on heutagogical principles and involves identifying the specific learning needs of the participants, the context in which they work, their day-to-day concerns, and their current level of understanding. The program is then conducted around the findings of this process. We then access content as required. As I said to a colleague in New Zealand only yesterday, the process is everything! Get that right and the content takes care of itself. In this world of easy access to information, this is even more true today than it might have been even twenty-years ago. It just takes a bit of nerve on the part of the facilitator to make the leap.

Late last year I had the opportunity to undertake some work in Papua, New Guinea for an organisation that was experiencing high staff turnover and some leadership problems. A colleague and I conducted a series of workshops for largely middle managers. The client wanted two outcomes. One was to identify what the problems were that were causing the high turnover and the other was to improve leadership skills. A tall order given the workshop was run over a single day.

There is a technique that was derived from the general systems thinking theory of Russell Ackoff, Fred Emery, Eric Trist, Checkland and others. It is called the Search Process and has been described by a number of authors, most notably Merilyn and Fred Emery, Alan Davies and Marvin Weisbord. It is most commonly used for strategic planning or solving complex social problems in organisations and communities. It is based on the idea that social systems need to be open rather than closed; participative democracy; the belief that the collective intelligence of a system is more important than single points of power; the belief that it is important to get the real underlying problems out on the table for all to see; the idea that solutions are more likely to be effective if they are identified and owned by the system not just a small group of individuals; and that decision-making needs to be shared.

In the Search Process, the idea is that you get the whole social system, or at least a representative sample of the system, in the room and facilitate a process that is highly participative but quite structured. As my colleague and friend Alan Davies would say in these workshops, “The process is non-negotiable. Everything else is open for discussion.” In brief, it involves:

having the room develop a clear set of expectations for the process;

  • sharing and clarifying essential knowledge and information for the specific task at hand;
  • identifying the need for further information;
  • undertaking an environmental scan to identify the external forces that are acting on the organisation or community;
  • a future scan that envisages a possible future in, say, twelve-months time;
  • identifying threats and opportunities to the organisation/community based on the findings of the scan;
  • undertaking an internal analysis of the organisation by looking at strengths and weaknesses and then prioritising these for action;
  • using all this information to design a way forward for the system depending on what the problem being considered might be (the framing of the problem question is a critical moment because it guides all action from that point);
  • developing actions;
  • prioritising these actions; and
  • developing a plan including timeframes, persons responsible and so on.

In the Papua, New Guinea project I used a cut down version of the Search Process for the first part of the day. The rest of the workshop rested on the findings of this process.

What we found was a very high level of involvement and motivation in every workshop. I might add that we were dealing with a bunch of very cynical, practical and hardened people (mostly men) engaged in a hard and difficult, often dangerous, industry. Because the focus was on the specific context of the group members there was immediate buy-in. The process enabled us to get out on the table shared problems and issues obtained through careful consideration and consensus rather than from the grinding wheel where axes are ground.

As you might guess, engaging the groups about what they needed to do differently as leaders was a breeze after this process. The learning experience was dynamic, contextual, and relevant. The only downside was that, as facilitators, we had to think fast on our feet. We had wireless access to the internet so that the group could access relevant content, and we had a battery of resources in the shape of videos, readings and internet sites available for almost any contingency.

This type of workshopping is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be good at facilitating, developing a positive working climate, be flexible, and be on top of your subject. There is no opportunity for fudging your way through some topic that you know little about.

Anyhow, I wanted to make three points about all this.

  1. One is to repeat that the heutagogical design for workshops, in which the needs of the learner takes centre stage, is exciting.Furthermore, the design recognises how people really learn rather than being based on archaic models that are more about the presenter than the learner.
  2. The second is that as learning facilitators (I have banned the word teaching from my lexicon) we need to concentrate on process. The content will take care of itself.
  3. Lastly, there appears to me to be a close ontological and epistemological connections between general systems thinking and heutagogy. They are both democratic, other-centric, context driven, empowering, concerned with distributing power, concerned with open rather than closed systems, and underpinned by a healthy mix of pragmatism, constructivism and humanism. The Search Process seems to provide a proven and systematic process that might be useful in designing effective learning experiences.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2014 by .
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