Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
In previous papers, book chapters and blogs about heutagogy I have made the distinction between the acquisition of competencies (knowledge and skills) and what I have called, for lack of imagination, deep learning. This is not to suggest that competencies are superficial. Indeed, they make the world go round and when I have my next surgery I am looking for a competent surgeon.
What is clear is that the acquisition of knowledge and skill may not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour. It is possible to know but not to action that knowledge. Similarly, the ability to carry out a skill does not mean that it will be included in a person’s repertoire. It may well be ignored. A good deal of adult education involves changes in habits, which we know is extremely challenging. We are all familiar with the problem of not being able to sustain a habit change and reverting to the familiar.
It seems likely that the learning required to a change in habit or significant change of any sort involves an emotional experience. There needs to be a high level of motivation or purpose in the learning for it to cause a long term change in behaviour. The release of certain neurochemicals seems to be implicated in being motivated to learn. Dopamine is released in when we see goals, have desires and needs. When we achieve a desired goal it motivates us further. Seretonin is released when we feel important or valued and appears to enhance learning and memory. And recent research suggests that oxytocin may enhance learning when we are rewarded.
Learning involves changes in brain structure through a process of gathering sensory experience, reflecting on that experience in the temporal lobe, concept development in the prefrontal cortex and then hypothesis testing in the motor cortex. This, learning requires focused attention and is energy intensive. We need to use trial and error, since we learn a great deal from failure. Reflection is facilitated by collaboration with others and is a part of learning how to learn. Humans seek to make sense of their experiences and, as the constructivists argue, uniquely.
In short, simply providing knowledge and skills without getting to concept development and testing is unlikely to create any meaningful change in behaviour, learning. We have all experienced finding meaning in something we have ‘learned’ many years prior due to, perhaps, having to act or an appropriate context.
I’ve been working with a learning design, particularly for workshops, over the past few years that tries to tick all the learning boxes described above. It needs to be said that although the process sounds chaotic, it is not. I provide content in written form with links to the Internet and other resources that need to be readily available. Expectations about competency requirements are made clear, as is assessment. If possible, I design learning experiences so that there is the chance for follow-up to address outstanding issues, if necessary. In some circumstances it is possible to have people identify their learning and have access to the content and learning outcomes prior to the workshop.
The design then involves focusing on learner problems and issues. There are likely to be a number of iterations of identifying these as learning takes place. It is a feedback loop in which learning begets new issues. The ‘curriculum’ is designed around this process. I take an armoury of learning resources such as videos, experiential learning techniques including readiness for spontaneous ‘role play’, case studies, and lots of flip chart paper and coloured pens.
In effect, the learning is contextualised with essential skills and experiences built around the learner’s own problems, issues and questions. The learning leader (teacher in the old parlance) needs to have the skill of being able to be adaptable and know their subject well enough to be able to ensure that essential concepts are covered within the learner’s framework. This is a solution-oriented approach to change and learning, to challenge what doesn’t work and move to behaviour that does. We try out new possibilities and see if they work, the learner is engaged with their own learning rather than what the ‘teacher’ believes they should be learning. The effect of this process is an emotional ‘buy in’, reflection, exploration, hypothesis generating and application.
These workshops end up being lively affairs and are exhausting for the facilitator. But the accent on changing current behaviour creates a high level of motivation to learn. Good process facilitation ensures that dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are provided in high doses.
The emphasis is on process not content, the learner not the ‘teacher’, on facilitation and leadership, on context and real world issues, on emotion and experience, and on an adaptable learning leader who knows their stuff.