Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

Well-being: Complexity and Heutagogy as a Marriage In Heaven

Thanks to the creative genius and enthusiasm of Fred Garnett and Nigel Ecclesfield, the theme for World Heutagogy Day 2017 is health and well being. While they are likely, judging from their Facebook discussions and their interest, to come at this topic from a community perspective, I am taking a slightly different tack. Hopefully, readers will find connections.

Let me declare a bias before I start. My work in psychology has tended to focus on the individual, sometimes the group, and occasionally, the organisation. Forever the pragmatist, to which those that know me will attest, perhaps that was the lexicon of psychology in my time and the most comfortable route to take. Community psychology is a much more recent child.

The idea of well-being has recently been open to some debate and conflated with concepts such as happiness and health. Mostly, well-being has been associated with mental health constructs such as: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, life purpose, and self-acceptance (see Carol Ryff and others for a more complete explanation).

My sense of the human condition, that I have reached over a lifetime is that these qualities are almost certainly partly genetic. Whether the genes are turned on or off, and their strength, is up to our experience and other environmental factors. There are so many psychological factors that might play a role in the expression of well-being that I can see a mind map that might cover a football field.

Here we have one of those phenomena that is incredibly complex. As David Snowden famously pointed out with his Cynefin framework, complex situations (environments) call for complex solutions. Unfortunately, humans tend to seek simple solutions to complex problems and that is where we end up with no solution at all.


Many approaches to education and in this context, health education pose simple solutions to complex problems. Providing information, telling people what they should do, reasoning, establishing a web page, creating video bites that exhort and cajole, run a class and have a chat. Years of working in clinical psychology taught me what I probably had already knew from being a teacher, that changing behaviour is hopelessly difficult even when people need to change. It is frightening to see that mainstream psychology has fallen into the trap of thinking that an educational model is the centre of what we need to do in order to help people with mental health problems. Provide sage advice, teach techniques to control all manner of symptoms, become skilled and all will be well. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb must want to change. Often, people do not change even when they are in great psychological pain, despite having all the information that change would fix their ailment.


I need to add the codicil that creating information based on fear, with shocking images does not work either. Behaviour change approaches must be linked to personal experience. The constructivists were right: we create our own meaning from experience not the meaning of others.  We are just as effective at dismissing the irrelevant as learning the obvious.

And so it is that we come to heutagogy. The science, along with a bit of common sense for those with a phobia for facts, tells us that people learn by exposure to observed consequences, exploration, hypothesis testing, discourse, emotion exposure, repetition and other memory enhancers, and having their cognitive biases challenged by direct experience. We have provided the neurological evidence in numerous books, published articles and blogs (for the most recent (2016) review see https://www.sit.ac.nz/Portals/0/upload/documents/sitjar/Heutagogy%20-%20One.pdf) or purchase our latest books from Amazon and see the proceeds go to educating kids in Africa (Self-determined Learning


in Action and Experiences in Self-Determined Learning). For those who like shorthand there are numerous blogs on the subject at https://heutagogycop.wordpress.com. You can also find the principles of heutagogy in the same places.

So, according to what we know about how people learn, developing well-being is a much more dynamic process than simply providing health education in a technicolour coat, which is being seen in the present rush to get on the well-being band wagon. Obviously, such an idea has to be embedded into the psyche of the community, if it is to be more than a passing fad. It will take a generation or two given the complexity of changing hearts and minds of parents so that they enable well-being as a part of what they do. What we are looking at is massive social change.

It is probably pre-schools and schools where the process must start. And it’s not didactic. It will involve those who provide the learning environment that will create the opportunity for children to develop the sense of well-being, using heutagogical processes. It will mean that those responsible for educating the educators, create an opportunity for well-being to be on the curriculum and the processes that support it. It has to be an experiential process at the least.

It will take a generation or two for the idea of well-being to become mainstream. It will take take political will, the support of the health industry. Are there enough votes in promoting well-being? Will the big companies see a profit? Where are the pioneers for change?


The difficulty is that educational (and political for that matter) institutions are extremely conservative and slow to change. Why else would we be still using educational approaches, perhaps more sophisticated but the same in principle, that were established at the start of the industrial revolution? It is odds on that we will use simple solutions to a very complex issue.

Until we start to understand that learning and behaviour change is complex and take note of the principles underpinning it, the science, well-being will not be a serious contender in the health stakes.






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This entry was posted on September 14, 2017 by .
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