It’s not the unfriendly classroom, it’s the expectations

Great perspectives on heutagogical practice in learning and teaching by Bob Dick posted in the Heutagogy Community of Practice.

Heutagogy Community of Practice

by Bob Dick 

I’ve decided that classrooms are not friendly to learning.

I don’t think that it’s always the classroom as such.  Yes, there are tiered classrooms with fixed furniture.  They are inherently unfriendly.  Many other classrooms, though, can be arranged in ways that are congenial.  And useful learning can be stimulated even in unfriendly classrooms.

As I see it, much of the problem is that the learners bring “classroom attitudes” into the classroom with them.  I think the attitudes are more important, in the end, than the actual classroom layout.

There was a time when I was a full time academic with responsibility for several courses.  Before each class, if possible, I’d reconfigure the classroom.  I’d stack the desks at the back of the room.  I’d arrange the chairs, space permitting, into a large circle.  My intention was for the layout to proclaim that this wasn’t a lecture.


View original post 623 more words


We Tell Ourselves Stories

Earlier this week, an essay written by Adam Kotsko was published in InsideHigherEd called “Making the Best of Assessment.” Two key sections of his piece stood out to me:

Would I really object if someone suggested that my institution might want to clarify its goals, gather information about how it’s doing in meeting those goals, and change its practices if they are not working? I doubt that I would: in a certain sense it’s what every institution should be doing. Doing so systematically does bear significant costs in terms of time and energy — but then so does plugging away at something that’s not working. Paying a reasonable number of hours up front in the form of data collection seems like a reasonable hedge against wasting time on efforts or approaches that don’t contribute to our mission. By the same token, getting into the habit of explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing can help us to avoid making decisions based on institutional inertia.

And a bit later on in the piece, referring to his own institution, department, and colleagues:
Despite that overall optimism, however, I’m also sure that there are some things that we’re doing that aren’t working as well as they could, but we have no way of really knowing that currently. We all have limited energy and time, and so anything that can help us make sure we’re devoting our energy to things that are actually beneficial seems all to the good.

Recently, I experienced an assessment phenomenon that I’ve started to affectionately call “when data challenges our belief system.” (My colleague has also written about this here; when I was telling another colleague about this, she referred to it as “when reality interferes with our denial.”) I’ve been helping my colleagues work with assessment methods and their findings for many years now, but it only became apparent to me recently that sometimes we don’t want to believe what we see in our assessment findings or in other sources of data. Sometimes we’d prefer to just erase the evidence or the findings of a inquiry project rather than face the reality that we might be able to do something better, something different.

Thanks to F. Jourde on Flickr for making this image available for use through a Creative Commons license.

Thanks to F. Jourde on Flickr for making this image available for use through a Creative Commons license.

Joan Didion wrote a book with the title We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

In trying to build an evidence-informed culture for improvement in higher education, I have come to believe that our willingness to interrogate the stories we tell ourselves might be one of the biggest challenges we face. Resources? Yep: we certainly need those! Buy-in that the process is worthwhile? Totally important! Support and learning to enact effective assessment practices? Absolutely necessary. But …

We tell ourselves stories.

And guess what! I am totally guilty of this! Here’s a recent example: Using findings from a database-informed report I received almost 7 years ago, I believed that 95% of students who took an introductory course offered in my department went on to take many more courses at the university. This became my department’s story (because it was true — in 2006). It was a great story, until it wasn’t. When I requested and received an updated report, this is what we found out, and what we did:

Of 388 students from Summer 2009 – Fall 2013, 90 took only this course.  Thus, 23% of students who took the course didn’t take anything else. And although this means 77% of students did take other courses (we can celebrate that – it could have been worse, after all), we needed to think about whether or not our original story (remember it? 95%?) still held water. My departmental colleagues and I discussed this report, and once we came to grips with the new story the data was telling us, we realized that we wanted to make some advising process improvements with the goal of increasing the number of students who go on to take more courses at the university.

What’s challenging from an assessment perspective is that this practice of storytelling can totally limit our ability to use information to make improvements; more significantly, it can limit our learning.  Of course we should be analytical about our findings; we should understand their limitations, reliability and validity, the circumstances, the context. But if we believe everything to be perfectly fine — or even quite good — reliable findings that tell a different story can be hard to stomach. Sometimes what happens is folks blame the data; worse is that they blame the messenger; far, far worse is that they blame students.

We tell ourselves stories.

One of the greatest powers of assessment and of an evidence-informed, improvement-oriented culture is that it can foster critical reflection on practice, but only if we can be — if we’re willing to be — critically reflective. I also think assessment can foster really important conversations about students’ experiences and learning among colleagues (such as the great conversation we had in our department when the new data no longer supported our outdated story).  In other words: assessment itself can foster our learning.  But when we get stuck with our stories and we can’t see that there might be a different reality that’s out there, we shut learning out, and we shut out the opportunities that can result from learning.

No doubt that stories are important — to culture, to humanity, to life. As Brene Brown said in this TED talk, “stories are data with soul.”  I do think our stories can inform us and teach us (hey – I was an English major; of course I think this!) But I also think that if we’re not open to alternative views, to other voices (namely those of students), and to new information, then we’re being irresponsible educators because we’re not walking our talk. And so I’ve come to realize that a big part of my work is to support people in being willing to engage in critical reflection on practice, and to consider changing their stories if needed using the information they learn from assessment (it may come as no surprise to some of you that my work with Prior Learning Assessment and interest in heutagogy greatly inform my perspective and my approach). After all, education is supposed to be about learning; let’s use information we have to learn, and to get better.

Thinking About Heutagogy

Me thinking about thinking about heutagogy with a few others who are also thinking about it. It’s nice to think, together.

Heutagogy Community of Practice

A few people have been thinking about heutagogy or heutagogical practices recently here in WordPress land, so let’s repost a few of these ideas here for everyone to read:

What do you think about when you think about heutagogy? Please share!

View original post

Heutagogy Highlights – Conference in Prague, March 2013

Heutagogy Community of Practice

Heutagogy: Reconceptualising Learning for the 21st Century – Stewart Hase

Since its inception in 2000, heutagogy or self-determined learning, has been discussed and applied in a number of different settings across the globe. This keynote address explores the fundamentals of heutagogy and its theoretical underpinnings. We will also examine a long overdue reconceptualization of learning based on advances in neuroscience and how this fits within heutagogy. Finally we will review recent applications. Consistent with the principles of heutagogy the session will be interactive involving a live Twitter feed and group discussion. To gain maximum benefit participants are requested to read about heutagogy by accessing the various papers and commentary that can be found on the web and particularly the heutagogy community of practice at Participants can also contact Stewart at

Learning for Life: Preparing Students for the Complexities of the Workplace Today and Tomorrow–…

View original post 157 more words

So Many Posts; So Little … Posting

I have about 50 posts started, but none finished — or at least none worthy to post. As usual, I’ve been prattling (though only in my head, so far) about change in higher education; about the importance of leaders-as-learners and teachers; about technology, learning, assessment, teaching; about heutagogy; about access; etc. etc. etc.

So many posts; so little posting.

While not posting, I have been contemplating the lessons in two poems by Marge Piercy: The Seven of Pentacles and To Be of Use.

And I did take this picture of a lovely spring flower while out on a bike ride with my kid:

Meditation on a spring flower in the forest.

Meditation on a spring flower in the forest.

So there’s that.

Instead of posting my own ramblings right now, I’ll share a few links to others’ pieces that have really inspired my nog as of late.  I’ll also share a few quotes from each that I mentally highlighted – may they inspire you to inquire and reflect, too.

How Disruptive Is Information Technology Really? by Judith Ramaley – EDUCAUSE Review

The act of teaching is becoming more about designing the educational context and engaging students as they learn to approach material in more insightful and demanding ways. We are not transmitters of knowledge very often today, although an occasional superb lecture by a remarkably perceptive and even prescient speaker or a carefully crafted blog contribution can open up new ways of thinking about things.

We all know these simple things about how the educational experience is changing, but how recently have we paused to think about how truly wonderful it is to be able to use our smartphones to answer a question right immediately? My real concern is that not all questions have a quick, well-researched, and easy-to-find answer. Many, perhaps most, questions in today’s world are hard to formulate, are seen in very different ways by different people, or simply do not have good answers at all. That is why we still need real people who interact with each other in real time in order to frame questions that matter, to explore the ideas that come from those questions, and to work together to find solutions. No longer, however, are those people confined to the knowledge and experience that they carry in their own minds or that they can bring along with them on paper. They can tap into a true universe of material whenever they wish.

Good Teachers Become Less Important by Bernard Bull – Etale – Life in the Digital World.

When I think about the role of what we traditionally think of as teacher, one of the most important roles of teachers is to work hard at making themselves as unimportant as possible, not unimportant in the sense of lacking value, but unimportant in the sense that they are eventually no longer needed.  In other words, the goal of the teacher is to aid the learners in becoming self-directed learners.

Notes on social learning in business by Harold Jarche

Training and instruction are all about control, with curricula, sanctioned learning objectives, and performance criteria. This works when the field of study is knowable. But fewer fields remain completely knowable, if they ever were. Many institutions and professions have been built on the premise that knowledge can be transferred in some kind of controlled process. If you question that premise, you threaten people’s jobs, status, and sense of worth. This is why you see some violent reactions to the notion of informal and social learning having validity within organizations.

A major difference between communities of practice and work teams is that the former are voluntary. People want to join communities of practice. People feel affinity for their communities of practice. You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.

And finally, a post from the Heutagogy Community of Practice: The PAH Continuum: Pedagogy, Andragogy, & Heutagogy, by Fred Garnett

When we collaboratively developed the ideas of the open context model of learning, Wilma Clark had pointed out that in Russia the word ‘obuchenie’ means both teaching and learning, and the PAH Continuum might be seen as a way of scaffolding ‘obuchenie’ as a move from teacher’s control to learner’s control. I would see it as axiomatic, as I did when I was ‘brokering’ learning, that teachers, whilst delivering their subject expertise, should be enabling learners to better understand the process of learning for themselves.

So many posts; so much learning. With great appreciation for all my teachers out there. As Bernard Bull wrote:

In one sense, a teacher is anyone or anything that contributes to our learning.

The Risk Of Doing Nothing

1. My son Mac, now 5, has been interested in the Titanic story for about a year now. I shared with him the theory that had the Titanic turned itself around and parked itself next to the iceberg that it had hit, most of the passengers and crew could have gotten off the boat, onto the berg, and been rescued. (According to some oceanic archeologists, the ship could have turned itself around.) They would have been cold, for sure, but they wouldn’t have drowned. Instead, they all saw the iceberg as the threat (The Threat!!!), so they steered away from it. They didn’t see the threat as what it could be — a life saver. (I can no find no reference to this now; I heard it many years ago so I imagine it’s totally urban myth. But for this story, it serves a purpose.)

2. I recently read a publication called An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.  If you work in higher education, you might consider reading it, or at least skimming it. The authors explain the avalanche metaphor this way: “The avalanche metaphor is appropriate because the one certainty for anyone in the path of an avalanche is that standing still is not an option. Indeed, it is a classic error of strategy to calculate the risks of action but fail to calculate the (often greater) risks of doing nothing” (pgs. 3-4).

Thank you sgillies at Flickr for making this image of the Gavarnie Avalanche available for use.

Thank you sgillies at Flickr for making this image of the Gavarnie Avalanche available for use.

I read words like “avalanche” (which sounds strong, forceful, and terrifying) and “revolution” (which sounds challenging and yet potentially transformative), and I get … I get … (what do I get?)  Well, I get disconcerted. But I also am inspired by a key idea in this report:

Given the state of the global economy, tensions in international relations, massive gaps between wealth and poverty, the deepening threat of climate change and the ubiquity of weapons of mass destruction, our contention is that we need a generation better educated, in the broadest and most profound sense of that word, than ever before. We need – as the London 2012 Olympics promised– an inspired generation, all of whom are well-educated and some of whom are able to provide the bold, sophisticated leadership that the 21st century demands. We need citizens ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and for the world around them: citizens who have, and seize, the opportunity to learn and relearn throughout their lives. We need citizens who are ready and able to take their knowledge of the best that has been thought and said and done and apply it to the problems of the present and the future. This surely should be the mission of universities, and here in An Avalanche is Coming we have sought to describe the threat posed to traditional 20th century universities if key institutions don’t change radically, as well as the huge opportunities open to them if they do.
Within this, I have hope for and in heutagogy to be a significant part of the future of learning (which is related to why I underlined that sentence above, by the way).

3. I am still trying to make sense of this idea about change (which I have prattled about before),  especially as applied to real life.

Correction: Especially as applied to my real life.

Change motivates and challenges. It makes clear when things are obsolete or have outlived their usefulness. But most of all, change forces us to learn differently. If the twentieth century was about creating a sense of stability to buttress against change and then trying to adapt to it, then the twenty-first century is about embracing change, not fighting it. Embracing change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a new set of possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion. ~Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown: A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change

4. Another idea that’s rattling in my head right now is this, but I don’t know whom to attribute it to other than a colleague who quipped it recently in a meeting:

Never waste a crisis.

“Crisis.” Yet another scary word that is being used quite a bit in higher ed: student debt crisis; academic quality crisis; online learning / MOOC crisis; full-time faculty crisis; part-time faculty crisis; crisis this and crisis that. You name it, it’s a crisis (if you decide to call it one).

Define “crisis,” higher ed. Is it crisis because it’s change? I seriously doubt it. Perhaps it’s a crisis because change challenges our beliefs about what higher education / our university / our program should be. And because we now have to think, and act, and learn (!) differently. Perhaps *this* is the avalanche, and the revolution — the avalanche is within us, not happening to us; and the revolution can result in freeing our thinking.

5. Mac told me this last night as I turned out his light after we read a book about the Titanic:

Mama,  do you know what happens to an iceberg when it melts? It becomes water. It becomes something really different. It doesn’t get to do that if it stays an iceberg.

Icebergs, avalanches, revolutions, crises. These all demonstrate the risk of doing nothing: the most significant of which, as I see it, is not getting to learn, differently.

You’ll excuse me now please: I have to go do something.