Month: April 2014

Complexity, Heutagogy and the Role of the Teacher

I have been immersed in readings of complexity lately. I must say it has been quite messy, for I have found myself wandering from one author to another and back to one again, and in the meantime I have also been reading from the resources that my cherished pln has been sharing on all of my online community platforms. While we’re at it (at ‘messy’ that is), I have felt compelled to share some of my impressions and thoughts on the subject of complexity from an educational standpoint, which will hopefully help me make sense of all of the… erm… complexity that I’ve been taking in. Coming and going from the writings of Maria Cândida Moraes to Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela to Edgar Morin has been absolutely amazing. It is a deep dive into the ocean of (seemingly, and I suspect literally, endless) imbrications pertaining complex thought and its affordances in the arena of education.

Moraes’ (2004) Eco-systemic thought drinks from Maturana & Varela’s (1984) concept of Autopoiesis, which implies that all living beings are naturally capable of continuously (re)producing the elements that make up their own selves/structures via interaction with their environment/ecosystem. It is this constant interaction, or metabolic process, which enables the continuity of life. This life-ensuring cycle takes place within living beings, which are open, autonomous, self-organizing systems inserted in larger systems, ad infinitum. Within the living system are its components, and such components are organized in a given way. Organization is another key concept for Maturana & Varela, in that it is the way in which any specific group of elements are articulated or organized, defining the class to which that being belongs, in other words, defining its identity. For Morin (1997, as cited by Moraes), a complex unit or system emerges from the articulation of interactions among the components that constitute that system. Therefore, a complex system is made up of its components plus the interactions among them which re-organize the system, ultimately ensuring the continuity of its existence.

Going back to the idea of systems within systems, Moraes says that life itself may be recognized as a system of systems of systems, where the processes are imbricated and attached to one another. A system is made up of parts which are in themselves systems made up of parts. In the words of Morin (1995, as cited by Moraes) “the whole is in the part which is in the whole”. Therefore, to understand the parts of a whole, an understanding of the whole is fundamental. Similarly, to understand the whole, one needs to understand its constitutive parts. Moraes (2004: 65) goes on to extrapolate that construct, saying:


Society as a whole is also within each one of us from birth to death, by means of family conversations, culture, school, language, and the kinds of individual intelligences that prevail in society. The individual carries within himself the different modes of expression of the society to which he belongs. Similarly, the cognitive dimension of the individual is part of the organizational dimension of life. That, in a way, conveys the idea that human knowledge depends, fundamentally, on the relation of the individual with the outside world, of his active engagement with his surroundings. ~ Maria Cândida Moraes

Enter Stewart Hase & Chris Kenyon with their concept of Heutagogy – the study of learning as a self-determined process. According to these guys, heutagogy sets forth a pedagogical model which is in steep opposition to the model informed by teacher-centered learning. In their paper (2001), they explore the theoretical grounds onto which heutagogy is constructed, citing Rogers (1951), who advocates that learning is as natural a process as breathing, and that it is an internal process which is controlled by the individual/learner. Rogers (1969, as cited by H&K) suggests that willingness to learn in an ongoing fashion is a natural disposition in individuals, basing his student-centered approach on some key hypotheses, among which are (1) that learning can only be facilitated, and (2) that meaningful learning depends on how relevant or useful the learning of something will be for the maintenance or enhancement of self. I can see TEFL pros nodding as they read this, since this is an all-too-familiar approach for us.

Hase & Kenyon (2001) situate heutagogy within the scope (and as a development) of andragogy,  in that heutagogical practices have been useful in informing distace education rationale with its self-directed learning notion. It is only natural that self-directed learning be associated with adult learners, in my opinion. It is also among the reasons why online education offers learning opportunitites which are mostly seized by (and therefore catered to) adult individuals. Self-directed learning requires the intensity of commitment and hard work, as well as the acquisition/development of certain skills, such as tech skills, which children or teenagers would not commonly have the discipline/method for, or strength of intrinsic motivation which an optimal learning experience in an online environment generally requires from the learner. That is not to say that children and teenagers are not tech savvy or are not overall motivated to learn. It’s more that they are at a point in their cognitive development and social lives that naturally (and biologically) pressupose a certain level of rebelliousness, of playfulness (both of which might also and very well serve as drive for adult learners, but that is enough matter for another post entirely).

This whole argumentation around complex systems, self-directed learning, adults, children and teenage learners, brings me to the controversy of Sugatra Mitra’s model of self organized learning environments (SOLEs) and a blog post written by Jeremy Harmer on a talk Mitra has recently given in IATEFL 2014. Harmer concisely and effectively put into words what many of us, TEFL pros and educators alike, have certainly been puzzling over. Harmer begins by questioning Mitra’s educational utopia by addressing exactly the notion of self-directedness and motivation in learning.


Any teacher with experience knows that it is one thing to put educational temptation in a child’s way (or an adult’s); quite another for that student to actually be tempted.  Mitra’s claim is that this always works, a kind of learner autonomy nirvana. Yet we know this is just not true. Some students try to be autonomous and some don’t. Some succeed and some don’t. In any group different roles are played; not all learners learn equally. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with discovery-based experiential learning. It just doesn’t work some of the time. ~ Jeremy Harmer 

My point exactly, Jeremy. He goes on to argue that good teaching is about an awareness of one’s role(s) as a teacher. It’s about intervention and mediation. And may I add that it’s also about coaching and nurturing. We teachers are, after all, complex systems ourselves, who are part of the ecosystem materialized in formal education. Learners are also complex systems in constant re-organizational dynamics (learning), not only of academic content or any given subject-matter, but also of what it means to be part of a larger complexity which is the society in which they are inserted and to which they will hopefully contribute in order to implement maintenance, change, or even improvement. Harmer also critiques Mitra’s statement that knowledge is no longer necessary, since all knowledge and information is now available online. Mitra not only belittles the effectiveness and value of the education system, equivalently bellitling the role of the teacher, but he also fails to acknowledge the literally vital role that learning plays in an individual’s life. As advocated in Maturana’s autopoietic theory, living beings are open complex systems that need to assimilate matter/information from its ecosystem in order to reorganize itself, ultimately ensuring the continuation of life. As Harmer so eloquently (and fiercely) puts it:


Our knowledge is, on the contrary, the seat of our intuition and our creativity. Furthermore, the gathering of that knowledge from our peers and, crucially, our elders and more experienced mentors is part of the process of socialization. Humanity has thought this to be self-evident for at least 2000 years and though it is the responsibility, perhaps, for younger people to constantly challenge the status quo, still that social interaction between experience and inexperience, age and youth etc is the way society grows and how children become socialized. ~ Jeremy Harmer

Which brings me to the role of the teacher. It is my belief that an awareness of such discussions is part of the role of the teacher. Never before in the history of mankind have we teachers been so intensely challenged to think and rethink, to learn and relearn. It is of the utmost importance that teachers become deeply aware of the complexities of the learning process. Educators have a duty to keeping up with societal change so as to engage such changes critically, reorganizing self to rise up to the challenges that are unfolding. Educators need to be aware that they are mediators of the internalization/processing of information, knowledge, and culture, and that as living beings, and humans for that matter, we do so via affectivity.

To come full circle in this post (which is already too long), Moraes (2004: 69) says:


Affectivity is ever nurturing and transformational of living beings. In reality, we internalize all that we need to keep our organization alive, so that we can develop, evolve, and transcend. ~ Maria Cândido Moraes

And there’s that too, human warmth and affection. And there’s also context. Cultural and social context. Educators are sense-makers, learning-experience designers, and contextualizers of learning.

sphere ala escher

Hand with reflecting sphere by Katsuhiro Otomo

On Professional & Existential Confidence

Last week, I watched the live broadcast of part of a very interesting IATEFL 2014 forum on Investigating new knowledge constructs in teacher education. In its initial fifteen minutes or so, professor Donald Freeman from the University of Michigan provided a concise overview of their take on how to rise up to the challenge of supporting teacher development all around the globe. He began by stating that in supporting teacher development they were primarily concerned with impacting the broadest number of people as possible by making learning opportunities accessible especially to those professionals who found themselves removed from the mainstream academic environments. In other words, they were considering public sector professionals in less privileged areas of the globe. He expressed their concern with equity, in that their project’s ultimate goal was to make it possible for the most people to benefit from learning. In his outline of how teacher development and quality of schools have been approached by researchers and scholars in the field of ELT/ELL, professor Freeman described the widely accepted and adopted line of thinking that to improve the quality of teaching, one needs to be able to improve teacher knowledge.

Therefore, we have operated under the assumption that quality depends on what a teacher knows, and that lack of knowledge, linguistic and/or methodological (to name a few), equals lack of quality. Put simply, we are trying to address deficits by focusing on what teachers don’t know and can’t do. That is the major assumption driving most major teacher training/education approaches and curricula to date. When the efforts to improve teacher quality fail to yield the desired results in terms of teacher performance, that is, if learning is clearly ensuing from the teaching practices adopted, we tend to resort to either one or both of the following explanations: the first being teacher resistance, in that the teacher is unwilling to change fixed mindsets, fighting new ideas and new ways of doing things for whatever reasons, professional or personal (or both). The second represents the standard deficit view, according to which the teacher is just deficient in certain aspects of the craft, that the teacher simply didn’t learn those things well enough in the past.

Professor Freeman then proceeds to argue that it just might be that we are not thinking about the problem of teacher quality in a productive way by adopting the widespread, mainstream view of deficit. He makes a point of saying that we commonly understand that when it comes to knowledge, it’s an ‘either – or’ phenomenon, that is, a teacher either knows something, or s/he doesn’t. That sounds very logical and all, but the trouble is that it doesn’t contribute to effectively addressing the issue at hand. In Freeman’s words, “the way we have addressed that problem has actually gotten in the way of trying to solve it.” So how does he propose we attack the problem? He sets off to explain three core costructs whose interconnectedness and mutual dynamics might offer a new way of approaching the problem of teacher quality.

The first construct is the idea of familiarity. That it is possible and desirable that the teacher work from what s/he knows to build what s/he doesn’t know, which is basically the application of Vygotsky’s ZPD concept, in that the teacher will start off of his/her comfort zone towards his anxiety zone, with learning happening in that movement. Teachers needs to, nonetheless, recognize the gaps in their knowledge themselves, rather than being told what their gaps are, which will therefore spark off the idea of agency, of momentum, of the teachers’ engaging in movement in their own growth and development.  The key to that movement is not giving people new ways to do things, but helping people think about their work in different ways, which Freeman calls ‘knowing things and believing in things in a different way’. At this point of his talk, I couldn’t help but think about the nature of innovation as being the search for new connections between pre-existing ideas and concepts. That innovation does not lie exclusively in coming up with novel ideas as much as it lies in establishing new relational patterns among familiar things.

quotation1There’s a popular notion that innovation arrives like a bolt out of the blue, as a radical departure from previous knowledge—when really, most new ideas are extensions, twists, variations on what’s come before. The skill of generating innovations is largely the skill of putting old things together in a new way, or looking at a familiar idea from a novel perspective, or using what we know already to understand something new. ~ Annie Murphy Paul

When articulated, the two constructs of familiarity and agency result in the third construct – professional confidence. Freeman explains professional confidence in terms of teaching effectiveness in the classroom via an awareness of, as well as a boost in the teacher’s confidence about what they know and what they can do. From a deficit perspective, confidence was a byproduct of knowledge increase, whereas in this model, one sees the necessity of making confidence a central element to teaching. That’s the shift we need. How do we make confidence central in teaching? Professional confidence leverages the potential to take actions that will make a difference in students’ learning. Professional confidence is the quality of thinking that you can potentialize positive impact. Agency is the ability to get things done.

Watching this talk raised a few questions for me, such as how do we become more confident about what we already know? When it comes to teaching and doing our craft, is an improvement of quality single-handedly a matter of gaining more knowledge? Or is it a matter of gaining more self-confidence about the knowledge we already have? Those questions got me thinking about a post written by Dave Cormier on the subject of open project practices. Cormier starts off explaining the importance of giving yourself permission to be a contributing member in a community of learning.

quotation1I’m increasingly starting to realize that one of the biggest impediments to any project is that people don’t believe they have permission to do things. Questions like ‘what am i allowed to do” and “what does success look like” are good indicators that people are comfortable participating openly. If you are participating in an open project there is a subtle balance between the organizers and the participants in this regard. We need to make an effort to give people the structure and the room to participate, but, in the end, the participants need to take on the authority themselves. ~ Dave Cormier

Dave’s words resonated within, in the sense that so much of how we go about our lives, and how we hold ourselves in our professional, as well as personal connections and relationships may sometimes be from the standpoint of deficit. Our own deficits. It might have been that we were overexposed to situations in which we have felt undeserving in life, or it might just be a lack of self-awareness and self-knowledge. No matter what the origin of the issue is, if there’s something we must attain in life, both in the professional and personal levels, is the right value of our contributions to the world and to the people around us. It is not only about knowing things, but it’s also about believing that you know things, and that you have the drive to impact the world around you by bringing your uniqueness to the table.

knowing  <   using   >  believing

professional  <   agency   > confidence

Try letting go of the deficit view, and give yourself permission to build confidence instead.

This post was also inspired by the words and the beautiful voice of my friend Maha Bali on the semi-privileged. I strongly recommend the reading. Thanks for the inspiration, my friend.