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


  1. Clarissa, reading this blogpost (it’s midnight here) made me suddenly realize why I’d rather spend my time reading blogs by people like you than academic articles. It’s because a blog like this (as I tweeted) is worth 100 articles to me. You’re an educator I know, bringing in ideas from various texts you’ve read as well as some texts we’ve read jointly and discussed on facebook, bringing all these ideas reflectively, connecting complexity, heutagogy and adult learning to the ideas of Sugata Mitra for kids and coming up with this wonderful, very quotable conclusion:
    “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.”
    Loved it. Thanks for making my “night” :))

  2. Gosh, what an excellent post!
    As Maha said, this beats those posh articles with all the fancy (newly invented) words.
    I tried to read them, but they’re too difficult for me to read, even if they were in Dutch.

    You have put it in an understandable context for me.

    Thank you for that, thank you very much!

  3. Clarissa, this is so spot on for me. As I read it, I kept thinking, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

    I’m so pleased that you referenced Morin and Maturana & Varela, both of whom I have read, and also Maria Cândida Moraes, whom I have not read. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble finding her in English translation, but I’ll keep looking.

    But to your post: I really like that you fold education into a basic function of complex systems along with a few other functions necessary for the maintenance and continuation of the system. This connects us humans to the rest of life, which is a good corrective for when we become too taken with our own importance. Morin says that complex systems must exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with their ecosystems, and modern physicists are saying that information may be one of the three pillars of objective reality along with energy and matter. Education as the exchange of information and organization, then, is not an add-on to life, it is a core process of life. Just as we must take in food to sustain life, we must take in information and organization to sustain life, and we must work that information and organization into knowledge.

    One might argue that we humans can do without information a lot longer than we can do without food, but that’s no argument. We can do without food longer than we can do without water or air, but I don’t recommend doing without any of them. The point is that a successful amoeba needs to be able to exchange information (learn) and food with its environment to make its way through amoeba-life. We humans are the same.

    Teachers, then, are engaged in a core work, facilitating the flow of information through our students and helping them to process it into knowledge. I feel good about that.

    I will differ slightly on one point: that open, self-directed education is primarily for adults. I hear this often, but I’m not sure I buy it, at least not completely. While it’s true that we spoon-feed babies, I think that spoon-feeding teenagers either food or information is perhaps extending their dependence for too long. I don’t believe that children learn much that they don’t want to learn. Infants and toddlers, of course, learn whatever language and family patterns they happen to fall into, but as soon as children can get beyond their parents’ reach, they start following their own directions, and we in education must start allowing for some degree of self-direction. And this gradual allowance is not a bad thing in terms of self-direction, for I don’t believe any of us are ever totally self-directed. As complexity teaches, our directions in life, our choices, are always a dynamic interaction between system and eco-system, person and society. And even as a mature adult, I have never lost my need for encouraging, challenging, skillful guides such as this blog.

    Thanks for the good words.

    1. Hey Keith and Clarissa,

      First of all, isn’t it amaZing how ideas across our blogs, google plus, facebook etc come together at different times? It all makes more sense to me because I am so in tune with both of you that I know where the analogies and examples come from! Wow.

      Anyway, second, the point about children’s learning. I think that non-adults definitely learn all the time in self-directed ways, and it is especially evident in very young children, the kinds of things they discover when left to their own devices. Dewey already knew that and that’s the idea behind inquiry-based learning.

      What I argue kids cannot learn on their own is not information stuff, it is judgment and critical thinking types of stuff. And there is also one more thing: safety.

      Can Sugata Mitra with a clear-conscience say he would be totally fine with kids using his computers and ending up meeting pedophiles online or finding porn sites? I don’t know about you, but I would not be happy if this happened to my kids. So I’d love them to be able to play and discover things, but at a certain age, I only want them doing G-rated stuff, until they are old enough to understand what is not G-rated and to judge how far they can delve into it.

      It’s like the difference between leaving your child to roam freely at the park but not into the sea at the beach on a stormy day. Or like leaving your child to take walks around your suburban neighborhood but not leaving them to walk at night in the shady part of town. That’s something parents and other responsible adults do. It’s not really about learning, but protection. Now how much of that is our responsibility and how much should be left to chance is a matter of debate, but I am pretty sure most people who are responsible for kids will have something to say here.

      So, bottom line for me is: yes, education needs reform, more so in developing countries like mine and Sugata’s. yes, education can benefit from MUCH more freedom for kids to learn on their own (even language learning is often learned without formal training, we all know it can happen). But that does not mean complete freedom. It also does not mean we might not meet some other learning goals more efficiently or effectively in other ways (even if these aren’t the only or most motivating ways for all kids). I also suspect different personalities come into play, as well as cultural and social capital. I always give the example here of kids in public schools who have a parent at home who teaches English. They are at an advantage compared to their peers whose parents do not speak English at all. So a child’s capacity to benefit from the most “open” educational environment depends on a lot of factors outside the actual environment itself, and I would need to know a lot about that to understand how that environment helps him/her learn

    2. Maha, my friend, I know… it’s all happening, right? Love that as well.
      The Internet is the world, and like you, I wouldn’t let my child wonder about in the world alone. Not a chance.
      I understand that Mitra’s ‘schools in the cloud’ addresses a social issue in bringing some form of access to an education to those teacherless. As a human being and a Brazilian citizen, I appreciate the social initiative. As an educator, I wince a bit because I see a potential threat to teachers. All the more reason for teachers to become increasingly aware and self-critical, and engage in ongoing PD so as to rise up to challeges like this one being posed by Mitra’s views.
      Thank you for dropping by again and again. 🙂

    3. Hey Clarissa,

      I think I wince more at the lack of appreciation for teachers, than for the “threat” it poses to teachers. I think it overly simplifies the educational issues in the developing world, using a deficit model of looking at teachers (or at least that is how ppl interpret it). There is so much at play in our education system here in Egypt that makes it structurally very difficult for teachers to do anything, to be agent in any way, that I admire them for just continuing to try. I do not think Mitra’s solution works mainly for locations that get no education (read somewhere about parents complaining about kids spending time away from homework; about unequal access to the computers in the wall… Yes! Exactly, more boys, probably the bigger, stronger, most popular ones in the neighborhood got more access). I also suspect those whose English developed faster had some other real life opportunity to use it… I don’t have issues with revolutionary ways of looking at improving a broken educational system. I do have trouble with technological determinism, its overly simplistic and utopian view in this case, and whose interests it truly serves, as some people have said on facebook.

    4. I agree with you, Maha, that children can be self-directed learners, especially in regards to information, but also critical thinking and judgment skills. I think we are saying the same things, but we are dancing too close to all or nothing, either/or talk. The choice isn’t between total control and total freedom. Neither of those positions actually exists for anyone. For me, the move from directed learning to self-directed learning is a long flow from less to more, but never completely directed nor completely self-directed. I think babies can direct their attention and learn while in the womb, though obviously their attention is highly constrained. Likewise, I think we self-directed adult learners are always constrained by the wombs of society and nature.

      I also don’t think the flow is smooth or laminar. Sometimes we jump from directed to self-directed and back, or jump in one field of learning but not another. I recall teaching a class in an MBA program for a group of medical doctors, all highly self-directed learners, but as soon as they entered my class about information technology, they wanted me to give them all the directions. I found that both humorous and disheartening. I can only guess that as really good students, they had learned too well the proper student/teacher relationship, and though they made life and death decisions daily, when in the class, they wanted me to tell them what to do. Weird.

      And yes, we need to accompany children, even adults, into larger, more open spaces to protect them. Failure is okay, but injury is not acceptable. But keep in mind that many adult learners are quite unprepared for the wide-open spaces of cMOOCs, and most want some shepherding, or they will just watch from the sidelines until they are confident. Actually, watching from the periphery is a perfectly reasonable and valid strategy for engaging a new space. While I embraced cMOOCs early-on, I was not as vocal in 2010 as I am now. I consider all flows as complex movements: hesitant, erratic, forward and backward, moving into new landscapes but looking back to check for familiar landscapes, pushing in, pulling back, zig-zagging, ducking and weaving. It isn’t a smooth walk along a red carpet, or even a yellow-brick road.

      Think about the journey of many of the Rhizo14 group. It wasn’t so smooth. Some of them needed help and got it, some didn’t and were disappointed, maybe hurt. To play with the soccer analogy again: little kids play on a small field, big kids on a bigger field, adults on a huge field, and old adults on a smaller field again, but it’s the same struggle to cover the field, some of the same risks to take the ball. A good coach/teacher puts her players on the right size field with challenging but fair competition. Anything else almost assures injury—in kids and adults alike. Open space is always relative. A small field is way open for a little kid, just as open as a big field for an adult.

    5. Keith, thank you for this amazing reply. You know, I have my misgivings regarding the notion that teenagers are unable to be self-driven in terms of their learning. I teach teenagers and every day I see them being ground up by their schools with tests, tests, and more tests. It actually becomes an issue at times, for they won’t even find the time (or energy) to do the work required in our English classes. They seem so tired all the time, and I think that plays a part in depleting their energy to engage. So, to a certain extent, I can’t be sure whether they just want to sit there and be told the content because they are just too worn out rather than anything else. I’m sure it’s much more complex than that.
      One thing that I have seen lighting up their eyes in class is meaningful use of technology. I have been experimenting with that.
      As to the complexity paradigm for Education, I definitely think it carries something of a breakthrough…
      Maria Cândido Moraes is a professor who teaches Complexity subjects in a local college’s MEd program. I am actually contemplating the possibility of pursuing that, and maybe even with her guidance. It is a private college, so that means some good financial investment, but we’ll see. She is one of the most renowned Brazilian educational reserachers drinking from the waters of Complexity. I have been unable to find any of her stuff in English, though (unfortunately). I would really like to share her stuff with my English-speaking community.
      I, too, appreciate some good exchange of energy, especially in terms of encouragement and challenge. It means a lot to me that you keep engaging my thoughts here.

    6. I think we likely constrain teens too much. Most seem to liken school to prison, and some schools make that comparison too easy. As I mentioned in my reply to Maha, some of my best students have most wanted me to tell them what to do. It’s easy for them, and they’ve been successful at it, so they want to continue. Too bad.

      Complexity thought will be as big a breakthrough in education as it has been in science and technology. I’m pleased to be part of that shift as I think it’s going in the right direction.

      Talk to me about Moraes. I want to know more.

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