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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

Listen to the learner’s voice: the need for education systems to move from pedagogy to heutagogy


Raaji Naveen

May 21, 2020


You might think twice before using the word ‘pedagogy’ again

Have you walked into a school and felt ambushed by strong words such as, ‘pedagogy’, ‘curriculum’, or ‘syllabus objectives’? It is most likely you have, if it was a traditional school that you visited. In this post, my intention as an educator is to open up doors that go beyond these rigid and restrictive standards and make you see that your children will do better without them.

Take pedagogy, for instance. It comes from the Greek paidagōgia, which means, ‘office of a pedagogue’, from paidagōgos. On a related note, pedagogue refers to a teacher, especially a strict or pedantic one. Pedagogy will have your children do the things that the school authorities want. The premise is that they know everything and following their orders will make your children, ‘industry-ready’, where his/her sole purpose as an employee would be to make money for the company.

All of us who have been to a conventional school can relate to the perpetual experiences of having a strict teacher critically looking down at our homework or giving us a stern look for chatting with a peer! And how could we forget those numerous conversations about campus interviews where we were trained to convince companies on how we will add “value” to “their” organisation?

The question that arises now is, do we want our children also to be subjected to pedagogy? Or would we rather have them hear words such as ‘enable’, ‘passion’ and ‘dreams’ in their learning journeys?

Why, then, are schools still fixated on pedagogy, even in the 21st century?

Acharya Vinoba Bhave, one of India’s most revered teachers, pointed to an interesting fact: the absence of the English verb, ‘to teach’, in Sanskrit or any other Indian language. He advocated for genuine freedom as the greatest teacher.

Why do we still ‘teach’ or use pedagogy as a guide then? The idea of freedom as a key ingredient for learning has been passed onto us for generations now. Yet, the fear of giving freedom to children is so deep-rooted in our belief system that we would rather continue doing the wrong things with increased intensity than doing right by our children.

Time and again unhappy learners question the meaningless curriculum structure and constantly ask us about the relevance of complex concepts such as trigonometry and calculus that they will never use in their lives. In my own life story as an educator, I have seen numerous learners displaying high levels of motivation when given the freedom to think, but retaliating with excuses and frustration when forced to mindlessly memorize for an examination.

The result of this narrow approach is a generation of learners who feel purposeless and growing up with a feeling of reduced self-worth. It comes as no surprise then, to see an increase in the number of learners who are depressed and unmotivated. Neither the learners or their teachers are truly happy, as a result. Everyone seems to be swimming against the tide of freedom and flexibility.

Now is the right time to move on - welcome heutagogy!

If you haven’t heard of pedagogy’s antithesis, heutagogy, it is definitely worth knowing. Heutagogy is a method of enabling students to discover for themselves. While the word itself might sound complex, the principle of heutagogy is based on common sense. All of us know that we work best when we love what we are doing. A system based on heutagogy enables students to develop their interests, by providing them an environment where they can pursue all the things that they are passionate about with a lot of interest and motivation. A system that has this expansionist view is a system we must scale. Such a system would:

  • Allow agency so that learners can take charge and determine their own learning pathways.
  • Replace teaching with coaching so that teachers listen to the learner’s voice, build capacity, collaborate, guide and provide a supportive environment for learning.
  • Enable aspirations and interests to build on innate skills, knowledge and attitudes that learners already possess.
  • Provide guidance and tools that help learners see their own progress and self reflect on their next steps.
  • Foster collaboration among peers and hence encourage learners to develop relatedness which is important to foster a sense of belonging and connection.

The impact of this approach can be experienced in many ways - from the lights of hope seen in the eyes of learners to the increased resolve and rigour they hold in the pursuit of their dreams. All of this while also developing a powerful sense of self-worth that is seen in their thoughts and actions for themselves and those around them.

I have experienced this time and again during my experiments in teaching. When we walk their journey, we see that they are extremely motivated and also committed to the whole learning process. They start initiatives that are close to their hearts and from these actions derive confidence in the rest of their works as well. They set high standards of excellence for themselves and thrive in the process of meeting those standards. They are happier and it comes with no surprise that their happiness is shared and enjoyed by their teachers too.

And when a learner from Beyond 8 walks up to me and says - “Quite often, I hear my friends from other schools complaining that they don’t have enough time to do what they really love. But I have never had to worry about this as I have been enabled to follow my true passion. Thank you!” - I know that we are doing something right.

Why is heutagogy relevant and important for the Gen Z mindset?

Listening to the learners voice is ever so important today as we facilitate learning for Gen Z who are characterised by their strong sense of autonomy, independence and affinity towards self-determined learning approaches.

We can see this change in attitude being discussed at length in the corridors of our schools, where teachers constantly talk about how “learners are different now”, how “they don’t have “sitting tolerance”, “how they are disrespectful” and “ don’t listen to instructions”. Teachers also reminisce about the days when “learners could be kept inside the classroom - quiet - without asking questions - for 40 minutes”.

While the previous generations may not have voiced their protest against draconian learning systems, facilitating learning to the tech savvy digital native Gen Z learners using outdated approaches is bound to fall flat on its face and it is but natural that motivating learners in a classroom will become more and more challenging, if not already so.

As an evolving industry, we need to move with the times, understand the changing nature of the learners today and adapt to learning practices in which the current generation will thrive. It is in these thoughts and actions that we will make education relevant for our learners again.

We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

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