A Heutagogical Approach to Learning Solution-Focused Conversation
Jan 29, 2021
Introduced by Carey Glass
Leaders of great reputation tend to have empty desks. They have a cadre of people around them who can brief them or give them something to read on a particular issue, but they can more or less enter any meeting on any subject and feel pretty much at home in making a decision. They fulfil the definition of capability - they have justified confidence in their ability to take appropriate and effective action to formulate and solve problems in familiar, unfamiliar and changing settings.
In this article, Haesun Moon explores heutagogy – the art of self-determined learning. It is this kind of learning that moves one from having a competence that is taught to a capability that is inherently one’s own and changes the art of teaching accordingly. You will recognise heutagogy as reflecting an essentially SF concept and notice in this elegant example of heutagogy in action, how Haesun makes the most of this natural affinity to enhance learning and leads us to rethink our approaches.
“How did you learn to teach?” I get asked often. I owe what knowledge and abilities I have to many classroom participants who looked rather confused, asked tough questions, and tried half-baked activities with me. I also owe it to countless conversations with many educators who cared enough to confront our status quo. And I profoundly owe it to my father who told stories and asked questions every night at dinner. This article invites you to visit five scenes of masterclass that describe heutagogical interactions. This word, heutagogy, may be unfamiliar to some of you who will nonetheless likely be pleasantly surprised to notice how much of it you are already doing in your practice. It is my heartfelt hope that you will read this with curious observations of how you learned your craft, how others learn their craft, and how you facilitate the process of learning for yourself and others.
Scene I: Class of Masters
It’s rather enchanting, walking into a red brick Victorian house in the heart of bustling downtown Toronto. Stepping inside heavy double doors that quickly fall shut to muffle the noise of morning rush hour, there’s a whiff of fresh coffee brewing even at this early hour. The cathedral ceiling arching high above is more welcoming than intimidating. A well-worn cabinet from the early 1900s hangs securely on the wall, filled with drinking glasses. Jazz plays faintly behind a chalky orange classroom door just off the dining area. The classroom, with huge windows on both sides, was likely once a bright living room back when the building was a private residence. A few people are rearranging chairs. A welcome sign on an easel in the entryway near the door reads, Welcome to Masterclass, with Class of Masters below that in smaller print.
That smaller print is intriguing. It’s probably closer to the original practice of Franz Liszt who coined the term Masterclass as a way of encouraging and efficiently teaching his pupils. Many accounts of his masterclass depict scenes where he invites students to perform a piece one at a time, where he often sits alongside his students as a page turner or even takes a seat at the back of the room. Some historians argue that it was out of a simple desire of making his lessons more efficient and accessible so that he doesn’t need to repeat himself. Regardless, this intentional positioning of a teacher in a masterclass encouraged others gathered in the room to exchange different interpretations and reflect together - something markedly different from the traditional way of crafting musicianship. Although it is now too often mis-practiced by those who borrow the term for its charm without any of the character at its heart, the pursuit of the teacher as “a guide on the side” instead of taking up space as “a sage on stage” continues (Abraham & Komattil, 2017, p.297).
“Good morning,” the facilitator greets you, gesturing for you to come in. “Welcome. Help yourself to some coffee, tea, snacks, books,” she adds, taking some books from a bin and fanning them out on the snack table.
“Thank you, I will. And do I sit just anywhere?” you ask, pointing to a dozen chairs arranged in a big circle in the middle of the room. There are no tables.
“Yup. Anywhere in the circle.”
As you get settled in your seat, others arrive. Good mornings and welcomes are exchanged and a buzz quickly grows over the music until the music fades. The facilitator rings a Tibetan singing bowl, signalling the beginning of the masterclass, or the class of masters1.
Scene II: The Quest in the Questions
“Well, hello, everyone,” the facilitator says as she sits in the one remaining chair in the circle. “So somehow you’ve decided to come here and spend one whole day of your life with us here today.”
People chuckle and shrug. “And I assume that you’ve done some coaching.”
Most everyone nods.
“And I also assume that you would like to get even better at what you’re doing, yes?” The wave of nods increases.
“Okay, then. In groups of three or four, could you please find out what questions you brought here? What are some of your emerging questions based on your practices?”
The circle divides into smaller clusters and the facilitator stands to write on the whiteboard:
Questions: The Quest I’m On
Let me pause here and ask, dear reader, what questions do you have about your own practice? I assume that if you’re reading this article you’re someone who cares about how conversations work, whether in coaching, therapy, teaching, consulting and so on. You may be just beginning your practice or perhaps you have taught others for a long time. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, what questions do you have about your own practice? What’s getting clearer or messier for you? What did your most recent conversation teach you?
Beginning a learning session with learners’ questions has become a significant ritual for me as I facilitate different learning spaces for adult students. Considering coaching as a subset of adult education, the practice of pursuing what people might want to be different or even better in their life after our engagement is congruent with the way we coach and how we teach coaching. Much like in coaching conversations, our agenda in learning sessions often emerges out of the preferred futures and preliminary progresses of learners, even their frustrations and failures. It often shows up in what they ask in class and those questions are often layered with their biases, curiosities, resources and hopes. Indeed, one’s questions carry one’s quest, literally and figuratively. When centering learning around what people are curious about, the focus of a class shifts from how and what people teach to how and what people want to learn. Carl Rogers gave us the rather fitting term student-centered learning (Nikolovska et al., 2019, p.147), adapted from his well-known client-centered approach in psychology. These attempted shifts in pedagogy from teacher-centred education to student- centered education can both be traced far before and extend well beyond Liszt’s piano room and Rogers’ therapy room.
In the world of Adult Education, similar observations of how people seem to learn have offered nebulous distinctions between how children and adults might learn differently. The suspicion that adults engage with learning differently than do children prompted educators like Alexander Kapp, a German teacher, to consider a new term, andragogy (andra meaning man) to differentiate from pedagogy (pedo meaning boy or child). This term was introduced in 1833 but was picked up again more than a century later by Malcolm Knowles, an American adult educator who defined andragogy as “an approach in which the learner takes the responsibility of identifying learning needs and exploring the strategies in which the learning needs would be met” (Nikolovska et al., 2019, p.295). Knowles profoundly influenced the formalization of andragogy and the development of Humanistic Learning Theory where the role of the learner becomes central in learning. This has been more popularly known as self-directed learning over the years.
Along with the changing role of the learner in the learning process, the role of the teacher quickly became more that of a facilitator who supports learners in becoming more self-directed in learning a curriculum. This paradigm shift was accompanied by rapid technological advances that both afforded and supported an upsurge in asynchronous distance learning and a competency-based framework in adult education. This shift from pedagogy to andragogy marked an intentional repositioning of the learning process as curriculum-centred rather than teacher-centered, moving closer to the aspired-to position of being learner- centred.
Now let’s return to our Scene II where we left our learners sitting in small clusters to find out what questions they brought to class. Some are talking. Some are taking notes. Others seem to be just thinking. The facilitator slowly reaches for her singing bowl and taps it gently with a soft mallet. It’s a signal to regain people’s attention. It’s a minute or two before everyone is back.
“Wow, okay. It sounds like you did have some questions,” the facilitator says. She picks up a blue marker, ready to write on the whiteboard.
“So, what are some of your emerging questions that you have right now?”
For the next thirty minutes, she writes down every question people ask, occasionally encouraging them to say more or nudging with “What else?” All questions are acknowledged, but not necessarily answered. The whiteboard soon runs out of space.
“Okay. I think we may have just enough to get us started.” Some burst into laughter. Others shake their heads, smiling.
“Let’s take a break. Feel free to go for a walk in that park, use the reading table, or just hang out here with others.” Setting down the marker and putting the jazz music back on, she adds, “See you in half an hour.”
Scene III: Counting the Rests
To those of us practicing Solution-Focused dialogue in coaching or in therapy, taking a break serves meaningful functions. Traditionally, a thinking break affords clients time to collect their insights. Practitioners use this time alone or with others to reflect on the session ‘behind a one-way mirror’ to construct an appreciative message and homework for their clients. More often than not, this dedicated time and space is useful for both practitioners and clients. Many of my clients have told me the thinking break was the most useful part of the session. How humbling it is to learn that what my clients find most helpful in the session is my absence!
In a classroom setting, break times can be designed even more explicitly to afford both formal and nonformal learning interactions. This idea of designing the learning environment, even the breaks, subscribes to the term affordance introduced by James Gibson in the 1960s. As a psychologist researching visual perception, he observed and introduced [the questions of] how and what the environment “provides or furnishes” or even shapes the person’s possibilities of action within it (Tubik Studio, 2018). A popular example of affordance is a door with a handle that cues, not causes, the user to pull rather than push; whereas, a door without a handle signals that it can only be pushed. This idea of the interface of the actor and the environment has moved beyond something simple like small items displayed near a supermarket cashier to promote trivial purchases. It has become a fundamental concept in designing digital affordances, like when Apple’s functionally intuitive designs lead to the all-too-familiar scene of a pre-toddler skillfully operating an iPad (ibid).
This unrandom design of spaces in classrooms is rather obvious to those who look for it. The book table is at the back of the room alongside the snack station where participants wait for coffee to brew. Small pods of comfortable chairs by the windows invite small groups to congregate for conversation. Placing trash cans near the exit of the building seems to invite those who consider going for a stroll to actually go for it. If you’re also someone who provides training for adult learners, what else do you do to make learning intuitive in the learning space?
Scene IV: Learning to Learn - Part I2
As you return from the break, you notice the classroom set-up has shifted subtly. Two chairs have been added to the front of the room and the other chairs are set up in a U-shape facing them.
“Welcome back, everyone! This is a masterclass, as you know. We’ll begin your live coaching demo session shortly, and I want to remind all of you that we are here to notice each other’s mastery. As you watch others in session, please notice their signs of mastery. More specifically, please make a note of the things that you learned from their session that you’d like to try in your session. I will interview each of you before and after your coaching session so that we know what would be most useful for you that we do together.”
(Haesun Moon, transcript of masterclass session, 2018)
The order of the live coaching demo is sometimes determined on a volunteer basis and sometimes by drawing names from a hat. Clients are often pre-scheduled, sometimes from the current cohort of students, from past students of the program who’d like to contribute to the new class, or even from the general public via online marketing designed to recruit clients.
As both the client and the coach are invited to take seats in the front two chairs, the facilitator sits near the back and begins to interview the coach.
Facilitator: What would you like us [observers around the room] to notice about your coaching mastery in your conversation?
Coach: Umm, I want to be in the flow with the client.
Facilitator: Okay. In the flow.
Facilitator: Okay, how would your client experience that in the session? What would they see you do or hear you say for them to know that you are in the flow with them?
Coach: I don’t know, maybe how I use their words…or what questions I ask, I guess?
Facilitator: Using their words and questions you ask.
Facilitator: Okay. And what would be useful for you to get feedback on from all of us watching? What are you experimenting with or trying more or less in this session?
Coach: Good question. I want to practice how I can move the conversation along. Or, actually, how I can interrupt them more usefully.
Facilitator: Interrupt them more usefully.
Facilitator: So you want us to notice when you seem to interrupt and when it seems useful.
Facilitator: Okay. What else would be useful for us to do?
Coach: Could you actually keep time for me and signal to me when I am like at the 15-minute mark?
Facilitator: Okay. We will just write a little note and hold it up for you to see?
Coach: Yes, thank you. That’ll work.
Facilitator : Okay. Let’s get started.
(Haesun Moon, transcript of masterclass session, 2019)
As the coaching conversation ensues, observers busy themselves taking notes. They nod, smile, and follow the conversation as if they were sitting behind a one-way mirror— reminiscent of the early days of discovering Solution-Focused approaches to therapy. The observers watch the session with the specific instruction of listening for and looking for the mastery of the coach in the areas where they requested feedback. Some psychologists might label this confirmation bias yet it is fascinating to watch a session with a specific focus in mind as our attention is primed to notice what we’re looking for. This practice of getting learners to determine what they want to learn and how they want to learn gets closer to the learner-centred approach, or self-determined learning.
Scene V: Learning to Learn - Part II
As the session nears its end, the facilitator holds up a timekeeping note for the coach that reads: 15 min so far. The coach gives a subtle nod to acknowledge receipt of the message, then returns their gaze quickly to the client. The session is wrapping up.
“Thank you so much,” the coach says to the client, “I’m really looking forward to hearing how it turns out for you.”
The coach then turns to the class and says, “Phew,” making an exaggerated gesture of wiping sweat from their brow before the room erupts in laughter and applause. What a celebration.
“Hey, thank you,” the facilitator says, grinning wide. The coach smiles and nods.
“And thank you,” the facilitator says to the client.
The client nods and smiles.
“We’d like to take a collective thinking time,” the facilitator continues. “We’ll reflect on what we heard from you. We’ll talk about what we heard you say that you care about, what’s important to you, and especially how you seem to take care of all that. Now, you are more than welcome to stay for this or you can go for a walk if you want. What would you like to do?”
“I’d love to stay.”
“Okay, please don’t mind us talking about you behind your back.”
“Oh, I’m used to that, no worries,” the client says good humouredly.
Talking about the Client
For the next fifteen minutes, the facilitator invites everyone, including the coach, to reflect on what they heard from the client with the following questions:
- What did you hear the client say they want?
- What and who seems important to them?
- What did you notice them already doing to manage all these?
The whole class talks about the client as if they’re not in the room while the client stands by the big window looking onto the park, probably closely tuning in to what is being said. The facilitator taps the singing bowl gently to signal the end of the appreciative conversation about the client, and the client returns to their chair.
Talking to the Client
“Welcome back. How was your walk?” the facilitator jokes.
“It was rather cool,” the client says rather pensively.
The two of them converse about the client’s experience for the next few minutes.
Facilitator: You probably heard a few things that we said already, so I won’t repeat them, but I’d love to ask you a few questions.
Client: Sure, okay.
Facilitator: As you were in conversation with the coach…
Facilitator: …and as you were just taking a thinking break…
Facilitator: …you might have noticed some things that you didn’t think about before or thought differently before.
Facilitator: What are some of those insights that are emerging for you?
Facilitator: What’s getting clearer… or what ideas are coming up, what’s changing for you?
Client: That’s a good question.
Facilitator: Well, thank you [laughs] Take your time.
Facilitator: And what was specifically useful for you? Maybe it’s something that the coach did or said.
Facilitator: …or somehow some of those insights that came up in conversations.
Facilitator: What was specifically useful for you?
Client: Uhm…I think it was really useful that the coach [Describes what the coach did in session that helped them think aloud].
(Haesun Moon, transcript of masterclass session, 2019)
The client’s answers are truncated above because the purpose here is to illustrate the sequence of feedback, not the content. When a conversation is designed this way, the client naturally speaks about what the coach did that was useful for them, and they further articulate what they learned from the conversation and at the break time.
“And of course, the most useful part was the thinking break,” the client quips, and the class once again bursts into laughter.
Talking about the Coach
“And now,” the facilitator says, “to build on what our client taught us about what was useful that the coach did, let’s talk about the coach.” Turning to the coach she adds, “and for this, I’d love for you to stay and listen in.”
“Okay, for sure,” the coach says, nodding.
The facilitator uses the next fifteen minutes to prompt specific feedback from the observers based on the coach’s learning areas that they identified:
- Based on what the coach wanted to learn from this practice, what did you notice them doing to demonstrate their competence in that area?
- What did the coach do that seemed to usefully influence what the client did next?
- What did you learn from what this coach did that you want to try in your own practice?
In this case, the areas the coach wanted specific feedback on were how they used the client’s words, what questions they asked, and how they usefully interrupted the client. As the class shares their specific observations of relevant examples in the coaching interactions, the coach takes notes. The singing bowl rings again. It’s time to talk to the coach.
Talking to the Coach
The facilitator gestures for the coach to rejoin the group conversation and begins the interview.
Facilitator: Well, can I ask you some questions?
Coach: Yep. Ready.
Facilitator: So, as you were listening in to the feedback just now, what resonated with you the most?
Coach: Hmm…resonate with…
Facilitator: Yeah. What are you kinda glad that people noticed about what you did?
Coach: Oh, I really liked that people picked up on how I was selecting and using the client’s language very intentionally.
Coach: And the fact that I ended up not asking a lot of questions, but simply reflected back what they were saying in their own words.
Coach: Especially when the client mentioned the challenges at work and at home, I think I was able to acknowledge that by using their words but without exploring the problem.
Facilitator: Wow. Okay. Pretty cool that you were able to remember to do that in the middle of your session.
Coach: I know!
Facilitator: And what was surprising to hear?
Coach: In the feedback just now?
Coach: Uhm…they mentioned how I was interrupting the client more often when the client was talking about their struggles. I actually felt that I was rather stuck there, I was sweating [laughs].
Facilitator: [laughing] So, what did you learn from this experience that you might be able to use for your coaching practice? What did you learn that you didn’t know before or what other ideas do you want to experiment with?
Coach: Well, it was a big aha moment for me when the client started to answer as if I just asked a question. I mean, the only thing I did was to repeat back some of their words, right?
Coach: That’s so cool. I just realized that I was interrupting them usefully using their words!
Moments like these remind me of the story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, wherein he found a method for measuring the volume of an irregularly-shaped object after noticing the more he sank into his bath, the more the water rose in his tub. He ran naked from the public baths all the way home shouting, “Eureka! Eureka!” This tale from two millennia ago still offers insight into how people learn. For Archimedes, it was by an unintentional occasion of discovery while sitting in a bath. Eureka means “I have found (it)”, from the Ancient Greek word heúrēka. This root word is also found in the word heuristic, defined as a method of teaching by allowing students to discover for themselves (Nikolovska et al., 2019, p.146). These words are closely linked to another lesser known term coined by Hase and Kenyon (2000) in adult education, heutagogy, (pronounced hyoo-tuh-goh-jee) otherwise known as self-determined learning (Nikolovska et al., 2019, p.146).
Assumptions of Heutagogy
Heutagogy assumes that “humans are inherently, but not automatically, proactive, inclined to growth, development, and optimal actions” (Faiella, 2013, p.116). This assumption underlies the inherent characteristics of the practice that both require and foster learner autonomy, and the learners are situated as crafters of knowledge. This is strikingly resonant with the assumptions of the Solution-Focused practices that we have about our clients. For this reason, learning Solution-Focused Dialogue has a particular affinity to the heutagogical approach, and it is worth exploring the congruence between the teaching and practicing of the model.
The Practices of Heutagogy
What People Learn
Often referred to as competence, the andragogical approach to learning strives towards the development of skills in learners in particular disciplines or categories. They are often measured against a norm or criteria as a reference of their development. In a heutagogical approach, nurturing capability beyond competence in learners is emphasized (Hase & Kenyon, 2007). Cairns and Hase (1996) defined capability as “having justified confidence in your ability to take appropriate and effective action to formulate and solve problems in both familiar and unfamiliar and changing settings” (as cited in Nikolovska et al., 2019, p.296). Heutagogical approaches advocate for this capability-focus in the curriculum so people learn not only the “competence” but also the ability to use the competence appropriately in varying situations (ibid, p.295). I have dedicated Scenes IV and V as Learning to Learn, Parts I and II as relevant illustrations of what activities might support self-determined learning where learners determine what they want to learn within the framework of Solution-Focused Dialogue as their learning area.
How People Learn
Much like our client’s insights in our conversations, learning does not necessarily develop linearly or sequentially. As Phelps et al (2005) says, learning in heutagogy is “not caused but rather occasioned,” and the knowledge is crafted by the learner in a fundamentally emergent fashion (p.116). This process of knowledge creation is curated by intentional learning design that promotes deliberate practice and intentional reflection involving relevant social networks—coaches, observers, clients, and facilitators, in our example. Learners are exposed to these multiple opportunities and positions so that they can learn through various modes of acting: observing, evaluating, experimenting, and synthesizing.
How People Teach
The role of a teacher in heutagogy probably is the most significant departure from the traditional expectations of a teacher in the room. In self-determined learning, a teacher does not play a less significant role; rather, they play a significantly different role as a valuable and available resource to be tapped when needed. As our learners craft their crafts, our role shifts to that of a curator of information and resources. The primary mission of a teacher then changes from transmitting knowledge (teacher-centred) and translating knowledge (curriculum-centred) toward collaborative curating and crafting (learner-centred) knowledge. Inquiring about learners’ curiosities, gauging learners’ progress throughout their learning, and self-referenced evaluation such as using their own baseline as their reference for progress are some of the examples of how heutagogy is practiced in class.
Invitation for Experiment
My curiosities return to what you might do as a result of reading this article. If you’re a coach or someone who teaches coaching or other related practices:
- What ideas emerge for your own learning and teaching?
- In what ways are you broadening and deepening the experience of your learners in class?
- How do you continue your own learning from your practice? In which areas do you want to enhance and enrich your teaching?
- How do you know that what you do is effective?
- What questions do you have?
I hope that you try out some of those insights in your next conversations, and I’d love to learn from your own stories.
Abraham, R. R., & Komattil, R. (2016). Heutagogic approach to developing capable learners.Medical Teacher, 39(3), 295-299. doi:10.1080/0142159x.2017.1270433
Faiella, F. (2013). Knowledge, networks, and learning theories. Knowledge Cultures. 1(6), 107-121.
Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: A Child of Complexity Theory. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4(1). doi:10.29173/cmplct8766
Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. UltiBase. Retrieved from Nikolovska, A., Grizhev, A. & Iliev, A. (2019). History of Heutagogy as a self-determinated learning.
Phelps, R., Hase, S., & Ellis, A. (2004). Competency, capability, complexity and computers: Exploring a new model for conceptualising end‐user computer education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(1), 67-84. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2005.00439.x
Tubik Studio (2018, May 08). UX Design Glossary: How to Use Affordances in User Interfaces. Retrieved from https://uxplanet.org/ux-design-glossary-how-to-use-affordances-in-user-interfaces-393c8e9686e4
This term, Class of Masters, was first introduced to me by Peter Szabo when he visited the centre (Canadian Centre for Brief Coaching) in 2015 to lead the masterclass. ↩︎
I deeply appreciate countless conversations about teaching and learning solution-focused practices with Peter De Jong, Bo Yon Koh, and Peter Szabo that have significantly informed this learning process. ↩︎