Select Page

Understanding heutagogy: Fostering lifelong learning and autonomy

Heutagogy is regaining interest in education after previously fading attention. Explore why heutagogy develops deeper learning experiences for K-12 students.
10 ways educators can implement Google Docs for learners in their classrooms

What is heutagogy?

Heutagogy puts students at the center of their learning process. Substantiated by a growing body of neuroscientific research, heutagogy is an instructional strategy that supports learners in being the agents of their own learning. 

Children are naturally active learners. From a very young age the developing mind is astonishingly insightful, competent and active. However, when the learning experiences children encounter in school are largely teacher led based on the outdated premise that the young mind is like an empty slate, learners tend to adapt by becoming more passive . Since much of the schooling available follows this traditional pedagogy, opportunities for students to take responsibility for their learning decrease as they advance on the K-12 continuum. 

In a nutshell, heutagogy emphasizes relearning how to learn.

Five principles underlying heutagogy

  1. Learner agency
  2. Self-efficacy and capability
  3. Metacognition and reflection
  4. Nonlinear learning
  5. Learning how to learn

The origins of heutagogy

Steward Hase and Chris Kenyon, who defined heutagogy as the study of self-determined learning in 2000, name it an optimal approach to learning for the 21st century. They also consider it an attempt to challenge prevailing ideas about teaching and learning stemming from an educator-centered learning paradigm.

Heutagogy pulls together ideas from previous approaches to learning, including:

  • Systems thinking 
  • Double loop and organizational learning 
  • Andragogy 
  • Constructivism
  • Learner managed learning
  • Capability and work-based learning 

An important landmark in education of adult learners was andragogy, popularized by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s. It’s characterized by learner control, self-responsibility and intrinsic self-motivation. Learners develop the skills or seek the knowledge necessary to fulfill a specific learning objective they have defined themselves. Objectives are highly relevant to them such as performing their jobs better, getting a promotion or becoming more employable. 

An andragogical approach to teaching and learning is characterized by:

  • learners’ autonomy and active involvement in identifying their needs
  • then planning and problem solving to best meet them.

Heutagogy, an extension of andragogy that incorporates self-determined learning, takes into account intuition and nonlinear concepts. The learning path is not predefined, sequential nor planned. Hase and Kenyon note that a person may not identify a learning need or objective at all. Instead they may see the potential to learn from a novel experience and recognize the opportunity to reflect on what’s taken place and observe how it “challenges, disconfirms or supports existing values and assumptions.” 

How does heutagogy support lifelong learning?  

Core to heutagogy is the concept of lifelong learning. An important goal of heutagogy is setting students up for success in life by supporting them in becoming lifelong learners. Lifelong learning can be defined as the ongoing, voluntary and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for both personal and professional ends. It enhances a learner’s personal development and social inclusion along with competitiveness and employability. 

Capability and competency

Competency: a proven ability in gaining knowledge and skills

Capability: learner confidence in their competency. 

Competence and capability are core characteristics of lifelong learners. When learners are competent, they demonstrate the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills they need. When learners are capable, they apply their skills and knowledge creatively and effectively to new and unfamiliar situations that arise. The result is learner autonomy. 

“With its dual focus on competencies and capability, heutagogy moves educators a step closer toward better addressing the needs of adult learners in a complex and changing work environment,” explains Lisa Marie Blaschke in this comprehensive research paper.

How does heutagogy help students?

Traditional education is largely teacher-driven, whereas the heutagogical approach allows learners voice and choice. In place of feeding back information or completing rote assignments, learners discover for themselves the problems they need to solve. They’re encouraged to explore areas of uncertainty and complexity found in the topics they’re studying.

Improved motivation for nontraditional learners 

Learning that is self-determined and inquiry-based has been shown to improve student motivation, often reaching students who haven’t responded well to systematic education. The voice and choice element promotes learner equity as evidenced in examples of project-based learning. Heutagogical practice has the potential to reach a wider demographic of students. 

The process helps cultivate fully engaged students, passionate about what they’re studying because they are empowered with the ability to decide what is relevant or interesting to them. Not only do learners who choose the direction of their learning journey serve their own needs, they often improve upon the resources available for other learners to use.

By engaging in self-determined and self-driven learning students have opportunities to “give back” by producing content from their own experience that adds worth and value to the field they are studying.

Gained awareness through metacognition

A key principle of heutagogy is double-loop learning commonly known as metacognition. This involves student reflection upon and critically thinking about what they have learned and the process of learning. Metacognitive learning also occurs when students pause to question and test their own personal values and assumptions.

The process of double-looping also helps students gain awareness of their preferred learning style, notes Blaschke. This allows them to more easily adapt new learning situations to their learning styles so they become more capable. 

Where do educators and technology fit in a heutagogical approach?

Educators have a critical part to play for the class. They help instruct learners how to teach themselves and serve as role models. As guides, educators help students put their learning in context and provide resources. Students in turn negotiate their learning and determine what they will learn and how. 

Technology, used either for distance education or in learning environments with 1:1 student devices, can greatly help educators facilitate this kind of differentiated learning process. They must be careful to use tools in a way that fosters self-determined, not rote learning. Hāpara Workspace is a tool designed with differentiation and individualization in mind. Educators can allow students to plan learning goals for themselves in the first Workspace column and create their planning cards.

Sam Robinson, a 5th grade teacher from Ottawa notes that tools like Hāpara provide more opportunities to create personalized and individualized learning tasks for students. He has seen  the learning process in his classroom become more reciprocal as students use these tools to contribute something uniquely theirs to the group.

Relinquishing control 

To foster a self-determined learning environment, educators have to relinquish ownership of the learning path and process to their students. For many this involves adjusting their approach and  letting go of teaching the way they were taught. They must move into trusting that learners can actually be responsible for their own learning.   

This process of overcoming educator control of the curriculum has been named the pedagogy-andragogy-heutagogy (PAH) continuum.

Reaching K-12 learners

While heutagogy has historically been described for adult learners, younger learners, even elementary school children, are now successfully engaging in heutagogy-based educational experiences. The availability of open educational resources and information abundance has supported this shift.  

For younger learners and students not accustomed to this style of learning, educators play a critical role in scaffolding the process of learner autonomy. Decentralizing the educator from the classroom is key to helping students transition into a self-determined learning model. Much of this involves empathy, and more importantly, educators making shifts at both a personal and professional level.

Educators may need to nurture students and remind them how to be active learners. I found this to be true when teaching English to public school students in Mexico. From an early age their education had taught them to be passive learners who needed to please their teachers to succeed. This made it very challenging for them to share an opinion, much less take agency as learners.  

Is there renewed interest in heutagogy? 

Heutagogy is regaining interest in education after about a decade of fading attention. Previous barriers in adopting it are beginning to be brought down by increasing evidence in favor of heutagogy. These include a resistance to relinquishing control to learners, attachment to grades and assessment and lack of accessibility to the required technology, explains Blaschke. 

It is well-documented that the great migration of in-class to virtual learning due to the pandemic opened the minds of many educators as to how technology could enable deep learning and autonomy. If it weren’t for the pandemic pushing teachers out of their comfort zone many may still be engaged in the old practices in terms of integrating technology to help them differentiate learning. 

In of itself, the rapid evolution of technology and its availability has provided much more opportunity for learners to direct themselves, discover information and define their learning path. At home, kids jump on YouTube whenever they want to learn to do something. Such exposure to personal devices and social media at a young age provides a fertile ground for reaching K-12 learners, when and if educators are willing to seize that opportunity.


Explore SEL strategies that will help you create a more positive and equitable school and district culture.

Tech Admin one page guide

About the Author

You Might Also Enjoy

Pin It on Pinterest