An heutagogical approach for design education

Students from the IDM program at MIT sharing work at the end of one of my classes – Spring 2022

Teaching has changed considerably in the last 20 years, and even at a faster pace in the last five. One of the most noticeable changes I have experienced is students’ attitude towards learning. Before most of the students chose to pursue design because they were passionate about it and showed an unmistakably hunger for learning. In short, they were in the classroom because they wanted to be there.

Nowadays, the classroom experience can be quite different. Not all students are there because they want to learn. Rather, some of them seem to be only interested in achieving the final output of the journey as fast as possible: the degree, and then find a high-paying job (even if they aren’t interested in design). These students attend to every class because this is often a requirement, but they aren’t interested in the final grade, so they sit in the back and have a disengaged attitude. They don’t contribute to class discussions or ask questions, or engage in team activities. This dynamic creates an extremely hard environment to teaching and learning for educators and other students, as there is very little dialogue and collaboration.

Unfortunately, I see situations like these too often. This is why I found my experience in Spain while teaching the Advanced Design Research workshop for educators greatly refreshing. Four-hour long evening sessions for a week can be tough to stay engaged in from beginning to end, and even more when the topic is design research as the content can be abstract, highly technical, and full of new concepts. However, all five sessions had a lively energy with active discussions and challenging questions building on each others’ comments. Even those students who were online actively participated asking questions and sharing their answers to exercises. In this course, learning was not only depending on me (the teacher) and the content I was delivering; rather, it was self-directed by the students.

This was collaborative teaching, a key characteristic of an heutagogical classroom – a teaching environment I aim to create in all my classes by putting into practice heutagogical elements. I focus on what students need not on the syllabus. For example, before each class, I ask students what would be more helpful for them to explore at that moment and I tailor the content accordingly. This helps increase students’ learning experience, because they learn the concepts when they are ready and at their own pace. I also design collaborative, hands-on and team-based activities to encourage peer-discussion and peer-feedback. The focus of these activities isn’t on learning skills, regurgitation or simply copying; instead they require students to make new connections and determine how to apply new concepts into their own projects. As a result, students create shared meaning and develop a reflective mindset that helps them understand what they learn beyond “theory alone” – building metacognitive skills is a benefit of this approach. Motivation is also at the heart of both heutagogy and commitment to learning. This is why, it is not surprising that students who are in a class for reasons other than learning find this approach so challenging. No one is telling them what to do or how to do it.

Since adopting this approach to teaching and learning, I have seen students not only improve their grades, but also rediscover their joy for learning, and gain confidence as problem solvers. Hase and Kenyon, the founders, explain that the heutagogical approach is “a useful extension” to “more didactic, pedagogical, forms of teaching where the learner must develop certain skills or knowledge in order to get started in a completely new area.” In this sense, design education may have an advantage over other disciplines, like medicine, where learning how to perform surgery cannot be done using solely this approach. By nature, design is about exploration and experimentation. Design educators have room to play and bring heutagogical elements into the classroom to start working with the students. Heutagogical elements can be used in multiple elements of a course from course materials and assignments to in-class dynamics and lectures.

As Terry Irwin pointed out: “To learn a new practice, the first step is to learn the mindset.” Even small changes can have a big impact and better prepare students with the mindset and competencies they need to navigate everyday situations in an ever-changing world.

Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2015) Self-determined Learning. Heutagogy in Action. Bloomsbury.

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