Pedagogy vs. Heutagogy

Lora McKillop
Lora McKillop
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Executive Leadership, Gardner-Webb University, NC
‘Pedagogy’ spelled out in wooden blocks.

What are they?

There are several different thoughts and beliefs of pedagogy; but in simple terms pedagogy simply means how teachers teach. Heutagogy is when students participate in self-directed, or sometimes called self-determined, learning. 

How are they different?

This is a pretty loaded question…but my best attempt to answer it is with the following. You can get into long philosophical discussions about pedagogy. Some say there are three beliefs of pedagogical belief theories on learning. Some say there are four. Some even say there are five! It really boils down to what a teacher believes is the most effective way to instruct students and how that affects their learning.

To help put it in even more broken-down terms, especially for those who are not in education—curriculum is what we teach, and pedagogy is what we believe is the best way for our students to learn the curriculum. Theoretically, you can argue that heutagogy is a pedagogical belief. In other words, some teachers believe it is best for students to direct all of their own learning. The idea behind this being that if students direct everything, they learn they will be more interested and more engaged. I take the stance that students need direct instruction on certain things and then once they know them, they should be given the opportunity to use that knowledge to guide their own learning in certain areas and ways. This will make more sense as you continue reading. 

What does this look like in the classroom? When should I use which?

I think I can best make sense by giving some examples of this. So, let’s start with a kindergarten student who has never been to preschool, and they are entering school for the first time as a 5-year-old. This student needs direct, explicit instruction phonics and pre-academic reading skills. The likelihood of giving this student a book and he/she learning to read on their own is low. A kindergarten teacher is knowledgeable about immersing this student in a print rich environment and exposing them to so many literacy activities that this student will learn to read.

Now, once this student knows how to read, they can begin to take on more ownership and direction of their learning. A wonderful way to begin at this young age is when doing a research project to let them choose what they want to research and write facts about the topic.

At a higher grade level, students could be given a topic to research that is part of the required curriculum i.e. The Revolutionary War and then be allowed to go on their own and learn it however they want…books, videos, primary sources, etc.

Once they have all of this information, they would then be allowed to choose how they want to present it to their teacher and possibly the class…podcast, interview, essay, infographic. Then once the teacher sees what students have learned, they can fill in the blanks for them with what they may have missed.

Students can also be given a choice board to have more of a self-directed approach to required learning or tasks that the teacher wants them to complete. For example, if a teacher has just done direct instruction and wants students to get more practice on a skill, they can create a choice board where all of the assignments are aligned to that skill. Students can choose the one(s) they want to complete to demonstrate proficiency. A teacher could even have students create a choice board on a certain skill or topic. This would allow the teacher to see if students truly have a deep understanding.

What are the benefits of both?

There are benefits of pedagogy and heutagogy. Students benefit most when teachers are confident in their pedagogy and truly know what is best for their learning experience. They can incorporate both into their classrooms. The benefits of this are two-fold. Students receive good, solid instruction and learn the curriculum and then they still get the benefit of being able to direct some of their learning choices.  Students have to be held accountable for learning, but it is more engaging and interesting for them to have choice which comes with self-directed learning.

Where do I begin?

Do some research and discover why both types of teaching and learning are what is best for kids. Also do some research on different types of choice boards and how you can incorporate them into your classroom. Start small. If you try to do too much at once you will be overwhelmed and this is not beneficial for your students. Begin by implementing a reading or math choice board during your guided reading/math station time. Plan with a teammate or colleague. It is great to have someone to bounce ideas off of and then you can work together and have several choice boards completed, which is a time saver. Don’t be afraid to take the risk! You and your students will enjoy the experience while you grow and learn together.

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