Learning Is Non-Linear. Why Not Curriculum?

learning-is-nonlinearLearning Is Non-Linear. Why Not Curriculum?

by Stewart Hase, Heutagogy of Community Practice

Before talking about linear learning, I need to firstly point out, for the uninitiated that one of the issues raised by heutagogy is that dictionary and psychological definitions of learning are a little out of date. More recent neuroscience evidence has led me to think that learning can be thought of in at least two levels. There are probably more but two will suffice for now. On the one hand is the acquisition of knowledge and skills or what are better known as competencies. On the other is deeper learning, when we make associations in our brains that lead to Ah Ha! moments or new insights.

This deeper learning means that the learner is now seeing the world in a new light and has a whole set of new questions to ask based on this learning. It changes the course of their inquiry. This learning may not happen when learning competencies or when the teacher thinks it will. It may be days, months or years later and usually occurs when the person is doing something. Competencies are essential, no question of that, but they are the first step in learning–the minimal level.

Humans have a habit of thinking in a linear fashion. It’s not hard to know why we do this. Like a lot of human mental activity, it’s a short cut that saves us effort and energy: like fast thinking that Daniel Kahneman talks about. It also simplifies a complex world. We like to think in terms of this leads to that, then that and so on.  Humans like to find causation even when phenomena are only associated by temporal proximity. Explanations are important to us and if there isn’t a convenient one at had then we find one: hence our predilection for superstition in all its various forms.

While we like to think in a linear fashion, this is not actually how we learn in situ. By ‘in situ’ I’m referring to learning that occurs naturally, out of the confines of educational systems. It is the learning that occurs minute by minute in our lives and, as one example, accounts for about 70% of learning in workplaces. Learning as a matter of course is pretty well non-linear, with a random component based on serendipity, or misfortune if it is an unpleasant outcome, and the ‘learning moment’.

Learning mostly occurs when our attention is captured by need, trial and error, doing, and an innate desire to master and to know.There is something highly motivational in have unanswered questions residing in the mind. Watch a bunch of people on a mining site, on an oil rig or in a hospital, for example, master a new piece of equipment by themselves and with no ‘teacher’ and only a badly written manual and you’ll know what I mean.

Most curricula found in education systems or training programs are designed in a linear fashion. They are unnatural. Teachers and trainers, like other humans, want to order ‘stuff’ in such a way that it apparently makes sense: this leads to this leads to that thinking. Most curricula, despite sometimes referring to higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the objectives, is at the competence level of describing, explaining and demonstrating. This leads to rather stilted forms of didactic teaching, the ubiquitous slide show, the passive learner. All of which is unnatural and we wonder why learners have problems in motivation and learning.

How about if we did away with the linear curriculum, the linear way of teaching? Please note, I am not advocating getting rid of curricula or of the need for competencies. Both are essential. What I am talking about is thinking about the curricula in a non-linear fashion. The flipped classroom is a start in the right direction in that it at least takes the emphasis out of delivering content and more about discussing it or doing it.

But let me give an example from my own experience. I’ve been messing around with conducting learning experiences by leading with a complex issue that encapsulates pretty well all the objectives. In a longer program or course one could split this into many complex issues. The learner than has to find the way to solving the issue using the provided resources. The teacher is the facilitator. I’ve been able to expand this idea in workplace training programs to having the participants define the issues first and then finding what is required to solve them.

Yes, that’s right!  Go into problems, issues and the complex before acquiring any initial pre knowledge or skill. Forget linear. Think again of how we learn in situ. It is demand based and we then use our smart phone, tablet, computer, a library, or some wise sage to find the answer to the questions in our mind. It is usually in response to a problem we need to solve. If we know how to learn then we have all the tools we need.

The curriculum, in whatever form, would then take the form of a set of issues, real life problems, rather than a linear set of competencies. I’ve found, as did Chris and I in the 1990s in the work we did that led up to the idea of heutagogy, that a non-linear approach works very well. The learner becomes very motivated and can pursue their own process, new questions that arise and express new insights. Assessment of the core competencies can still be disclosed and undertaken. Assessment of higher order learning will take more imagination on the part of the teacher (facilitator) and is the topic of a future discussion.

So, what I am advocating is the demise of linear thinking when it comes to education and training programs. Turn the curriculum on its head and construct it differently. It may be that we could design a whole qualification with subjects. Replaced, perhaps, by complex ideas, questions or problems as the defining themes.

What possibilities can you imagine for a non-linear curriculum?

Source: heutagogycop.wordpress.comLearning Is Non-Linear. Why Not Curriculum?; adapted image attribution flickr user dianerobinson


  • Robert Schuetz says:

    This is an outstanding and timely concept Stewart. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. In addition to flipping, I would also let student choice (Genius Hour / Passion-Based Learning) identify the deeper pieces for inquiry. This also supports your suggestion of personal meaning taking learning beyond the competency level. The timing and technology are right for integrating informal (life-wide) learning into traditional, linear learning spaces. Blur the lines, if you will. Thank you for sharing this perspective, and for creating this learning forum.

  • Amy Peach says:

    Because the necessary technology isn’t quite there yet. I’ve been monitoring the LMS market and will go to BB World in a few weeks to holler about this issue, so maybe we’ll see some improvement. If learning management systems get better at providing student-centered learning, that will make non-linear teaching much easier.

  • Professor Yanni says:

    An excellent article, Stewart. Constructivist teaching has been using “The Guide on the Side, Rather than The Sage on Stage” approach for some time. It emphasizes the transfer of some basic skill, say the fundamentals of setting up and Excel spreadsheet, and then assigning a physics problem such as ‘Objects Falling in Different Gravitational Fields’ and having students set up the time iterations for a given mass dropped from X height until it impacts the surface of a planet.

    High school students in the middle 60% of the class are completely engrossed in this challenge. When they break through, climb the learning curve and begin to see the iterations running for them, their satisfaction with having conquered the problem has been audible, “Wow, this is really cool!” The ‘aha’ moment is reached, and students are empowered by their newly formed capability to use what for many is a complex software tool. More advanced problems are given, and soon (without at first telling the students this for fear of creating mental blocks) students are moving towards integral calculus.

    I’d like to credit Dr. Robert Fuller, Physics, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; and Dr. Dewey Dykstra, Mathematics, University of Iowa, Des Moines for sharing their work with me while Honorary Faculty at the United States Air Force Academy. They were brought in to solve the problem: How does the USAFA teach calculus-based physics to the freshman class, when 65% of them never took calculus in high school? Their answer: a workbook titled, “Understanding Physics Using Spreadsheets”. A wonderful series of beginning, intermediate, and advanced physics problems all based on inquiry learning using spreadsheets.

  • mizminh says:

    “It may be that we could design a whole qualification with(OUT) subjects. Replaced, perhaps, by complex ideas, questions or problems as the defining themes.”

    Not pedantry just hoping it can be fixed becoz I need to share this with folks who will find it novel and possibly threatening – need to avoid confusing :)

    I’m revelling in the development of heutagogy – keep going :)

    And of course quals can be achieved without subjects. It’s quals that need to be challenged. People dealing with complex ideas and creating sophisticated questions and challenges are autonomous learners. Who shall qualify them?

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