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The modern revolution in learning

An extract from Chapter 1 of John Heron’s book The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook. London: Kogan Page, 1999.

There has been a radical change in the theory and practice of higher education over recent decades (Boud, 1988; Heron, 1992; Knowles, 1980). This is most evident in the fields of tertiary, adult and continuing professional education. The basic and very simple premise of this change is that student learning is necessarily self-directed: it rests on the autonomous exercise of intelligence, choice and interest. From this many other points unfold, which I express here in terms of my own thinking about the basic issues involved:

1. Facilitation of learning. Teaching is no longer seen as imparting and doing things to the student, but is redefined as facilitation of self-directed learning. How people learn, and how to bring about this process, become the focus of concern, rather than the old-style pre-occupation with how to teach things to people; and with this goes a significant shift in the onus of responsibility. In the old model, the teacher is principally responsible for student learning. In the new model, the primary responsibility rests with the self-directing learner; and only secondarily with the facilitator.

2. Manifold learning. Learning itself I see as having four interdependent forms, which in many different ways complement and support each other.

Practical learning. This is learning how to do something. It involves the acquisition of a skill and it is expressed in the competent practice of that skill. This is the will, including the physical, level of learning.

Conceptual learning. This is learning about some subject matter, learning that something is the case; and is expressed in statements and propositions. This is the intellectual, verbal-conceptual level of learning.

Imaginal learning. This is learning configurations of form and process. It involves an intuitive grasp of a whole, as shape or sequence. It is expressed in the symbolism of line, shape, colour, proportion, succession, sound, rhythm, movement. And, toward the interface with conceptual learning, in the metaphorical, evocative and narrative use of language, as in the work of the poet, novelist and dramatist. This the imaginative, intuitive level of learning.

Experiential learning. This kind of learning is by encounter, by direct acquaintance, by entering into some state of being. It is manifest through the process of being there, face-to-face, with the person, at the event, in the experience. This is the feeling, resonance level of learning.

These four forms of learning are distinct; they cannot be reduced to each other. At the same time, however, they inform, support and enhance each other. They constitute an up-hierarchy, with the ones higher in this list being grounded in those that are lower.

We encounter the world (experiential learning); identify patterns of form and process in it (imaginal learning); these become the basis for the development of language and knowledge (conceptual learning) which is applied in a wide range of skills (practical learning). Henceforth, I use ‘experiential learning’ to refer to the whole hierarchy. This hierarchy states what kind of learning rests epistemologically on what other kind. The four forms can also be construed as a cycle in which the practical skills at the apex lead over into enriched experiential learning, thence into imaginal and conceptual learning, and so on.

3. Holism in course design. The learner is a whole person, and the whole person needs to be involved in learning. Learning is extended from its traditional restriction to the theoretical and applied intellect, into the domains of body awareness, emotions and attitudes, interpersonal relations, social and political processes, psychic and spiritual awareness. This means three things.

Confluent education. The holistic, multi-stranded curriculum which attends – with differing degress of emphasis (depending on the primary learning objectives) – to body, intention, action, intellect, imagination, intuition, emotion, empathy, psychic and spiritual dimensions of the person.

Task-process integration. The interweaving of a concern for human process at all levels with a commitment to the external tasks of learning about the world and how to apply knowledge to it.

Experiential learning cycle. This cycle both grounds thought in practice and encounter; and generates thought out of practice and encounter. So there are two complementary processes within the cycle. In the first, a concept is taken into an appropriate experience, then revised in the light of so grounding it. In the second, a certain kind of experience is distilled into a conceptual model, then further developed and refined in the light of that model. Both processes enrich each other.

4. Participation with staff. The concept of learning as self-directed only appeared in the old approach as students working on their own on prescribed tasks. The new approach applies it to participating with staff in three main areas of educational decision-making (Heron, 1988). To educate persons means to facilitate their self-direction:

In learning what the content of a discipline is.

In learning how to learn that content.

In learning whether they have learnt it.

Hence the importance of the following two kinds of participation.

The learning contract. The student, at the appropriate stage, is invited to co-operate with staff in decisions about learning objectives, timetabling, pacing, teaching and learning methods, and the use of human and physical resources. Such collaborative course design may involve both one-to-one contracts and one-to-group contracts between facilitator and learners.

Collaborative assessment. The student takes part with the facilitator in determining criteria for assessment; each assesses the student’s work in the light of these criteria, and together they negotiate the final grade. I have written about this in some detail elsewhere (Heron, 1988).

5. Co-operation with peers. Persons can only be self-directing and become whole in reciprocal relations with other self-directing persons who are becoming whole. The autonomy and holism of the learner entails a context of co-operation with other learners. Hence the importance of group-based learning, of student interdependence with regard to both experience and reflection, of peer problem-solving and decision-making, of peer feedback on practice, of self- and peer assessment. The autonomous and whole person learning group is an essential context for the new educational approach.

These five points taken together constitute the educational rationale for this book, and its account of facilitator options. It is committed to the view that the facilitator is a midwife eliciting the emergence of self-directed and peer, holistic learning.


Boud, D. (ed) (1988) Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J. (1988) ‘Assessment Revisited’ in Boud, D. (ed)  Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J. (1992) Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key. London: Sage.

Knowles, M. S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Chicago: Follett.