Heuristics – making sense of the complexity of pedagogy

Over the course of a number of posts I have laid out a notion of pedagogy as the interpenetration of a number of complex adaptive systems (see here for the foundation of this expanded definition). Conceptually, what sits at the centre of this characterisation of pedagogy is the idea of complexity. Seminar rooms and the activities which develop within them, and the associated activities beyond (study, reading, discussion, etc) are such that we are not able to capture them in their entirety at any point in time – there are always elements which are beyond our perception. This leads to the idea that to research and understand seminar rooms and pedagogy is akin to looking onshore from a boat on a foggy day.


When we observe or reflect on pedagogic activity we are only seeing some of the elements present, and rely on extrapolation, much as we might use elements of the landscape as a basis for extrapolating and imagining the detail of the whole landscape.

So if pedagogy is the interpenetration of teaching, learning, curriculum, assessment centred on the tutor and students, how are we able to make sense of the inherent complexity in these environments?

When individuals first begin to teach, they often find the process of teaching confusing, stressful, and even, on occasion, disorientating. I would argue that this is because they are faced with the complexity of the task, with little in the way of structures for sense making. However, as they begin to understand the tasks of teaching, they begin to see patterns in the activity, how various elements work together; this leads new teachers to build heuristics. Heuristics are strategies which emerge from experience, emerging out of groups of similar experiences and in this way creating sense making in complex environments. Individuals often problem-solve by using their experience of similar past events, or knowledge they have gained from elsewhere but which appear to have problem solving potential in the current situation. This allows a level of ‘patterning’ to pedagogic work, and as a result, networks of complex relationships are ‘chunked’ to simplify and make sense of practice. This is a form of ‘complexity reduction’ (Biesta, 2010) where the system is understood in simpler terms through the use of personal frameworks of understanding. However, heuristics are prone to approximation and error. This can be the result of biases and systematic errors in the frameworks which have been developed. Therefore, tutors will tend to identify elements of practice which appear not to work well, particularly through the use of reflective practice. In this framing reflective practice is a process by which the errors or approximations in heuristics are identified and developed to improve the heuristic models by which we operate.

The opening up of practice to reflection and to research is a process of reintroducing complexity, of allowing the many interpenetrating systems to become open and explicit once again – it is the conscious reintroduction of complexity as a way of trying to understand practice and process more deeply. The reflection or research is then enfolded into new heuristics which develop and allow complexity reduction to be introduced to practice once more. In this way, cycles of heuristics are developed to make sense of the complexity of pedagogy through reduction, before opening up the same complexity again in an attempt to engage in activity to change practice towards new heuristics and better practice. In this way, new practice is developed through the generation of new insights and knowledge through action (pragmatism), but in the context of interpenetrating complex systems which go to make up pedagogy. Hence, this is a complex pragmatic view of pedagogy and its emergence. In addition, the nature of heuristics is such that theory merely becomes a way of characterising those heuristics. Hence, as we go through cycles of emergent change, practice and theory become different elements or perspectives in relation to modelling and sense making sense of complexity through heuristics. Finally, going back to the image of the coastline, the emergent understanding of complexity and its enfolding into heuristics over time mean that we can blow some of the fog away – over a career, with the development of wise judgement (Biesta, 2014), i.e. the fostering of ever better and more deeply understood heuristics in practice, we extrapolate less and see more. However, we must accept that patches of fog will always remain, the complexity of pedagogic activity is such that we will never reach a clear and full understanding of it.



Biesta, G. (2010) ‘Five theses on complexity reduction and its politics’ in D. Osberg & G. Biesta (eds) Complexity Theory and the Politics of Education. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers, 5-14.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers



What do we Mean by Pedagogy?Characterising learning (part 2)

‘One cannot begin to understand the true nature of human learning without embracing its interactional complexity.’ (Alexander et al, 2009: 176)

Alexander et al (2009) attempt to create a series of criteria which together characterise learning. From these principles, they then try to outline the dimensions of learning within which they argue the principles operate. One crucial part of their argument is the notion that no single theory of learning has created a fully adequate representation of learning. They identify nine foundational principles of learning:

1 Learning is change – this is inherent in learning, but has a number of possible characteristics, so can occur at group or social level as well as individual, and can be from the obvious to the imperceptible and can occur over a number of different time scales.

2 Learning is inevitable, essential and ubiquitous – to be alive is to learn as it is an inevitable process, and is also essential if we are to survive as individuals. We learn wherever we are, ‘the processes of learning are in operation whenever and wherever humans are situated.’ (178)

3 Learning can be resisted – Humans can resist learning, perhaps due to a lack of effort/interest, or from a fear of failure. If learning might lead to cognitive, social or cultural dissonance there can be also be a resistance to learning.

4 Learning may be disadvantageous – Learning can be a negative process, for example, learning how to disrupt the efforts of others, or how to cheat. Also, disadvantageous learning can take different forms, for example the learner might wish they hadn’t learned something (e.g. how veal is reared and produced), whilst in other cases, the learner might see their learning as positive even though it might have negative impacts (e.g. excessive use of social media).

5 Learning can be tacit and incidental – Much of our learning falls into the category, particularly outside of formal educational settings. This can include much of first language learning, especially in the early stages, and contextual learning.

6 Learning is framed by our humanness – learning is framed by our neurobiology, but varied between individuals leading to variation in our learning capabilities.

7 Learning is both process and product – As a process, learning is something which happens over time, whilst product is the durable change which occurs as a result of the process. Formal assessment and much research tends to focus on the product. ‘Indeed, much research in which the focus is only on learning as a product may oversimplify our conception of the learning process.’ (180) However, the same bias can occur if we only focus on the process.

8 Learning is different at different points in time – Change occurs over time, and learning is affected by where the learner is in the process. For example, the what and how of learning by young children is different to adults in part as the level or iteration and recursivity is different.

9 Learning is interactional – Learning is shaped by biological, social and cultural factors which interact in a dynamic environment. ‘Learners are influenced by, and at the same time push back, take from, change, control, and create the environment in which learning is situated.’ (180)

These principles interact to give the basis for learning, and show a complex mixture of biological, cognitive, social and cultural dynamics to the process and product of learning. However, in addition to these principles, Alexander et al argue that four dimensions of learning set the context for the principles, the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘when’ of learning.

The what of learning – Learning always focuses on something. It can be a simple focus, or a more complex one, and generally speaking as the what is developed over time, it becomes more complex. Take as an example, any academic subject, which becomes increasingly detailed, complex and abstract as expertise develops. The what includes both the process and product of learning and the increasing intricacy involved is defined as interactive complexification.

The where of learning – this is the ecological context of learning. It includes the physical, social and cultural contexts of learning and can be critical to the process of learning. In some cases, the where can lead to problems of learning becoming ‘contextually restricted

The who of learning – This covers the characteristics of the learner, the biological, cognitive, experiential and affective (including motivational) factors which are important in both the process and product of learning.

The when of learning – This emphasises the importance of time and flow of experiences in learning. Different elements of learning are most pertinently explained over different time frames, from the evolutionary to short term individual.

What the principles and dimensions of learning discussed by Alexander et al demonstrate is that learning is multi-faceted, and cannot be collapsed into a simple process, such as seeing it as synonymous with memory. As they state:

‘objects of learning become increasingly more complex and….the processes and products of learning mirror that growing complexity.’ (185-186)

This leads to the following definition of learning:

‘Learning is a multidimensional process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons, and consequently how that person or persons will perceive the world and reciprocally respond to its affordances physically, psychologically, and socially. The process of learning has as its foundation the systemic, dynamic, and interactive relation between the nature of the learner and the object of the learning as ecologically situated in a given time and place as well as over time.’ (186)

Geary (2009) agrees that the what, where, who and when are important, but adds that there also needs to be the ‘why’. In the short term the why is important in relation to motivation. At a simple level, he distinguishes between the learning which takes/took place in traditional societies and cultures where the why is related to survival and reproduction. Therefore, much of learning was inherently practical and required for a quality of life. This has shifted rapidly in modern societies so that the why is increasingly related to a where, what, and when which is not in alignment with these basic needs. This shift and the complexity it brings with it needs to be considered in relation to enhancing motivation and focus on learning in educational contexts.

The characterisation of learning presented by Alexander et al, and augmented by Geary is one of complexity and interaction. They stress that these various elements should not be seen as ‘independent contributors’ to learning, in other words they cannot be isolated and measured separately – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They describe them as facets of an intricate and fluid system. I would take this further and state that their work very clearly demonstrates learning as a complex adaptive system, one of the four interpenetrating systems which make up the concept of pedagogy.


Alexander, P.A.; Schallert, D.L. & Reynolds, R.E. (2009) What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 176-192.

Geary, D.C. (2009) The why of learning. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 198-201.

What do we Mean by Pedagogy?Characterising learning (part 1)

Learning is a very complex area of research due to its ubiquitous presence in what it means to be human. As such, learning is a process which occurs in many different ways and in many different contexts. Here, I am interested in how we might understand learning in relation to the other elements of an expanded notion of pedagogy (i.e. curriculum, teaching and assessment) within the context of post graduate taught study.

Definitions of learning can lead to very broad statements which, whilst they might contribute are so broad as to have only limited practical utility in a pedagogic sense. Some definitions see learning as purely cognitive in nature, for example:

‘We define memory as a behavioral change caused by an experience, and define learning as a process for acquiring memory.’ (Okano et al, 2000: 12403)

Others are more holistic and move beyond the cognitive whilst retaining a central role for cognition, for example,

‘The combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, meaning, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person.’ (Jarvis, 2009: 25)

Another complexity in defining and characterising learning is its dual nature as both outcome and process. Recently, there has been a tendency to emphasise the outcome perspective of learning, stressing learning as being simply the remnant of information in long term memory. This is an important insight. However, it is deficient in that it can tend towards a downplaying of the process of learning. In pedagogic terms, the process is extremely important as it is only by considering and understanding the processes leading to the outcomes that we can begin to derive insights about processes which might aid learning. Saljo (2009: 206) makes the point in a discussion concerning the difficulty of characterising learning that:

‘The concept of learning has many potential units of analysis, all the way from the molecular level of neurochemistry, via other fields of neuroscience over to various areas of psychology, education, organization studies, and many other social sciences. These levels of inquiry, and their respective units of analysis, stand in very complex relationships to each, and to bridge between them is often a complex affair.’

This leads to a view that we need to be aware of, and consider, the many different perspectives relating to learning, something which is hard to do, and in some circumstances, may be impossible. But by questioning assumptions and attempting to work across, Saljo does reflect that:

‘Behaviors and cognitive processes no longer suffice as basic constructs for providing a coherent and interesting conceptualization of learning; there are many other issues that have to be considered such as time, situatedness, and reciprocity between individuals and cultural practices. Also, in the literature it is no longer just individuals who learn and remember but also collectives such as organizations, societies and systems of people and artefacts.’

Therefore, Saljo emphasises the multi-dimensional processes involved in learning. Cognition is central but not sufficient to understanding learning in a pedagogic sense. Interaction, situatedness and the social need to be attended to. One way of beginning to capture this multi-dimensional view of learning is through the work of Illeris (2003). He argues that what is learned in educational contexts,

‘..is a complex totality of traditional and up-to-date knowledge, orientation and overview, combined with professional and everyday life skills and a broad range of personal qualities such as flexibility, openness, independence, responsibility, creativity etc.’ (Illeris, 2003: 397)

Illeris argues that learning occurs through the fusion of an internal cognitive process and an external interactional process. Learning is seen as an internal process of acquisition which is composed of cognitive and emotional dimensions. Therefore, cognitive functions such as memory and attention are central to learning. However, their effectiveness is in part influenced by the emotional dimension of learning which includes variables such as motivation. ‘…all cognitive learning is, so to speak, ‘obsessed’ by the emotions at stake – e.g. whether the learning is driven by desire, interest, necessity or compulsion.’ (Illeris, 2003: 399). However, it is very rare that we learn through acquisition only, i.e. by ourselves with no interaction with others, be it synchronous or asynchronous. Therefore, external interaction (social, cultural and material) through participation, communication and co-operation is also extremely important.

From this consideration there is a strong suggestion that in pedagogic settings learning as a process needs to be seen as a complex process involving a number of temporal and spatial scales interacting both internally and externally to the individual. In the next post, this consideration of the nature of learning will be extended through a consideration of the work of Alexander et al (2009) and Geary (2009) who both attempt to capture an overarching characterization of learning.



Alexander, P.A.; Schallert, D.L. & Reynolds, R.E. (2009) What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 176-192.

Geary, D.C. (2009) The why of learning. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 198-201.

Illeris, K. (2003) Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Learning, 22:4, 396-406.

Jarvis, P. (2009) Learning to be a Person in Society. Abingdon: Routledge.

Okano, H.; Hirano, T. & Balaban, E. (2000) Learning and Memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(23), 12403-12404.

Saljo, R. (2009) Learning, theories of learning, and units of analysis in research. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 202-208.