Navigating the complexity of education in universities – arguing for holiploigy


In a number of previous posts I’ve tried to set out a loose framework for understanding how we might conceptualise the process of teaching, learning, etc in higher education. These posts were based on the idea that to argue for a discussion about ‘teaching and learning’ such as that in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning leads to a conceptual narrowing of the task at hand. Instead I proposed a simple diagram to outline a complex process:

ped2I argued that we should move away from ‘teaching and learning’, and back to a reformed notion of ‘pedagogy’ (1) which takes into account assessment (2),  curriculum (3) (4), learning (5) (6) and teaching (7). As such I was calling this a form of ‘complex pedagogy’ due to the idea that each of these processes was, in their own right, complex, with their interpenetration making them all the more complex. I still think that this premise is correct for work in higher education, but the use of ‘pedagogy’ still concerned me; I was quite rightly challenged by someone who argued that pedagogy, by definition, focuses on the education of children. So what are the alternatives?

If we think about the meaning of ‘pedagogy’ it is actually composed of ‘paidos’, male child in ancient greek, and ‘agogos’, meaning to lead, so pedagogy means to lead a child. Doesn’t seem quite the right conceptualisation for working with young adults in undergraduate and postgraduate environments.

Two other terms which are used to describe teaching situations are ‘andragogy’ and ‘heutagogy’. Andragogy, comes from ‘andras’ man, leading to the ideas of teaching adults, i.e. leading men, and heutagogy relating to self-determined, student-centred, or discovery learning. In all these cases there is the notion of people being led – even heutagogy still refers to this.

As a result of reflecting on these ideas, I have decided that we need to think differently about the relationships between teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment, and between lecturers and students together with the terms of the spaces (virtual and real) in which such activities and relationships take place.

Outlining holiploigy

The concept of ‘holiploigy’ attempts to capture two fundamental aspects of work in higher education. The ‘holi’ element relates to the idea that the process of higher education needs to be considered holistically, and as a series of interpenetrating complex adaptive systems. This philosophy acts at a number of scales, and across a series of ideas. Firstly, there is the idea of the complexity of knowledge and skills within a domain, and increasingly their links across domains (inter- and trans-disciplinarity). Secondly, as laid out above, it includes the idea of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum being inextricably linked, and of a complex nature (with lecturers and students at the intersection of the four). However, around this is the complexity of learning environments and how these processes operate across them. Teaching, learning etc operate differently in a face-to-face context when compared to being online, and yet increasingly, such blends will occur within a single course. How are the complexities of this to be understood and navigated?

And this leads to the idea of ‘ploigy’, from ploigos – navigate. Agogos, as used in pedagogy, suggests a role for the lecturer as leader, being at the centre of the educative process. At higher education level, this should not be the case – all of the time. However, if we see the lecturer as merely a guide – we might begin to move towards a process of ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2012) which is potentially damaging. Biesta (2015) suggests the need for the teacher to be more central to the process of teaching and learning, but in a way that offers an opening up rather than a narrow leading. Navigating can be thought of as a process which sometimes needs more direct action, especially when moving through complex, dangerous and difficult waters. But at other times, such navigation requires less direct intervention, and can allow for much greater freedom, whilst still being a journey with a purpose. In some cases a journey might allow for detours, extra investigations of interesting, new places, but all the time the crew and navigator are working together to chart a meaningful course. And all the time, the navigator is inculcating the crew into the art of navigation for themselves.

Therefore, over the next few posts, I’ll outline what I see as a conceptual framework for the idea of navigating the complexity of the educative process and the knowledge and skills which it is used to explore, the process or holiploigy.


Biesta, G.J.J. (2012) ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher.’ Phenomenology & Practice, 6 (2), 35-49.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2015) ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching: On Robot Vacuum Cleaners, Non-Egological Education, and the Limits of the Hermeneutical Worldview’. Educational Philosophy and Theory


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