What do doctoral supervisors, pre-school teachers and Indigenous cultures share?

If learning in doctoral work comes from self-teaching, then how ought the doctoral supervisor to teach?  To complete an original contribution to knowledge, heutagogy, or self-teaching becomes both the central teaching and learning process of the research trainee.

In another post, Plight of the Accidental Scholar, an intense curiosity leads to intensive self-teaching (aka learning) via the mechanisms of scholarship to paint Tim’s Vermeer.  Scholarship is not the goal but the by-product and tool to explore answers to a question.  An incidental scholar, Tim Jenison learns everything he needs to know on a need-to-know basis.  Jenison follows his curiosity taking time to read deeply in order to fully understand.  After some trial and error, he tests his hypothesis via a reconstruction of the exact setting of a Vermeer painting.  More than five years later, Jenison draws conclusions to his investigation which is couched as a contribution to the literature.  If he wanted to, Jenison could follow-up with another study.

Scholarship was an accident of search for an explanation for Tim Jenison. Here he tries out a solution before setting up his simulation of Vermeer's painting.Any pedagogy a supervisor uses, the doctoral researcher can use too, as self-help.  In their book Supervising the Doctorate, the writers comment, with some guilt and admiration, about a student who like Jenison, proceeds to completion with little ‘supervision.’  A doctoral education outputs a scholar, aka a self-teacher, student of a discipline and learner, who uses scholarship to contribute to a literature.

Doctoral supervisors guide a learner through a critical passage to take on the apparatus of scholarship. The excellent book Helping Doctoral Students to Write: Pedagogies for Supervision  (Thomson & Kamler, 2006) would benefit doctoral students as much as supervisors. When I was putting together a research proposal, I read the first couple of chapters of this book.  It really helped me to understand how to write the literature review.  If heutagogy is the overarching principle of supervision in a research program, maybe the Thomson & Kamler text would reach it’s intended audience better if repackaged as a self-help book for doctoral students.

Doctoral Researcher and ‘Supervision’

In keeping with heutagogy as the overarching method of learning, doctoral students support a vast publishing industry for self-help with the doctorate.  Self-help and self-teaching fuel the doctoral learner.  With the paucity of knowledge about research training, doctoral self-help books even show up in the articles and bibliographies of academic research about the doctorate.

What if Thomson & Kamler’s book was titled Helping Doctoral Students to Write: Heutagogies for Supervision?  Ironically, the title sounds fussy and hair-splitting.  A supervisor trusts in the black box of heutagogy, about which so little is known that the word heutagogy only entered the language in the last two decades, whereas the word pedagogy has been around since 1580.

What would a Heutagogies of Supervision text discuss?  A heutagogies of supervision would likely be about academic writing groups, exemplars, literature reviews, writing and milestones in an academic passage; a presentation at a conference, writing an article or blog post in a MAAB (Multi-Author Academic Blog) or entering a three minute thesis contest.  Above all a heutagogy for supervision text would impart ideas to create a positive, nurturing and affirming culture in the department, program, academic society and faculty.  Creating a vibrant intellectual community would be paramount.

All academics are heutagogues, so are young children and so were learners in the pre-contact Indigenous world.  Heutagogy propels all of these learners forward.  Before the age of five, a child learns a language with nothing in the way of formal instruction.  However if the child’s environment, contains rich language streams through song, books, poetry, play, and oral traditions; the child’s grasp and mastery of language will be enhanced and enriched.

All of the vast knowledge of the Indigenous world, passed between generations via heutagogy.  Learning to survive in the frozen wasteland of a Canadian winter, in a snake infested jungle, or bone dry desert, was entrusted to the self-direction of the learner and to the culture.

The doctoral learner, like many in the Indigenous world, even passes through a rite of passage, the oral defense, intended to introduce a new member to the other side, of contributor and knowledge keeper.  As the oral defense lacks the markings of a bona fide assessment instrument in terms of its robustness, the oral defense has more in common with a rite of passage than an exam.

Trust in heutagogy frames supervision, the Indigenous world, and pre-school teaching.  When it comes to supervision, less is more. The doctoral supervisor trusts self-leading teaching to happen.   One of the best ways for a supervisor to enhance supervision would be to talk about heutagogy with the learner and to explain that a non-directive approach to supervision is appropriate for the work of scholarship.

An exploration of the way a doctoral supervisor and a kindergarten or nursery teacher work, sheds light on some of the conditions of heutagogy.  A pre-school teacher takes great pains to get the environment right, to observe, and to stimulate.  Learners get set loose to explore their interests.  The non-directive ‘teaching’ during play deepens, extends, and supports the learner and the learning.  The learner is free to deeply engage, to set challenges, and to work things out.

As much as doctoral researchers suffer the burden of working through a project of original research, the doctoral project still challenges and engages the researcher with an adult fascination akin to the intense satisfaction of play in kindergarten.  How fitting that schooling gets book-ended by some innate inner flame to learn, to challenge, and to grow.

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