Learning Pods: The Future of the Workforce

by Nicholas Wyman

Mention heutagogy, and there will be blank stares. It’s an approach that celebrates self-directed lifelong learning skills and is a good fit for workplaces. The term was coined some two decades ago.

It’s not necessarily a solo activity, either. Learning hooks into social and emotional domains and is a skill one needs to keep sharp and finesse. 

The World Bank has been on about lifelong learning’s crucial role for the global knowledge economy for 25 years. It’s become increasingly essential for creating and retaining knowledge to survive in our 21st-century globalized world. 

Heutagogy highlights learners as independent, but more so interdependent. Researcher Linda Orwin talks about it building each person’s capability so they know how to learn, use creativity to apply their skills in novel and familiar situations, believe they’ve got the skills to tackle future challenges, and work well with others.

It approaches learning on two levels: acquiring knowledge and skills or competencies as well as deeper learning driven by the learner’s needs and motivation. As one of the early writers in this space says, heutagogy is about the questions that the learning experience raises rather than just providing answers.

So, what’s the focus of that learning?

Orwin, whose table comparing pedagogy, andragogy and heutagogy continues to do the rounds online, explains: “[They] can go beyond problem solving by enabling pro-activity. Learners use their own and others’ experiences and internal processes such as reflection, environmental scanning, experience, interaction with others and proactive as well as problem-solving behaviours.”

Aren’t these fundamental skills needed for work?

Heutagogy can manifest in the workplace through the form of learning pods — yes, styled on those springing up across the nation due to pandemic-induced school shutdowns. Usually, three to 10 students gather in-person in one of their homes or some other learning space with a tutor/teacher to guide their learning. Pods offer learners social and emotional support they get from learning with their peers. 

Why should school-age kids have all the fun? 

Reframing workplaces as “sites of learning” and “communities of practices” means the hard slog of just a job takes on quite a different perspective. In these heutagogical learning pods, supervisors and managers are problem-solvers, trouble shooters and general consultants. Workers are neither passive nor dependent on the boss. Instead, as learners, they build competence and independence in their roles. No, it’s not about innovations in individual work pods that COVID-19 has prompted.

In the workplace, such pods can spring up based on specific projects, problems, tasks, even learning programs. They can be in-person or online, so they’re technology agnostic. Staff don’t have to be “in the pod” for their full workday — they can move fluidly from different pods as their work needs change throughout the day, for instance. The workplace makes that call.

Learning pods aren’t just a group of people collaborating, but one where everyone embraces and upskills with a focus on a particular project/problem. A facilitator (team leader or manager) mentors pod members to develop and refine the skills Orwin mentions above. That’s an important point about the facilitator: Staff need modelling, guiding and training on how to become self-directed learners. That means structure — organizational protocols and processes — is needed, so staff know what to do and how to do it. 

Otherwise, the staff will go back to their old ways. That’s much like schoolteachers who work in innovative learning environments with movable furniture and flexible floor plans. Without training, they stick to their comfort zone of traditional practices. Consider integrating the training on how to work within a pod actually within a learning pod — learning while doing, if you like.

To use an example, if staff need to tackle a unit of e-learning, why sit them at their own computers in silence to self-pace through the standard digital textbook sprinkled with the occasional video link? Help them bring that learning process to life by encouraging them to bounce their knowledge off each other — actively using it, talking about it, making it their own so that knowledge sticks. Bring a mobile learning app into play as well with online quizzes for spaced learning (which beats the recognized phenomenon known as the “Forgetting Curve”) plus a leader board to inject a bit of competition.

Learning pods are part of a teaching movement called “Genius Hour” (Google sparked this so its engineers could spend 20% of their time on passion projects), professional development, a tribe of learners and good ol’ just getting down to do the work. There’s a lot of promise there as a good fit with the future of work, wherever it might be.  

Nicholas Wyman is a future work expert, author, speaker and president of IWSI America (Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation).

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