‘Holiploigy’ – capturing the complex and emergent nature of teaching, learning and curriculum

Thursday 24th November saw the second in a year-long series of HE Seminars, hosted by the LLI. The seminar, led by Dr Phil Wood (School of Education), was entitled: ‘Conceptualising the complexity of teaching in Higher Education – developing the case for holiploigy.’ As Phil explained, the latter term – new to those of us attending the seminar! – is the result of his growing dissatisfaction with existing terminology (e.g. Pedagogy) as an adequate or appropriate means of properly capturing the complex nature of teaching in HE.


As he explains in his excellent blog, HE Reflections: exploring approaches to learning and teaching:


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. (Phil Wood, Navigating the complexity of education in universities – arguing for holiploigy)


Phil’s ideas stimulated a lively and engaging discussion ranging from how we evaluate our practices (including whether ‘evaluation’ is even the right word or concept for what we’re seeking to make sense of), to the analogies we choose to describe them, to extent to which the current policy context for HE might stifle or work against more holistic and complexity-acknowledging approaches to teaching and curricula.


On a personal note, I came away reflecting on the extent to which learning developers, educational developers, educational designers, learning technologists et al. accounted for complexity – both in our own practices, and in the practices we support others in developing. With the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) looming large on the horizon, the challenge, it seems to me, of countering reductionist approaches to describing, understanding and developing what we do has never felt more urgent and necessary.


The HE Seminar series  – further details for which will be circulated soon – will resume in the New Year.



Share this page:

Share this page:

Steve Rooney

About Steve Rooney

Learning Development Manager

View more posts by Steve Rooney

Subscribe to Steve Rooney's posts

Leave a Reply

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer