27 August 2018

‘Feminism is a bad word’: Towards a Heutagogic Approach to Learning about Gender in Professional Military Education

by :

by Vanessa Brown

A few months back I had a conference call with a person whose opinions I value greatly, and whose decades of work with and writing about the Canadian Armed Forces has inspired people to look at gender within the military more closely. In our conversation, this expert pithily remarked that in the Canadian military ‘feminism is a bad word.’ Perhaps this is true. Perhaps feminism—constituting a variety of understandings about equality, power, gender, sex, and the meanings of these within our Canadian social fabric, has been esteemed within the military as a curse(d) word. I feel this curse. I sense it in the terse comments of colleagues, the subtle warnings from those I respect, that what I am doing may fail, as it had failed, sometimes miserably, by others like me before. These cautions are not meant to assuage me from speaking to gender inequality in the military, but to protect me from some vague picture of demise, professionally, or emotionally. Nevertheless, I try, in my own way, to rise against the view of feminism-as-expletive by doing my best to make the goals of my feminist project accessible.

My feminist project is simple. I want what most people want. I desire some combination of fairness, a sense of belonging, respect, and community among the people with whom I work and spend time. I find that starting from this uncomplicated premise has allowed me to carry the prospect of gender equality and inclusion to the classroom with lightness and humility. Though the goals of gender equality in any work place are lofty, the question of gender and fair chances for each member of the Canadian Armed Forces has become an ongoing conversation between myself and the military professionals I teach. I suppose that’s the ground-breaking teaching philosophy and methodology I have to offer: dialogue.

I am a sessional instructor at the Canadian Forces College, teaching in the Joint Command and Staff Programme. This year will mark my third as an educator for the Institutional Policy Stream. Each year, half of this stream’s students partake in a summative exercise which tasks them to analyse, evaluate, and push policy such as Operation HONOUR and the Canadian Armed Forces’ Diversity Strategy into new and exploratory terrain. I have supported this endeavour by teaching on the topics of gender, diversity and inclusion. I also teach gender throughout the stream, drawing on gender’s relation to a variety of the stream’s topics, and by showing how gender perspectives can help students understand policy, power and inequality through positionality; the layers of identity and social categorization that place people in different positions within society over time (Brown, Cervero & Johnson-Bailey, 2000). All this teaching isn’t really teaching per se, it’s conversation.

Using a Socratic approach (Paraskevas & Wickens, 2003) and inquiry based learning (Knowles, Holten III & Swanson, 2015), my lectures feel quite different. I start with an ice breaker; a thought provoking question, or image. I begin the conversation by asking students what they think about this question, what their experiences are in relation to this idea or picture. I seek to find out what the viewpoints I have offered mean to them. I am less reliant on slides, less reliant on theory or facts, and more reliant on collaboration, engagement in self-reflection, the development of critical thinking skills and building community in the classroom.

This approach is what others have called learner-centric (Donnelly, 2009; Murthy, 2011; Schatz, Fautua, Stodd & Reitz, 2015). It depends on students to direct their learning, and it depends on me to stretch my area of expertise, to be open to thoughts which might stray from where I had planned on going, and to be immersed in how learning happens both with and independently of me. I am learning now that the philosophy and methods I am employing to teach gender have been embraced in other areas of military education elsewhere. Applied more strategically and more ardently than I have done so far, some military educators have begun to practice heutagogy.

First advanced by Stewart Hase, a professor and doctor of psychology, and Chris Kenyon, a Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander, heutagogy was created as a teaching strategy which would allow adult learners with professional experience to develop critical thinking capabilities by enabling them to determine how and what they learn in relation to 21st century problems, technologies, communication, complex communities and cultures of people (2000). This strategy is about dialogue, self-reflection, exchange. Noted as a self-determined approach to learning, heutagogy emphasises two principles. These are collaboration and challenging personal philosophies (Canning, 2010). Heutagogy’s framework of self-determined learning aims “ultimately to influence a shift in thinking within [learners] and those that they work with” (Ibid, p. 59).

Moving beyond the notion that ‘feminism is a bad word,’ my experimental implementation of teaching towards a heutagogic approach has been eye opening. Students have collectively engaged with the prospect of gender equality in the classroom through conversation, self-insight, and collaboration. Together we create a collective learning space where military professionals communicate with each other to imagine gender equality, diversity and inclusion differently. They engage in open but tough conversations about inequality, their experiences, and themselves. Collectively, they learn to think critically about policy, the military institution, and the social world. Important to note, in my experience these critical thinking skills emerge expressly through and within dialogue. Finally, this approach attends to my simple but significant feminist project. Using this learning strategy, feminism is discussed, critiqued, and experimented with. Students’ collective engagement with the simple project of respect, fair chances, and equality among members of the Canadian military has determined for many that feminism is not such a bad word after all.


Vanessa Brown, PhD ABD, is a sessional instructor at the Canadian Forces College (CFC), Toronto teaching in the areas of leadership, gender, diversity and military sociology.  She is currently conducting an critical gender analysis of CFC pedagogy and curriculum as well as undertaking research to examine how senior officers apply gender perspectives in their duties.


Brown, A., Cervero, R., & Johnson-Bailey, J. (2000). Making the Invisible Visible: Race, Gender, and Teaching in Adult Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 50(4), 273-288.

Canning, N. (2010). “Playing with heutagogy: exploring strategies to empower mature learners in higher education,” Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1), 59–71.

Donnelly, R. (2009). Embedding Interaction within a Blend of Learner Centric Pedagogy and Technology, World Journal on Educational Technology 1, (2009) 06-29.

Kenyon, C. & Hase, S. (2001). Moving from andragogy to heutagogy in vocational education Retrieved from

Knowles, M., Holton III, E. & Swanson, R. (2015). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (8th ed.). New York: Routledge.

Murthy, S. (2011). “Academagogical Framework for Effective University Education – Promoting Millennial Centric Learning in Global Knowledge Society,” 2011 IEEE International Conference on Technology for Education, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, pp. 289-290.

Paraskevas, A. & Wickens, E. (2003). “Andragogy and the Socratic Method: The Adult Learner Perspective,” Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, 2 (2).

Schatz, S., Fautua, D, Stodd, J. & Reitz, E. (2015). “The Changing Face of Military Learning,” Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), Orlando, pp. 1-9.

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