Self-Convincing Learning

Our experience and research have led us to conclude that the relative ineffectiveness of current educational and training programs is an inevitable result of the character of the teacher-student relationship in the traditional class or training room. The most customary teacher-student relationship is based on the pedagogic model. Here, the teacher, by virtue of knowledge and experience, is an expert in a position of authority over the student. The teacher determines the direction, rate, and character of learning. In short, the teacher “teaches” and the students comply by listening, taking notes, and sometimes asking or answering questions. Although pedagogy allows the efficient delivery of information, it can also induce passivity, apathy, and even active resistance from students. Such attitudes thwart learning and sometimes lead to attendance and discipline problems. In its purest form, pedagogy induces compliance and obedience at the expense of student involvement and responsibility.

Criticisms of pedagogy are not new, but most attempts to replace the conventional teacher-centered model with student-centered approaches have not been successful in stimulating committed learning. Discovery learning, “open classrooms,” and progressive approaches such as Summerhill reduce the authority of the teacher but have failed to generate widespread acceptance by teachers or students (Neill, 1960; Nyquist and Hawes, 1972). Similarly, practitioners of adult education have devised andragogic methods in which the instructor serves as a facilitator rather than an authority figure. While these methods induce participative involvement (Knowles, 1973; Revans, 1982), the learners are still dependent on the instructor for social context and emotional safety. Thus, it seems that the instructional model itself—not necessarily a given teacher’s comprehension of a subject, facility in communicating, or desire to be helpful—is at the root of this fundamental problem.

How Authority Can Block Learning

Let us consider why pedagogic and andragogic models are less than fully effective methods for communicating relevant knowledge. To understand this, we must focus on the dynamics of the adult learning years, which begin at the age of twelve or fifteen. Simply put, until an individual attains the maturity of a self-responsible adult, he or she is in the process of moving from dependency to autonomy. During this period a learner can become resentful, sometimes intensely so, of the continuing efforts of teachers to provide direction. At this time the learner is particularly eager to be self-reliant, despite an instructor’s misgivings. Some learners soon find their sense of autonomy and self-esteem confirmed through a general situation of responsible self-identity. But for others the struggle to achieve autonomy is far more difficult and may not be completed until middle age or later.

It is important to emphasize that these individual struggles to achieve autonomy reflect societal conditions; they are not biologically or developmentally inevitable. This conclusion has been well established by anthropological research concerning societies in which the transition from child to full adult status is completed by a ritual that follows a period of learning (Mead, 1949).

The period of transition to full, mature adult status in American society has two important characteristics that are relevant to learning: authority repudiation and colleague affiliation. The intensity with which any individual manifests these characteristics varies, but the prevalence of these responses in modern industrialized cultures accounts for the ineffectiveness of the authority-obedience model of learning.

Authority repudiation is a strong term to use, yet it is an apt description that denotes the individual’s rejection of supervision, direction, and instruction. In general, individuals who are struggling to assert their autonomy tend to resist the efforts of persons in authority to exercise control over them. The authority may be a parent, a police officer, an instructor, or a manager. The individual does not necessarily reject the legitimacy of the authority, but rather seeks to extend his or her own autonomy by working to control the interaction with the authority.

This relationship between dependent individuals and authority figures was perhaps first systematically examined by Freud. From his psychoanalytic work he concluded that therapeutic help is unlikely to be beneficial unless the patient first establishes a positive, accepting, and basically dependent relationship with the therapist. During the course of therapy, however, the patient’s attitude shifts to a negative and often antagonistic orientation toward the therapist. Thereafter, the therapist aids the patient to comprehend the motivations that underlie both blind dependence and intense rejection. Freud thought that through this three-phase process, individuals could be helped to overcome barriers to autonomy.

At the same time that the individual is resisting authority figures as sources of direction, colleagues are becoming a much more important source of mutual reliance. In adolescence, sexual interests unfold, friendships blossom, confidante relationships are established, groups and cliques form, and experiences of intimacy are shared. As a result, teenagers are drawn together as people who can share and understand one another within their own subculture, whose standards are their own rather than outsiders’. Teenagers are open to one another and very much influenced by how their peers view them. This openness to colleague influence usually continues, though in a more subdued form, into adulthood.

In addition, teenagers share essentially the same pursuit of autonomy. Each tends to rely on contemporaries as models for self-direction. A teenager who continues to lean on authority figures is likely to be rejected by contemporaries as immature or childish. Within their groups, teenagers can vent their hostile feelings toward authority figures who become “anti-models.” Such colleague affiliation dynamics bear directly on students’ responses to the authority-obedience model in the classroom. For example, one way by which a teenager can gain colleague approval is to challenge a teacher. Another way is to object to the slightest token of arbitrariness or unfairness on the part of authorities, and to get others to rally around in demanding justice from the teacher or administrative personnel.

Thus we see why the traditional pedagogic model evokes passivity, resentment, and even hostility from learners. As long as teachers define their task as telling students what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn, they are likely both to impair students’ motivation and to perpetuate the pattern of dependency.

Colleague-Oriented Learning

If, however, educators can create conditions that shift the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the students, then there is no authority figure for students to rebel against. Furthermore, students’ developing colleague affiliations can be used to work toward, rather than against, learning. Finally, methods that shift the responsibility to learners can be used with adult learners as well as school or college students.

To what degree is it possible to promote such a shift of responsibility? Evidence comes from a number of fields, some of which are quite remote from the classroom, and is documented in clinical work, field studies, and experimental paradigms (Riessman, 1965). In all these cases, the learning approach is based on having peers or colleagues teach one another.

For example, other things being equal, dry alcoholics in a group are as well or better able to help other alcoholics to learn to control their behavior than are psychiatrists, ministers, or other counselors (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1955). Working together, former drug addicts are equally or more effective in assisting drug addicts to learn to solve their problems than medical personnel, psychiatrists, or ministers (Enright, 1971). Ghetto residents who have succeeded in commercial, educational, and similar social endeavors are equally or more effective in helping other ghetto residents break out of the poverty cycle than are ministers or social workers (Hallowitz, 1968). Individuals who have themselves been prone to neurotic reactions are sometimes as capable of helping one another gain insight into neurotic reactions as are psychologists and psychiatrists (Low, 1966).

Programs for adult literacy development have an equal or a more favorable result when taught by persons who share the learners’ cultural heritage yet who have overcome illiteracy, than when taught by experts for whom literacy has not been a problem since early childhood (Laubach and Laubach, 1960). Industrial education experiments and academic experiments similarly demonstrate that students can tutor other students with results that are equal to or better than those achieved by instructors (Gartner, Kohier, and Riessman, 1971).

These diverse reports all suggest that peers and colleagues can effectively help one another to learn, that identification between learners and their peer teachers provides support and motivation for learning. The learning blockages traceable to the teacher-tell model can be avoided by learning situations that make the fullest possible use of colleague-affiliation dynamics.

But colleague-oriented learning seems impossible if all the students are equally uninformed, for how can students help one another learn if none of them knows the subject? In the effort to transfer responsibility to students, the teacher cannot simply abandon students to their own insufficient resources. As critics of “progressive education,” “open classrooms,” and “discovery learning” have observed, although the resulting student involvement in learning situations may be high, the actual learning achieved may be minimal.

Synergogic Learning Designs

Synergogic learning designs offer an important strategy for obviating such problems. A learning design is a set of instructions and instruments that directs students’ colleague-oriented learning. A detailed rationale for the four synergogic designs is presented in Chapter Two, and the designs themselves are presented in Chapters Three through Six. At this point, the designs are briefly introduced in comparison with more-traditional approaches to three aspects of learning: comprehending knowledge (facts, data, logic, principles, and generalizations), acquisition of conceptual and mechanical skills, and the development of attitudes, values, and beliefs.


Acquiring and integrating facts, and learning and applying principles are probably the most common activities in high school and university classrooms as well as in on-the-job business education. Two synergogic designs, the Team Effectiveness Design (TED) and the Team-Member Teaching Design (TMTD), enable students to work together to learn facts and principles. Unlike the pedagogic model, these designs permit learners to work in the absence of an authority or expert. Unlike open classrooms or discovery approaches, the designs provide guidance and direction for the learning teams.


Of the many approaches currently employed in helping learners acquire a skill, the two most widely used are behavior modification and coaching. In the behavior modification approach the teacher or trainer reinforces the desired responses to increase the likelihood of their recurring and becoming either habitual or part of the learner’s available repertoire that can be produced at will. Unwanted responses are ignored or actively discouraged so that their repetition will decrease and eventually be extinguished.

In a coaching model, an expert with already perfected skills outlines to a novice the steps to be implemented. The expert critiques the effectiveness at critical points to stimulate repetition on a “practice makes perfect” basis. Behavioral reinforcements may also be used to facilitate learning. This is, in effect, a tutoring situation when the interaction is one-to-one, but it can approach the conditions of the traditional classroom when the coach-learner ratio is one-to-fifteen or one-to-thirty.

The third synergogic design, the Performance Judging Design (PJD), is intended to help learners acquire and perfect skills in colleague teams that develop criteria for performance and use these criteria to critique one another’s skills—again in the absence of an authority or expert.


One of the most neglected aspects of contemporary education is the significant influence attitudes have on learning and performance. Administrators of companies, universities, and schools, as well as teachers, usually pause to consider the quality of employees’ or students’ attitudes only when they have become so negative or deviant as to result in confused, divisive, unacceptable, or even illegal behavior. Other attitudes are likely to be regarded as a personal and individual matter—part of one’s personality—and are rarely seen as subject matter that is significant enough to be brought into focus through teaching, evaluation, or appraisal.

In many respects—and specifically in private areas of life—such reticence to intervene in others’ attitudes is appropriate and valid. In democratic societies, for example, no responsible educator or trainer would prescribe attitudes toward politics, religion, or issues of private morality. Nor is it relevant to view such attitudes as aspects of on-the-job efficiency or as career-advancement criteria. A corporate president has no claim on the political or religious values of executives, supervisors, and other employees.

However, certain attitudes do affect student or employee performance, satisfaction, and development. Positive attitudes can strongly motivate an individual to apply knowledge or skills to constructive purposes, while negative attitudes can hinder the appropriate use of the knowledge or skills. Aiding individuals to test their attitudes against criteria, to become better aware of how their attitudes influence their thought and behavior, to perceive a range of available attitudes—all can serve a vital educational purpose. The fourth synergogic design, the Clarifying Attitudes Design (CAD), is used to enable learners to study and articulate their own attitudes.

Synergogy as an Alternative

Synergogy provides an alternative to both pedagogy and andragogy, seeking to avoid the weaknesses of both: the role of authority in pedagogic settings and the excessive reliance on the student already knowing what he or she needs to know in andragogic settings. At the same time synergogy preserves the strengths of these two approaches: the role of the expert in providing authoritative subject matter (in the form of learning designs) about the topic to be studied and the proactive involvement of the learner in being responsible for learning.

Synergogy thus provides a systematic framework for approaching the problems encountered in education, training, and development. Its four fundamental differences from other approaches involve:

  1. replacing authority figures with learning designs and instruments managed by a learning administrator;
  2. enabling learners to become proactive participants who exercise responsibility for their own learning;
  3. applying to education the concept of synergy, in which the learning gain that results from teamwork exceeds the gain made by individuals learning alone; and
  4. using learners’ colleague affiliations to provide motivation for learning.

Specific sources of social motivation include each learner’s desire to increase his or her personal effectiveness and effectiveness as a team member, to collaborate with and gain approval from one’s colleagues, to participate in order to increase the likelihood of team success, and to exercise personal autonomy in learning.

The mention of motivation returns us to the starting point: effective learning requires that the learners be motivated. Grid Self-Convincing Learning methodology presents designs for organizing learning environments so as to avoid conditions that decrease motivations for learning and to provide situations that reinforce individuals’ desire to learn by helping one another.

Synergogy differs from other learner-centered methodologies in positing three basic principles that promote educational success.

First, synergogy offers learners meaningful direction in the form of learning designs and learning instruments. A learning design is a format that structures the process of learning by providing a framework of orderly steps for acquiring knowledge, attitudes, or skills. The design is presented through learning instruments, tactical instructions that enable the learner to learn without a teacher. Such instruments include a variety of materials: true-false or multiple-choice tests, case studies, descriptions of dilemmas, text material, evaluation procedures, and the like. Learning instruments thus supply the guidance and direction usually provided by an instructor. But learning instruments do not provoke resistance to authority or dependency responses from learners, problems that typically interfere with teacher-student relationships. The instrument is neutral, a set of written instructions whose value is established by its utility.

Learning designs and instruments are also superior to various other forms of providing direction, such as the competency models and behavioral objectives used in self-directed learning, criterion-referenced learning, and so on. While these methods do provide direction, they tend to promote the learners’ continuing dependency on the expert or to prevent learners from developing their own sense of responsibility. For example, by presenting learners with a competency model and the opportunity to validate that model, an instructor may help students develop a sense of ownership, but the model in fact often belongs to the teacher.

Second, synergogy relies on teamwork, rather than on individual or group work, to enhance learners’ involvement and participation. That members of a group can learn from one another is widely acknowledged. But not every group is necessarily supportive of socially constructive learning; some groups function as social environments that support destructive norms and behaviors. For this reason, synergogic learning designs distinguish between a group and a learning team. A learning team is a group that has explicit goals and objectives, tasks, procedures, and measured operational outcomes of its effectiveness. Among the team’s procedures are methods for resolving or avoiding problems that often plague groups—for example, disagreements as to the nature of the task, interpersonal antagonisms or rivalries, detours caused by irrelevancies, and so on. Team effectiveness results from the members’ acquiring skills in solving these problems and their having a framework in which such problems are less likely to occur.

The third principle essential to synergogic methods is that of synergy, the concept that under certain conditions the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. In the traditional discussion group, each member may benefit from his or her participation but not necessarily at a level commensurate with that individual’s full potential. In contrast, the synergogic team uses learning designs and learning instruments that allow members to methodically share their knowledge, explore one another’s reasoning, and examine implications for correct understanding. As a result, participants achieve a greater level of understanding than they otherwise would have.

In sum, synergogic methods offer learners professional or expert guidance in the form of learning instruments and designs. Learners assume initiative and responsibility through reliance on colleague teams that avoid the undesirable consequences of poorly structured group activity. Team interactions as regulated by the learning designs provide the essential structure that permits individuals to achieve synergistic gains while maintaining responsibility and control of the learning process.

Benefits and Advantages

There are several reasons for synergogy’s effectiveness as a learning method. Probably the most important is that synergogy places responsibility for learning on the learners and therefore stimulates them to use their personal resources in constructive ways to help one another. Almost of equal importance is that synergogic learning is fun. The spirit of competition that arises among learning teams is as enjoyable as any game of organized sport. Third, synergogy stimulates individuals’ motivations to contribute and to accept the contributions of others. Only in this way is it possible for everyone to learn; a commitment to the team stimulates individuals to do their best, as well as to help one another. Fourth, learning teams operate under their own guidance, without a formal instructor to supervise or direct them. As a result, teams find themselves grappling with managing time, resolving differences between members, and facing other real-life choices and responsibilities. The challenge of being effective is very real, and the increased reward of success great. Finally, the method’s clear measures of performance enable learners to observe their progress and prompt them to achieve ever-higher scores.

Other, more specific benefits of synergogy include the following:

  1. Broad applicability:
  • Synergogy is applicable to all forms of learning whether the material to be studied concerns knowledge, attitudes, or skills.
  • Synergogy can be constructively used by learners from ten to twelve years of age and older.
  • Synergogy does not require learners to be able to read; the material to be learned can be presented on video or audio cassettes or by means of other visual aids.
  1. Modest resources:
  • Synergogic teams do not need elaborate physical facilities—only chairs, tables, and a blackboard or flip chart.
  • Synergogic methods place no significant limitations on class size because the size of the learning team (not the student-teacher ratio) is the significant factor. Thus a class can be as large as the meeting space available.
  • Synergogic teams do not require the presence of experts in the subject matter under study. Such experts make their contribution in the preparation of the learning instruments which can be reproduced and used by teams working alone or in the presence of a learner administrator This process is particularly important in developing
    countries where educator resources are scarce.
  • Once a design and instruments are standardized, they can be reused unless changes in the subject matter necessitate updating or revision.
  1. Increased learning and secondary learning:
  • Team groupings can be homogeneous or heterogeneous, as needed to promote self-paced learning and meaningful competition.
  • Synergogy produces secondary learning gains: as team members develop their interaction skills, they become more socially competent individuals. Similarly as team
    members discipline one another, they develop a mature sense of responsibility.
  • Team review of members’ individual performance enables individuals to identify and rectify misunderstandings.
  • Teamwork in spotting mistakes or misunderstandings permits team members to learn without feeling downgraded by an expert or formal authority figure.
  • The designs promote cooperation and reduce individual competitiveness; even though individual learning may occur when a team’s performance is not successful, greater learning can be expected when the team does well.
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