I’ve been working a lot recently on formulation, an approach to one to one work borrowed from Clinical Psychology, and thinking about how we could adopt it in Learning Development practice to ensure that it is genuinely student-centred and emancipatory and that we are acknowledging the authority that the student themselves brings to their own learning. I developed the 5 Ps of LD model to structure a formulation approach, but I’ve been working too on what this might look like in practice.
In their seminal article on academic literacies, Lea and Street (1998) talk about how meanings are multiple and contested in academic culture, and how the student needs to switch between practices, develop a repertoire of approaches and, in a context imbued with hierarchical power and authority, negotiate the impact of this on their identity. Lillis (2001) too looks at the gap between what students want to say and what they can say in their writing. That bringing together of different perspectives, contexts and practices, the gaps between them, and the need to negotiate them, struck me as something which we Learning Developers could use in a positive way, situated in the context of a one to one in which a non-judgemental and non-hierarchical could mitigate some of the power issues involved in making meaning. Bringing two things together and seeing how they are similar, how they are different, is one way to better understand them – it’s why ‘compare and contrast’ is such a common essay title. Why not use that to our advantage?
I started to become interested in the notion of juxtaposition. Laying two things next to each other, and helping the student find meaning in the gap which lies between them through negotiation (in both senses of the word, to resolve through discussion and to find a path). There are many things we could bring together in this way through formulation.
- On the most basic level, the learning developer helps the student explore the gap between their own perspective and that of their lecturer, or the institution. “Do you think your writing is “waffly”, or is that something you’ve been told in feedback?” “So that’s the point you wanted to make. What understanding does the lecturer seem to have come away with? What have they misunderstood?“
- We could also place alongside their experience of learning our own knowledge of pedagogy or educational psychology, or even ‘what students tell us’. “You were saying that you tend to work in long blocks focussing on one topic in depth. There’s some research that has shown that switching between topics can aid retention and concentration. (How) is that reflected in your experience?“
- We could help them juxtapose past and present: “so this strategy worked for you in your first year – what do you think is different now you’re in second year?“
- We could also look together at different contexts: “You mentioned that critical thinking is a new thing for you at university. Is there anywhere in your home or work life where you’d need to check someone’s reasoning? How similar or different is that?“
- We can see if we can help them see their own writing through two perspectives, perhaps that of reader and writer: “If you imagine you’re reading this section looking for evidence of criticality, what might you point to?“
- Putting together two of the five Ps might also be fruitful: “Let’s think about what you’ve told me about your Process for reading for this report. How much of your notes made it into the final draft (Product)? How do you feel has it impacted on your structure or word count?“
I think the key to this juxtaposition is to decide skilfully what two (or three…) things might best be brought together to help the student create the meaning that will enable them to develop their learning, but also to be as neutral as possible, creating an open space between the two in which the student can have agency, rather than filling it ourselves. This might mean avoiding where possible any causal connectors such as BUT or SO which lead the student – after all, the meaning they create in that space between things might be quite different to ours (and if it is, we can juxtapose those….!) and it’s important not to impose our meaning onto them. In helping them negotiate the tricky power differentials inherent in academic discourse, it’s important not to throw yet another one into the mix to contend with! There’s lots of open, hopefully non-leading questions and invitations to the student to comment, interpret, choose. Out of this process of negotiation hopefully comes an insight, a reconciliation and a way forward, one that’s arisen from the student’s own learning. That’s got to be more student-centred than just telling them what to do!