The Three Domains of Critical Reading

A couple of people have recently asked about a tool I developed to teach critical reading, so I thought I’d blog about it to add a bit of context to what is basically a workshop handout.

Working in a one to one context as a Learning Developer with students on assignments like literature reviews has allowed me to see behind the scenes of how students approach this task. What I’ve noticed is a mismatch between some of the feedback on the written product “Unfocussed! Doesn’t flow! Needs to be structured better! Too descriptive!” can actually be traced back to issues around reading and note-taking, not writing.

Students understandably find critiquing the work of far more experienced and authoritative scholars very daunting, and that’s the first thing I address. I fear sometimes that the message that students should only use ‘quality, peer-reviewed sources” is over-egged, and can disempower students – if it’s been peer-reviewed by more experienced scholars, and passed for publication, what more can be said? This can lead to descriptive writing, as quality, peer-reviewed literature is assumed to be unassailable and takes on the authority of established fact. My first aim is to establish with the students is that there is still potential for meaningful critique, by them.

Actually performing a critical reading is also hard. Academic writing is by nature highly persuasive, and the illusion created by our typically objective, neutral, reasonable ‘academic writing style’ can mask this. Students often find themselves quite naturally sucked into the agenda of the writer – that this article or book is the most important, innovative and correct contribution to the debate that you could possibly be reading (after all, in the context of the REF, it’s in the interests of academic authors to persuade their readers of this!). A straightforward reading can often and quite naturally result in the response “well, I suppose so… ” Even I respond this way, if I read purposelessly or inattentively.

The best approach I’ve come across to help students really get their teeth into critical reading are the CASP (Critical Appraisal Skills Programme) tools, created to help students and professionals in the Health Sciences interrogate different kinds of study. The use of questions is a great way to help students find a bit of distance from the text, and a bit of purpose when reading- the CASP tools offer a script of such questions. However, the CASP tools focus on one element only – whether the text, on its own, in its own right, is sound. When critical reading is taught explicitly, this is often the dimension which is addressed. Students need confidence in their own understanding of research methodology in order to answer these questions, but it’s a good place to start.

However, following only this approach may still result in a literature review that is unfocussed, unstructured and ‘bitty’ – even if it’s a highly critical account of individual papers! To develop my own tool, then, I’ve expanded on the approach used by CASP, to add two more domains in which students can interrogate a text.

Domain 1: The first domain of critical reading, then, remains The Text On Its Own, In Its Own Right. This domain asks “on its own terms, is this text valid?” Engaging with the text in this domain allows for detailed critique on a level which allows the student to make decisions about how much confidence to put in the text’s conclusions or findings.

Domain 2: The second domain, however, looks at The Text In the Context of Other Texts, in other words, synthesis. It asks “how does it relate to other contributions to the debate?” For example, are the findings similar (in which case we’re seeing a weight of evidence building up), different (in which case we may have a quirky outlier or an innovative new take)? Is it a new answer to an established research question, or a new direction entirely? This helps students to start to see the overall shape of a debate, weigh up the contribution of each text, contextualise what they’re reading and ultimately synthesise it into their own account of the field.

Domain 3: The third domain, The Text As It Relates To Me, considers the text from the point of view of the student’s own agenda. It basically asks “how does this text relate to what I’m doing? Can I make use of it?” Academic writing being as persuasive as it is, it’s really easy for the student to lose sight of this and end up with an exhaustive set of notes, an inflated wordcount and a descriptive writing style. This dimension allows the student to make critical decisions about the text on their own terms. “Yes, this article is probably very important and interesting, but does it help me make my argument?” If not, the student can make that most invisible of critical decisions, to leave it out.

The starting point need not be the first dimension either. I very often start with the third! If a text doesn’t look like it’s going to help me, I’m not going to bother with an in-depth, laborious critique of its methods! Other readings might want to start with the second dimension, to spy out the lay of the land in a field, and spot main debates and trends in research. The domains aren’t a process or a hierarchy, just different dimensions.

To help students apply The Three Domains, I turned it into a framework to help students think about the kinds of specific questions they could ask in each area. Generalising the kinds of questions that CASP tools pose for medical sciences, I proposed five areas that students could ask questions about (these five aren’t necessarily exhaustive, but are one way to approach it!) They are:

  • Context: discipline/profession, authors, currency, bias
  • What are they doing? Research Question/Aims/Hypothesis
  • How did they do it? Methods, Models and Materials
  • How do they know? Argument, evidence, logic and reasoning
  • What do they say? Findings and conclusions

Here’s the full thing: three domains of critical reading

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This version of the the handout has indicative questions for each domain (again, not exhaustive, but hopefully therefore not overwhelming!). So for the question How did They Do It? You might ask:

  • Domain 1: was the method appropriately chosen and used?
  • Domain 2: is this a standard method for this field of research, or a novel one?
  • Domain 3: can I borrow or adapt this method to help me answer my own research question? Or would a departure from it be my innovation?

The framework can help students focus their reading, give them a ‘way in’ with practical set of questions to interrogate a text, but also guide their note-taking, as they are encouraged not (just) to take notes of what the text says, but of their responses to the text – their answers to the questions. One of the nicest things that this framework has achieved for students is to validate the difficulty they are experiencing when reading critically. No, it’s not you, it is hard – you’re reading in three dimensions at once! This realisation can also help them ‘layer’ their reading, by reading for one dimension at a time, not all at once, and making it more manageable.

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Near and Far Enemies in LD Practice

Buddhism (unexpected opening, bear with me!) discusses four states or virtues known as the Brahma-viharas, the Four Immeasurables, cultivated through meditation: Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Empathetic Joy and Equanimity. Each of these has an antithesis, of course – a ‘far enemy‘. The far enemy of loving-kindness is hatred; that of compassion is cruelty.  Empathetic joy – joy in the joy of others – is opposed to jealousy, and equanimity is the inverse of craving. These are easy to spot. However, each of the Four Immeasurables also has a ‘near enemy’– something that looks so much like the quality we strive for, but really, really isn’t it. The near enemy of loving-kindness would be a possessive affection, that of compassion would be condescending pity. Empathetic joy’s near enemy is perhaps a conditional, sentimental pride, and indifference can be mistaken for true equanimity.

It’s a useful idea in the practice of Learning Development too. We have our values, each of which might have a far enemy that’s easy to avoid, but also a sneaky near enemy which looks the part,  but really isn’t actually aligned to our mission of helping students to become successful, emancipated, independent learners. You can see the near enemies of Learning Development values in the Study Skills and Academic Socialization models – so very nearly right, but actually coming from completely the wrong place and entrenching the very issues we’re trying to work with.

The Four Roles of LD too each have their near and far enemies. Let’s take the Teacher.  Given that this is the most exposing of the four roles, being ‘found out’ as the far enemy of the Teacher (no knowledge, no teaching skill) is what every new teacher fears the most. But the near enemy? That’s the Expert. Someone who takes such pleasure and pride in their own learning that they leave no space for the student. That tutorial, when the student walks out the door, and you sit back exhausted from all the wisdom you’ve imparted…and a sneaky voice says “ok, so you proved you could solve it, but where was the student in all of that? How have they been helped to learn? Were you just…showing off…?

The Mentor too is prone to over-involvement. The near enemy of the Mentor is the Editor. “This is how I would have written it. That’s what you should put. That’s not right. I wouldn’t do it like that, if I were you“. If at the end of a tutorial, you realise that what you’ve really offered is an ‘editing-with-commentary’, that’s not mentoring, or even Learning Development. That’s not offering up your own experience to help the student form criteria on which to base their own decisions. That’s just telling them what to do, if they were you. Which they’re not…

What about the Coach? The Coach is supposed to recognize that the learner themselves has the key to resolving the issue, and their role is to draw it out. Their near enemy is the Sheepdog. They have a clear idea of where the student actually needs to go, and every question, while seemingly open, is actually leading, herding the student to pen them where they ‘ought’ to be. “Have you tried…?” “Why don’t you…?” We pride ourselves with the subtlety with which we drew the student to a conclusion which seemed to them to be their own idea.  Which, of course, it should have been all along.

And the Listener. Probably one of the hardest roles, in many ways. The Listener offers a mirror, a sounding board, a neutral space in which to rehearse, a way for the student to see more clearly for themselves. The near enemy of the Listener is the Beauty Therapist, which allows them to see only what we think they might best like to see. This might be seeing things in the best light, with false reassurance: “don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine!“, or in the worst light, validating victimhood, “poor you – that really was a nasty bit of feedback and a very unfair assignment!” This makes us feel better, as it’s nice to be the one to make it all feel better, and play good cop to the academic’s bad cop, but it doesn’t help the student to see what’s really there, and find a way forward.

Feedback is a particularly problematic tool in combating these fake qualities and false practices. The near enemies of LD might us give a warm glow, a greedy pride that we’ve been helpful, we’ve been The One who made the difference, and the students are touchingly grateful and give us compliments and nice feedback. But sometimes glowing feedback should give us pause. Are we in this for gratitude and compliments? The nicest feedback I’ve ever got praised my skills as a speaker (“She should be on a TED talk!“). I glowed for a moment, before a little voice in my conscience said, “how can you yakking on, however entertainingly, ever be truly student-centered, Helen?” I know full well that by proofreading or even co-writing essays for students, overstepping the line into subject teaching, I would garner comments about how helpful I’d been, how I’d gone the extra mile, made such a difference. But deep down somewhere, I’d know I’d actually subverted what LD should be about – those students I’d ‘helped’ are now even more dependent on me for success, and even failure, if my interventions had strayed into collusion. Being ‘the one who it all depends on’ can be an enticing prospect -but it makes me faintly queasy.

It’s so easy to mistake the near enemies of LD for friends -they make us feel good, they might even make the students feel good, but reflecting on our values and ethics, and that queasy little feeling can help us see them for what they are. Mindfulness, which I first learned with the Buddhist Society when I was a student at Oxford, has become increasingly prominent as a way for students to manage stress and build reflection and self-awareness- I’m increasingly aware these days of how much a role it plays in my practice as a Learning Developer.

 

My First Keynote

In which I suffer massive imposter syndrome, take solace with my patron saints, slag off CS Lewis (but not JK Rowling), administer homeopathic doses of Bourdieu and Bakhtin and Barthes (oh my!), accidentally say ARSE, eff the ineffable and finally become a mermaid.

(I’ll write up an intelligible blogpost summary over the weekend!)

Defence against the Dark Arts of LD

I wrote previously about the 5 Ps of LD model I developed as part of the training on one to one work: Presenting Problem, Pertinent Factors, Perception of Task, Process and Product. In discussions with participants on those training days, it became clear that there’s a number of ways in which that model could be understood, not all of which are in keeping with the student-centred, ethical ethos we LDers promote.

The roots of the 5 Ps model lie in the practices of psychologists and counsellors. The original 5 Ps come from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and encompass the Presenting Problem, with the Predisposing, Precipitating,  Protective and Perpetuating factors, which, when explored with the client, build a multifacted mutual understanding of the problem.

The approach they belong to is called formulation, and it was developed to address the problems inherent in a diagnostic model when it is applied to the intangible and subjective qualities of mental, rather than physical health. Formulation is a very ethical practice, valuing and centring the client’s perspective, combining the professional’s psychological expertise with the client’s expert knowledge of themselves and their context, in a consensual and respectful way, so that both can share in the work of interpretation and reach a better understanding of what’s going on, what it means and how to move forwards. At the heart of formulation is the observation “at some level, it all makes sense” (Butler, 1998); the student’s response to teaching and assessment is, from their perspective, entirely rational and reasonable.

The 5 Ps of LD, although they differ from the original CBT ones, are also rooted in this formulation approach. They can of course be used as a diagnostic checklist, ticked off by the Learning Developer as they expertly question the student and analyse samples of their work to establish the problem and dispense advice. However, I’d argue that this isn’t the most effective use of the model, as it pushes us into an almost medical model of observing symptoms, diagnosing a ‘pathology’ and prescribing an intervention. In positioning us as the expert who examines, pronounces and prescribes, it reduces the student’s role to a passive object of our practice, omits the vital interpretative perspective they can bring, and excludes them from agency in the ‘cure’, other than taking our advice like a good patient. Diagnosis is a Dark Art in Learning Development. It’s certainly an approach we might take, and effective in its way, but it’s akin to the practice of legilimency in the world of Harry Potter, the particular forte of that least ethical of teachers, Snape.  Legilimens! we cry, as we cast our 5 Ps spell to reveal the hapless student’s thoughts, read them as we see fit and make of them what we will.

legilimens

It’s the opposite of empowering and emancipating practice, or promoting independent learning. And as Harry Potter learned, reading someone’s thoughts out of context, without their owner’s informed consent and interpretative input, can result in Siriusly misleading conclusions, not to mention a dysfunctional rapport with the student.

What is a better approach than legilimency, to gain access to student learning and empower them to be independent? Why, as Dumbledore would tell you*, it is the Pensieve. The LD wizard’s art lies in helping the learner identify and extract the relevant thoughts and memories to be placed between you, in a safe, objective space where you can observe and discuss them together with a helpful interpretative distance. It’s consensual, it’s mutual, and it draws on the expert commentary of both parties to make sense of what they see.

pensieve

And it’s this formulation approach, rather than diagnostic, which is the real value of the 5 Ps of LD. Do we analyse a student’s work, interrogate them on how they approached and produced it and, having collected this data, pronounce on what it means? Or do we invite the student to join us in a shared exploration of these facets, explain to them why we’re asking particular questions and what we aim to achieve by them, include them in our tentative wondering aloud, ask them whether an explanation feels right to them, or what an idea means to them, what insights occur to them that might help us better understand?

Diagnostic Use of the 5 Ps of LD**:

After asking the student what problem they want help with, I note any pertinent factors which they reveal or which I observe, and draw on my expert knowledge to posit how that will impact on their learning. I read the assignment brief to identify what they were asked to do, and ask a series of questions about how they approached it, noting where this approach will have fallen short of meeting the lecturer’s learning outcomes. Finally, I analyse a sample of their writing to identify the features which do not conform to the conventions of academic writing, and recommend to the student a strategy for working more productively next time.

Key questions: “What did you…?” “Do you understand?”

Key statements: “I think that’s because…” “What this means is…” “What you need to do is…”

Formulation Use of the 5 Ps of LD**:

I ask the student what they’d like to work on, and invite discussion around whose problem this is (has the lecturer identified it or have they?) and why or to what extent it might be perceived as a ‘problem’ – what does that mean to them? I request the student’s help in understanding the context of their learning, and invite their reflections on how this context has shaped and impacted on their learning. I ask the student what the terms of reference of the essay question or feedback means to them and what experiences have informed that understanding, bring my pedagogic expertise to bear in modelling my interpretation of what I feel is likely to be the lecturer’s intention, invite their view on this (they know their lecturer better than me, after all) and negotiate how we might bridge any gap between these potentially disparate expectations. I ask them to describe how they approached the assignment and why they chose that approach, inviting their reflection on where they felt it worked or didn’t, and use my knowledge of educational psychology to theorise why it might be the case, inviting their views on my interpretation. I ask them to offer a commentary on their writing, why they made the linguistic choices they did or identifying areas they’re not sure of, and negotiating how they could reflect their intention in language their lecturer might conceive of as ‘conventional’. We discuss what might help them develop their learning.

Key questions: “What does that mean to you?” “Tell me a bit about your reasoning – why you…” “Does my interpretation feel right to you?”

Key statements: “I’m wondering if…” “I ask that because…”

Coaching techniques feature very strongly in a formulation approach to the 5 Ps of LD.

 

 

*Caveat 1: I would hesitate to say in general that we should aim to Be More Dumbledore in our professional practice – he did after all have some rather dubious notions of consent and transparency! Snape, if nothing else, was at least congruent in his teaching practice…

** Caveat 2: this conversation is in practice likely to be iterative rather than linear

A Curriculum for Study Skills?

I’ve been involved recently in an initiative to draw up a baseline offer for the Library’s teaching provision embedded in Schools’ courses. An obvious starting place for my librarian colleagues when outlining their provision was to decide which of the various information literacy models to use as a basis: SCONUL’s 7 Pillars (a popular ‘home’ choice given that it was developed by Newcastle’s own fabulous Moira Bent), the American ACRL framework, or the newcomer, ANCIL: A New Curriculum for Information Literacy  (I’m Team ANCIL as it was developed by my awe-inspiring former colleagues, Jane Secker and Emma Coonan as their Cambridge Arcadia Fellowship project). The next step was to align the chosen model with the library team’s offering to Schools at each stage. Recognising the links between information literacy and academic literacies, my librarian colleagues included me in this conversation.

And I really struggled to contribute to it helpfully.

We Learning Developers don’t have a curriculum, a framework, or a model of what we teach. Librarians, who have several competing models, might be a bit taken aback by this paucity. Similarly Researcher Developers, who have their Vitae Researcher Development Framework, to which all PGR and post doc professional development is mapped. The HEA’s UK PSF too, which lays out the Knowledge, Activities and Values of a teacher in Higher Education. But Learning Developers? Who work across the curriculum, in all aspects and facets of ‘learning to learn’? Nothing.

Perhaps it just hasn’t  been done yet. Maybe it’s for want of someone taking a lead on it. In fact, for an earlier project to scope learning development and study skills provision across the institution, I developed a scoping tool, listing all the core learning literacies and skills I hoped to find pockets of, however they were titled. I scoured the chapter headings of study skills books and looked at the remits of learning development centres across the country, to compile a list of What Learning Development Encompasses In All Its Myriad Forms. I thought about how to include academic literacies with other study skills, and how to draw the boundary with discipline specific skills. I thought about hard skills and soft skills. I wracked my brains to produce a framework of Learning Development. And here it is: Academic Skills Development Framework.

But….IT’S ALL WRONG. I looked at how this might be incorporated into the scheme my librarian colleagues are working on, and it just does not work. In fact, it doesn’t work at all.

Why? Because Learning Development isn’t quite like the librarians’ Information Literacy. For starters, the curriculum is not our curriculum. Librarians, information scientists, they created the system of cataloguing information and database searching. It’s their ‘cloistered garden’, and it’s they who show the user round. They know the lay of the land because they made it. Ok, so that cloistered garden has had to open its gates a little as the internet has created other places where information is seeded and may grow wild, but still, in Academia, those other gardens of Google and Wikipedia are negotiated by the Librarians’ compass.

But us? We’re student-centred. We’re learning-led. We help students negotiate higher education, we don’t determine what that encounter should look like for them. Our practice is emancipatory, and therefore often transgressive. We don’t prescribe, we challenge and question. It’s not for us to say, “at UG Stage 2, you should know how to…”. Whatever students ‘should’ know is determined by the subject curriculum they are following, and their own learning needs. And any list of the ‘study skills’ we might teach is also driven by the evolving demands of the subject curriculum and the development opportunities it opens up, not what we want to impart, or think ought to be learned. What we teach is whatever is needed to develop learning in Higher Education. It might be useful to capture a snapshot sense of what that might include, to help communicate our role to students and academic staff. But whatever that would be, would be provisional and contingent, responsive and ever changing, context specific and context-dependent. Some elements of learning will never change or become irrelevant, but the conditions in which they occur do, so even the notion of ‘core LD skills’ doesn’t quite make sense.

So although it’s useful to me to have an indicative list of ‘stuff that falls under my remit as LDer’, I’m really reluctant to take that next step to formalise this as a ‘curriculum’ or ‘framework’ of study skills – it just doesn’t feel very LD! I’m making our library initiative to lay out our baseline teaching provision very tricky, for which I can only apologise…!

My Conceptual Model for Learning Development

I was at ALDinHE’s annual conference last week, and have been digesting all the rich, fascinating papers and conversations I encountered- material enough for several blog posts!

One session in particular jumped out at me as something I wanted to work through more in a blog post. Rosie MacLachlan, from St George’s, University of London, ran a workshop asking us to develop a conceptual model of Learning Development, unpicking all the forms it takes and trying to position them in a model. She’s run sessions like this at ALDinHE regionals, and it was a fascinating exercise not just in scoping the various ways we practice, but also in how we understand and articulate them.

Many models positioned the different forms of provision along some kind of continuum or axis associated with the curriculum, one to ones and generic sessions being outside the curriculum, and sessions embedded as part of the module, or indeed study skills modules as a whole, firmly within it. This sparked off a reflection for me – I found that I reacted quite strongly against the idea that one to one provision is outside the curriculum. I also found it interesting that we often disagreed about where to place things, or how they linked. I wondered if we were conflating conceptual spaces with physical or institutional ones – that one to one provision is thought of as outside the curriculum because it takes place outside the students’ normal classroom – the space in which the curriculum is taught, or is institutionally further away from academics, the owners of the curriculum.

On one level, there’s an obvious objection to this – due to increasing student numbers, we have central timetabling, and students are no longer taught only in their ‘home’ spaces as I was, but in whatever space is suitably sized and laid out all over the campus. To an English Literature student, would my office in the library be much different from the lecture theatre in Engineering or Medicine that’s the only one big enough on campus? Or peer mentoring or online provision that might take place in a hall of residence? The whole university campus is now curriculum space. Or is it that institutionally, learning developers are positioned differently as we’re often not on academic contracts- so the more closely we work with ‘real’ academics, the more ‘legit’ our provision is positioned as? Are we bringing students into our professional identity crisis?!

On a more conceptual level, though, I reacted against the idea of one to ones being outside the curriculum because of the nature of the conversation in one to ones. Again and again in feedback on one to ones, students mention how tailored the provision was. Which is odd, as I know nothing about chemical engineering, dentistry, architecture or business management! But if I am putting into practice the listening, coaching and mentoring roles of the Four Roles Integrated model, or applying the 5 Ps of LD to help the student examine their own learning in context, then the student brings the curriculum with them. A one-to-one can’t be outside the curriculum – it’s the curriculum’s learning outcomes, the assessment, the discipline practices which we’re examining together. My one to one practice is as embedded in the curriculum as any subject lecture. What it does stand outside of is, as I’ve discussed before, judgement – that is, formal assessment, and it offers a chance to examine the curriculum from a different perspective or angle.

So in Rosie’s session, what I started to sketch out under her facilitation was a different way to position and articulate the provision I offer. Riffing off the notion of Learning Development as a third, hybrid space, mentioned in that day’s Keynote, I tried to use ‘spaces’ in this cultural sense as a lens to position LD activity – a positioning not determined by the nature of the format itself, but by the approach or angle we’re coming from or the impetus behind it. I’ve started to look at this when I discussed learning outcomes – that they are shared three ways, between us, the student and the lecturer. This model helps me think about how the shift in balance in the three partners involved in learning outcomes might help me position my provision.

First Space

As ‘student-centred’ is one of my core values, I positioned Student Space as the First Space, decentralising the University to Second Space. Student space is porous (hence the dotted lines) – it can take in, it can expand and encompass (or reject and exclude!). I’d position good One to One provision here, I think, as the student is more in control of shaping it. It’s certainly part of the curriculum – or at least, the curriculum is part of it, as the student’s learning is of course at the heart of the curriculum.

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Second Space

The Subject Teaching Space then, is Second Space. It has pretty rigidly defined boundaries and a gatekeeper – ways in are limited, and it is determined, policed and controlled by those inside. This space maps loosely onto Lave and Wenger’s community of practice, and the Academic Socialisation model. I try not to operate too much within this space unless I’m very constrained in what and how I teach! I am careful not to position myself as the gatekeeper here – I’m not the representative of the curriculum, I don’t set the boundaries, I’m the one who helps students navigate the boundaries and gates, avoid the short cuts (surface learning!) and sneaky ways in round the back (plagiarism!) but to challenge and negotiate access and residence. If I take an overly prescriptive, dogmatic, remedial approach, then I’m working (poorly) in this space.

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Third Space

Third Space is of course Learning Development Space. Its boundaries are fuzzy and malleable (hence wavy lines) and it can expand or morph to accommodate the needs of the curriculum or the learner. It needs to know its boundaries, as per my post on LD as Therapy, and the increasing discomfort which LDers feel about being co-opted into a neoliberal ‘transferable skills for employability’ function. But those boundaries are accommodating and inclusive. This third space is the space I try to bring with me even when teaching at my most embedded – it’s the space I try to open up even when teaching as part of a module in a lecture theatre, in which students can explore and challenge the curriculum.

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The distinction between these spaces is not their position re the curriculum – the curriculum is in all of them. Any one format, depending on how it is taught, could potentially reside in any of the spaces, though there will be a natural ideal home for each one. The distinction is, I suppose, the impetus, where the push, the power is coming from, where it starts and where it ends up, who instigates, whose perspective is dominant. In fact, what was interesting about all the models produced in the session was how they captured a sense of dynamism and movement, at the same time as trying to fix positions of different forms of provision.

Mine is still a bit half-baked as a model, but I’m very grateful to Rosie for creating this third space in which we could all think about this and begin to articulate it! I’ll continue to think about how it might be refined and applied as a way to conceptualise my learning development practice. At the moment, it’s sitting on my desk, like three amoebas, subdividing, absorbing each other, repulsing each other – dynamic. I’ll see if it evolves into a more complex life form!

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Officially more letters after my name than in it!

Today I heard that I’ve been successful in claiming ALDinHE’s new Certified Leading Practitioner status. I’m absolutely thrilled and very proud to be one of the first ones to go through the scheme – and can’t wait to be part of a growing community of LDers who have won professional recognition for their work in such a fascinating, complex, and very skilled role!

This is particularly meaningful to me because, as I’ve argued on this blog, I see LD as being a very distinct role. Proud as I am of my SFHEA, that fellowship values my role in as far as I am a teacher, and that descriptor doesn’t quite cover my identity as a learning developer. I’m as much a coach, a counsellor, a mentor, as a teacher. I’m all of those things and none of them. I’m a learning developer.  There are whole areas of that role that don’t quite fit under the UKPSF and til now, weren’t acknowledged anywhere. This was brought home to me when I tried to take a short cut and rejig my SFHEA application for CELP, but it just had to be totally rewritten! It was worth it though to include the ‘offcuts’ from my HEA fellowship, that I hadn’t been able to find a place for.

I have also argued here that LD is a very skilled role, and now ALDinHE has a certification scheme, it’s a major step on the way to recognition of our professional status outside the community. This is so important, given that very often, it’s non-learning developers who write our job descriptions and recruit us. Within the community, in terms of CPD, it gives us something to aim for, standards to achieve, a shared understanding of what an LDer is and does, which is useful in a profession which currently has no single entry route, and a diversity of job titles and working environments.

Anyway, I’m massively grateful to my colleagues in the ALDinHE Professional Development Working Group and the Steering Group, particularly Steve Briggs whose brainchild this scheme is, and who has worked so hard to bring it about!

Off to celebrate and welcome those extra 4 letters after my name!

Helen Michelle Webster

BA (Hons), MA, DPhil, PGCE, SFHEA and…. CELP!

Constructivism and Learning Development

Behaviourism never quite felt ‘right’ to me as an account of what goes on in my head when I’m learning. I’d like to move on to a theory that feels more natural.

What is it?

Constructivism, or specifically here cognitive constructivism*, was a response to behaviourism as an explanation for what learning is and how it takes place. Accepting that we can’t observe learning directly, constructivist theory supposes that in interacting with the world, learners construct mental models or schemes, connecting new knowledge with what they already know through links which are entirely personal and individual to themselves. These associations aren’t necessarily hierarchical or even particularly logical, and may result in two individual learners having entirely different understandings of the same thing.

Learning is therefore not passive reception and accumulation of knowledge; it is actively constructed and made meaningful by the learner themselves. Learning is a change in their mental constructs as a result of new knowledge – organising, expanding and refining these mental maps. That new knowledge might reinforce and fit seamlessly into the structure already constructed, needing only to be assimilated by the learner, or it might challenge the existing knowledge structure, which will then need to adapt to accommodate and make sense of this new understanding.

Constructivism therefore places great emphasis on the role of prior knowledge in learning, encouraging teachers to begin by activating prior learning so that it can be built on, used to make sense of and adapt to the new. Start with what the students know. Prior learning is not simply reproduced, but reconstructed when the learner recalls it. Piaget is the main theorist associated with this theory and although he’s best known for his work on child learning, constructivism applies perhaps just as much to adults who have more experience and knowledge and bigger and more complex mental models!

Because of the emphasis on the learner’s creation of links between old and new knowledge, the pedagogy often associated with this theory positions the teacher’s role as facilitating the learner in actively discovering connections and principles themselves, rather than telling them – constructivist pedagogy places much more emphasis on the learner’s role than that of the teacher, compared to behaviourism.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

Learning Developers stand outside the curriculum.  Lecturers will know what was last taught in the module or degree programme, but beginning a session with prior knowledge becomes rather harder for us, as we often have no idea what students have been learning! However, it’s no coincidence that Learning Development has historically been bound up with transition to higher education, widening participation and remedial connotations. As A-Levels are no longer primarily conceived of as preparation for university level study, the transition to HE has been spoken of more and more as a ‘gap’ which needs to be overcome, not just for those students who don’t come from families with a history of HE participation, but for the majority. We’ll probably all be familiar with despairing cries from academic colleagues of ‘They’re supposed to know this already!’ ‘What do they teach them at school?’ ‘It’s not my job to teach this!’. Whatever is assumed to be the correct ‘prior learning’ for university entrance is not perceived to be there, and whatever the rights and wrongs of it, Learning Developers have frequently been called on to remedy this, whether it’s writing skills, the ability to read and navigate longer text, or to think critically and study independently. Whatever you think of the assumption that Learning Developers’ role is to supply the ‘prior learning’ which ought to have been there so that academic staff can then activate and build on it, that’s what we’re often expected to deal with!

Constructivism may also explain issues with student engagement. It demands that the learner do one of two things on encountering new knowledge: assimilate it into existing mental structures, or accommodate the mental model to fit it. Students may however conceive of  learning mostly in terms of acquisition and assimilation, and they may not realise that learning can sometimes mean unlearning what thought they knew, or reconfiguring it. Learning Developers often teach fundamental skills: thinking, reading, writing. However, this doesn’t mean that they are basic skills! What we teach is generally not remedial basic literacy, but more complex, nuanced and multifaceted academic literacies – a more advanced level. This is presented, however, in very similar terms to basic literacy: we teach “thinking”, “reading”, “writing”. Little surprise, then, if students think: “I already know this. I learned how to think/read/write at school! I don’t need this”. Thinking purely in terms of learning as assimilation, there’s little adaptation of their existing mental schema that needs doing. It doesn’t look new, and therefore may well reinforce existing approaches to study which aren’t appropriate to university level. What we’re actually trying to do, though, is to get them to experience how this skill will be practiced differently and look different in this new context, and therefore change their mental schema of thinking, reading or writing to accommodate this, to unlearn and relearn what it means to study. If what we’re offering looks superficially too much like what’s already there, students won’t engage.

Should we as teachers manage to create a situation where learners are faced with the realisation that they need to rewrite their mental maps of ‘study skills’ at university, then we need to support and encourage students as they make sense of the new knowledge that challenges their received wisdom, long-held convictions and deep-rooted ‘common sense’. This can be quite unsettling, as these fundamental skills are ones which are very closely bound up with identity, and therefore self-esteem. “Maybe I’m not as bright as I thought” “But I thought I could write”. “I used to love reading!” We might tell students that there’s a misapprehension in the way they’re going about their studies, and they might on one level accept this, but according to this model of learning, this will involve some profound unpicking of complex and very personal mental models, a risky-feeling, unnerving process that can strike deep. It’s more than a matter of saying “oh, ok then” and moving on. As Learning Developers, we need to offer safe situations in which students can experiment, unlearn and rebuild.

How might we teach it to students?

If you’ve ever encouraged students to brainstorm or make a mind map, you’ve asked them to apply constructivist principles. We might also promote a thoughtful response to encountering new knowledge by asking them to reflect on in what ways new knowledge fits with what they already know, and in what ways it challenges it and makes them rethink. I certainly think we could be discussing the possible impacts of new learning more, that it may have unexpected consequences, and that’s a natural part of learning!

How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

If you’ve ever asked students to reflect at the start of a session on what they understand a term like ‘criticality’ to mean, or think about other situations outside of class in which they’ve been critical, then constructivist pedagogy has been in play. For subject teachers, revisiting past learning at the start of a lecture or seminar can play the dual function of stimulating prior learning in the minds of the students and also allowing the lecturer to assess how much they have retained from last time. For learning developers, who tend to see students as one-offs, there will have been no ‘last time’ – in this case, it plays the very valuable role of allowing us to gather information about the course we’re supporting and where students are at, where they’re coming from, as well as prompting them to review and ready prior knowledge ready to extend it. It helps us to assess what they will need from the session and pitch it appropriately, which, if we’re responding in a student-centred way, we won’t necessarily know in advance. Our application of constructivist principles tend towards the reflective!

Given that students may reject new knowledge if superficially it looks too much like what they already know, we need to be facilitating experiential learning. We can create situations in a workshop to allow students to bump up against areas where their current conception of, say, reading, is not working for university study, recognise this for themselves and realise the need to adapt. Telling them isn’t enough!

I also find it helpful in designing activities. Learning Developers teach workshops, not classes: by definition, focussing on learning by doing, through experience. When I taught foreign languages, I was trained to explain the grammar rule, then get students to apply and practise it. This transmission-and-drilling seems too behaviourist to me for a learning developer. My approach to activity design now tends to be open-ended and unstructured. When, for example, teaching academic writing, I offer a text, ask students to reflect on how well it ‘works’ for them as readers, and then discover and derive the principles themselves, constructing their own meaning out of their experience.

Constructivism also comes into the second of the 5 Ps of LD: pertinent factors. These factors may be things the student wants you to bear in mind in a one to one, such as a specific learning difficulty, past experiences or personal circumstances that impact on their learning. But we also need to be looking a bit deeper together, to look at what learning means to the student, co-creating a meaningful account of what’s going on, which will involve some examining of those mental models and personal associations.

*Cognitive constructivism sees learning as a very individual affair, but of course, we don’t learn in isolation. Later theorists were to bring in the role of other people in learning and add a social dimension – Social Constructivism coming up soon!

Learning Development and the Hidden Curriculum

I learned about the hidden curriculum during my PGCE. It was an eye opener.

What is it?

The hidden curriculum is the incidental, unintended, internalised, informal, unacknowledged, unofficial lessons that are embedded – ingrained – in the curriculum so deeply that we’re hardly aware we’re passing them on with the learning outcomes that we openly state. This is good behaviour, this is the correct way to communicate, this is the appropriate thing to do, this is the right sort of person to be. The hidden curriculum is the result of our own social norms, values, beliefs etc, that creep in alongside what we intend to teach. Education is after all a form of socialisation.

These implicit lessons may help to create a positive learning environment, but they may also take the form of prejudice; invisible lessons about gender, class, ability or race, as we socialise students into what we feel is ‘their place’ in academia and in doing so potentially reinforce social inequalities. It’s not just a matter of the individual teacher’s practice; as part of the curriculum, it’s systemic. It could be right there in the reading list, in the examples used to illustrate, in what’s included or left out of the module, in a marking scheme, in the phrasing of a question, in the dynamics of a seminar.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

A big part of the work we do as learning developers, positioned as we often are as part of widening participation, retention and transition, is to help students (and lecturers!) see, interrogate, negotiate and even challenge the hidden curriculum. University culture has evolved from a very specific social and historical context, and students and staff alike are still struggling with its limitations. For example, academic writing is a cultural product which has evolved from this particular social context. Those students who by virtue of their social background already have the cultural capital to navigate university culture will, for example, find it much easier to articulate their learning – to render it clearly visible in an acceptable form  – to the assessor. Others will find that they’re having to learn that the way they present their learning is not acceptable; that their learning is not acceptable, maybe they are not acceptable. ‘Writing’ is not neutral, self-evident, objective or universal; it’s a discourse through which we inculcate and reinforce certain behaviours and values and we might not always be aware of what they are. Some of this might be very positive and conducive to learning; other aspects of this hidden curriculum might be at best culturally specific or at worst discriminatory. At other times, our hidden curriculum might be in conflict with those learned in other stages of education, such as the need to respectfully defer to a teacher or expert scholar rather than critique them. Students can be left floundering as the lessons they never realised they had learned turn out not to be true any more.

One of the main challenges for learning developers is that the hidden curriculum isn’t just what we accidentally teach students; it’s also what we assess students on, but don’t teach them. It’s knowledge that, through oblique comments on its presence or absence, is held out to students as being worth learning and vital to success, but when asked about it, academics often can’t articulate it. It’s reduced to ‘clear writing’ or ‘knowing your stuff’, ‘having a good head for your subject’, obvious, simple. This is often the result of overlearning, unconscious competence and forgetting what it was like to be a beginner. In their discipline communities, scholars may become so familiar with the norms and conventions of their practice that they can’t see them any more, or they view them as somehow ‘natural’, inevitable, common sense. Moreover, unless they do interdisciplinary work, they rarely stray outside that closed community of practice, are not exposed to ‘other’ forms of practice, and assume that theirs is generic, the norm. That writing is writing is writing. And writing or other practices that don’t conform to this hidden curriculum just….look wrong, somehow.

Students often find themselves playing a game without being told the rules. They also learn that the first rule is that you don’t ask about the rules; you should just know this stuff, it’s common sense, isn’t it? Honestly, what do they teach in schools these days?! Some educators see the need to explain the hidden curriculum as ‘dumbing down’, or ‘spoon feeding’. And yet – I make the comparison to chess. Chess is a very complex and difficult game – explaining the rules to a new player hardly makes it any easier to play, it’s not ‘giving the game away’ to tell a new player how it works. We wouldn’t reasonably expect someone to learn chess by first figuring out the rules through guessing. Similarly, reflecting on and explaining some of the ‘side effect’ lessons of Higher Education isn’t rendering the whole exercise pointless.

How might we teach it to students?

That’s where the Learning Developer comes in. We’re outsiders to the discipline, so although we’re not the subject expert, sometimes we can see things just a little more clearly. We can analyse the curriculum to expose and articulate the hidden lessons buried in it. We can model this questioning technique to students, explain the rules of the game, hold a mirror up to the hidden curriculum and invite students not just to aspire to and emulate it (academic socialisation) but to interrogate it, negotiate with it, challenge it and co-exist with it (academic literacies).

How might we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

We learning developers do however need to be aware of the possibility that we’re enforcing and supporting elements of the hidden curriculum that clash with our ethos of social justice and the independent learner. We need to be constantly reflecting, challenging our assumptions and questioning our own practice to ensure we’re not complicit in gatekeeping, endorsing or passing on unintended learning which doesn’t sit well with our role.

Writing as a workshop activity

A recent email to the LDHEN JISCmail list from one of the list members nudged me to think a bit further about something that’s been at the back of my mind for a while. The email was a request for active writing exercises for workshops – not just reading examples of writing, but actually getting students to write themselves. And I don’t have any suggestions. I’ve been dimly aware that although I too frequently use examples of writing for students to look at and learn from, I also rarely actually get them to do much ‘real’ writing in my workshops. I ask them to jot down their answers, I get them to do a bit of freewriting on their own, I might ask them to paraphrase something or amend a given text, but it’s rare I ask them to produce a bit of more extended writing of the sort they’ll be producing in their essays, to translate the strategies and techniques we’re identifying in the examples into their own writing. I’d love to get them writing an introduction, a paragraph, a very tiny literature review, putting strategies into practice and reflecting on them with feedback. But I don’t.

I’ve been poking a bit more into why I feel this reluctance.

My first response is that writing in such a public way in a workshop is potentially quite difficult for students, for lots of reasons. Freewriting, which no one but you will ever see, is one thing, but writing for consumption by others is another. Academic writing for assignments is writing for assessment and critique- by definition, it invites judgement. And while freewriting is a very valuable skill to develop thinking and drafting, we learning developers also need to get students practising the kind of authentic ‘end result’ texts they’ll really be working on, texts for a reader. People often think of writing as an end product – it’s rare (but valuable!) to see it happening in front of you. For all it’s a public activity, it’s also a very personal one, a way we project ourselves into the world, a very private individual process, and often a focus of mystique, criticism, insecurity and shame. When writing in such a public way in a workshop, fear of judgement might be very intimidating, and do I want to put students in such an uncomfortable position? Fear about the process – that they aren’t writing enough, or not fast enough, not legibly enough, that they’ve gone blank. Fear of the product – that their ideas are stupid, that they’re making too many mistakes, that they don’t know what to say, that they don’t have a chance to polish it. Students with dyslexia or whose first language is not English may be particularly uncomfortable, but so might mature students or those from non-traditional backgrounds. For once we’ve got them to write something, the obvious thing is to get them to swap it with a reader to see how it works – a peer, or worse still, us. How to make students feel safe?

Secondly, my reluctance is for pragmatic reasons. Writing is hard work, and it needs to be worthwhile for the students to invest that energy in, which means it needs to be aligned to what they’re actually currently doing towards their studies. Far more often than I’d like, I don’t know enough about the curriculum to devise a writing task that makes sense to them and is helpful. Too early, before assignments have even been set, and they may not have anything to write about, or know enough about the topic to have anything to say. Or very often I may not have any idea what assignments they’re working on and am not sure myself what to get them to write. An inauthentic, generic writing task is possible, but isn’t going to get their buy-in or deliver learning payoff in quite the same way.  I’d love to be able to integrate workshops more with the curriculum through liaison with lecturers, but that doesn’t always happen. What to set as a writing activity? What to write about?

My third, slightly harder to identify response is more to do with my teaching practice, and is much less justifiable – it’s to do with my fear. If students don’t write, if they don’t engage in what I’ve asked them to do, it’s horribly visible and exposing for me. More so than if their group discussion is off-topic or if they don’t respond to questions or requests for suggestions or contributions. And if an activity depends on them all having produced some writing, we’re rather stuck if they don’t. I’ve outlined reasons both above and elsewhere for non-engagement in workshop writing activities, but still – I guess it’s human and understandable in the moment to worry most about what it says about my teaching rather than their learning! Safer to ask them to contribute in less concrete ways by talking to each other, by ‘thinking about’ activities or jotting down a few scribbled ideas, rather than risk having lack of participation demonstrated so visibly. Safer to keep talking myself, so at least *something* learning-related is happening, and my failure to engage them isn’t so exposed.

All of which is a shame, because I can think of a lot of reasons to get students writing in workshops. We can discuss what might go into a good introduction, or what makes a paragraph, we can look at examples, good and not so good, and draw our conclusions from those, set writing goals, list dos and don’ts. But unless students actually write a paragraph and test it out on themselves and a peer reader, how easily can they put this guidance into practice and judge for themselves if it’s working for them? How can they ask reflective questions about new writing techniques unless they’ve got some recent experience to reflect on, and someone to bounce off in a supportive environment? Once students leave a workshop, I’m left hoping that once they get to writing (and I’m not always sure when that will next be), they’ll have already had enough experience to contextualise what we talked about and make sense of it and then retained enough of what we discussed to be able to put it into practice. I’m also hoping that if they want to follow up, they’ll be able to talk to a clued-up lecturer, or get an appointment for a one to one with one of the Learning Development team. It’s leaving a lot to chance. Far better to do that in the workshop when we can offer reflection and followup. And better for us too – Learning Developers don’t formally assess coursework, but of course we need to assess informally to see if students are picking it up and if we’re getting it right too.

The three reasons I outlined above might be valid, but all of them can be overcome with the right approach – and the benefits are well worth the risk taken by us and by the students. I’m going to follow up some of the suggestions in the email thread, and push myself and the students I teach, to write!