‘I’m a Learning Developer’.
It’s not easy explaining what you do. Friends and acquaintances will gain only a hazy idea from this term, teachers and lecturers may feel that they, too, develop learning, don’t they? and colleagues in other student services such as English for Academic Purposes or Librarians may be on the defensive, as you describe in more detail what you offer: ‘but we teach that!’.
I’m fascinated by and enjoy interprofessional working – I love finding out how other colleagues work and how they conceptualise what they do – those glimpses into the arcane knowledge of another profession. Since Learning Development in large part arose from those professions – counselling, disability support, English for Academic Purposes, librarian information literacy teaching, subject teaching – it’s hard to situate what we do as distinct, which can muddy waters for staff and students, and lead to tensions in interprofessional working.
But I think it is distinct. My gut reaction is that what I do as a Learning Developer is different to what I did when I was a subject lecturer who took an interest in developing my students’ study skills alongside their discipline knowledge. It’s different from the approach I observe in other professions even when they’re teaching topics which ostensibly also fall on ‘our patch’, such as writing or referencing. My view is that these approaches and the different professional perspectives that they emerge from are valuable, complementary and holistic, and the more we work together and understand what we can each bring, the better. However, to really make the best use of this collaboration, we need to have a clearer articulation of what each role brings. If we reduce it, discipline-style, to study skills topics, and carve it up between us as a curriculum, we’re going to lose so much. Better, I think, to try to capture what it is about the approach characteristic of a Learning Developer, alongside those of other professions, so we can see what lens each brings to bear on our shared central goal of helping our students learn effectively.
For me, Learning Development is what can occur in the space which opens up when we step away from formal assessment. I’ve been a subject teacher- albeit one very interested in developing her students’ study skills, but when I took on a learning development role outside subject teaching, even when discussing the same study skills, often with students from the same discipline as my former one, I realised that students were interacting with me differently, we were able to achieve something a little bit different that I couldn’t have done in my former role.
For me, the key difference was this: students knew I wasn’t formally assessing them. I wasn’t giving them grades or marks, passes or fails; telling them what was correct and what was incorrect. I was simply working with them to explore their learning, not my subject discipline. I was encouraging them to explore their own goals and standards, not meet mine. I didn’t hold the curriculum; the students held the agenda. Learning development is intrinsically non-judgemental. As a subject lecturer, my teaching was by definition judgemental (in the most supportive and well-intentioned way!). We do assess as Learning Developers, of course, all the time – it’s one of our tools to see if students’ learning is developing, to gauge their progress and the effectiveness of the strategies they’re using, but this is formative, informal and ungraded. We’re also an outsider to the discipline. We don’t prescribe, we help students describe what they see in their discipline’s study conventions, and make their own decisions based on those observations. We can of course suggest what may be more or less effective, but we’re then acting as mentors, not teachers. It’s not our role to hold the answers, and that can liberate both us and the students.
One to one work with students is, as Murray and Glass (2011) note, central to learning development work. However, I don’t think that this is because one to one tutorials are the definitive format for that work; Learning development isn’t one to one work. Lecturers, pastoral tutors, counsellors, librarians, all see students one to one in some developmental capacity, and we also offer group sessions, online learning, any format that helps us achieve the purpose. Instead, I think one to one work is at the core of Learning Development work as that is the space where we can most clearly step away from formal assessment, outside the long-established norms of the lecture hall, or seminar room, the academic’s office surrounded by their books. Embedded learning development is effective and important, but I think even there, we bring a little of that outside, non-judgemental space with us into that context, and that’s what makes it learning development even when we teach as part of a subject module. That’s what we bring that the subject lecturer can’t.
To me, then, a defining characteristic of the learning developer is that we do not formally mark student work. Learning development is a very loosely defined and diverse role, and many of us are based in faculties, closely involved in subject teaching, indeed may have dual roles as lecturers and learning developers. Many of us who identify as learning developers may then find themselves disagreeing with this definition. I would absolutely not want my understanding of the role to be exclusive or divisive however – that would be completely counterproductive. I think the resolution of this tension lies in a return to the question, posed by Murray and Glass (2011) of whether we are a community of practice or a profession.
My response is that we are primarily a profession, for reasons I’ll explore in another blog post. A Learning Developer in this sense would be the one I outline above. However, I think learning development can at the same time be a community of practice – the distinct perspective, expertise and skills of the learning developer can of course be adopted and brought to bear by those in other roles to a greater or lesser extent by carefully managing that switching between assessing and non-assessing roles. But when you formally assess, that learning development space is closed off, and it can be tricky to open up again when needed, as you’re changing the relationship you have with the students, from learning developer to lecturer and back. Fully embodying that characteristic non-judgemental value is hard in this circumstance.
Operating outside formal assessment, and as an outsider to the curriculum has opened that space up for me and my students, and the really interesting thing is – I’d say that’s where a great deal of my expertise as a Learning Developer has come from. Students have shared their insights and concerns with me in that space in a way they never felt able to when I was a subject lecturer, and I’ve learned an awful lot from them that my teacher training never gave me access to. That’s a distinct and valuable expertise I can bring to interprofessional work with colleagues in other roles, and enables me to work in a different and characteristically learning development way.
Murray, Linda and Glass, Bob, 2011. ‘Learning Development in Higher Education: Community of Practice or Profession?’ in Peter Hartley, John Hilsdon, Christine Keenan, Sandra Sinfield and Michelle Verity, eds. Learning Development in Higher Education Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan. 28-39.