The many hats of a Learning Developer

Learning Development’s a varied job- we’re never bored! Every hour could bring a different student, studying a different discipline with a different need. And, I’d argue, we too are different each hour in response.  

I’ve addressed the question of what is a learning developer from various angles, but this time I’d like to look at how we’re more than just one thing. In our work, we play a number of roles, and wear a number of hats, depending on what suits the circumstances.  At the ALDinHE Regional Development day at Newcastle University back in January, and again at a meeting of National Teaching Fellows in LD hosted by Sally Brown and Giskin Day at Imperial College, I encouraged participants to explore this diversity with an activity which looked at their responses to a number of roles. I distributed a number of cards, each with a different hat on. Those hats each had a different label: Teacher. Trainer. Coach. Mentor. Critical Friend. Adviser. Tutor. And so on. There were about 15 hats in all- I’m sure there could be more. 

I asked the participants to discuss each of the roles- how they reacted to those terms, what the distinctions between the roles were, which they felt were a good fit for Learning Developers, which could be adapted to fit us, and which don’t really suit us so much. They were then arranged into a hierarchy. The diversity of the discussion in itself demonstrated that there’s no single core identity, and that we feel that a number of roles might apply to us. Some of us might feel more drawn to certain roles due to our previous professional backgrounds – some felt that ‘teacher’ suited them best, others that ‘guide’ or ‘critical friend’ was a better fit. But there was general agreement that no one of those roles encompassed all of LD work. 

I feel that a good learning developer consciously occupies different roles in their work according to the varying need. Sometimes we are teachers- we have knowledge that the students don’t, and our role is to impart it to them. Sometimes we are coaches – it’s the students themselves have the knowledge of their own subject and their own practice, and our role is to facilitate their reflection on that. Sometimes we’re guides, exploring new territory alongside the student. Sometimes we’re just sounding boards. Each role comes with a different set of strategies to help develop the student’s learning, and each might be appropriate or inappropriate in different circumstances. 

There is therefore not a heirarchy but a spectrum of roles which runs from something akin to a teacher at one end, to something which is more like a counsellor at the other, and at each end, it’s rooted in where knowledge lies – knowledge and the agency that goes with it.  

At one end of this spectrum, the knowledge lies with us. It might be knowledge of pedagogy – what marking criteria mean, how people learn, what plagiarism is, technical aspects of grammar – which the student does not possess. We determine and impart what the student needs to know. In these circumstances, we wear our Teacher hats, and use strategies appropriate to this role. On another occasion, a student might want our feedback on how a draft is reading, whether a dissertation proposal makes sense, or how well their presentation style comes across, in which case we don’t need to impart knowledge, we need to become mentors, modelling good practice, sharing our views and experience as senior peers. In other cases, a student might want advice on how to manage their time, or be confident which essay question to choose, which revision strategies might work best, or how to get better marks in their engineering report writing. In these cases, we don’t have the answers at all – and this is because this expertise actually resides with the student – they know themselves best, they’ve read more engineering reports than we have! We put our coaching hat on, asking questions to help them come to their own conclusions from their tacit knowledge. And sometimes – rarely, but just sometimes, we just listen. Like a counsellor, we use active listening, mirroring and silence as the student simply talks themselves into their own decisions or understanding, with the odd ‘uh huh’ or ‘right’ from us. 

Being a learning developer is having a range of hats to wear, and knowing the right occasion to bring them out.  

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