Training: The What or the How of LD?

What do you expect from professional training? As I’m developing some training for ALDinHE on one to one work, I’ve given quite a bit of thought as to what participants might expect, and whether I’ll be meeting those expectations. As I see it, training offers two main aspects, the What (i.e. the content) and the How (i.e. the skills), and the balance between these can vary enormously in training programmes.

For example, when I did my PGCE, the focus of that training was exclusively on the How – it was assumed that our original degrees or other professional background had already covered the What. Talking to our Student Union advisers, however, their training and CPD seemed to consist almost entirely of the What – the legislative background which underpinned the advice they were providing, and very little of the How to advise effectively – it was expected that you’d pick that up on the job. Somewhere in the middle, colleagues in Specific Learning Difficulties said that their training had covered a lot about What dyslexia is and the laws and policies which ensure an inclusive educational environment, but beyond how to make materials accessible, perhaps not enough of the How to work with students one to one.

My instinct is that LD training would be slightly heavier on the side of How to do LD work – as I’ve discussed in a previous post, there’s a lot of LD work in which we don’t hold the knowledge at all, but need the skills to help students and academic staff articulate what they already know or construct their own understanding from their experience. We aren’t “just” teachers – it’s not our role to have all the answers.

But the end of the LD spectrum which is closer to teaching does imply that there is a What – a subject knowledge basis which LDers need to have not just to do their job, but which they impart to students as the content of their teaching. What is this knowedge? I think it’s a little bit of the following three things:

  • An understanding of how students learn (we are learning development, after all!). Anyone who teaches will benefit from this knowlege to inform the way they teach, but in the case of LD, I’d argue that this is also part of our ‘subject knowledge’ that we pass on to students. We don’t teach this for theory’s sake (we aren’t Education or Psychology lecturers) but as the practical knowledge our students need to apply to their own practice. A little bit of educational and pedagogic theory, a bit of neuroscience, a bit of psychology… all of which helps us teach students how to revise, how to use lectures or seminars, how to manage their time or how to take notes in a way that works for them.
  • An understanding of the curriculum, or what students learn – not the subject-specific bits, but the higher level thinking skills that students are expected to develop in Higher Education, found in marking criteria across any discipline at this level. It often falls to us to help students understand what critical thinking is, what analysis means, how to synthesise literature and creatively arrive at their own conclusions, how to go into more depth.
  • An understanding of assessment – the ways in which students need to articulate their learning so that it can be assessed. At one level, this might be the surface features of grammar, syntax, punctuation and formatting so that students’ writing is accurate and correct. More interestingly, it also encompasses academic literacies – negotiating the conventions of academic writing style in a particular discipline, characteristics of academic register and discourse, the features of various genres of academic writing (essays, reports, reflective assignments, as well as non-written formats like posters or presentations).

A little expert knowledge in each of these areas is what lifts professional Learning Development above the homespun “common sense” study advice you might get from your mum or your mates. And it’s only a little knowledge – we’re not talking a full on education degree here! It’s easy for staff and students to get hung up on this knowledge, especially the more tangible, factual aspects such as grammar, and indeed without it our work will not be ‘expert’. But too much focus on it may also lead us to assume the teacher role more than might be appropriate, giving students the answers, and neglecting the many aspects of our job in which the How is more important, giving students the space to contribute their own knowledge – of themselves and of their discipline.

The What of LD can be picked up in a PGCE or other teaching qualification, from an education textbook, from experience, research and reflection, as well as from training. And only part of our role consists of imparting subject knowledge to students. I’m coming to think that, in developing LD training, it might be productive to weight it more towards the How of LD, how to operate skillfully in the variety of roles we need to take on in order to develop students’ learning. I’d be very interested though in finding out about what your expectations for learning development training would be! What do you feel you need to know?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Training: The What or the How of LD?

  1. In 1-2-1 I think it is very important to utilise the work of Carl Rogers and Person Centred Counselling. He advises active listening and reflecting back. Whilst this gets mocked occasionally (so – you are saying you are finding this assignment hard – how does that feel?) – it is designed to move us away from giving the sort of *advice* that denies the student’s reality. for example – just saying how easy it might be to tackle the assignment *this* way – denies the feelings of the struggling student – and they may go away feeling worse than before. I remember one session where I just touched a student’s arm and said – it IS hard isn’t it? She cried – but it was with relief – it was hard – thus no surprise that she was struggling…

    • RattusScholasticus

      I SO agree with you – and that’s why I don’t want to get too hung up on the What of LD – sometimes our role is not to pass on knowledge or give answers, but just to listen and reflect. Having the What may be reassuring for us, it makes us feel authoritative and can be a comfort to cling onto if we’re not sure how to go about helping a student (“Here, have some knowledge! Good, eh?”). But it can very often get in the way of the student coming to their own understanding of how to resolve an issue -which they’re far more expert in than us. Some of my best tutorials, I’ve managed to shut up and let the student talk herself into understanding of how to approach an essay. “You’ve been so helpful!” she said. I didn’t point out that I’d barely said a thing for an hour!

      If I achieve one thing through this training, it will be to help LDers feel ok about not having the answers, not having to have the answers, and able to work productively *because*, not in spite, of that.

      I’ve got a great book called ‘How to teach what you don’t know’ and it was the most liberating read!

  2. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #becomingeducational
    What do learning developers do – and how can they do it well?
    Really thoughtful and engaging post by Helen Webster on the what and how – of learning development work.
    Do join in the conversation…

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