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.


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.


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


One thought on “Defence against the Dark Arts of LD

  1. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #Becomingeducational This one’s for our Academic Mentors!!

    We at LondonMet were very lucky recently to have the wonderful Dr Webster run an ALDinHE Regional Event at ours – on one-to-ones.

    It was an inspiring day – full of deep thinking and practical ideas. So, we are really happy to re-blog Helen’s thoughts on the dark arts – with a special focus on the FivePs of learning development.

    thank you Helen for that great event – and thank you again for this thoughtful follow up.

    Sandra & Tom

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