Is there a need for clinical supervision in Learning Development?

Let no one underestimate how complex, skilled and, frankly, bloody hard work Learning Development is. One to one work in particular can be seen as a nice, easy going chat in which the LDer gives the student the information and guidance they need, problem solved, job done, off they go. I mean, it’s only one student, it can’t be as hard work as a group? Group work too -just tell them what they need to know to succeed, give them a few activities to practice, there you go. How hard can it be?

In my blog, I’ve been exploring quite what goes into high quality Learning Development work – skilled and diverse practices, ethics and values, complex and challenging theory that makes the phrase ‘advice and guidance’ a complete nonsense in terms of what we’re doing. Learning Development entails active listening, complex decision making moment to moment, balancing directive input with fostering independence, factoring in the unpredicted and unknown, keen awareness of boundaries, watchful reflectiveness of roles enacted and a hefty degree of emotional labour. So does most teaching, but to be honest, there are as many parallels with counselling.

When I was training to be a teacher, I was taught to keep a reflective journal, and this blog is the C21st offspring of that habit. We also used observation by a more experienced teacher or a peer to generate insights and suggestions to help us calibrate and develop our teaching practice. We might on occasion discuss our practice, though as we grew in experience and seniority, discussion became sharing good practice rather than really picking at the niggles and the holes. Those are the tools that teachers use to enhance their teaching practice. Teaching in HE is still seen as a solitary practice -unless you’re training, evidencing quality, or just keen, the classroom is largely a private domain, with oversight an intrusion for the experienced practitioner. I’ve long felt through, that something’s missing from that developmental toolbox.

I’ve been privileged in my career, both as a subject teacher and LDer, to have had some amazing colleagues with whom I could really dig deep into my practice, get stuck into all those knots and holes, and discuss aspects of my work – the ones I felt lost in, the ones I couldn’t solve, the ones that fell into my lap like an undeserved gift (but why?), the anxieties, uncertainties, frustrations, triumphs, fears, exhaustion. These informal conversations – in the staffroom, down the pub, in the corridor – were a blessing snatched when I could. Working alongside counsellors, I envied them the way their work has this opportunity built into their professional practice.

I started to look more closely into this culture of supervision. The term has particular connotations for anyone working in an academic environment. Supervision is for research students, not professionals; it scaffolds you until you’re a fully fledged academic, at which point you don’t need it any more. Supervision in other aspects of teaching is punitive oversight, implying that you can’t act independently without being checked up on. But clinical supervision has a completely different meaning, and one which I think is worth considering in the context of Learning Development.

Clinical supervision is practised in the helping professions – psychology, counselling, social work, coaching, nursing… and Learning Development, though often most closely aligned with teaching, is also a helping profession, is it not? Milne (2007) offers a working definition of clinical supervision as a ‘formal provision, by approved supervisors, of a relationship-based education and training which is work-focussed and which manages, supports, develops and evaluates the work of colleagues”.  Clinical supervision can be said to have three purposes: Normative, Formative and Restorative (Proctor 2001).

The Normative function is, I suppose, most closely aligned to traditional line management. Do this, don’t do that. Or rather, outlining standards, best practice guidelines and ethical boundaries, and ensuring that work remains within them. In the context of Learning Development, this could come in helpful in lots of ways. Whichever profession we have come from, Learning Development isn’t quite that – it’s not exactly subject teaching, not quite EAP, not precisely SpLD work, not really counselling, not so much guidance work – a little bit of all of them, but over and again I’ve found myself having to adapt my practice from my former training as a teacher, and make sure I’m not slipping back into old habits from a different job. Being student centred, I’ve also had to check myself to ask whether in my wish to help students, I’m going too far. Should I have given that student extra time? Should I have been quite so directive in that essay draft? Should I have offered reassurance without knowing it would be all right? Resisting temptation too – did I go too far in sharing my subject knowledge, when that isn’t my role and not something I can offer all students? Am I adhering to the values of a Learning Developer? Having a critical friend with whom I can think this through regularly, reset and reinforce my boundaries and give me feedback would be invaluable.

The Formative function helps me develop and learn. It makes me reflect on my practice – did that go well/badly? How do I know? What was it that went well/badly and why and what can I learn from that? What was going on there when students weren’t reacting as I’d expected and we weren’t getting to where I’d intended? How might I approach it differently? What models might I apply? What else might I try? What’s changing in the education environment and how do I need to adapt? How can I keep learning and not get stale? This isn’t something I see as solely the domain of the trainee – this is something I will need to keep my practice fresh and relevant throughout my career. It’s something that it’s hard to find time for in our busy working lives, so enshrining it formally as an open, practitioner-centred and-led exploration, rather than an appraisal with goals to meet, as a regular opportunity would be fantastic.

The Restorative function is the one which is probably most distant from teaching practice. But teaching is a relationship, relationships involve people, and people involve feelings. Sometimes you’ve got to vent. Sometimes you’ve got to work through a difficult reaction – you’re disappointed, frustrated, despairing, anxious, and you need to address it in order to function well. Sometimes you’re tired and burned out and it’s the end of term and it’s too much and you need to whinge. Sometimes the weight of student and staff expectation to fix it all can be hard to bear. And then you need someone to help you look at that, process it, validate it, explore it, challenge it and bring something positive and productive out of it. Someone who can help you reframe it, see it from different perspectives and points of view.  Someone who can help you think about how to look after yourself in a tough job. Sometimes, though, you’re triumphant and joyous and that’s worth exploring too. It all helps you become more self-aware.

It’s not really part of teaching practice or line management in education, but I think it is something that anyone who manages a Learning Developer might consider, and every Learning Developer might think about how they can get, as a regular, formal part of their practice. It might be something to build into line management; it might sit best entirely separate. it might be one to one or as a group, formal or informal. It might be with a colleague in your team, it might be cross-institutional, by Skype – maybe something ALDinHE can facilitate? I’ve been incredibly lucky that at key points in my career, I’ve had people around me who wanted to reflect together on practice, and it’s been enormously helpful. And in the three functions, we might also see a model for our work with students – how they might remain within the norms of Higher Education, develop their learning and deal with everything that comes with learning – the joys, fears and frustrations.

One thought on “Is there a need for clinical supervision in Learning Development?

  1. Thanks Helen, this resonates in lots of ways, for subject based teachers and personal tutors as well as LDers. Two quick thoughts – some HEIs have a system of senior tutors/mentors for PTs who can fulfil some of the functions you described (though workloads have eroded that) – I wrote about why this kind of support matters in “Who’s looking after me?”: Supporting new personal tutors. In L. Thomas, & P. Hixenbaugh (Eds.) Personal tutoring in Higher Education 2006. More immediately, action learning sets which we use centrally in the PgCert at Brighton offer both formative and restorative functions – AL sets provide challenge and support, scaffolding personal reflection but also moving on from that. I think there is merit in exploring whether this could work for LDers either F2F or more practically as an online form of structured ‘supervision’?

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