Zen and the Art of Learning Development

At the ALDinHE conference this year, two colleagues, Carina Buckley and Louise Frith, presented some work they’ve been doing on professional identity within LD. They outlined a model of how within a distributed community of practice like ALDinHE, we might grow in expertise through moving through various roles or levels of networkedness. We discussed this model, where we might locate ourselves, how we’ve progressed and where the sticking points were.

During this discussion, something emerged which I’ve observed in other conversations with LDers. Everyone shied away from that central status, Expert.

There’s various reasons why this might be. For lower status professions in Higher Education, the term ‘Expert’ might seem reserved for academics, not for the likes of us who don’t spend our lives researching and teaching in a specialised field. It might also be to do with the way knowledge is broken up into disciplines – we LDers teach across all subjects, so we’re generalists, and by definition our knowledge must be shallow, not in depth enough to be experts. With no qualifications in LD, no progression or promotion and only recently a certification scheme, there have never been any benchmarks in our line of work by which one can say “I am demonstrably an expert”, and to make that claim off your own bat feels….arrogant?

Well, I’m going to make that claim.

I am an expert Learning Developer.

How did that sound? Try those words yourself- how does it feel?

I’d like to explore how I have made my peace with that claim, and what it means to me, and maybe help others lay claim to it too. Much of my thinking on this is counterintuitive and seemingly contradictory but like all mystical wisdom*, has deeper truth buried in it.

You Know Nothing

As a former academic researcher and teacher, I am used to having all the answers – that’s what expert used to mean to me. If I didn’t have the answers, I suffered massive imposter syndrome and looked forward to the day when I was fully, truly an Expert and would know Everything. And then I became a Learning Developer and had no answers at all. I knew nothing about Nursing, Chemical Engineering, Economics or Architecture. I was terrified and tried to learn as much as I could about writing and studying in every discipline – which of course is impossible. Salvation came the day I realised that it wasn’t my job to have the right answers, it was my job to have the right questions. Not knowing things is a real asset in this. My expertise lies more in my skilled practice than my expert knowledge. It was hugely liberating.

You Should Give Up

My background is subject teaching in HE. I have a PhD and a PGCE. I’m highly trained. I’m very experienced. It took years. I invested a great deal in this, time, money and emotional investment in that identity, that status, that future. But I came to realise that clinging onto this was hampering me in Learning Development. There is no single entry path into Learning Development, and whichever route we come from, some of our prior training and experience will be relevant, and some of it won’t. Some of my old expertise, my old identity, had to go, which was a hard realisation. I am no longer straightforwardly a teacher or an academic. It felt like a loss, but only with that realisation could I become a Learning Developer. And I also realised that expertise can lie in breadth as much as depth. Academia rewards specialisation, less so synthesis and syncretism. But in letting go of an established professional identity and disciplinarily boundaried knowledge, I learned to be a magpie and pick out the shiny things that work, wherever they come from, and drop the things that didn’t fit any more in this new role. I was free to experiment and explore, and create. It’s been enormously rewarding.

You Are Not The Expert

My next realisation was that it didn’t all fall on me. I wasn’t ever the only expert in the room. My status didn’t depend on being MORE expert than anyone else, it was complementary, not competitive. I do have some expert knowledge of course- of pedagogy, of educational psychology, of how university teaching and learning in general works and of the relevant critical theory to examine it with. None of it is in depth, it’s an eclectic smattering, but it all adds up to the body of knowledge I need to be an expert Learning Developer. But I can’t possibly supply everything that’s needed to resolve a LD issue with a student – and that’s ok. There’s another expert in the room who can help me. And that’s the student themselves. They are the expert in their own situated learning. Elsewhere, there is the expertise of the subject academic, without which neither I nor the student can get anywhere. My expertise depends on recognising and drawing out the expertise of others. If I try to be the expert in the room, I will fail. To set myself above would not only be arrogant, but self-defeating. A relational model of expertise feels much better. I am AN expert, but not THE expert. Phew!

Expertise is Not For You

It’s not arrogant to strive for expert status though. It’s essential. We all work in a highly competitive, individualised sector but that’s not why Learning Developers should – indeed, have a duty to – become experts and own that status. If we are not offering expertise – competence in specialist knowledge and skills – then what is it that we are offering students? Surely we owe it to them to bring something to the table, to strive to become more expert, to exude confidence in what we’re doing. Otherwise, why should students trust us, invest their time in working with us, why should their universities pay us professional salaries? If we are not experts, or becoming experts, then what is the point of us? And well, I mean, could just anyone else do what you do? Really? Given how skilled and complex a role it is? However mixed my own feelings might be on claiming “Expert” status, I’m putting these aside. It’s not about me. I owe it to my students. I shall be the expert they need me to be.

You Will Never Be An Expert

No one is suggesting that once you reach that inner circle, you can rest on your laurels. With confidence may come complacency, sterility, rigidity, rejection of change. A real expert in Learning Development is after all skilled in Unknowing, in Asking Questions – all of which will naturally lead them to become a novice again when needed. We’re working with novices all the time, and after all, those novices, those students, are our best source of learning. You only become an expert when you begin to learn from the novices. You have to be pretty confident to do that!

So I’ve made my peace with expert status. Far from the precarious and competitive sense of impostor syndrome it used to give me when I was a subject academic, it’s been very liberating, personally. I’ve let go of what that used to mean to me, with all its associations, turned it on its head and owned it. It’s helped me identify where I needed to let some things go, but also where I need to upskill or work with others, and given me license to do so creatively and to keep learning. I’ve written it into the Newcastle WDC values too – there was some disquiet about this at first in the team, but I think we’ve learned to accept it as something we need to claim in order to be effective in our jobs. So accept it, embrace it – you can be – you are – an expert Learning Developer! Good for you!

Am I an expert LDer? Yes I bloody well am. And so are you.

* I can credibly claim to be an expert in this – my PhD was on medieval mysticism.

One thought on “Zen and the Art of Learning Development

  1. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #Becomingeducational My name is… and I am an expert Learning Developer

    We are posting this re-blog from Helen Webster because her thoughts on the status and role of the Learning Developer here is so thoughtful and nuanced – so absolutely insightful and spot on – that it has taken our collective breath away.

    A wonderful coda to #aldcon…

    And we could think of no better way of wishing you all a Happy Easter!!

    All the best,

    Sandra & Tom

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