University is often thought of as a sheltered environment, a cosy retreat from the Real World, a safe ivory tower where young people play with ideas that are ‘purely academic’ before being launched into the unforgiving grown up world. But what if we recognised that university is far from a safe shelter where learning can be nurtured, but is in fact a very unkind place to learn indeed? What if we acknowledge that university is, in fact, wicked? And that our role as Learning Developers is to prepare students for that?
University life has its troubles, unfairnesses and downright appalling and immoral behaviour, individual and structural, and as emancipatory practitioners, we struggle alongside students against that. But I’m using the term ‘wicked’ here in a technical, pedagogical sense. Hogarth (2001) made a distinction between two kinds of learning environment and their implications for learners, and I think his notion is directly relevant for our understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and how we should go about it.
A kind learning environment has clear rules. It’s predictable, regular, has defined boundaries and patterns that repeat. It’s easy to learn them and draw accurate inferences about how things work, apply these lessons and get plentiful, immediate and unambiguous feedback on your resulting actions. You can then tweak and adjust your approach until practice makes perfect. Commonly cited examples of kind learning environments are games, sports or music, where once you learn the rules, you can play the game, correcting your mistakes with clear feedback (a bum note or a missed shot is obvious) and perfecting your technique. I’d say an example of a kind learning environment in Higher Education is Information Literacy. Thanks to the carefully designed information landscape of databases, search strategies, algorithms, Boolean logic and referencing systems, you can figure out the principles and see immediately whether your strategy is working, why, and how to improve it in predictable, regular ways. If information literacy weren’t a kind learning environment, we couldn’t have systematic reviews or replicate searches. That’s not to say it’s easy to learn or isn’t complex, but you can get better at it by learning the rules, developing your ability to predict what will happen and improving your game.
A wicked learning environment, by contrast, is unpredictable and unstable, rules are unclear, variable or just not there at all, information is missing. Any inferences you draw about how to act next time or improve are likely to be misleading or inaccurate and feedback is delayed and incomplete, meaning it’s harder to learn from. Developing expertise and practising your technique doesn’t really help at all, as next time will be unfamiliar or deceptively different. If we think about wicked learning environments in Higher Education, then many of the things that we Learning Developers work with come to mind. Take academic writing. A student does well in one essay, but feedback is 25 working days later and doesn’t pinpoint exactly what they did well. The lecturer has incomplete information about the student’s learning and struggles to give accurate and complete feedback – they only have the outcome or final product, the essay itself, to go on and can only guess at the learning processes that led to that outcome. Whatever inferences the student draws about how to do well in essays may not work next time. Next time is a different topic. A different lecturer, with different preferences. A different genre of academic writing. A different stage of study. A different disciplinary angle. And the student themselves will be different – tired, confident, stressed, distracted, motivated…. Add into this that academic writing is, in Lillis’ terms, an ‘institutional practice of mystery’ with all the unconscious competence and hierarchical gatekeeping that even expert practitioners can’t articulate. With all these variables, many of which are unknown or unpredictable, it’s going to be much harder to make progress in the traditional way- practice does not make perfect. You can’t seek to reform a wicked learning environment – it’s just the nature of the thing.
As Learning Developers then, we have to teach students to learn in wicked learning environments. Acting as if study skills are simple matters of rules and process, simply do this and you will get that result, keep practising until you become expert, is disingenuous. There are no such things as transferable skills. If students try to transfer what they’ve mastered in one area to a new one, it’s unlikely to work – a less rigid, less risk-averse approach is needed. We can’t approach conceptual issues as if they are procedural ones – our students will need to learn to interpret, guess, take risks, live with discomfort and uncertainty, negotiate, navigate and adapt, not follow ten top tips or prescriptive guidance, not perfect a technique, not keep trying til they get it right. In an unkind learning environment, expertise is a form of letting go, of making it up as you go along, not of acquisition and refinement of narrow specialisations. This is going to be a particular challenge for those of us whose background might be in kinder learning environments such as Librarians – you can’t do Learning Development as if you were teaching information literacy. It needs to be a completely different pedagogy.
In an LD@3 webinar this week, I was looking at what an LD signature pedagogy might be from the angle of deriving it from the nature of what we teach, as well as our theoretical frameworks and values. How does the nature of learning development determine how we should best teach our students? The conclusions I draw are that it needs to be metacognitive and reflective, phenomenological, non-directive and holistic rather than positivist, procedural and technical. Or it simply won’t work. In most definitions of learning development and its underpinning theory, you’ll see the phrase ‘to help students make sense of, to make meaning’, and its by creating this space for students to navigate and negotiate their own learning that we help them cope with a wicked learning environment, not by telling them the rules, the how-to’s. We can’t turn a wicked learning environment into a kind one, and we’d do students a disservice by trying.