#Becomingeducational – shares Rattus Scholasticus post: developing wicked learners…

Recently our friend and colleague Helen Webster produced this excellent and thought-provoking post on our role as Learning Development: our job is to prepare our students for wicked and unkind learning.

Her post is here:  https://rattusscholasticus.wordpress.com/2020/05/17/developing-wicked-learners-for-an-unkind-university/  – and we have reproduced it in full below.

THANK YOU Helen – this is the post that has been lurking around the subliminal corners of our minds – but you have said it so much better!

Developing wicked learners for an unkind university

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.

For she’s a Senior Fellow…

#Becomingeducational    Well you wait for months for a #Becoming blog – then two come along together! This is on making an SFHEA Application – and this time it’s personal

We have many colleagues who are preparing FHEA and SFHEA applications right now.

In our institution, LondonMet, our PGCert is mapped against the HEA Fellowship scheme and the University has an accredited system of validating FHEA and SFHEA applications ourselves – either written or via a Viva.

Whether you are writing an in-depth application or preparing a Viva, the pressure to de-code the task – and to make the time and space to reflect positively on your own experience and gather just the right evidence – can be exhausting and debilitating for many.

So it is with great pleasure we share Jane Secker’s blogpost on just that topic.

Thank you for writing and sharing this Jane!!

And to the rest of you – well – read this and get writing!

All the best,
Sandra & Tom

Libraries, Information Literacy and E-learning

My SFHEA Certificate

I’ve not written a blog post for quite some time and not because I’ve not had much to say, rather because there has been far too much going on. However, the occasion of being appointed a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy has prompted me to write a short blog post about this. Also because I have offered to mentor and support others and to share my fellowship claim.

Writing my SFHEA was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve written. I won’t lie, I had moments when I wanted to give up and go and lie in a darkened room. I write all the time, and I support others applying for Fellowship so I am not quite sure why I found this so challenging. I think it might be because I am not very good at reflecting on why I do things. I know…

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Social Constructivism and Learning Development – should we scaffold?

#Becomingeducational     Taking Learning Developers to the Scaffold?

We wanted to share this excellent blogpost from our colleague Dr Helen Webster. Helen’s posts on Learning Development are always fascinating, well-theorised and thought provoking. This one is no exception.

Helen poses the seemingly innocent question: As LDers is our role one of scaffolding or not?

At first look it seems obvious that we are scaffolding by function – literally supporting people as they build the foundations to their own knowledge.

And yet she points to Hybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel who argues that some scaffolding is almost colonial in nature. There is the danger, he says, of the pedagogue completely controlling the knowledge to be aimed at – and how it should be gained. We take away student agency when we devise courses in patronising bite-sized chunks, leaving these like breadcrumbs taking the students off to the gingerbread house – to be consumed.

Take this trip with Helen – see what scaffold you might like to build so that your students too become the architects of their own rhizomatic learning.

All the best,
Sandra & Tom

rattus scholasticus

A while ago now (oops) I was looking at Cognitive Constructivism in my series reviewing educational theories and their application to Learning Development. I ended noting that this school of thought sees learning as an individual activity, but that later, social constructivist theories would position learners not as ‘lone scientists’, but as interacting with others in a social setting in order to learn.

What is it?

Vygotsky saw learning as deriving from social interaction. This ‘dialogue’ could be with people (often more knowledgable or capable people, but potentially also peers) or with mediating cultural artefacts such as books or other learning materials. This interaction prompts and supports learners from their current level of understanding, where they are independently competent, to a level which represents their potential but is beyond their ability to reach by themselves. The place in between Can Do and Can’t Do, where the learning happens, he referred…

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#Becomingeducational Week 3: Time to think about a pedagogy of learning development?

This week we are sharing a post from our colleague – and newly appointed National Teaching Fellow, Helen Webster – as she asks us to consider whether there is actually a distinct pedagogy for learning development.

Helen starts like this:

Towards a Signature Pedagogy of Learning Development


The notion of signature pedagogies was developed by Shulman (2006) when looking at education in the professions. “These are types of teaching that organise the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their new professions. In these signature pedagogies, the novices are instructed in critical aspects of the three fundamental dimensions of professional work – to think, to perform and to act with integrity.” Each profession has its own characteristic way of doing this, reflecting the differing emphasis it places on each of the three dimensions. Think of the medics in their OSCEs and dissections or the lawyers with their case problems and debates.

And the complete post can be found here:


Do go to Helen’s original post – and join in the conversation!!

Happy new academic year!

All the best,

Sandra & Tom

UHMLG: Academic Literacy/ies talk

#Becomingeducational Welcomes a cool look at Academic Literacies

We are so happy to re-post this blog from our Helen Webster.
It is rare to see such a clear exposition of the differences implicit in the Study Skills – Socialisation – Academic Literacies model first teased out by Lea and Street, 1998.

And if you are really interested in this – and are working it out through your own practice – do not forget JLDHE’s call for pieces on Lea and Street twenty years on – submissions by the 31st May.

Hope you enjoy this as much as we did.

All the best,

Sandra & Tom

rattus scholasticus

I’m off to London later today, at the kind invitation of the University Health and Medical Librarians’ Group, to talk about Academic literacy – what it is, what it covers, how it’s taught. Boy, are they going to be disappointed when I don’t actually have any sensible answers for any of those questions!

Academic Literacy UHMLG


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To Read in Advance, or Not to Read in Advance

#Becomingeducational                  It’s so nearly Christmas…
This week we’ve become engrossed in Dr Helen Webster’s reflection on the ways we work as Learning Developers – specifically she’s discussing issues around whether or not we should read samples of the student’s writing in advance of having a one-to-one with the student  – or – and possibly worse (?) – just reading and critiquing student writing without the student coming near us at all.

Helen makes the point that as part of our ALDinHE values, we are committed to working alongside students to help them make sense of academia… and if we are reading and working on *their* writing in our office, on the train, at home on the sofa… then we are literally not working alongside them: the students are far away and we are working only on their writing…

Whilst there are so many good reasons why committed learning developers might want to do this – including a commitment to and an understanding of the pressured, time-poor student – we are in practice saying: send me your work – and I will fix it for you!

In the end, despite the lack of resource of time and staff that is endemic in our profession, we have to work out what is in the best long term interest of the student – and what is in the best interest of the student and their understanding and development of their writing…

rattus scholasticus

This is another of the big questions in Learning Development practice. Does your one to one service require students to send a sample of work for the Learning Developer to read before the appointment, or do you ask them to bring it with them on the day so you can skim through it in situ?

This issue has implications for logistics and practice, but also fundamentally affects how we conceptualize Learning Development, so it’s worth giving serious thought to. My practice has always been in teams that don’t read work in advance, so it’s what I’m used to, but discussions with LDers whose services insist on written work in advance have been very useful in making me reflect on whether I practise this way because it’s familiar to me, or because there is a pedagogic justification for it. Having given it long thought, I’m sticking with No Work In Advance, for…

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#Becomingeducational Creativity and Innovation Week

#creativeHE #ImaginEd #BritishLibrary #FreeEvent #22ndApril
The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of The British Library
Discover how the British Library can help you create and develop your own artistic projects. #Becomingeducational is passing on this invitation…
Are you an early-career artist or student looking for inspiration?
Undercurrent Theatre is hosting this chance to meet curators, get up close to some of the collections and discover how you can use the Library to develop your own artistic projects.
The British Library holds a wealth of materials which are increasingly being used as inspiration for artists and creatives alike. Use this opportunity to find out more about the Library, how to access the Library’s collections, how to research and develop your own artistic projects using the collections as sites of inspiration and to begin an exchange of ideas.
The afternoon will be hosted by Undercurrent Theatre, the first Associate Theatre Company of the British Library, funded by Arts Council England.
In 2016 Undercurrent partnered with the British Library for their sell-out theatre production Calculating Kindness which was inspired by material from the Library’s contemporary scientific archives.
The event is FREE however advance booking is required: https://www.bl.uk/events/the-library-of-ideas-creative-use-of-the-british-library
As you may know, the British Library has a collection of over 150 million items ranging from manuscripts and magazines to a sound archive and drawings.
All of this is available to the public however accessing the library is not easy… This event is designed to break down barriers and give early-career artists the tools and confidence to access the materials in the British Library.
The British Library would be very grateful for any support *you* could give in helping to get the word out; could you include this event on a newsletter, or post on your intranet, or simply share this event with people you know?
The link to book free tickets is: https://www.bl.uk/events/the-library-of-ideas-creative-use-of-the-british-library – and also here is the link to our facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/584601111890173/
POSTSCRIPT: It is still not too late to join in with #creativeHE’s thoughtful challenges – this week led by Gillian Judson and Norman Jackson – join here: