#Take5 #19: Learning Development – the best values?

For this #Take5 we have we have invited Helen Webster from Newcastle University to blog about Learning Development values. This is in honour of our ALDinHE Conference, 10-12 April, University of Hull: http://www.aldinhe.ac.uk/events/9/aldinhe_conference_2017.html?p=7_9, and follows her recent interesting discussion on the LDHEN list.  So – thank you Helen! Everybody else – do leave a comment – pass the post on – have a great Conference … and think about offering your own blogpost very soon!

The Value(s) of Learning Development

What are professional values? I remember when I was doing my teacher training that values didn’t really get much attention in amongst all the complex abstract education theory we were learning. They definitely seemed a bit ‘fluffy’ and irrelevant amidst the practicalities of my early teaching placements. I wasn’t very sure what a value was, let alone what my own values as a teacher were. It’s only later in my career as a learning developer that I’ve come to reflect on how much my values, even half-articulated, underpin everything I do in my teaching practice, how important they are to our status as professionals, and how very practical a tool they can be. Values give us the ethical principles to interrogate and guide our practice as professionals and therefore standards to aspire to and hold ourselves to account to. They are a means of communicating and building trust with those we work with.

This thinking led me to undertake an exercise in our learning development team, in which we established the professional values we aim to embody in our work. This allowed us to reflect on our beliefs and assumptions as a team, establish agreed common standards for our practice, build our confidence and quality in our practice and assert our professionalism. I ran a similar exercise during a regional event for ALDinHE in January, which participants also found thought-provoking. We started off looking at the values formally espoused by more established professions, before thinking about what might work for Learning Development in our own institutional context. Some of the values for the Newcastle Learning Development service arose from our particular circumstances; others are, I hope, relevant to the Learning Development community more widely, and some may be recognisable to colleagues in the more established professions from which Learning Development has grown, including subject teaching in higher education.

In Newcastle, we’ve used our values document in various ways. On an individual level, we use it to examine our own practice and look at the impact of even the smallest interaction on student learning. Opening a one-to-one with a throwaway phrase like ‘so how can I help you?’ or a workshop with ‘now, what I want you all to do is…’ can, for example, subtly but negatively affect the whole dynamic of a session. On the other hand, a reframing along lines more in keeping with our values of empowerment, respect and student-centredness can really turn a session around. On a larger scale, they’ve helped formulate our whole approach to workshop design with co-created learning outcomes from which we learn as much as our student partners, redesign the spaces in which we see students for one to one appointments and find a more nuanced approach to digital resource development than just ‘putting content online’. I believe that working to embody these values in our practice is making a tangible if implicit difference to the quality of our provision which is evident to students and academic colleagues. The next step for us is to start communicating this more explicitly in the way we present ourselves as professionals, in our publicity and service statements with colleagues and students and build it more formally into evaluation and quality assurance.

We’ve certainly found reflecting on and articulating our values a very useful activity at Newcastle on many levels, and having shared them more widely beyond our team and institution, the process has been received with much interest from other Learning Developers. Whether you feel this thinking about values ‘chimes’ with your practice or not, I hope you find the values we shared to the LDHEN list a thought-provoking aid in reflecting on your own practice, individually and when working with others! I’d love to hear any responses.

Helen Webster is Head of the Writing Development Centre at Newcastle University. She is a learning developer who has worked over the last decade at UEA, Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities, before returning to work at Newcastle, where she did her first degree in German. She’s a former medievalist who did a PhD on learning and the laity in the fourteenth century and taught Medieval Studies at Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, realising she preferred working with living rather than long-dead students. She has a PGCE in Further and Higher Education, and is a Senior Fellow of the HEA. She is currently developing CPD resources for the Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education. Helen tweets at: @scholastic_rat