To boldly go… learning with a sprinkle of controversy

“There’s more to researcher development than training courses”

I’ve been pondering on this comment from my friend and colleague Julie Reeves since she very bravely said this on stage at the Vitae conference recently. This bold statement was controversial, not only because it was said in front of an audience of researcher developers who deliver training courses as part of their jobs, but also for the learning agenda as a whole.

And I must say that for the most part, I have to agree with Julie!

**runs for cover to avoid the backlash**

When I think about the times when I’ve learnt the most, yes it’s sometimes when I’ve been on a training course but quite often it’s not. So that made me mull over the situations when have I learnt the most. Here’s the result of my mulling…

I think the common factor for me is risk. Maybe I’m trying something new or going back to something that didn’t work well last time. Usually I can tell if it’s a risk because I’m nervous about the situation and/or the reaction I might get. The amount of nerves I feel are partly due to whether my Gremlin* decides to rear its ugly head but mostly, they are relative to the amount of risk I think I’m taking. Taking risks is about dealing with uncertainty and that feels uncomfortable and nerve-wracking.

One of my development guru’s, Jamie McDonald (yes, he does sit cross-legged and say profound things so deserves the guru status) once said that you know you are learning when you feel uncomfortable. Learning is hard!

So my question is:

  • When we are in the training room, are we truly taking people to this risk-taking space that’s uncomfortable and nerve-wracking?

Don’t get me wrong, there is a fine line here between taking people to this space (aka their learning edge) and forcing them into ‘panic mode’ where they too scared to learn anything at all. For me, this line relies on being in a supportive environment. Looking back to the times when I have learnt the most, it’s been when I have taken a risk but had some element of support as well. That support could have been from a trainer but it was just as likely to be my manager, a mentor, a friend or my husband.

The final common element in my learning is when I’ve unpicked what happened once I had given it time to settle. This is the process of self-reflection and it has been shown to lead to deeper levels of learning. For anyone that knows me, I’m not a natural reflector. I’m very action focussed and once an activity is complete, my default state is to turn my focus to the next action immediately. Over the past year, I have been forced into reflecting more by undertaking the ILM7 Certificate in Executive Coaching. Part of this course involved keeping a reflective diary and I must admit it has been a time when I think I have learnt the most about myself, my strengths and my Gremlins. It has been a bloody hard slog though!

My gut feeling is that the combination of taking a personal risk, knowing you have got support from others and reflecting on the outcomes seems to create this magical triangle when real learning happens for me. I’d be interested to know if you agree or if you would include any different elements in your own magic learning triangle (or square, pentagon etc).

learning triangle

So to go back to my original point, researcher development isn’t just about training courses. As researcher developers we need to create an environment in Universities for our researchers that combines these elements of risk, support and reflection. This might be via training courses but I would argue the traditional ‘training room’ environment doesn’t bring about this magic triangle often enough. So what does, I hear you ask? Well if I knew that I would be off spending my millions by sunning myself in the Caribbean rather than on my couch writing this blog post with the Champions League on in the background! It may be that a combination of training courses, coaching, mentoring, job swapping, outreach, volunteering, reading etc would work. What do you think? My challenge to myself and you is:

  • Are we taking enough risks in delivering our researcher development programmes?

As for my personal risk, well this blog is it. It will hopefully force me to do some dreaded reflection and of course my Gremlin is shouting right now “why on earth would anyone want to read this rubbish!” but I’m going to ignore him and boldy go in the footsteps of my friend Julie and take a step into the unknown…

*Gremlin = the inner critic we all have that is always telling you things like “that’s never going to work” or “you aren’t good enough to pull this off” (Note to self: Post about Gremlins and how to ignore them later in this blog).


4 thoughts on “To boldly go… learning with a sprinkle of controversy

  1. Wonderful blog – and I agree. Sometimes there is an instruction by those who commission to veer from risky towards safe, and other times participants vote with their feet preferring the safely theoretical to the experientially exposing. The tension between the ambiguity of researcher development and the certainty that research seeks is, I think, where the answer lies – but I have no idea what it is!

    • Absolutely agree Piero! I think this need for end of course happy sheet feedback doesn’t help either. So much of the environment is based on bums on seats and 5/5 happy sheet feedback that it’s difficult to concentrate on real long term learning. I’ve just taken on the lead for PGR development in the faculty and I know I need to make changes but it’s going to take a while to figure out what to do and how to achieve it!

  2. I think it is possible to create the conditions for risk-taking, support and reflection in any training context. If I’m putting together something new I explicitly include these into the design. I have to model these behaviours up front as well. If I’m out on a limb I can honestly and authentically invite participants to join me. I can also ask them for support and, by asking questions, prompt reflection.

    So, for example, if I’m re-running a session I’ve run a dozen times before I’m minimising the risk that it’ll all go horribly wrong. Consequently theres no sense of risk and I wouldn’t feel comfortable in that situation to ask participants to do anything they might perceive as being risky. But if I’m trying something new, moving things around, in a new environment, risking failure and humiliation myself then that energy will be in the space. I find that in those circumstances I’m much more confident about inviting them to take a risk too.

    In terms of what does offer the right balance of risk, support and reflection I think the national grads have been getting this right for a very long time. Everyone is placed in unfamiliar surroundings, away from the routines and people who define them. Under a variety of circumstances and minor pressures individuals expose themselves to various kinds of risk, while depending on strangers for support. Processes are reflected upon regularly. Insight is almost guaranteed. It is a perfect model. I just wish it were a more widely available opportunity.

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