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Joint venture of engaging learners

For those of us who have taught for some years, the intensity of and concentration on the notion of engaging learners may come as a surprise. One is bound to ask how teachers have survived until now without engaging their learners? But we have and we do. How so?

My career has led me to many classrooms in the secondary and tertiary sectors. I have been dismayed to witness many lively, creative voices muted and stilled by the predominance of one voice in a classroom, people often richer than their teachers in life experience, children who have broken the mould to get to and beyond the school door, who are wise and brave and have much to teach us. The small spaces allocated to them for their verbal contributions, the role of filling the blanks of a one-sided discourse, can hardly be justified.

This is true of schools; the FE and HE sectors work differently. Those who go on to more advanced learning are possibly too grateful for their second chance to challenge, or have they been rendered eternally disabled by a school experience which places them at the feet of oracles?

There do exist in FE and HE vehicles for the student voice: the class representation system, the student council, focus groups, blogs and the like. However, there persists among students an unwillingness to challenge, possibly for fear of repercussion. These groups are not set up to take issue with the seat of power, to require partnership as is their human right, or seek to share power in a new learning coalition.

What changes need to be made and how do we go about it? In talking to one college last year about a possible staff development event which I was to lead for all staff, I suggested working with learners to find out what their issues were about their learning experience in the college and to equip them to be in a better position to critique their teaching. "Oh no," she kindly said, "this would go too far for staff at this time." The question then is when and what?

"It is easier to engage pupils than to improve drop-out," Phelan wrote in 1992. This is a salutary lesson, especially in an FE context preoccupied with retention and achievement. Many suspensions from school could be avoided and outcomes for students improved if we heeded that voice.

During January to March 2010, "Engaging Learners: Where Are We Now?" events took place across Scotland, organised and facilitated by Learningvoices UK. They drew teaching staff, managers and students from 17 colleges. In one, the students outnumbered staff by five to one, resulting in an excellent exchange during the plenary sessions.

Participants acknowledged the many gains within the FE sector as an outcome from engaging learners. There is no doubt that, in general, learners are more involved in the life of the college, take more responsibility for the college itself and those around them, and have a sense of loyalty to those within their communities.

More democratic models of learning and teaching are emerging: some colleges have a dawning awareness of the potential of learners as assistants, as assessors and partners in a joint project, though this is still at an early stage. There is a clear shift in colleges towards a more reflective approach to teaching and learning.

However, while the detail of learner engagement and the first steps are now well established in colleges, participants in the national FE events agreed that there were more fundamental and challenging issues which they now must tackle. For example, how well informed are learners about teaching and learning strategies and the craft of teaching? Without this information, learners are not best placed to evaluate their learning experience or make recommendations.

As a result of learner engagement, has there been a pedagogical shift within our colleges? And while learners regularly reflect on their learning and progress with staff, what evidence is there of staff reflecting with their learners on their professional practice?

More fundamentally, are we still underestimating our learners by what we choose to share with them, constraining them by not providing enough of an insight into our classroom strategies? How equal are learners' voices and do we, as professionals, recognise them as our fellow learners embarked on the same journey?

Learner engagement is about radical reform affecting systems, development and training, and power-sharing structures within colleges. More difficult still, it leads to a questioning of what it is to be a professional.

This is a tough agenda. Opening up our thinking and strategic approaches to making learning appealing and accessible threatens our professionalism on the one hand and makes us more certain of our ground on the other. In embracing learner engagement, we undoubtedly are creating a force for the unintended and the unpredictable. We are exposed as never before.

However, as professionals with an eye to the society we live in and to the young people around us with their own particular wavebands and cyberspaces, we can sleep easy in our beds, secure in the knowledge that, as a result of this critical movement, learners may be better disposed to learning; more committed to others and to their own ideals; increasingly independently-minded; more able to manage people and complex working environments; and better equipped to present and communicate their thinking concisely.

Learners and professionals, as responsible co-workers within and beyond colleges and universities, will learn together.

Dr Anne Pia is a former inspector and now runs her own consultancy, Learningvoices UK.

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