Adventures in tutor training (part one)

Every January, before the start of the academic term, I get new and returning peer writing tutors together for a 2-day training workshop. In 2011 and 2012, when we were establishing our theoretical framework and basis for what we do in working with student writers and how we do it, we read a lot – on writing centres, on academic literacies, on global shifts in higher education – and we spent a lot of time talking about the readings and trying to relate the key ideas and approaches to our own work at UWC. There was always an interactive element; in both years the tutors spent some time role-playing various scenarios representing good practices and less successful practices in one on one and small group writing tutorials. However, the majority of the time was spent talking – mostly the coordinator leading the way and the tutors attempting to follow. It was not truly an interactive and tutor-focused experience on the whole, although this was the case in part.

This year I wanted to do something very different. We have seven new tutors joining our team of sixteen and nine tutors returning, a few for their 3rd year. Thus we have some ‘old hands’ with many writing tutorials and readings and training sessions behind them, and a significant portion of the team with a lot of catching up to do, so to speak. I wanted to create a space where the experienced writing tutors could do some of the training, through sharing their knowledge and experience in ways that are relatable and real to the new tutors, and that also contribute to the building of a collegial environment and a new team morale. I wanted them to spend a lot of time talking and thinking and laughing – I wanted them to have fun and to feel confident about stepping into the tutorial space to work with students when they start coming. Most significantly, I wanted to step back and try to facilitate the discussions and guide the process rather than taking control and doing most of the talking.

In thinking about how to achieve this, I tried out various ideas, and one that really struck me as being something that would start the ball rolling in the right direction is using Participatory Learning in Action (PLA) techniques, specifically the River of Life and Matrix Ranking. The main strength of PLA techniques is that they encourage links between students’ own lifeworlds and the more formal spaces of higher education and disciplinary learning, they encourage the sharing of information through interactive and participatory processes, and they have the ability to deepen students’ own sense-making of their learning processes because they start from where the students are and proceed from there (see Pretty 1995 and Nelson & Wright 1995 for more information and resources). I wanted to try these two techniques as a way of getting the tutors to start with their own experiences and move from these into a communal space of sharing knowledge with one another, and discussing approaches to practice collectively.

We started with drawing our own Rivers of Life. Each tutor was given coloured crayons and pastels and a piece of flipchart paper and asked to draw his or her own academic journey, from the earliest moment they wanted to start at up to where they are now, or even up to what they hope will be on the horizon. They were also asked to consider their choice to tutor and how this work has played into their own journey thus far. Once they had drawn their river they were asked to share their story with a small group, and then each group chose a spokesperson to give an overview of some of the similarities of points of divergence and interest in all four rivers as a means of giving the whole group some insight into the small group stories. The tutors seemed to enjoy this exercise, with some drawing very elaborate and colourful rivers and others being a little more cautious with colour. All of them, however, were able to tell their story through drawing it, and their comments reflected their feelings about being able to think more introspectively about where they started and where they are now, and about how far they have come and what they have achieved.

‘The river of knowledge made me reconnect with my past academic experiences.  It made me know how important each step, either positive or negative has influenced my academic career.’

‘River of life exercise was interesting because it gave me an opportunity to recreate the route that I have travelled in my career path.’

‘The idea of formulating my academic journey as a river was very interesting.  It appears the motif of a river captures the context of my academic life, the struggles, obstacles, successes of my academic life.’

These are a few of the rivers they drew, used here with their permission but without the names.

The point of this exercise, in light of the revised aims and goals for training, was to get tutors to get to know one another – for the new tutors to be introduced to the returning tutors and start to feel like part of the team, and for the returning tutors to get to know one another in new ways. Collegiality is a big part of the way we build our team and support one another throughout the year and an exercise like this can contribute towards developing a sense of collegiality. It also brings the tutors’ own stories and experiences and their own knowledge into the collaborative training space as a way into the more theoretical knowledge that followed this session. In the next post I’ll conclude with the other part of using PLA that I mentioned, and some other interactive tools we used to good effect.

Pretty, J. et al (1995) Participatory Learning and Action: A Trainer’s Guide. London: IIED.
Nelson, N. & Wright, S. (1995) Power and Participatory Development: Theory and Practice. London: ITP.