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Learning together

Learning Together: what happens when students from universities and prisons learn together?

In January 2015, Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong were successful in obtaining support from The University of Cambridge’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund to create and pilot a new educational initiative called Learning Together.

Learning Together brings together people in prisons and universities to study alongside each other in inclusive and transformative learning communities. By universities and prisons working in partnership, and by students forging intellectual friendships, we hope to support prisons and universities to better achieve their goals of capacitating individuals in ways that bring about positive social change.

Students take short courses together in the prison environment and, once graduated, they are trained as educational mentors to support subsequent courses and develop together and lead their own educational initiatives. Learning Together started at The Institute of Criminology, with 12 graduate MPhil students learning alongside 12 prisoner students in HMP Grendon. Many members of the Prisons Research Centre are involved in Learning Together alongside colleagues from other centers in the Institute of Criminology, as lecturers or as small group facilitators.

LT officer

Learning Together is now spreading to many other University of Cambridge Faculties and Departments and, through a series of engagement events organised by Amy and Ruth, to other universities and prisons across the UK and beyond, including to Australia, Chile, Mexico, Belgium and Italy. The lastest of these engagement events was in May 2016, when 120 criminal justice practitioners and academics came together for a two day conference. The first day was an experience of Learning Together ‘in action’, held in HMP Grendon and led by Learning Together graduates and mentors. The Learning Network has been formed to facilitate communication between prisons and universities who are involved in partnership working. The Network is intended to provide a space in which we can collectively reflect and collaboratively develop pedagogy, practice, tools of evaluation and theory.

Amy and Ruth have been nominated for a University of Cambridge Public Engagement with Research Award for their work. They have attracted significant impact acceleration funding to produce films and host engagement events. Alongside colleagues, Ingrid Obsuth and Caroline Lanskey, they have also secured further funding from the Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund to design, deliver and evaluate a training course based on attachment theory to equip academic and prison staff to create inclusive and transformative learning environments.

LT team presentation

The design and delivery of Learning Together have been research and values led. The aim is to create a space that facilitates and prioritises connectedness which, we know from research, is important both for desistance and for learning. Taking desistance first, criminal sanctions are stigmatising. Research tells us that social stigma inhibits desistance by causing marginalisation and closing down our fullest, best potential selves. Intergroup contact theory shows us that when people come together, particularly through a common task, social stigma can reduce. From an education perspective, Paulo Freire’s work, for example, argues that learning which is forged with, not for, students and which promotes connectedness through its experiential and inclusive orientation, can be experienced as especially nurturing and empowering. Just as space and connections are important to desistance, ‘communities of learning’, in which new patterns of behaviour can be acquired and acted out, can help to optimise educational experiences that shape society for good.

Amy and Ruth have secured funding to evaluate Learning Together, including from the British Academy. What is emerging from their ongoing evaluation is that through connections formed with others on the course, Learning Together students develop new perceptions of themselves, of others, and of their possible futures. Through shared intellectual endeavours and vulnerabilities, the students connect with themselves and their futures in new ways, and feel that they can play more of an active role in shaping their futures. As one of the students, Dean, expressed it, he gained ‘a sort of undercover confidence, the one little bit to say, I know who I am and I know where I’m going now’. The students describe the opening up of new and broader social spaces. As another student, Eugene, put it ‘[Learning Together] made me realise my world was small. I knew a few people on a few streets. I thought universities and places like that were spaces I couldn’t go to. But now I realise I can go there. I can exist outside of my small world.’

LT graduation

Evaluation of the 2016 course will use Participant Narrative Inquiry to deepen and broaden insight into the transformative potential of education and the role of connectedness. The first year evaluation findings from Learning Together were published in May 2016 in the Prison Service Journal:

See a video about Learning Together here.

For more about Learning Together, see:

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