It is widely acknowledged that higher education offers great opportunities for students to develop as learners, as future employees and as citizens. Much of this learning and development takes place outside of the structures of the formal classroom and yet there is little evidence about the ways in which these spaces best create conditions for students to develop their capabilities and interests, and flourish as positive members of a just society. Universities are in a position to ‘provide the enabling spaces and conditions for development and learning in the way that individuals cannot do alone’ (Walker, 2006, p. 37). With this in mind, Derwent College established its first living-learning community (Derwent Global Community, DGC) in September 2014. Living-learning communities are structured with the express purpose of encouraging students to connect ideas from different disciplines and of creating long-term, sustained social interactions (Zhao and Kuh, 2004). DGC is a college-based living learning community led by students around the theme of international development, social justice and human rights (https://www.york.ac.uk/colleges/derwent/derwentglobalcommunity/).
Research conducted in the USA has found that there are positive outcomes for students in relation to retention, engagement with learning and academic performance as a result of involvement in a learning community (Stassen, 2003; Lenning and Ebbers, 1999). However, living-learning communities are less common in the UK, and universities tend to provide opportunities for informal learning through a wide range of student organisations and societies. The DGC differs from these in that the conditions for an informal learning community, led by students, have been created by the college through provision of structured, non-formal (i.e. non-credit bearing and optional) education, such as workshops and networking events with local organisations. The aim is to foster political engagement and a sense of community and commitment from the students, offering opportunities for students to develop and grow in a safe and supported environment. Learning and confidence growth is facilitated through providing a broad range of ways to engage.
The theme of the learning community was decided based on the ethos of the college and the partnerships and collaboration that had been developing for several years within it. The theme was described as a focus on ‘International Development and Human Rights’. It was set as broadly as possible, with the idea that the students would be able to narrow this down and focus on aspects that they were most interested in. Students were invited before the start of their first term to sign up to live in one residential block, which was allocated to the Global Community, as it became known. Eleven students signed up to this: three UK students, three international students and two European students on full degree courses and three visiting international students in the UK for one term. In addition, the opportunity was opened to all students in the college to get involved on a non-residential basis. Over 30 students turned up to the information session, from all years, and of these, several second and third years and postgraduate students became fully involved with the group, and a small number of other students engaged sporadically with the activities. This has drawn on support from the Department of Education, the Human Rights Defenders from the Centre for Applied Human Rights, and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
We held a number of networking meetings, discussion groups and workshops to enable students explore ideas associated with human rights and international development. The students then took a series of actions that aimed to raise awareness of associated issues amongst the wider student body. These included a cine forum, operation empty cupboard, a series of events organised to raise awareness about issues associated with asylum and migration including a debate, quiz, clothes swap and arts night.
As the academic year drew to a close, we interviewed students to find out about their experiences and development through their participation in the Derwent Global Community. They highlighted enablers and barriers to their participation in the community and discussed their sense of commitment, and ways in which they felt able to act and bring about change through participation in the Global Community. The interviews aimed to explore the ways in which they had developed their capabilities, i.e. their sense of agency and their ‘freedom to achieve well-being’ (Sen, 1992, p. 48). In these interviews, students discussed ways in which they had developed wellbeing though the Global Community through their own personal development and through the development of a community. A key development area was the way they developed ways to negotiating different perspectives on complex issues:
“Good experience with the difficulty of trying to do stuff around human rights and development, which obviously is a really difficult topic to ever say we are an educated group … about, then I think in the discussions we’d have…I got a good understanding … of how that is going to be a challenge if I go into this sort of line of work, where people have moral stances on it and there are ethical stances. Everyone’s got a different viewpoint, actually.”
This tested communication skills within a non-hierarchical community where everyone’s voice was equal, but decisions were made through consensus. This meant that students had to work hard to collaborate:
“I think by the end I was more willing to express my ideas but I think it pushed me to find other ways to express my ideas…just finding other ways so that my ideas can be heard”
In addition to learning to communicate with each other, students found it valuable to learn from others in the wider community working on these issues:
“I think it’s good that I’m more aware of the opportunities that there are in York with these organisations and I think it’s nice to meet a lot of people who care about the same kind of things, and I also helped to organise some of the events …and that was really helpful.”
Through a highly participative and experiential pedagogy with a focus on critical reflection and challenging social inequalities, it could be argued that the first year of the global community was a chance for some students to enhance their capabilities and feel empowered to work towards social change. The nature of their engagement conformed to ideas from popular education (Freire, 1972) and transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 2000). The students’ commitment to being part of a community and the opportunity to challenge their own perceptions and assumptions and consider different perspectives in dialogue with their peers opened up new spaces for learning.
Our observations and preliminary analysis of interview data from students suggest that this type of initiative can enable students to develop capabilities that could prepare them for participating more in society and working towards social justice and social change. However, there were also occasions when the activities were not sufficiently critical of the status quo, or where participants took away only a superficial understanding of complex issues. Moreover, the numbers of people involved were low. The core group reduced from around 30 at the original meeting to only nine, and participants in the activities run by the group ranged from three to thirty, but tended to be less than ten. There are certainly things to be learned for future cohorts and a clear range of aspects to be explored further through interviews with the students themselves, in order to more deeply understand their perspectives and interpretations. Indeed, as we prepare the new cohort arriving and the second year of DGC. There are already lots of students taking interest in living-learning communities, which are available in both Derwent and Halifax this year. With student-led activities and a broad scope we don’t know how Derwent Global Community will develop this year, but with lots of freshers applying we are looking forward to another eventful year.
Freire, P., 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.
Mezirow, J., 2000. Learning to Think like an Adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. in Mezirow, Jack and Associates (ed.) Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. pp.3-34
Walker, M., 2006. Higher Education Pedagogies. Maidenhead: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Sen, A., 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stassen, M. L. A., 2003. Student outcomes: the impact of varying living learning models. Research in higher education, 44(5), pp. 585-613.
Zhao, C-N. and Kuh, G. D. (2004). Adding value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45, (2), pp. 115 – 138.
Eleanor Brown is a Lecturer at the University of York, where she is based in the Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice. She teaches and supervises on undergraduate and postgraduate courses and her research interests are in transformative learning, critical pedagogies, international volunteering and development education in non-formal settings. She is also the Head of Derwent College, where she has strategic lead on college ethos and direction.
Lynda Dunlop is a Lecturer in Science Education based in the in the University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG). She has a background in teaching science and philosophy at the secondary level and now teaches on undergraduate and postgraduate education programmes. Her research interests are in science education in primary and secondary schools, and in the teaching of ethical and controversial issues associated with science.