Feedback in Prison Education: What can we learn from our learners?
Esther Kelly reflects on the findings of her OTLA project and their implications for post lockdown teaching.
As a Functional Skills and ESOL tutor at HMP Liverpool new to action research, I went into my first OTLA brimming with the anticipation of trialling reflective classroom activities for learners in the hope that I could use these to create the inspiring and challenging targets demanded of us by Ofsted in our last inspection.
Unfortunately for my plans, Covid-19 has seen that classroom teaching couldn’t happen and still isn’t happening nearly 18 months later. Brain dumps, exit slips and deep reflective conversations don’t work so well when your ‘lesson’ consists of shouting through a small plastic window in a locked door and posting bits of paper through whichever crack at the top, middle or bottom of it was wide enough for them to fit through.
Undeterred, I decided to try telephone conversations to capture how learners felt about their English and maths learning, what they could remember and what they wanted to work on next. Pre-covid, I had noticed that the men in our prison classrooms would often be reluctant to think about what they had just learnt, especially if it meant admitting to not understanding it or finding something difficult. It was much easier for them to say everything was ok and hope I wouldn’t notice that their work was exactly the same, word for word, as the person sitting next them.
To an extent, the telephone conversations confirmed this. Learners often struggled to remember what they just done, flipping back through their work-books to read out the learning objectives to me in voices that suggested that phrases like ‘complex sentence’ and ‘establish cohesion’ were brand new concepts to them.
Learners found it equally difficult to identify what to work on next. Common responses were ‘I don’t know – ask my tutor’ and ‘plastering’.
Not quite the I feel I’ve really mastered using commas in a list so now I want to practise using them to separate embedded clauses-like answers I was optimistically hoping for at the start of the project.
Everything pointed to a cohort of disengaged, passive learners, content with being subjected to a teaching process that was something done to them rather than something they were actively involved in. Maybe they just wanted to pass the time while they were stuck sharing a small, airless room with a virtual stranger for 23 hours a day? I panicked slightly at this stage. I had started the project hoping to improve teaching and learning. Had I opened a massive can of worms instead?
With the help of the prison, who have been amazingly supportive of the project throughout, I surveyed a wider group of men who were waiting to start their maths and English courses. From this, I found a body of learners hungry for self-improvement who wanted to better themselves and learn more.
This led to a lightbulb moment: men at HMP Liverpool want to learn. Do they want to learn what we are teaching?
The survey also asked for men’s preferences about classroom teaching in preparation for our imminent and much anticipated return to face-to-face sessions. As tutors, we had felt really limited having to deliver teaching through booklets and written feedback only. Surely our learners were craving being back in the classroom too? Apparently not.
The majority wanted to continue learning in their cells or through a combination of class sessions and in-cell work. Again, these men want to learn. Just not in the way we assumed they would do.
This revelation resonated with comments from some learners during the telephone conversations. More than one had mentioned how they had enjoyed the freedom independent in-cell work had offered where mistakes could be made and learnt from away from the mocking eyes of peers in the machismo filled classroom of a Category B male prison. (I have paraphrased here.)
A safe learning environment is essential for learners who do everything to hide their vulnerabilities at all costs.
Structural changes to the delivery of prison education have always been very difficult to achieve. In the past, education has been forced to fit around the prison regime resulting in the three-hour lessons that both tutors and learners love to hate. Conducting action research during a global pandemic has serendipitously forced our hand. Things that have always been brushed off as too difficult or not how things are done have been necessitated, showing both education and prison staff that we can be more flexible.
So, what’s next? This project has given tutors and managers at HMP Liverpool a refreshing opportunity to examine the best way to approach teaching and learning. An introduction of hour-long classroom sessions for small groups of learners alongside independent work in cells is in its trial stages with the intention of a wider scale adoption of this delivery method when it is safe to do so. We have also been reminded of the importance of making English and maths teaching relevant and useful to learners. We are investigating ways to develop stronger links between our Functional Skills and vocational departments in the hope that this will engender greater meaning of English and maths for learners’ everyday lives.
If I had known at the start of OTLA 7 the hurdles that conducting education action research in a prison during a pandemic would present me, I probably would have put it all off for another year. I’m so glad I didn’t though. I may not have the results I expected but I do have the results that our tutors and learners need.
Esther is a Functional Skills English and ESOL tutor at HMP Liverpool. Her main interests are research, learner engagement and the promotion of literacy.