Correcting the decline of collaborative learning


The last year with Learning Together: Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong on why it works

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Graduation day at HMP Grendon

“[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.” Eugene, Learning Together graduate

Learning Together draws on a long British history of people in prison and at university learning from each other. Until recently, these practices have been on the decline in England and Wales, while they have been on the rise in the USA. Correcting this trend, but drawing explicitly on the British context of prison-university partnership working, the first Learning Together course began between HMP Grendon and the University of Cambridge in January 2015.

Prison Watch UK has watched Learning Together grow over the last year and seen first-hand the pilot initiative at HMP Grendon. Writing for Prison Watch UK, founders and directors of the scheme, Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong evaluate the pilot, explain the theory behind their practice and outline what the future holds for Learning Together.


Individually and socially transformative

Intellectual friendships, forged through studying together, were individually and institutionally transformative, and have the potential to be socially transformative. The pilot initiative at HMP Grendon found. Students described a broadened sense of social belonging through the Learning Together community, which reshaped understandings of themselves and others, and opened up new routes of personal growth and future becoming.


Routes into higher education

Learning Together partnerships seek to provide routes into higher education for graduates who would like to go to university after being released from prison or wish to continue their studies at a higher level in prison. For example, a PhD student in HMP Full Sutton has secured doctoral supervision from Leeds Beckett University as a result of the prison and university’s partnership.


From the classroom to graduation

Within the prison, Learning Together courses involve the same number of university based and prison based students gathering together to enjoy an interactive lecture followed by a discussion of the lecture and two pre-readings in small groups. Each small group is facilitated by an early career academic and a Learning Together graduate mentor. One week is dedicated to a writing workshop, and one to a group project where small groups join together. Each student writes a reflective essay that is double blind marked. The graduation ceremony is open to students’ family and friends, offender managers and supervisors and other officials from the university, prison and wider community. The ceremony’s design draws upon Shadd Maruna’s research on re-entry rituals; providing the sort of experience and environment that draws on people’s strengths and helps people to succeed post-release.


The theory behind the practice

Underpinning the design and delivery of Learning Together partnerships are three areas of criminological, sociological and educational theory.

Intergroup contact

Intergroup contact theory establishes that meaningful interactions can be important to reducing prejudices.

Desistance theory

This is linked to desistance theory, which recognises that undermining stigma can support a positive mindset which in turn can help people to move into non-offending futures.

Growth mindset

Finally, educational theory tells us that a growth mindset is important to achieving our potential, and is best supported when other people recognise potential is malleable and provide opportunities for growth.


The core values

Five core values flow from this theory, and underpin Learning Together courses:

  • equality
  • diffuse power
  • a belief in potential
  • connection through shared activities
  • the power of togetherness.


What does the future hold?

Being grounded in theory makes Learning Together a distinct partnership offering, because it means difficult questions about practices can be thought through in light of the robust research evidence that underpins the design of the course. In 2016-17, Learning Together will expand to 12 new prisons and universities, including the High Security Estate, the women’s estate and YOI’s.


Further evaluation of the Learning Together pilot can be found in the Prison Service Journal, here.

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