A hole at the centre of the argument

19th March 2004 at 00:00

Expanding learning in the workplace is almost a very good book; but it stops short just as it reaches the core issues.

Most of the book sets up, with clarity and concision, a number of thoughtful, perceptive and well-argued premises about adult learning, workplace learning and organisational development. On the final page comes the call to arms: "What is needed is a much harder-edged and brave policy framework focused on learning."

Yet it is this bit, some exploration of the qualities of workplace learning and how most effectively to understand and support them, which is missing and leaves us wanting more. That is not to deny the many strengths of the book, the product of research conducted by the authors under the Economic and Social Research Council's Teaching and Learning Programme.

It is a very thorough account of the tensions and contradictions which emerge as soon as words like, "training", "productivity", "lifelong learning", "learning culture", "efficiency", "business priorities", and "personal development" are put together. It is well grounded in recent politics and the difficulties of a rapidly evolving policy framework which leaves many employers still talking about O-levels and the Youth Training Scheme.

It is particularly good in developing and describing a fertile model which contrasts "expansive" and "restrictive" approaches to workplace learning.

This offers a useful tool for organisational analysis and applies equally well to public and private sector employers. As an inspector with the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) my concern is that there is not yet a sufficiently well-established model for work-based learning.

Too often there is an assumption that if staff are watching someone else do a task, or around other people who are doing it, then some form of organisational osmosis will occur and the secret mysteries will be transferred invisibly to brains and hands.

In traditional, classroom-based practice, my concern is often the other way around: teachers working away busily while learners sit passively. Yet I am not always convinced that the act of teaching, in its best, fullest sense of the word, has sufficiently made its way into work-based learning. I see planned assessment; I do not always see planned learning.

I wonder where are the opportunities for reflection, evaluation and synthesis? To some extent this can occur through off-the-job learning, and in the best providers it does, but too often off-the-job training duplicates existing learning rather than extending it.

Finally, to declare an interest. I am disappointed that in what is otherwise a thorough and well-argued piece, the authors can decry a lack of expertise in workplace learning, and the lack of a regulatory framework.

There is no reference to the work of ALI, with its broad remit to report on the quality of publicly-funded adult learning, nor of the Common Inspection Framework, at the heart of which is the experience of the learner and the effectiveness of the provision in meeting the needs of learners, employers and communities.

Unwin and Fuller have successfully identified a number of problems. They now need to give greater attention to the solutions.

William Lewis

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