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Musings on workplace learning – more to come!


I’ve been struck by the number of articles I seem to be encountering which are discussing workplace learning as informal learning. Very few writers apart from possibly Billett (2002) seem to suggest learning at work can be seen as formal learning. Given the range of learning and training that is undertaken within the workplace this seems odd, and again suggests that the formal and informal labels are less than helpful. Seeing learning in the workplace as a mixture of intentional, incidental and serendipitous seems to make more sense (to me at least).

As an aside, I have been struggling a bit with how to differentiate incidental and serendipitous as I sense they are different. It seems to me that incidental learning is where something is learned while engaged in an activity, so undertaking a word processing task may include discovering how to change default font styles for a particular document. This is not intentional in the sense of being engaged in a learning task and it is not serendipitous in the sense of being stumbled across by chance, but it is a by-product of engagement in a task.

In thinking about workplace learning, I have been thinking about what is meant by workplace. Virtually everything I have read appears to envisage the workplace as a place of paid employment. I have not encountered any articles which recognise the home as the workplace – though this is self-evidently the case for some many parents and for others who are not in paid employment for whatever reason. For some reason, the workplace is seen as somewhere separate from the other environments people engage with during their daily lives.

Some of the work concerned with biography of learners appears to acknowledge the importance of other environments. For example, Hodkinson, et al, (2004) engage in a somewhat complex philosophical discussion about the relationship between the person and their social world, before identifying 4 principles (the comments in italics are mine):

  • Workers/learners bring prior knowledge, understanding and skills with them, which can contribute to their future work and learning; (this reminded me of the illustration I often use in training contexts of having a ruc-sac of knowledge, skills and experience garnered from the totality of our life experience which we take with us from place to place and add to and adapt as we go)
  • The habitus of workers, including their dispositions towards work, career and learning, influence the ways in which they construct and take advantage of opportunities for learning at work; (why just at work – surely the same applies in other environments people engage in)
  • The values and dispositions of individual workers contribute to the co-production and reproduction of the communities of practice and/or organisational cultures and/or activity systems where they work; (again this could apply in other communities and environments people are part of)
  • Working and belonging to a workplace community contributes to the developing habitus and sense of identity of the workers themselves. (ditto)

Although workplaces are easily identifiable environments from the perspective of study of learning, the observations drawn from workplace learning appear to be transferable in many circumstances to other environments where people learn, communities of interest being a fairly obvious example. One of the areas I need to consider as I read these various articles on workplace learning is the extent to which the findings are only relevant within the workplace or are equally relevant in other contexts where people learn. Given that people spend much of their time learning in one way or another, this could mean virtually any context.

On the surface at least, it appears that by favouring some forms of learning and some contexts above others, there is a danger that we fail to notice what different forms of learning have in common.

Billett, S. (2002). Critiquing workplace learning discourses: Participation and continuity at work. Studies in the Education of Adults, 34(1), 56-67.
Hodkinson, P., Hodkinson, H., Evans, K., Kersh, N., Fuller, A., Unwin, L., et al. (2004). The significance of individual biography in workplacelearning. Studies in the Education of Adults, 36(1), 6-24.


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