Workplace Learning is more than Learning at the Workplace

Workplace-related learning is a difficult concept that is handled in political practise in various ways and with many blind spots. The struggle of the current ET 2020 Working Group on Adult Learning for clarity in regard to terms shows: Education is almost always relevant for work, the workplace and the labour market.



The current ET 2020 Working Group on Adult Learning is presently dedicated to workplace-related learning. The concept itself is already proving to be a challenge as fragmented political practices and large blind spots exist. Ultimately, education is almost always relevant for work, the workplace and the labour market.


What is "workplace learning"? Or should it rather be called "work-based learning" or even "workplace-related learning"? In the mandate of the working group, workplace learning refers to "the learning of adult persons at the workplace or with reference to the workplace or as preparation for re-entry or vocational change". Thus, the concept is inconclusive insofar as it not only addresses target groups that are currently in an employment relationship.

Policy documents as e.g. the Riga Conclusions rather refer to "work-based learning". CEDEFOP defines "work-based learning" according to knowledge bases and skills that emerge through the execution and reflection of tasks in a vocational context, be it the workplace or an educational institution.

In any case, it is about learning at the workplace or for the workplace or the vocation.

Political practise

Contention within the current ET 2020 Working Group shows: These definitions are hardly maintainable for systematic studies or policy recommendations due to their breadth. Narrowing the gaze seems to suggest itself.

However, an initial inquiry reveals that control structures are also very broad: Workplace-related learning is regulated, designed, supported and implemented in most EU member states through various policies and responsible bodies. Many stakeholders are involved, and the coordination of activities is not common practise.

A comprehensive policy on "workplace learning" cannot be detected thus far, and it remains questionable whether it is needed at all.

Blind spots

Additionally, more and more work is being performed by volunteers in an honorary capacity, which includes home care, phone services, rescue services and, now to a greater extent, support for refugees including language teaching.

Preparation or training of these volunteers is an important topic in many countries. Previous concepts of "workplace learning" neglect these areas since unpaid work – similar to all house and family work – usually is not included under the term "workplace".

However, good practices exist in these areas nonetheless – and not in the form of training, but as competence balances for volunteers or family work.

Opposite question

Presently, the question "what (adult) education is doing for employability" is often asked. The opposite question is, of course, just as valid. What do workplaces do for learning?

This addresses working conditions that promote learning and not only refers to developing intelligent "learning tools" or other innovations related to Industry 4.0. Demanding and varied task fields and an error-friendly organisation culture are crucial for learning in the workplace. Thus far, it is to be feared that especially higher qualified persons encounter task fields that promote learning.

However, work environments that generally protect and promote receptiveness, motivation and the deployability of employees are also beneficial to learning, which includes everything that generally constitutes good working conditions.

Does "workplace learning" also include a person doing yoga in the company health programme? Some would negate this question although this type of learning clearly promotes performance capability. One must also take company health promotion into account if one wants to arrive at an inclusive learning concept.

Learning without vocational relevance?

It is becoming increasingly clear that general and vocational education are closely interwoven, a fact also demonstrated by a survey of Austrian adult education centres. According to this survey, approximately two-thirds of course participants at adult education centres perceive learned material as explicitly applicable although only a small portion of these participants attended courses due to direct vocational requirements.

The European Commission is clearly aware of this and already formulated eight key competences in 2006, which are required by all individuals for their professional occupation (and in general).

So-called transversal skills, i.e. cross-sectional competences such as critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and learning ability, but also communication and cooperation are continually emphasised in the Commission documents in regard to their vocational relevance and in the accompanying working documents for the New Skills Agenda 2016.

Learning without direct or indirect vocational relevance hardly exists in a culture that values gainful employment as highly as present-day Europe. We would do well to recognise the entire breadth of the concept and thus also acknowledge learners, work forms and learning paths outside of company-related further development.

Author/Editing of original article in German: Birgit Aschemann/CONEDU

Picture: CC0 Public Domain geralt/

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