In the context of the perennial problem of getting into and remaining in employment, workplace learning opens up new opportunities which can change the way we think about training. Nevertheless, these opportunities, however interesting they may be, presuppose the fulfilment of certain conditions, and these cannot be underestimated. While these opportunities make us to review our practices in terms of skills development, they encourage us to reflect, beyond the boundaries workplace learning, on the learning processes involved in acquiring expertise in a particular task.
Workplace learning, therefore, raises questions about the way we think about training, whether it be in a work situation or in a specialised institution. Although the experience acquired while working is essential for developing skills, it would, conversely, be a mistake to think that people can learn through work alone. What people learn on the job raises wider questions about the learning process: when and how do we learn?
In this first article, we propose to address this topic by using the three questions most frequently asked by training providers who are considering organising workplace learning. The answers to these questions will enable us to identify misconceptions which tend to over-simplify the learning process or use workplace learning inappropriately.
Does “Learning by doing” constitute workplace learning?
It is indeed tempting to equate “learning by doing” with workplace learning because both involve learning through work. Although it may be true that performing a particular professional task is bound to develop additional skill in doing a job, this approach considerably reduces our learning about “what works”. Therefore, what is learned is classed as “incident learning”, which can be either interesting and relevant or may involve risks and complications which have not been identified. It is certainly not unusual, for example, for professional tasks to be set which involve safety or ethical complications, or even danger. Likewise, the successful performance of an activity in a given situation provides no guarantee that the same activity will be repeated in a different context. Learning the job is more demanding and it would be a mistake to confuse Doing and Learning. It is perfectly possible to do a certain job well but without learning anything or without learning from one’s mistakes.
If there is to be learning beyond doing, we must ensure that what is done is done consciously. Risk-taking, for example, is perhaps inevitable, however we must be certain about it and ensure that we have explored other possibilities involving less hazardous tasks. Likewise, what is important when working is both to do what one is asked to and to be able to repeat the same type of action in a different context. So we can see that what differentiates DOING from LEARNING is having an understanding of the tasks set. When a worker is able to adapt to a different context, we can assume that this ability to adapt has not come about by accident but is due to an understanding of the task, and that this understanding is the result of reflection. This ability to adapt suggests that the worker is not simply acting automatically but that he/she is thinking so as to be able to adapt to the new situation.
We might conclude, therefore, that training means more than just doing a job; it also presupposes the acquisition of thought processes which will allow people to be adaptable and able to respond to the demands of different situations. From a theoretical point of view, it might be argued that, where training is concerned, we must differentiate between two moments: the moment of “productive activity” (the doing) and the “constructive activity”, which enables people to focus on the task, understand it, modify it, adapt it... This constructive activity is performed in a different timeframe, after the event, and involves looking back on what was done and gaining an understanding of the different mechanisms involved. So, workplace learning must include two phases: time for doing and time for retrospective analysis of what was done. If this is not the case, the learning may only be incidental.
Can any organisation set up workplace learning?
Although workplace learning does not require the organisation of work placements and avoids the inconvenience of staff absence, replacement staff, etc., it still requires special arrangements within the company to ensure that the learning takes place in appropriate conditions. Three conditions must be met:
- Firstly, there must be the opportunity to really do the job: if, for example, a mistake in the task to be carried out would be too costly for the business and it cannot risk assigning it to someone inexperienced, then workplace learning is not a suitable method of learning. So, we can see, immediately, that workplace learning is not interchangeable with all other kinds of learning. Sometimes, simulated learning in specialised institutions is necessary if preliminary training is required.
- Next, it is important not to abandon the learner but to be on hand to provide support, if required. So, workplace learning presupposes that more experienced staff are there to step in if needed... Guidance is important in learning, and learning in a work situation requires that this guidance be organised in situ.
- Finally, once the person doing the learning has performed the task, it is important that he/she be allowed to explain his/her thought processes in carrying it out. To ensure that the conclusion reached is not based on flawed or incomplete reasoning, workplace learning requires that special arrangements be made to build in time for retrospective analysis and the consolidation of the thought processes employed in the activity. This will enable the person involved to develop his/her constructive activity.
Workplace learning, therefore, presupposes organisational arrangements in the company to both support the learning of inexperienced workers and debrief them on their work. This presupposes a flexible system which allows for these arrangements, which can cope with a reduction in production and quality requirements to enable the learning to take place, and which promotes cooperative practices in working groups. On-the job training presupposes management which encourages mutual assistance, teamwork and communication.
Can people learn in any work situation?
Workplace learning poses a daunting problem where fairness is concerned. Depending on the businesses involved, the situations encountered may involve quite different learning experiences. So we have to think again and define what we mean by “learning in work situations”
P. Mayen provides a precise definition of a work situation using three main criteria. A situation is:
- a/ what workers or future workers have to deal with
- b/ what they have to do (find ways of carrying out tasks, solve problems of all kinds...)
- c/ what they have to do, in the sense of how they have to combine their efforts, cooperate and interact with them.
A work situation, therefore, presupposes a certain degree of complexity so that workers can develop powers of reasoning which will enable them to meet the requirements of the job. Learning from and through work situations means that these situations must present challenges and enable workers to reflect on how to resolve them.
This implies, therefore, that easy or straightforward situations do not provide learning opportunities. Therefore, if the work situations offered in workplace learning lack challenge or are repetitive and easy, learning will be limited. Workplace learning leads us to question our learning habits, which are often based on an incremental approach. In school, we learn in a linear way, starting with the basics and moving on to progressively more complex concepts. In the workplace, learning processes are different; they require workers to face real challenges or work-related problems and employ their intelligence to solve them.
So, if we are to provide learning opportunities by developing workplace learning, we must ensure that we expose future workers to a certain degree of complexity and that we offer them a range of situations to deal with. Diversity, in fact, helps to develop and stimulate the thought processes which enable us to adapt, whereas repeating the same thing tends to hamper these processes, or even block them altogether.
In conclusion, we believe that there are three important considerations which we must bear in mind when planning workplace learning.
- Workplace learning presupposes specific arrangements which include time to perform the task and time to analyse it. We do not only learn by doing, we must also take the time to understand what we have done.
- Workplace learning requires the provision of varied situations which involve a degree of complexity and include genuine challenges to stimulate powers of reasoning and the ability to adapt. If the situations are artificial, straightforward and repetitive, no learning will take place.
- On-the job training presupposes a commitment to monitor and support workers who are undergoing training, not so as to do the job for them but to provide advice, if they feel they need it.
Won’t these requirements put people off workplace learning? We don’t think so - quite the contrary, in fact.
While it’s true that workplace learning, like any other training approach, involves requirements to ensure that those undergoing training learn effectively, they also have enormous potential to develop not only people but organisations, too. It has been shown, in fact, that companies which set up workplace learning schemes in line with these requirements derive huge benefits, with include collective development and their establishment as real learning organisations. The strength of workplace learning lies in the fact that it involves constantly setting up systems in organisations to enable everyone to learn, by taking the time to re-think past actions so as to be better able to deal with future demands. So workplace learning offers new opportunities for developing collective skills. And, more than that, it can be a positive factor in workplace health by developing the reflective skills and knowledge sharing which it promotes within the organisation.
Bibliography (in French)
Patrick Mayen (2012), « Les situations professionnelles : un point de vue de didactique professionnelle » Phronesis, vol. 1, n° 1 p. 59-67.
Pierre Pastré (2006), « Apprendre à faire » in E Bourgeois et G Chapelle, Apprendre et faire apprendre, Paris, PUF