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Workplace Learning and Learning Theory

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Workplace Learning and Learning Theory
Within the field of the education system and education research that traditionally has dealt with vocational training and labour market education, radical changes and development have taken place in recent years, and they have also found linguistic expression. On the one hand the focus has shifted from education and teaching to learning and/or competence development. On the other hand the interest in vocational training has moved in the direction of workplace learning or work-based learning, including also work-related learning activities outside of the workplace.
The background of these changes is to be found broadly in the international and societal development expressed in terms such as “late modernity”, “globalisation” and “the knowledge society”. It is part of this development that human competence is becoming an increasingly decisive resource and parameter of competition. Additionally, the competence that is needed cannot be established and acquired through education in the more traditional sense – because there is a constant need for change and renewal and because its usability depends on its being linked to a number of personal characteristics such as flexibility, creativity, independence, the ability to cooperate, responsibility, service orientation etc. For this reason learning and competence development are more interesting focus points than education and teaching, and it has become vital to discover the extent to which this learning and competence development can take place directly in working life in close association with the ongoing change and renewal, or when it would be preferable to put it at some distance by means of more course and education-like activities.
This whole development can, of course, be viewed from many angles, but it is important to be aware of the fact that this is a unity which always spans such diverse questions as:
- what are the personal prerequisites for the intended learning/competence development to take place (motivation and perspectives)
- what types of activity can further the intended learning/competence development (education, practice learning, participation, assessment, supervision, approval)
- where is it most appropriate for these activities to take place (in or outside of the workplaces or in a process of interaction between them)
- and in the final analysis, also, what are the intention and yardstick for it all (for example, acquisition of practical skills, insight and understanding, retraining and/or general personal competence development).
However, the urgent necessity of adult vocational education, the radically increasing costs and the unpredictable market have played a part in starting up some decisive new developments which, as mentioned, are centred around upgrading workplace learning and growing scepticism about more traditional forms of education, and in some cases great and sometimes naïve interest in how ICT can be utilised in this connection.
A development in this direction seems to have great appeal for the business sector and among the agents in labour-market policy. For employers it implies that the resources are used on activities that are of immediate relevance for the individual enterprise, and a great deal of general and theoretical material of, in the best case, indirect importance for the work processes, is avoided. Employees find it tempting not to have to ‘go to school’ again and many of them are also rather sceptical about general and theoretical ‘school knowledge’ in contrast to the practical skills of their work. Moreover, in many cases education also implies a drop in income.
At the same time there is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty concerning the more general qualifications and personal competencies which are regarded as increasingly central and vital. But how can more targeted orientation of these competencies be created? Is this best done directly on or in association with the workplace, or should there be courses and training? How are these measures then to be designed in practice? How should the results be measured? A great deal of fine words and high-flown intentions can very easily remain in the air while in reality the concentration is on the traditional qualifications developed in the schools through ordinary teaching or at the workplaces by means of instruction or learning from colleagues, both in ways that hinder rather than promote general and personal competence development.
For this reason there has been a growing interest in different ideas and theories about what characterises work-related education and learning and how to conduct this most suitably in different contexts, the barriers that exist, the general qualifications that are necessary etc. There are many offers, very different in character and substance. They frequently have catchy terms such as human resource management, organisational learning, the learning organisation, transformative learning,
experiential learning, learning by expanding, neuro-linguistic programming, spirituality at work, team building, situated learning, communities of practice, and technologically-related e-learning, computer-based learning, distance learning etc. – to name but a few of the options that are most often utilised within a haphazardly selected range.
Even professionals find it difficult to negotiate these areas, not to speak of small companies with no particular educational function, nor of the employees, which it ultimately concerns. What is tenable and what is just words? What options are suitable and in what contexts? Can one really be sure of achieving everything that is offered? The well known Harvard professor, Chris Argyris, who himself is central figure in the field of organisational learning, has assessed that the great majority of courses offered on the European and American consultant markets within this field cannot create any significant improvements (Argyris, 2000). It would thus seem eminently possible to make the wrong choice at the same time as both companies and employees will increasingly find themselves in situations where some or other type of organisational and competence development seems to be a must.
Learning as an individual and social process
In this paper, the basic viewpoint is that the issue of Workplace Learning cannot fully be understood or handled unilaterally or mainly as a question of management as in many of the approaches mentioned. Learning is, after all, something that happens within the individual and involves specific biological qualities which the human species has acquired over thousands of years. The expression, “the learning organisation”, is thus a misnomer, a kind of verbal theft, as organisations do not have and cannot develop such qualities. (The correct expression for what is meant should either be something like “the effectively and qualitatively developing organisation” or “the organisation in which learning is promoted”.) But it is not only a misnomer. It is also an inadequate approach, because the questions of how human beings learn and why they so often fail to learn what is intended by the management are not addressed as basic psychological issues. Understanding learning simultaneously implies understanding the human psychological mechanisms involved and the external conditions and their adequacy.
Historically, this double issue has been mainly addressed by three very different approaches, all of them reaching back into the inter-war period: in Russia by the so-called Cultural Historical approach developed primarily by Lev Vygotsky (1978, 1986) and Aleksei Leontyev (1981); in
Germany by the approach of Critical Theory (or the so-called Frankfurt School), combining a Freudian understanding of the individual with a Marxist understanding of society (e.g. Negt 1971, Lorenzer 1972, Leithäuser 1976, Ziehe & Stubenrauch 1982); and in the USA by the tradition of humanist Adult Education as started by Eduard Lindeman (Anderson & Lindeman, 1927) and later carried further by adult educators such as Malcolm Knowles (1970, 1973), Stephen Brookfield (1987) and Jack Mezirow (1991).
In the area of Workplace Learning, two current trends seem to be related to these approaches. One of these has as its keywords Situated Learning and Communities of Practice and its most important representatives are Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (Lave & Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998). However, although Wenger relates to such concepts as meaning and identity in his 1998 book, and the concept of individual trajectories has also come to play an important role, this approach does not include what I would accept as a genuine learning conception, because assumptions about how and why the individual learns are not really included. In fact, it sometimes seems that the relevant learning simply takes place if only a person is part of a community of practice. In this way the Lave & Wenger conception resembles other social learning and social constructionist approaches which more or less explicitly deny or exclude the individual dimension of learning (e.g. Gergen 1994).
The other trend may be characterized by such key concepts as Critical Learning, Transformative Learning and Learning by Expansion, launched by Stephen Brookfield, Jack Mezirow and Finnish Yrjö Engeström, respectively (Engeström 1987). These concepts have in common that they refer to the kind of learning which implies that the learner in some way transcends his or her existing limits or self. In this respect they resemble the concept of Significant Learning as developed by the psychotherapist Carl Rogers in the 1960s (Rogers 1969). This resemblance is interesting because it indicates what was expressed clearly by Rogers, namely that only learning of this far-reaching kind is worth dealing with. In today’s fast moving and ever changing risk society such learning has certainly grown in importance, outside the therapeutic area also. Actually, this is often what is demanded by ordinary people in order to keep up with changes in their environment or situation, whether it be inside or outside the workplace. But on the other hand, it leaves out all the necessary and less dramatic demands which also always form part of the learning pattern.
Thus, what is needed as a grounding, in relation to workplace learning as well as learning in other settings, seems to be a contemporary and comprehensive learning theory in which learning is understood as both an individual and a social process, comprising both ordinary everyday learning and more complex personal development and, not least, also deals with what happens when
intended learning does not take place. In other words, a theory is needed which relates both to the learner as a human being in general, as a member of the present late modern globalised market and risk society, and as a specific individual with a personal life history, situation and future perspective.
This is, of course, a very ambitious request. Nevertheless, in the following I shall attempt to outline some main points for such a theory, as developed in my book, “The Three Dimensions of Learning” (Illeris, 2002), on a background of many years’ theoretical studies with reference to all three historical approaches mentioned above and other relevant understandings ranging from Piaget’s epistemology (e.g. Piaget 1952) to Giddens’ interpretation of late modernity (Giddens 1990, 1991).
Finally, I shall briefly illustrate how this approach may be used in relation to a central issue in Workplace Learning today. In this part I draw, in addition to the theoretical basis, on practical developmental work in the Danish vocational training system over three decades and a recent cross sector study of adults’ learning in the Danish adult education systems, the results of which I have summarised in the article: “Adult Education as Experienced by the Learners” (Illeris, 2003a).
The processes, dimensions and levels of learning
The point of departure for my concept of learning is that learning must be understood as all processes leading to permanent capacity change – whether they be physical, cognitive, emotional or social in nature – that do not exclusively have to do with biological maturation or ageing. This means that the learning concept also extends to such functions as personal development, socialisation, qualification and competence development, as the difference between these terms is mainly a matter of the point of view towards learning that is adopted.
Simultaneously, the concept also implies that all learning is part of a certain structure that includes two very diverse types of processes and three dimensions. The two types of process are closely integrated and both must be active before learning can take place. On the one hand there are interaction processes between the learner and the surroundings, and on the other hand there are the inner mental acquisition and elaboration processes, by means of which impulses from the interaction are linked to results of earlier learning. The interaction processes are social and cultural in nature and in general follow a historical-societal logic, i.e. they are fundamentally dependent on how and when they take place, as the interactive possibilities are different in different societies and
different historical epochs. Conversely, the acquisition processes are psychological in nature and in general follow a biological-structural logic, i.e. they follow the patterns that have been genetically developed through the ages as part of the phylogenetic development process of the species.
In addition, the acquisition processes always include two integrated sides: the cognitive or rational, knowledge and skills side, and the emotional side, covering also other psychodynamic areas such as motivations and attitudes. During the pre-school years the two sides of the acquisition processes gradually split away from each other, but they are never totally separated (Furth, 1987). All cognitive learning always has an emotional component which is marked or “obsessed” by the emotional situation that was prevalent during learning, for example whether it was motivated by desire, necessity or compulsion. All emotional learning also contains rational elements, knowledge or understanding of the matters at which the emotions are directed.
In this manner learning will always include three integrated dimensions, which may be termed the cognitive, the emotional and the social-societal dimensions. Through the cognitive dimension knowledge, skills, understandings and, in the last analysis, meaning and functionality are developed. Through the emotional dimension patterns of emotion and motivation, attitudes and, in the last analysis, sensitivity and mental balance are developed. Through the social-societal dimension potentials for empathy, communication and cooperation and, in the last analysis, sociality are developed. Figure 1 illustrates the connection between the two types of process and the three dimensions that enter into and mark learning and which must always be included if one wishes to form a complete picture of a learning situation or process.
Take in Figure 1
The results of learning are stored in the central nervous system as formations that can be described as schemes or mental patterns. When it is a matter of the cognitive dimension of learning, one typically speaks of schemes or, more popularly, of memory. In the emotional and the social-societal dimensions, one would employ terms such as patterns or inclinations. Under all circumstances, it is decisive that the results of learning are structured before they can be retained. This structuring can be established in various ways, and on this basis it is possible to distinguish between four different levels of learning which are activated in different contexts, imply different types of learning results, and require more or less energy. (This is an elaboration of the concept of learning originally developed by Jean Piaget, cf. Illeris 2002).
When a new scheme or pattern is established, it is a case of cumulative or mechanical learning. This form of learning is characterised by being an isolated formation, something new that is not a part of anything else. Therefore, cumulative learning is most frequent during the first years of life, but later occurs only in special situations where one must learn something with no context of meaning, for example a telephone or pin code number. The learning result is characterised by automation that means that it can only be recalled and applied in situations mentally similar to the learning context.
By far the most common form of learning is termed assimilative or additive, meaning that the new element is linked as an addition to a scheme or pattern that is already established. One typical example could be learning in school subjects that is precisely built up by means of constant additions to what has already been learned, but assimilative learning also takes place in all contexts where one gradually develops one’s capacities. The results of learning are linked to the scheme or pattern in question in such a manner that it is relatively easy to recall and apply them when one is mentally oriented towards the field in question, for example a school subject, while they may be hard to access in other contexts.
However, in some cases, situations occur where something takes place that is difficult to fit into any existing scheme or pattern, something one cannot really understand or relate to. But if it seems important or interesting, if it is something one is determined to acquire, this can take place by means of accommodative or “exceeding” learning, which implies that one breaks down (parts of) an existing scheme and transforms it so that the new situation can be linked in. Thus one both relinquishes and reconstructs something and this is a task that can be experienced as hard and energy demanding. One must cross former limitations and understand or accept something that is significantly new or different. The result of the learning is very resistant to oblivion and it can be recalled and applied in many different, relevant contexts. It is typically experienced as having got hold of something which one really has internalised.
Finally, in special situations there is also a far-reaching type of learning that has, inter alia, been described as transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991) or expansive learning (Engeström, 1987). This learning implies real personality changes and is characterised by simultaneous restructuring in the cognitive, the emotional and the social-societal dimensions, a break of orientation that typically occurs as the result of a crisis-like situation caused by urgent and unavoidable challenges, making it necessary to change oneself in order to get any further. Transformative learning is thus both
profound and extensive and can often be directly physically noticed, typically as a feeling of relief or relaxation.
To sum up: what has been outlined is a concept of learning which basically is constructivist in nature, i.e. it is assumed that the learner him or herself actively builds up or construes his/her learning as mental structures that can be termed, for example, meaning, functionality, sensitivity, mental balance and sociality. This more complex concept of learning is of great importance when one specifically wishes to deal with certain learning processes, for example, those that mark workplace learning. It establishes, namely, that there are different types of learning that are widely different in scope and that the whole field must always be in the picture, and that one, for example, cannot understand cognitive-professional content learning without also considering what happens in the emotional and social-societal dimensions. In this way this learning concept corresponds to the modern concept of competence development.
Defence and everyday consciousness
However, it is also important to be aware of the fact that both the learning concept in the above and the concept of competence development are about what happens when somebody actually learns something. But it is just as important to think about what takes place in all the situations where somebody could learn something but does not, or perhaps learns something quite other that what had been intended. This concerns matters such as mislearning, distortion, mental defence or resistance, which naturally can be due to misunderstandings, miscommunication and the like, but which in our complex late modern society must necessarily also be generalised and take more systematised forms because nobody can remain open to the gigantic volumes of influences we are faced with.
This is why today people develop a kind of automatic sorting mechanism vis-à-vis the many influences or what the German social psychologist Thomas Leithäuser has described as an “everyday consciousness” (Leithäuser, 1976, cf. Illeris, 2002). This functions in the way that one develops some general pre-understandings within certain thematic areas and when one meets with influences within such an area, these pre-understandings are activated so that if elements in the influences do not correspond to the pre-understandings, they are either rejected or distorted to make them agree. In both cases, this results in no new learning but, on the contrary, often the cementing of the already-existing understanding. Thus, through everyday consciousness we control our own
learning and non-learning in a manner that seldom involves any direct positioning while simultaneously involving a massive defence of the already acquired understandings and, in the final analysis, our very identity. There are, of course, also areas and situations where our positioning takes place in a more target-oriented manner, consciously and flexibly.
Therefore, in practice the issue of learning very often becomes a question of what can penetrate the individual, semi-automatic defence mechanisms and under what conditions. These defence mechanisms are the most common reason for the gulf between the impulses being communicated, for example in an everyday situation, a work situation or a teaching situation, and what is actually learned.
Adult learning
The central fact in relation to adult learning, is that adults, in contrast to children, are no longer minors and are capable and willing of taking responsibility for their behaviour, actions and opinions and thus also for their learning. At any rate this definition is at the core of society’s definition of adulthood. One has formally attained the age of majority when one reaches the age of 18, and even though teachers, for example, may often feel that this is not the case, as a point of departure we would all very strongly claim the right to make our own decisions. This is, inter alia, fundamental to what we regard as freedom and democracy.
Viewed in this perspective, for example the well-known tendency for adults in an educational situation to apparently leave the responsibility up to the teacher, comes to seem that it is the teacher, the syllabus, the curriculum, the authorities or society that take the responsibility which is actually the students’ own. But they can only take responsibility for the teaching. Each individual student is still responsible for the learning and it is the participant him or herself who, consciously or unconsciously in the actual situation, with respect to all three dimensions of learning, decides whether the result is to be learning, distortion or non-learning – or perhaps at little of each.
Fundamentally, learning is a desire-based function (Furth, 1987). It is a part of human beings’ phylogenetically developed potential that they can learn far more and much more complex matters than all other creatures, and this learning potential is the strongest and most crucial element in the species’ struggle for survival.
Just like all other innate potentials for the survival of the individual and the species, the practice of learning is also basically desire-based. This can be seen most clearly during the first years of life
when the child acquires a number of basic skills and concepts, but as a point of departure it also applies to adults. The difference consists in the fact that one has gradually had a number of experiences to the effect that learning can also be difficult and unpleasant, for example when one has to learn about the limits to one’s fulfilment, and in general when one must learn something that one has not decided oneself and in which one cannot see the point. This is, naturally, inevitable, as soon as a social formation is involved, in which case a balance must be found between individual interests and common considerations, and modern, complex society involves huge amounts of learning more or less determined by others.
This is why adults are rather sceptical about everything that others want them to learn and which they themselves do not feel an urge to learn. Consciously, or unconsciously, they want to decide for themselves. For this reason, in the case of adult learning, as point of departure it is important to be aware of the following:
• adults learn what they want to learn and what is meaningful for them to learn
• adults draw on the resources they already have in their learning
• adults take as much responsibility for their learning as they want to take (if they are allowed to) (Illeris 2002, p.219)
• and it is equally important to acknowledge that adults are not very inclined to learn something they are not interested in, or in which they cannot see the meaning or importance. At any rate, typically they only learn partially, in a distorted way or with a lack of motivation that makes what is learned extremely vulnerable to oblivion or application in situations which are not subjectively related to the learning context.
Thus adults undertake a very stringent process of selection in connection with their learning and the premises for this selection are to be found in their experience and interests. This can be a matter of very superficial, short-term interests, something that challenges their curiosity, or which is topical and perhaps provocative. But more fundamentally, adults usually have some life projects that are relatively stable and long-term, for example a family project that concerns creating and being part of a family, a work project that concerns a personal and financially satisfying job and even perhaps pursuing a more or less certain career, perhaps a leisure-time project concerning a hobby, a life
project about fulfilment in certain ways, or a conviction project that is religious, political etc. in nature (cf. Giddens’ concept of ‘life policy’, 1991).
These life projects are embedded in the life history, present situation and possible future perspectives of the individual and closely related to what we call identity. It is on this basis that we design our defences so that we usually let what is important for our projects come through and reject the rest. It is also on this basis, as the central core of our defences, we develop our defence mechanisms to be able to counter influences that could threaten the experience of who we are and would like to be.
Adult education, motivation and learning
In relation to adult school-based education, the result of this starting point for learning is usually a situation that is well-known from courses and study programmes: if the adult participants are not very motivated from the beginning, they usually start by leaning back and waiting for the teacher to start up something, after which they can decide if they want to engage themselves. If then the individual feels that something exciting, challenging or meaningful begins to take place, he or she begins to mobilise mental energy. But if everything is simply experienced as “being at school again” (the expression most often used by the participants about the situation), then it is just like the news on TV: it rolls over the screen and is looked at if it is found interesting. And if something occurs that the individual experiences as a defeat, humiliation or other negative experience from when they really were at school, very swiftly a thick wall of defence can be mobilised that will take strong impulses to break through.
These matters typically comprise the fundamental premises for school-based adult education seen from the perspective of the participants. They make the participants’ initial motivation quite crucial, i.e. the way in which they regard the study programme or course in question in relation to their life projects.
In some cases, adult education can lead to extensive, enriching development for the participants if they come with positive motivation and the study programmes live up to their expectations, and perhaps a little more. But the previously mentioned study in the broad Danish adult education programmes showed that a quite considerable proportion of the participants only become positively engaged in adult education if they meet a challenge that “turns them on” at the beginning or along the way. In too many cases the actual situation is that the participants only engage themselves
superficially and do not learn very much, leading to the waste of a great number of human and financial resources (Illeris 2003a).
The conditions concerning adults’ relationship to school-based learning that are outlined here quite obviously form some of the reasons as to why, in step with the large-scale expansion in adult education of recent years, a certain degree of uncertainty has developed in relation to when and on what conditions it can actually live up to the great expectations about the vocationally-oriented competence development of adults, which is an important justification for the many resources expended on the area. But then the question is the way in which these subjective conditions apply if the learning is more directly linked to working life practice.
Therefore, as a proposal for coming further, in the following I shall attempt to view learning in working life from the learner’s perspective in the same way as I took part in the adoption of this perspective in the project referred to above. This leads initially to the fact that this perspective is quite different for different groups with a fundamentally different relationship to working life. In general, three main groups can be identified:
• firstly, adults with a more or less secure position in working life, but who need to continue developing their competencies to keep up with “development” (further qualification)
• secondly, adults who have been “cut out”, perhaps because their field of work has become out-dated or overtaken by “development”, perhaps because they themselves have not had the resources to keep up, or perhaps because they have simply been so unlucky as to have been employed by one of the losers in the stepped-up global competition (re-qualification)
• thirdly, young people or young adults who are on their way into working life and thus need more general professional and personal qualifications (basic qualification).
In the following I will examine these three groups more closely and independently.
Adults needing further qualification
Adults who have a relatively safe position on the labour market usually have a positive attitude to supplementary training or upgrading training. For example, following through investigation of the attitude of general industrial workers to training activities, my colleague Christian Kjærsgaard concluded
• that to a high degree the workers are conscious and formulated with respect to their own training needs
• that the workers’ qualification needs are also determined by individual experiences and collective norms in relation to their work situation and expectations of development possibilities
• that subjective strategies form the starting point of the individual worker’s training motivation.
(quoted from Illeris, 2002, p.196).
This conclusion not only points to the fundamentally positive attitude to supplementary training and upgrading training but also to the fact that a number of conditions are linked to it.
First and foremost, the activities must be regarded as immediately relevant in relation to the current job or development possibilities in the work lying within the subjective horizon, i.e. typically changes in work content or organisation or personal re-deployment of which one already is aware or for which one personally wishes to qualify. It must be possible to immediately see what the learning can be used for on the basis of one’s current situation and future perspectives. In addition, there usually are a number of matters to do with, for example, time and payment that must be in order.
During the learning activities themselves, it is also typical that the adults in this group are narrowly interested in their currently experienced needs and are not very inclined to engage themselves in general perspectives in which they cannot see any meaning. It could also be said that their immediate orientation is towards assimilative learning and that special impulses must be present before they mobilise themselves for the more demanding accommodative processes.
In practice these conditions mean that, for this group, if the need for upgrading activities is not experienced directly in connection with work, as a rule they will only become engaged to the extent that they previously, or in connection with the activities, have come to understand and accept the purpose of the upgrading and, in addition, that subsequently they will actually be able to make use of the qualifications they have acquired. A great deal of experience and research in adult vocational training shows that these preconditions are not very often in order, and that many of the resources used on vocationally oriented upgrading therefore do not produce the intended learning results (cf. Andersen et al, 1996).
On the other hand there may be results with respect to personnel policy or network creation, for example, the importance of which should not be underestimated. It should also be noted that a large part of the identity of permanent staff is usually linked to their job and their workplace and they can thus be open to ongoing and more general competence and personality development in relation to work, or to collegially embedded learning processes connected to what Thomas Leithäuser describes as the hidden niche that staff at all enterprises must necessarily create for themselves (Volmerg et al 1986, Leithäuser 2000).
Adults needing re-qualification
The situation is quite different for adults who for one reason or other have been “cut out” of the position they have had in working life. Already in an earlier empirical study I registered that participants in short adult vocational training courses who were in this situation engaged in the general and personally oriented parts of the course content to a considerably higher degree than participants holding permanent jobs. As a rule they understood and accepted that general and personal upgrading was of central importance for their possibilities of obtaining new, satisfying work (Illeris et al, 1994).
Later I have deepened this type of investigation leading to a more subtle understanding that certain adults are thrown into a process of readjustment covering not only specific professional qualifications but also a necessary and very demanding change of identity. These are typically people who have developed and cemented a working identity over a number of years, linked to a certain profession and/or certain functions, something they experienced they were capable of and by means of which they could support themselves and achieve self-respect and social status. This is now gone and has in reality become worthless. Even though they still have a number of qualifications, often specialised, these now have no genuine economic importance or status (Ahrenkiel & Illeris, 2000).
This situation is extremely demanding from the point of view of learning because it implies that the existing identity must be phased out while a new identity is developed, and usually on the basis of some very uncertain, in some cases almost hopeless, premises. It is an external demand that makes such an extremely difficult and sensitive process of mental readjustment necessary, defined as transformative learning in the above, and it must be dealt with in a situation in which one’s self-
respect and status are hard hit and one has practically and financially been degraded to the most vulnerable third of society.
Thus there is a need for understanding, loyal guidance and types of qualification which to the highest possible degree respect the situation and preconditions of the individual, and in most cases these needs are only met to an inadequate extent in present day adult education programmes (Illeris 2003a).
Young adults needing basic qualification
With respect to the third main group, young adults on their way into the labour market, it is also the case that learning must include both professional qualification and identity development, but both elements are far easier to approach when unlearning and readjustment do not have to take place simultaneously.
It is with specific reference to this group that the idea of a return to the apprenticeship system has been brought forward once more, to a high degree with reference to Lave and Wenger’s books about “situated learning” and “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, Wenger, 1998, Nielsen & Kvale, 1997). However, in Denmark there have also been many objections referring in part to the severe criticism formerly levelled at apprenticeship with respect to, for example, power relations and insufficient breadth and theory on the one hand, and on the other hand to the fact that already in the present schemes it is impossible to obtain a sufficient number of qualified trainee places. Complete rehabilitation of the apprenticeship system would seem to be both a romantic dream and a practical impossibility, at the same time as a great deal of doubt has arisen about the degree to which qualification in communities of practice actually works and its solidity in relation to the needs of late modern society.
To this may be added a number of conditions to do with young adults’ forms of learning and identity development today. In our present choice and market society, so many options and impulses exist that in their vocational choice and the identity development linked to this, young people cannot as a matter of course draw on the family and the societal norms they have met with at home to the same extent as previously. In this way, what earlier was in the nature of an almost automatic sorting mechanism comes to function as difficult choices and a far more demanding and unsure identity process (Illeris, 2003b).
Today young adults must often undergo a lot of testing and “search movements” in connection with their qualification and identity development, leading to change and drop-out from study programmes, training programmes and apprenticeships. This points in the direction of the need to make the qualification possibilities very flexible, which is also the main trend in the modernisation of vocational training systems in many countries (Simonsen 2000).
The need for a differentiated concept
The previous sections point to three main groups of adults with very different backgrounds for and attitudes to vocationally-oriented learning and competence development, and within each of the groups there, naturally, exists extensive differentiation, right down to the individual differences which, in the final analysis, determine the learning and development that actually take place. Similarly, one could point to the fact that the conditions for workplace learning are very different in different types of enterprises. One main point is therefore obvious: firm formulas for the right type of qualification and education organisation will, in the best case, only be applicable to some limited group – perhaps the groups in focus when the formula was developed – but the only general solution must necessarily be far-ranging variation.
This variation must be based on the needs of society, the enterprises and the participants, all of which are very differentiated today. While there must be room for differences, a certain degree of structure and clarity is also necessary. The right mixture will never be found because even under ideal conditions it will have changed while it was in the process of being designed.
It is clear that the possibilities for learning and competence development at workplaces, in direct relation to the workplaces, and at very different courses at schools and educational institutions should be included. It is also becoming increasingly clear that there is a need for comprehensive expansion of impartial and loyal guidance options far different from what usually takes place today.
Apart from this, nothing seems to be particularly clear because there are too many options and strong opinions on the scene and, as mentioned in the introduction, it is not easy to separate what is effective from what cannot be used. At the same time, many of the options and discussions are disqualified by lacking any idea of the subjective sides of learning, i.e. for the importance of the learner’s understanding of and attitude to what is taking place, and by regarding the learners as mechanisms and learning as a production process, thus actually cutting themselves off from understanding what is at stake.
It is against this background that the Danish National Labour Market Authority (at present the part of the Authority that is now integrated in the Ministry of Education) in cooperation with the new Learning Lab Denmark has taken the initiative to set up a “consortium” to work with research and development in the field of workplace learning and competence development, both directly in working life and at vocationally-oriented educational institutions, and in this connection with how different types of computer supported activities can and cannot be used. There is certainly enough to do.
Ahrenkiel, A. – Illeris, K. (2000) “Adult Education between Emancipation and Control”. In K. Illeris (ed.) Adult Education in the Perspective of the Learners, Roskilde University Press, Copenhagen.
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