NZIM Let’s not dumb down workplace learning

On my desk is booklet called SkillNZ: Guide to Workplace Learning in New Zealand for Employers and Vocation Advisers. It doesn’t credit any authors or publisher, but it is part of campaign by “government, Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions” to promote “workplace learning”.
It defines workplace learning as “on or off the job education and training that counts towards qualification”.
Surely this is mistake! And I can think of three good reasons why:
* Workplace learning occurs on the job, rather than off the job.
* Education and training are not ‘learning’ but ‘teaching’.
* Most workplace learning does not count for qualification and nor should it.

On the job learning
Others can determine for us what is needed for particular job, or the skills, or behavioural traits that make people competent in job. We, in turn, can make an effort to comply with those demands, needs or customs. There may be courses and even qualifications available, and these might even be requirements for the job. But these are not usually sufficient in themselves to determine whether somebody is competent worker.
Employees must show that they can use those skills effectively, that they are able to transfer them into new situations, that they can manage their workload and other job requirements, fit in to the work environment and contribute to the culture and operations of the workplace.
The more inroads credentialism (the requirement to have more and more qualifications for job) makes, the more important the other less tangible workplace skills become. These traits are the difference between individuals with the paper qualifications and those who are capable of contributing fully to the organisation.
It is hard, if not impossible, for these skills to be taught through conventional classroom methods. Programmes that attempt to do so (‘applied’ programmes) normally use case studies and role plays and other simulations that are no substitute for on-the-job learning. The situation is an artificial extension of the classroom and there is limited transfer to real situations.

Teaching and learning
What people learn is personal, private and meaningful to the individual.
We all learn all the time. Part of our learning involves job or social skills, but these are only meaningful to us if they are learned in context where they are shown to be appropriate, where they are accompanied by decisions, dilemmas, interpretations, questions, relationships and laughter. They are not so well learned if they are taught in isolation in, say, polytechnic classroom.
Teaching and learning are not the same thing. We’ve all been bored in classrooms. We’ve all pursued our own fascinations, obsessions, fantasies without recourse to teachers, or we have chosen our own teachers, in the form of friends, mentors, coaches, colleagues. We’ve all had revelations triggered by events that were insignificant to others. The lifelong messages we get are filtered through experience and are unique to us.
Courses are designed to show participants what things they should know or do to meet external requirements, and teaching provides catalyst for learning those things. We know, when we attend courses, what parts are relevant to us and what parts we need to do to meet external assessments. We know what we already know and what we need to learn. We try to meet external requirements, but our own learning is determined by our needs, wants and desires.
Similarly, most qualifications are not direct measures of learning, but of compliance with the requirements of the qualification. They show only indirectly what participants have learnt, and don’t even show the extent to which the study for the qualification has contributed to the participant’s learning, because they normally assume the participant is relatively ‘clean slate’ before entering the qualification. This is not criticism of qualifications, but of the confusion in government and other official publications with measures of learning.
Very little workplace learning leads to qualification. Most workplace learning is done without programme of education and training.

Workplace learning and transfer
Surely we mean more by learning than merely meeting external requirements for job or skill? We want people who will think creatively and constructively about their jobs, find other better ways of working and apply their skills to new situations. Learning is not really about learning to do things the way others do them, but rather to transfer their skills and understandings, to question and to challenge.
The more precisely we define the requirements of situation the less learners can transfer that learning or think creatively about it. And the deep messages about their learning is that they must fit in, comply and keep quiet, while others decide what is important that they should do or be. By defining learning as meeting external requirements, the learner is literally being made ‘dumb’.
Workplace learning gives meaning to the training or education learner has done in particular context. Suddenly it all makes sense. Perhaps that’s why graduates from the old Certificate of Engineering are more sought after than graduates of the new National Diploma in Engineering. The old Certificate was done in block courses separated by time for students to apply their new skills in their jobs. They could transfer skills from one environment to another.
Teachers and qualifications might be fairly efficient in providing learners with the external requirements and parameters for job or set of skills. But other processes are more effective as triggers for workplace learning. These include coaching, mentoring, supervised practice and fieldwork assignments, learning logs, and most importantly workplace environment that welcomes, promotes and supports learning. The assessment of learning must be primarily self-assessment and this needs to be supported through peer and supervisor interactions.

Government support
When the Government defines workplace learning in terms of “education and training that counts towards qualification”, its support for workplace learning will go to tertiary providers to maintain their interventions in the workplace. But not only that! By counting as ‘learning’ only those interventions that lead to qualifications it devalues the important processes that render meaningful and transferable the skills the learners may have got from formal courses. Far from encouraging organisational learning the Government’s policies provide incentives for companies to rely increasingly on externally designed and delivered solutions.
The Government should, instead, provide systems of incentive and support for companies to develop and promote robust policies of workplace learning for their employees, thus consolidating the formal teaching their employees have received and at the same time creating an environment that encourages self-achievement and assessment, peer support, problem solving and creativity.

Business involvement
The SkillNZ booklet urges businesses to get involved in initiatives that enable students or people in work to improve their skills. It points out the roles that ITOs can play developing skills within the workplace, briefly explains modern apprenticeships, discusses the Gateway programme that aims to get senior students in low decile areas into work, and shows how to combat employee literacy problems.
All these initiatives are laudable, and we urge managers to take advantage of the opportunities they present to upskill employees and ensure that students receive appropriate business experience.

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