Diversity List: Developing Learning Agility in Vocational Education

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Ms Huseina Tyebkhan calls for a paradigm shift in teaching-learning from asking ‘if-then’ to focus more on ‘what-if’ instead.

(Photo credit: Chris Lusher)

Evolution of the so-called ‘knowledge society’ in the past three decades has spurred a surge in interest in workplaces as contexts for individual learning with terms such as workplace learning, work-based learning, work-related learning and learning at work used interchangeably or side by side to denote “learning for work, at work and through work”.

Learning at work occurs through a number of forms or approaches. In the foreground is the natural learning process. This informal or incidental learning is not necessarily intentional but occurs moment by moment through everyday work, facilitated through goal-directed activities, interaction with colleagues and associates, observations and workplace artefacts. In conjunction is learning of a non-formal nature occurring through planned, explicit forums as induction, coaching and mentoring, professional development initiatives and professional associations. There may also be formal learning by the achieving of further academic or professional qualifications. The various approaches merge synergistically to form the participant’s workplace learning biography.

Contemporary literature on informal workplace learning is dominated by the notion of learning as participation. Learning is seen as the process by which participants become members of their communities of practice by progressing from ‘peripheral’ to ‘full’ participation.

Participation is generally positioned against acquisition. Acquisition refers to the process by which knowledge is internalised. Participation is learning as part of social activity and interaction where the learner works autonomously yet in collaboration with others. It is a process of taking part and being involved in communities of practice, enterprises and activities, requiring engagement in, and contribution to the practices of work communities. As such, it is ubiquitous or synonymous with work practice and its dynamics become the participant’s learning curriculum, pedagogy and outcomes.

In sum, learning as participation is the result of the learner assimilating and accommodating workplace practices into his or her frames of reference making them more inclusive and open, inquiring into his or her experience and responding creatively to emerging or evolving situations and uncertainties. Successful workplace learning provides satisfaction of innate needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy, affording a sense of belonging to a community as well as personal validation through the construction, within that community, of a personal identity and sense of self which the participant can be proud.

However, not all practice is learning: only that which produces lasting change in behaviour or in the capacity for behaviour. Similarly, not all experiences are instructive: only those which generate new knowledge and impact future action. To this end, reflection is the catalyst that promotes change, spurring anticipatory and future-oriented thinking.

Reflection encompasses the dimensions of reflective working, experimentation and learning from mistakes. In an arena of continual and accelerated change, a significant portion of most of what is learned in the workplace arises from efforts to solve problems. The more exigent process of critical reflection includes challenging groupthink, critical opinion-sharing and asking for feedback.

Given the significant learning potential of the workplace, the fundamental responsibility of vocational education must be to empower learners to unlock this potential to achieve workplace competence.

If competence is regarded as an acquired capability to adequately perform a task, then it is not a tangible that can be inculcated prior to employment but a capacity that is primarily developed through participation in employment through the unique integration of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Vocational education’s elemental role may be to provide general training to facilitate work entry as well as the foundation knowledge and skills on which further learning may be structured. However, for vocational education to view its role as one of producing “over-ready chickens” would be seriously misguided. Instead, its focus must be to engender in its learners a cognisance of workplace learning and prompt them to develop thought patterns and ways of being appropriate to this learning.

Entrants to vocational education programs in Hong Kong tend largely to be those disaffected or disenfranchised by a school system enforcing a rigid performance orientation to learning. This demographic has become more pronounced in the past three decades with post-compulsory academic education in Hong Kong proliferating and vocational education being perceived as an option less desirable.

For many pursuing vocational studies, the world of work beckons as escape from academic learning. Sadly few embrace the opportunity it presents to prove themselves in another sphere of life. Whatever their proclivity towards education and work, the majority of learners share an inherent awareness that to profit from Hong Kong’s burgeoning service economy requires continued engagement in learning. However, nine-plus years of schooling in an almost-exclusively didactic and teacher-centred environment with the added disadvantage of being branded among the lower quartiles of learning ability leaves these learners all but bereft of the capacity to engage in the form of reflective thinking and anticipatory behaviour critical to workplace learning competence and success.

Current practice at many vocational education providers serves to bolster these deficiencies. To counter competition from academic institutions, they have adopted an increasingly academic curriculum. Discrete subject divisions iterate subject-based knowledge and a misguided emphasis on quantity of content coverage. The use of learner experience is illustrative at best and recognised only if it contributes to the learning of pre-defined knowledge or skills. Otherwise it stands disregarded. With their critical reflection skills under-developed, graduates enter the workplace reasonably able to perform pedantic work routines, but wanting the proactivity, initiative and problem-solving aptitudes demanded by judicious employers today.

Simply teaching learners reflective thinking strategies, or telling them to engage in reflective behaviour, does not suffice. Rather, the need is to help learners problematise and question experience. This need calls for a paradigm shift in teaching-learning, from the standard paradigm emphasising knowledge acquisition, to the pragmatic teaching-learning of a preparedness to respond and act in innovative ways to difference and uncertain situations. By substituting the ‘if-then’ of didacticism and acquisition by the ‘what-if’ of inquiry and participation, the objective must be to nurture persons who are task- and results-oriented and able to resolve problems.

Articulating the pragmatic approach in practice requires a change from the current focus on assessing learning ability via standardised performance criteria to one emphasising learning agility where learners’ are recognised for adaptability and flexibility in learning from experience and applying that learning to enhance performance.

Having been schooled in systems that demand the proving of one’s competence, learners are conditioned to attribute and failings to inability. By shifting the focus to one of improving competence, they will be encouraged to view mistakes differently: as opportunities to address incorrect perceptions and ineffective strategies. Receptiveness to feedback will become more open; they will be found to be engaging less frequently in defensive behaviours and rationalising while, at the same time, becoming more amiable to collaborative practices and knowledge sharing at work.

Development of learners’ learning agility requires the introduction of holistic curricula that facilitate learner engagement in learning communities which emulate workplace communities of practice and permits the incorporation of negotiated individual improvement goals that take into account learners’ motivations for learning, their interests, personal needs and lifestyles. Such a focus on agility will empower learners to inquire and reflect and ultimately regard experience – whether gained through education, employment or life-wide engagement in multiple communities of practice – as more than a mundane subsumable on their resumes, but the wellspring of transformative workplace learning.


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Ms Huseina Tyebkhan

Huseina is school director of the International Academy of Film & Television. She is also a candidate of the Diversity List 2017.