ArticlePDF Available

Critiquing workplace learning discourses: Participation and continuity at work



This article critiques some assumptions shaping the current discourse on workplace learning. It proposes that these assumptions restrict how workplace learning is conceptualised and discussed. Principally, describing workplace learning environments and experiences as 'informal' and that 'informal learning' occurs in workplaces constrains understanding about how learning occurs through work and, consequently, the development of a workplace pedagogy. As with educational institutions, in workplaces there are intentions for work practice, structured goal-directed activities that are central to organisational continuity, and interactions and judgements about performance that are also shaped to those ends. Therefore, describing learning through work as being 'informal' is incorrect. Instead, the structuring of workplace activities has dimensions associated with learning directed for the continuity of the practice, which also often has inherently pedagogical qualities. Moreover, the unqualified description of learning environments as being either 'formal' or 'informal' suggests a situational determinism. Instead, learning is proposed as being interdependent between the individual and the social practice. The core tension in this relationship is that between those needs for the continuity of the work practice and individuals' needs to realise their personal or vocational goals. It is proposed that considerations of learning, learning in workplaces and the development of a workplace pedagogy need conceptualising in terms of participatory practices.
Critiquing workplace learning discourses:
Participation and continuity at work
Stephen Billett
School of Vocational, Technology and Arts Education
Griffith University, Nathan 4111, Australia
Ph: 61-7-3875 5855
Fax: 61-7-3875 6868
Billett S (2002) Critiquing workplace learning discourses: Participation and continuity at work Studies
in the Education of Adults 34 no 1 pp. 56-67.
Learning, work and participatory practices
To understand further how learning through work occurs and can be best organised, necessitates
setting aside some assumptions embedded in the current workplace learning discourse. It is proposed
that workplaces and educational institutions merely represent different instances of social practices in
which learning occurs through participation. Learning in both kinds of social practice can be
understood through a consideration of their respective participatory practices. Therefore, to
distinguish between the two in terms of formalisms of social practice (i.e. that one is formalised and
the other informal) and propose some general consequences for learning arising from these bases is
not helpful. Both these kinds of social practices are constituted historically, culturally and
situationally (Billett 1998), and share a common concern with continuity of practice. The need for
workplaces and educational institutions and other kinds of social institutions and practices have
evolved over time and are constituted as the product of particular cultural needs (see Scribner 1985).
The manifestation of the particular social practice (e.g. a particular workplace or school) is shaped by
a complex of cultural needs and situational factors such as local needs, the individuals involved, and
the locally-negotiated goals for the activities including bases for judgments about performance (see
Engestrom & Middleton 1996, Suchman 1996). The structuring of learning experiences in workplaces
is likely to be directed towards sustaining the practice (Darrah 1996, Pelissier 1991) including
sustaining the interests of one or more groups in the practice. Educational institutions also share the
goal of continuity. However, there are distinctive qualities in the norms, activities and goals of these
two kinds of social practice. Among these differences is the likely claim that educational institutions
have learning as their principal and privileged role. However, if learning is seen as something
privileged by practices within educational institutions, rather than as a consequence of participation in
social practices more generally, (such as those involved in the production of goods or services), this
may inhibit understanding about learning generally and learning through work, in particular.
However, if, on the other hand, learning is conceptualised more broadly as being the product of
participation in social practice (e.g. Rogoff 1995) through individuals’ engagement in its activities and
access to its affordances then, it may be possible to adopt a broader view of learning experiences in
workplaces and their enhancement. The widening acceptance of learning as an inter-psychological
process (i.e. between individuals and social sources of knowledge) now prompts a consideration of
learning as engagement with the social world, and not only through close personal interactions as
Vygotsky (1978) and others propose (e.g. Rogoff 1995).
Other reasons warrant making participation a central concern for a workplace pedagogy. For
many workers, perhaps most, the workplace represents the only or most viable location to initially
learn and/or develop further their vocational practice. Understanding workplaces as sites for learning
has become urgent given the transfer of responsibility for maintaining the currency of vocational
practice now being increasingly passed to workers in the current reformulation of lifelong learning
policies and practices. In this context, opportunities to engage in work, the kinds of tasks individuals
are permitted to participate in, and the guidance provided, become key bases to understand and
evaluate how and what individuals learn through their work. How opportunities to participate are
distributed in the often contested relations that constitute work practice become central to
understanding learning through work. It is important therefore to understand how workplaces afford
individuals or cohorts of individuals these opportunities. These affordances also likely shape how
individuals elect to engage in goal-directed activities and secure direct (close or proximal) and more
indirect (distal) kinds of guidance (e.g. opportunities to observe and listen) (Billett & Boud 2001).
Both kinds of participatory practices have consequences for the knowledge individuals construct, with
the former being central to assist with learning that would be difficult without the assistance of a more
knowledgeable partner. However, the use of intentional learning strategies in the workplace, such as
guided learning, is also subject to contested participatory practices (Billett 2001c).
In order to understand how learning through work proceeds, it is also necessary to account for
how individuals elect to engage with work activities and the support and guidance that workplaces
afford them, and what they learn. Ultimately, individuals determine what constitutes the invitational
qualities of the workplace. Hence, workplace practices such as those shaping individuals’
participation and how they elect to engage in workplace activities become central to understanding
learning at work and their construction of the knowledge required for work. It is these relations that
are central to the social basis of knowing (Scribner 1997/1988, Valsiner & van de Veer 2000).
It is worth noting that what is proposed here is not intended as a gratuitous critique of
educational institutions or practices. Instead, the central concern is to provide a space for learning in
the workplace to be discussed at least partially unencumbered from assumptions based on practices in
educational institutions.
Workplace participation and sustaining practice
Describing workplaces as ‘informal’ learning environments is negative, inaccurate and ill-focused.
These descriptions do little to assist the standing of or understanding about workplaces as learning
environments. However, the use of negative terms to describe workplaces as learning environments,
such as ‘informal’ or ‘unstructured’, persists. In the following, three distinct premises are advanced to
question assumptions that underpin the use of terms to describe learning experiences and outcomes in
Negative and inappropriate premises
Firstly, describing a phenomenon by what it is not: (e.g. informal– ‘not formalised’, unstructured –
not structured) is unhelpful. It does little to assist understand its qualities or characteristics. In this
instance, the use of concepts and assumptions associated with particular social practices ---
educational institutions --- are advanced as premises for what constitutes the formalisms and structure
of workplace learning experiences. For instance, teaching and learning are commonly, if erroneously,
held to be synonymous or at least associated. Therefore, the absence of qualified teachers and didactic
interactions in workplaces leads to assumptions that learning will be inferior to that occurring in
educational institutions (Collins, Brown & Newman 1989, Evans 1993, Prawat 1993, Ericsson &
Lehmann 1996). This learning might be seen as ad hoc because the activities are not consistent with
practices adopted in these institutions. So, from a perspective that privileges the practices of
educational institutions, the absence of a written curriculum document used to plan teachers’ actions
and learners’ experiences (Ericsson & Lehmann 1996, Marsick & Watkins 1990, Resnick 1987), and
qualified teachers and teaching practices, raises the concern that learning through work may be weak,
ad hoc, concrete and incidental. Claims of "ad hockery" are sometimes used to dismiss learning
arrangements in places other than formal learning institutions (Prawat 1993, Resnick, 1987). Yet,
defining engagement in authentic activities as being unplanned learning activities (Evans 1993), which
are incidental (Marsick & Watkins, 1990), or that intentionality only resides within the learner (Evans
1993) are all imprecise and misleading. Moreover, while there are concerns about the development of
conceptual knowledge through experience other than in educational institutions (Evan 1993, Prawat
1993), this concern is also extended to the outcomes of schooling (e.g. Scribner 1984, Raizen 1994).
Furthermore, there is evidence aplenty that adaptable learning occurs outside of educational
institutions (see below), thereby questioning assumptions about the ad hoc and concrete nature of
workplace learning. Consequently, assumptions based on practices in educational institutions may not
be wholly useful in considering learning in or the development of a pedagogy for other kinds of social
practice, for instance workplaces. Therefore, if the discourse on learning through work uncritically
privileges assumptions and practices within educational institutions and learning is not seen as a
consequence of engagement in goal-directed activities more generally, then a limited understanding of
workplace learning will perpetuate. If, however, the discourse on workplace learning holds learning as
an outcome of participant thinking-acting occurring, through engagement in goal-directed activities
that are structured by workplace experiences, then this may provide richer bases to discuss and
conceptualise workplace learning experiences.
Structuring of workplace activities, participation and performance
Secondly, it is inaccurate to describe workplace learning experiences as ‘unstructured’ or ‘informal’.
Norms, values and practices shape and sustain activities and interactions within workplaces, as in
other social practices, such as homes (see Goodnow 1996) or educational institutions. Moreover, the
structuring of these experiences in workplaces is often inherently pedagogical as they are directed
towards the continuity of the practice through participant learning. Furthermore, workplace norms and
practices also structure what constitutes performance in workplaces and bases for judgements about
performance. These three points are now discussed in turn.
Constituting workplace experiences
Rather than being without structure, and without intent, workplace activities are often highly
structured, perhaps too structured. Just as the goals, norms and practices of educational institutions
frame the activities students participate in, similarly workplace goals and practices determine the tasks
and activities that individuals engage in, and which individuals engage in what activities (Billett 1996;
Lave 1990; Scribner 1988/1997). Rather than being unintentional, the activities of participants in
social practices and their learning are often central to their continuity. Examples include learning to
navigate (Hutchins 1983), weaving (Childs & Greenfield 1980), coal mining (Billett 1993), dairy
workers (Scribner 1984), midwifery (Jordan 1989) and tailoring (Lave 1990). Also, rather than being ad
hoc, approaches to work practice are often intentionally organised to structure workers’ access to the
knowledge they need to learn to sustain the practice. Some components of this structuring have been
referred to by Lave (1990) as the ‘learning curriculum’.
Although not intentionally stated in a syllabus, the pathways of activities in workplaces are
often inherently pedagogical, as well as focusing on the continuity of practice through learning. Lave
(1990) found that tailors’ apprentices learnt by participating in work activities that were sequenced to
provide engagement in tasks of increasing accountability and complexity. This pathway of
participation incrementally provided greater access to the capacities required for work. The
apprentices moved through experiences that first provided access to the overall goals required for
performance, then the requirements for performance of particular tasks. For instance, initially, the
apprentices finished and ironed completed garments. Engagement in these activities provided
opportunities to understand work goals, including the standard of finish demanded for garments, and
understanding the shape of garment components. Next, the apprentices learnt specific procedures for
constructing garments. The pathway of learning experiences was ‘formalised’ by a progression
through tasks of increasing accountability --- that is, movement from tasks of low to high
accountability (i.e. those where mistakes can be tolerated to those where mistakes have significant
consequences, e.g. making children’s and under garments first). Access to requirements for
performance, and indirect guidance through observation were available through the apprentices’
participation (Lave 1990). Accordingly, the workplace’s norms and practices structured the
apprentices’ activities and shaped their learning. Lave (1993), an anthropologist, concludes that
whenever you examine practice you identify learning. The cognitive (e.g. Anderson 1993, Shuell
1990) and sociocultural (e.g. Rogoff 1995) constructivist psychological perspectives also link
engagement in goal-directed activities with learning, with the latter emphasising the inter-
psychological processes that occur through engagement. This engagement is held to reinforce, refine
or extend individuals’ knowledge. A cognitive account adds that the novelty or routineness of the
activities provide opportunities for new learning, and refining and honing what has been learnt from
new activities and the support and guidance with new tasks and their refinement (Anderson 1982).
Therefore, more than an end in itself, engagement in work activities incites change in individuals’
capacities: learning.
Pathways of learning activities have also been identified in contemporary work settings. In
hairdressing salons, the tasks apprentices engage in and their progress through these tasks are
determined by the particular salon’s approach to hairdressing (Billett 2001a). For instance, in one
salon where clients are attended to by a number of hairdressers, the apprentices first engage in ‘tea
and tidy’ --- keeping the salon clean and tidy, and providing hot beverages for clients. More than
‘busy work’, these tasks are necessary components in understanding about and initially participating
in hairdressing practice. Through these activities, apprentices learn about hygiene, cleanliness and
procedures for determining client needs. This initial participation includes the building of the
apprentices’ confidence to negotiate with clients. Next, the apprentices wash and then later rinse out
of clients’ hair the chemicals used to shape and/or colour hair. Engagement in these tasks advances
the apprentices’ capacities in communicating and negotiating with clients in more intimate ways. The
apprentices learn inter-psychologically through direct interpersonal interactions and more indirect
kinds of participation (observation and listening) to understand and practice important elements of
each task (e.g. the importance of removing all the chemicals), and each task’s place and significance
in the hairdressing process (Billett 2001a). Later, the apprentices work alongside experienced
hairdressers, helping to place rods and curlers in clients’ hair. Later still, before being permitted to cut
women’s hair, they commence cutting men’s hair, which is held to be less difficult and of lower
accountability than cutting women’s hair. The apprentices continue on this pathway of activities until
they can style hair independently.
However, in another salon, where each hairdresser undertakes the entire hairdressing task, the
apprentice is required to learn to cut and colour far earlier than in the salon referred to above. The
structured pathway of activities in the second salon includes gaining competence with procedures that
permit early independent practice. Consequently, in the same vocational practice, the particular
workplace’s goals and practices will determine much of the structuring of activities and also the kinds
of tasks to be undertaken and to what standard. The two salons have quite distinct hairdressing goals
and practices, and different bases for learning for their continuity. Accordingly, the pathways for
participation directed at learning in the two hairdressing practices are structured quite differently,
thereby reinforcing the localised factors that constitute a particular work practice. Darrah (1996) has
also shown how access to work in a computer manufacturing company is organised and sequenced to
structure learning through a pathway of activities. In commercial aviation, a pathway exists
comprising movement from the role of flight engineer, to first officer through to captain (Hutchins &
Palen 1997).
Other practices have been identified outside of educational institutions associated with
learning for continuity of the practice. Hutchins’ (1983) study of fishermen identified a deliberately
structured approach used in learning to navigate. Substitute objects (shells and other beach debris)
were used to represent objects (night star and constellation patterns) that cannot be seen during the
day. So where the learning required to sustain the practice (fishing) could not proceed through normal
work activities, a substitute activity is provided. The Guarenos of the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela teach
cultivation, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing in ways that are highly structured through learning by
doing and being provided with an initial understanding of each task and its goals (Ruddle & Chesterfield
1979, cited in Rogoff & Gardiner 1984). Jordan, (1989) notes how Yucatan birth attendants learn their
profession through the structured observation of more experienced practitioners. Their apprenticeship
proceeds with little or no separation between daily working life and the learning of midwifery. These
kinds of learning experiences, which are essential to their social practices and communities, would be
categorised by many as being ‘informal’. However, they are highly structured and formalised by
community’s norms and practices.
Nevertheless, the structuring of these experiences does not obviate unintended learning
occurring. As is proposed below, unintended learning can still occur that is a product of these
experiences but does not reflect the kinds of values and practices that were intended to be secured
through practice. For instance, Hodges (1998) reports that what she learnt in a teacher education
course was quite contrary to what was intended. Moreover, and importantly, the learning arising for
these activities is not necessarily concrete --- wedded to circumstances of their construction --- as they can
incite adaptable learning. Rogoff (1982) and Rogoff and Gauvain (1984) concluded that the potential
for transfer from these kinds of activities was as great as that from schooling. The development of
what Vygotsky (1978) refers to as scientific, rather than everyday concepts, is not dependent on
whether they were learnt in a school or not, but whether the concepts were made accessible or not
(Glassman 2001). So assumptions about the concreteness of learning arising from participation in
social practices other than educational institutions need to be critically appraised, particularly in light
of the crisis of transfer claimed to be occurring with learning from educational institutions (e.g.
Raizen 1994). In sum, although concerned with continuity of practice rather than individual learning,
the structuring of workplace activities is often inherently pedagogic. Their pedagogic qualities are
shaped by participatory practices: that is how individuals engage in the inter-psychological process of
thinking-acting-learning through workplace activities.
Constituting workplace participation
Workplaces constitute participatory practices (Engestrom & Middleton 1996, Suchman 1996). The
norms and practices often structure how individuals participate in work. Given the salience of access
to the kinds of activities individuals engage in and guidance by more experienced co-workers, how
the workplace affords these opportunities is key to the quality of learning through participation.
Workplace factors structure and distribute opportunities for participation and, hence, the prospects for
learning. Seniority in workplaces (Dore & Sako 1989) and work demarcations (Danford 1998), as
well as internal and external competition, restructuring and redeployment all likely influence the bases
of access to work-tasks and guidance, particularly prized opportunities for individual advancement or
continuity. Workplace cliques, affiliations, gender, race, language or employment standing and status
also influence the distribution of opportunities to participate (Bernhardt 1999, Billett 2001c, Darrah
1996, Hull 1997). Hence, workplace participatory practices are often contested. Indeed, contestation
seems an enduring feature of work practice, whether it is between ‘newcomers’ or ‘old-timers’ (Lave
& Wenger 1991), full or part-time workers (Hughes & Bernhardt 1999); teams with different roles
and standing in the workplace (Darrah 1996, Hull 1997); between individuals’ personal and
vocational goals (Darrah 1997) or among institutionalized arrangements such as those representing
workers, supervisors or management (Danford 1998). This contestation can determine the distribution
of opportunities for engaging in novel activities (from which new learning might be derived) and
access to close guidance by more expert co-workers. Those inhibited or excluded from engaging in
new tasks and denied access to goals and understandings will likely have more restricted learning
outcomes than those invited to participate more fully (Billett 2000). In these ways, the workplace’s
norms and values shape and distribute opportunities for participation and, therefore, opportunities to
learn. That is, they structure the participatory practice of the workplace, and shape how the continuity
of practice is directed. However, these values and practices may well be organised to maintain the
status and standing of one group of workers (e.g. full-time workers) at the expense of another (e.g.
part-time workers). Workplace practices may also reflect employers’ attempts to limit the range of
tasks and decision-making that workers engage in, in order to maintain the employers’ control of the
workplace’s activities (Danford 1998). Therefore, the bases for maintaining continuity of practice may
be complex and contested. Certainly, the tensions between the participatory needs of the individual
and the workplace goal of sustaining current norms and practices arise through participation in social
practices (Billett & Boud 2001).
Constituting workplace requirements for performance and its acknowledgment
What constitutes workplace performance and its acknowledgment is also shaped within workplaces.
Situational factors constitute what passes as appropriate performance. The requirement for
performance is not a historical (phylogenetic) or socio-cultural given, it is also situationally
constituted (Billett 2001b). As judgments about work performance will be made in the circumstances
of its enactment, there is no such thing as a vocational expert per se. What is taken as expertise in one
workplace might be judged inappropriate in another. Moreover, beyond its constitution, how
performance is acknowledged and rewarded in the workplace is also determined situationally. In
Darrah’s (1996) computer manufacturing company, the ‘heroes’ were those who worked in the
systems design area. These workers received accolades and support of a kind that was quite different
from what was extended to the production teams, even though their work was as demanding and
central to the company’s continuity as that of the system designers. In hairdressing salons, it was
acceptable for an experienced hairdresser or owner/manager to give a treatment outside the salon’s
practice, but a novice would be admonished for doing the same.
In sum, the bases for participation and learning in workplaces are constituted by the goals,
activities and culture of the work practice (Brown et al. 1989), or what Suchman (1996) refers to as
local negotiations and Engestrom and Middleton (1996) refer to as local orderings. This structuring
often has inherently pedagogical qualities focused on continuity through participant learning, and
extends to constitute how and what is valued as effective workplace practice. Together, the bases
advanced above suggest that describing workplace learning as ‘informal’ or ‘unstructured’ is far from
accurate or helpful.
Learning as a negotiated and reciprocal process
The third proposition refers to the unqualified use of the term ‘informal learning’, which limits
understanding both learning through work, and learning more generally. To describe the process of
learning as being either ‘informal’ or ‘formal’ suggests either an irreducible relationship between the
circumstances in which the learning occurs and changes in individuals, or that it is possible to
approximate that learners engage in a qualitatively different way in different kinds of social practice.
That is, that the kinds of circumstances determine the kind of learning that occurs (i.e. those that are
‘formal’ and those that are ‘informal’). Both views promote situational (social) determinism and de-
emphasise the role of human agency in the construction and further development of their knowledge.
Even the most structured learning experiences can only shape individuals’ learning. Therefore, it is
probably neither helpful nor precise to describe learning outcomes solely on the basis of the
structuring of learning experiences. Wertsch (1998) notes how unwelcome social press may lead to a
kind of learning, which he refers to as mastery, that is a superficial learnt response to that press. He
distinguishes this kind of learning from appropriation where individuals embraces as their own the
knowledge to be learnt. Knowledge constructed through mastery is less likely to be exercised
voluntarily, as what is appropriated. In considering these relations, Valsiner (1994) refers to the
relatedness between the values of the social practice and those of the individual as a basis for the
relations between the individual and social practice. So much of the learning that arises may be
unintentional – different from what is reflected in the workplace’s norms and practices and intended
by the workplace.
So, despite the many contributions to learning arising from participation in social practice,
individuals’ learning is not socialisation or enculturation. Individual agency also shapes engagement
in work practice and what is learnt (Billett & Boud 2001). Socially constituted personal histories or
ontogenies (Cole 1998, Scribner 1985) likely premise this engagement, which result in particular
ways of knowing ---- understanding and engaging with the social world. These ontogenies are
uniquely socially-shaped through participation in different social practices throughout life histories
(Billett 1998). Consequently, individuals’ learning will always be unique in some ways, because, as
Valsiner (1994) and (Valsiner & van de Veer (2000) propose, knowledge is co-constructed:
reciprocally between the individual and the social experience. Likewise, Meade (1934) also views
cognition as an ongoing process of negotiating with the social world in which individuals engage.
Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that individuals dis-identify with the social practice in which
they engage (Hodges 1998); workers elect not to engage in team work when it clashes with their
cultural more (Darrah, 1997), workers resist training which they believe to be compromising and new
recruits ignore and deny affordances intended to assist their participation (Billet 2001a). The tensions
here are between continuity as goals for learning: those of the social practice versus those of
individuals who participate in those practices.
While acknowledging the contribution of the workplace to shaping the activities individuals
engage in and the support they are able to access, it is imprecise to describe the process of learning
that occurs as a result of those encounters wholly in terms of the circumstances in which it occurs (i.e.
‘informal’ or ‘formal’). Such descriptions de-emphasise the co-constructive inter-psychological
processes between what is afforded by the evolving work practice and how learning is construed
ontogenically. This helps clarify the need for terms other than ‘informal’ or ‘formal’ in characterising
the relations between the circumstances in which individuals engage in activities the consequences for
their thinking, acting and learning. Analogously, the relations between workplace participatory
practices and individuals’ engagement are those that shape learning through work can be thought of
being co-participative. These relations are founded, at least in part, on the relatedness of the goals of
continuity between the individual and the work practice. Hence, participation and participatory
practices may constitute more satisfying conceptual basis to understand this learning.
In sum, it is not helpful to describe or discuss learning in workplaces using discourses and
concepts drawn uncritically from practice within educational institutions. Instead, the core of
workplace pedagogic practices may be understood through a consideration of reciprocal participatory
practice at work, which include the tensions between the goals of individuals continuity as
ontogenetic development and the continuity of the work practice including particular interests within
the workplace.
Workplaces as centres of inquiry
It is worth concluding with a brief consideration of the contributions that inquiries into learning in
workplaces can make to understanding further human cognition and development. A focus on
practice, participation and engagement in social practice and continuity as ontogeny and changing
social practice offers alternative bases for considering both cognition and pedagogy. These
alternatives include advancing propositions about learning unencumbered from assumptions about
direct relations between teaching and learning. Perhaps the most central concern in contemporary
discussions about cognition is to understand the enduring problem of relations between individuals
and the social world (Valsiner & van de Veer 2000). So the conceptual significance of examining
participation at work can be seen as illuminating relations between the social world and the mind at
intersections between the trajectories of the transforming social practice of the workplace and
individuals’ ontogenetic development as they engage in work. Rather than proposing the mind as
either individual or social, it can be conceptualised as a complex of relations between the two. Here,
the relations are seen in terms of participatory practices or engagement founded in intersections
between the ontogeny (which is socially derived) and the social practice, and in associations between
the continuity or sustaining the two. Workplace practices and affordances, like those in other kinds of
social practice (e.g. school, home) are dynamic, as their tasks, goals, interactions, participants and
relations are likely to be constantly changing. Moreover, the kinds of inter-psychological encounters
that Vygotsky (1978) proposed as leading to intra-psychological outcomes are not the product of
single interactions. Rather, they are ongoing and iterative interactions, which likely change in their
qualities of interdependence and purpose as, for instance, there is a need to learn novel tasks, or at
different stages in individuals’ working lives. Rather than being a once-off source of knowing,
participation needs to be enduring in order to learn richly as well as remain engaged with the changing
requirements for practice.
Procedurally, participatory practices provide useful bases to discuss and appraise learning
through work. Their utility arises because of close associations: (i) between engagement in goal-direct
activities and learning; (ii) the centrality of access to activities and guidance in inter-psychological
processes to access knowledge that has a historical, cultural genesis; and (iii) the need to account for
the agency of individuals. As with any learning environment, workplaces’ contributions have
strengths and weaknesses. Access to activities and guidance through work can render learning
opportunities either rich or poor. The participatory factors that make available and distribute these
opportunities are not benign, they are distributed on bases that reflect the influence of workplace
cliques, affiliations and relationships that are concerned to maintain their standing. The dangers of
superficial learning and poor conceptual development are not reserved for educational institutions
(e.g. Raizen 1994), as they also beggar the outcomes of learning through work. As with educational
institutions, there remains an abiding concern that learning arising from workplace experiences may
be fragile and not readily adaptable to new situations and circumstances. All this suggests that a
workplace pedagogy is needed urgently in order to generate effective (robust) workplace learning.
The urgency can be located in the demands of learning throughout working lives being increasingly
directed towards individuals who may be ill-placed to secure that development in contested
workplaces that may resist their efforts at continuity of practice.
Acknowledgement. I would like to acknowledge the useful and constructive contributions made by the
Please note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at Context, Power and perspective: Confronting the
Challenges to Improving Attainment in Learning at Work. Joint Network/SKOPE/TLRP International workshop
November 2001, Sunley Management Centre, University College of Northampton
Anderson, J. R. (1993) ‘Problem solving and learning’ American Psychologist, 48 (1) pp.35-44
Anderson, J. R. (1982). ‘Acquisition of cognitive skill’ Psychological Review, 89 (4), pp. 369-406.
Berhhardt, A. (1999) The future of low-wage jobs: Case Studies in the retail industry. Institute on
Education and the Economy Working paper No 10 March 1999.
Billett, S. (2001a) Learning in the workplace: Strategies for effective practice. Allen and Unwin,
Billett, S. (2001b) Knowing in practice: Re-conceptualising vocational expertise Learning and
Instruction 11 (6) .pp. 431-452
Billett, S. (2001c) Learning throughout working life: Activities and interdependencies. Studies in
Continuing Education
vol 23 (1) pp.19-35
Billett, S. & Boud, D. (2001) Participation in and guided engagement at work: Workplace pedagogic
practices. 2nd International Conference on Learning and Work, pp. 321-328, Calgary 26-28
July 2001
Billett, S. (2000) ‘Guided learning at work’ Journal of Workplace learning
. 12 (7) 272-285.
Billett, S. R. (1998) ‘Situation, Social systems and learning’ Journal of Education and Work. 11 (3)
pp. 255-274
Billett, S. (1996) ‘Towards a model of workplace learning: the learning curriculumStudies in Continuing
Education. 18 (1) pp. 43-58
Billett, S. (1993) ‘What's in a setting --- learning in the workplace’ Australian Journal of Adult and
Community Education 33 (1) pp. 4-14
Brown J. S. Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989) ‘Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning’
Educational Researcher 18 (1) pp. 32-34
Childs, C. P. & Greenfield, P. M. (1980) ‘Informal modes of learning and teaching: the case of
Zinacanteco weaving’ Advances in cross-cultural psychology Ed. N.Warren vol. 2. Academic
Press, London
Cole, M. (1998) ‘Can cultural psychology help us think about diversity?’ Mind, Culture and Activity
5 (4) pp. 291-304
Collins, A., Brown J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: teaching the crafts of
reading, writing and mathematics. In L.B. Resnick, (ed
) Knowledge, learning and instruction,
essays in honour of Robert Glaser. (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, N.J: Erlbaum & Associates
Danford, A. (1998) ‘Teamworking and labour regulation in the autocomponents industry’ Work,
Employment & Society 12 (3) pp. 409-431
Darrah, C. N. (1996) Learning and work: An exploration in Industrial Ethnography Garland
Publishing, NY
Darrah, C (1997), ‘Complicating the concept of skill requirements: Scenes from a workplace’, In (G.
Hull (ed.), Changing work, Changing workers: Critical perspectives on language, literacy
and skills. New York: CUNY Press.
Dore, R. P. & Sako, M. (1989) How the Japanese learn to work Routledge, London
Engestrom, Y. & Middleton, D. (1996) Introduction: Studying work as mindful practice. In Y
Engestrom & D. Middleton (Eds.), Cognition and Communication at Work. (pp.1-15).
Cambridge: CUP
Ericsson, K. A., & Lehmann A. C. (1996) ‘Expert and exceptional performance: Evidence of maximal
adaptation to task constraints’ Annual Review of Psychology, 47, pp. 273-305.
Evans, G. (1993). Institutions: formal or informal learning? Keynote address presented at the
International Conference: After Competence: the future of post-compulsory education and
Training. Brisbane, 1-3 December, 1993
Glassman, M. (2001) ‘Dewey and Vygotsky: Society, Experience, and Inquiry in Educational
Practice’ Educational Researcher 30 (4) pp. 3-14
Goodnow, J. J. (1996) Collaborative rules: how are people supposed to work with one another. In P B
Baltes & U M Staudinger (eds) Interactive minds: Life span perspectives on the social
foundations of cognition. (pp163-197), Cambridge, UK, CUP
Hodges, D. C. (1998) ‘Participation as dis-identification with/in a Community of practice’ Mind,
Culture and Activity, 5 (4), pp. 272-290
Hull, G. (1997) ‘Preface and Introduction’ Changing work, Changing workers: Critical perspectives
on language, literacy and skills ed. G. Hull, State University of New York Press, New York
Hutchins, E. (1983) ‘Understanding Micronesian navigation’ Mental Models Eds D. Genter & A.
Stevens (pp. 191--225) Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey
Hutchins E., & Palen L. (1997) Constructing meaning from spaces, gesture, and speech. In L. B.
Resnick, C. Pontecorvo & R. Saljo (Eds.), Discourse, Tools and Reasoning: Essays on
Situated Cognition. (pp.23-40). Berlin: Springer
Jordan, B. (1989) ‘Cosmopolitan obstetrics: Some insights from the training of traditional midwives’
Social Science and Medicine vol. 289, pp. 925-44
Lave J. (1993) The practice of learning. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding Practice:
Perspectives on Activity and Context
(pp. 3-32). Cambridge: CUP
Lave, J. (1990) The culture of acquisition and the practice of understanding. In J. W. Stigler, R. A.
Shweder & G. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural Psychology (pp. 259-86). Cambridge: CUP
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning - legitimate peripheral participation
Cambridge; CUP
Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. (1990) Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London:
Meade, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self & Society: Works of George Herbert Meade (volume 1) Chicago.
University of Chicago Press
Pelissier, C. (1991) ‘The anthropology of teaching and learning’ Annual Review of Anthropology, 20, pp.
Prawat, R. S. (1993) The value of ideas: Problems versus possibilities in learning. Educational
Researcher, 22 (6), pp. 5-16
Raizen, S. (1994) Learning and work: The research base. In Vocational Education and Training for
youth: Towards coherent policy and practice. Paris: OECD
Resnick, L. (1987) ‘Learning in school and out’. Educational Researcher, 16 (9), pp. 13-20
Rogoff B. (1995) `Observing sociocultural activities on three planes: participatory appropriation, guided
appropriation and apprenticeship’, Sociocultural studies of the mind Eds. J.V. Wertsch, P. Del
Rio & A. Alverez (pp. 139-164) Cambridge: CUP
Rogoff, B. (1982) ‘Integrating context and cognitive development’ Advances in developmental
psychology vol. 2 Eds M.E. Lamb & A.L. Brown (pp. 125--170) Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New
Rogoff, B. & Gauvain, M. (1984) ‘The cognitive consequences of specific experiences - weaving versus
schooling among the Navajo’ Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 15 (4) pp. 453-475
Rogoff, B. & Gardner, W. (1984) Adult Guidance of Cognitive Development, in Rogoff B & Lave J (eds)
Everyday Cognition - its development in social context, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press
Scribner, S. (1997/1988) Mental and manual work: An activity theory orientation. In E. Tobah, R. J.
Falmagne, M. B. Parlee, L. M. Martin & A. S. Kapelman (Eds.), Mind and Social Practice:
Selected Writings of Sylvia Scribner
. (pp 367-374).Cambridge: CUP
Scribner, S. (1985) Vygostky's use of history. In J. V. Wertsch (ed). Culture, communication and
cognition: Vygotskian perspectives
(pp. 119-145). Cambridge: CUP
Scribner, S. (1984) ‘Studying working intelligence’ Everyday cognition: Its development in social context
Eds. Rogoff, B. & Lave, J. (pp. 9--40). Cambridge, Mass.Harvard University Press
Shuell, T. J. (1990) ‘Phases of meaningful learning’ Review of Educational Research
, 60 (4), pp. 531-547
Suchman, L. (1996) Constituting shared workspaces. In Y. Engestrom & D. Middleton (Eds.), (1996)
Cognition and Communication at Work. (pp.35-60). Cambridge, UK: CUP
Valsiner, J. (1994) ‘Bi-directional cultural transmission and constructive sociogenesis’
Sociogenesis re-
examined Eds Graaf & R. Maier (pp. 101--134) Springer, New York
Valsiner, J. & van der Veer, R. (2000)
The Social Mind: The construction of an idea. Cambridge CUP
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society - the development of higher psychological processes
. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press
Wertsch, J.W. (1998) Mind as action New York: Oxford University Press
... However, some scholars are not convinced about treating workplace learning as 'informal' or 'formal'. Among such scholars, Billett (2002) is among the most influential thinkers who advocate that workplace-related learning should be understood as 'participatory practices' (p. 56), which comprises learning and workplace pedagogy. ...
... According to Billett (2002), different activities occurred in the workplace are determined by historical, cultural, and situational factors. These elements also determine the extent and dimension of learning. ...
... Thus, according to Billett (2002), workplace learning is "often inherently pedagogical" (p. 59). ...
Full-text available
In the context of underdeveloped countries, where the informal economy prevails, dimensions of informal skills learners—workers with relatively low educational qualifications and working in informal work-settings—are enormous in the total national employment. However, this is a scantly researched area. This qualitative case study explores how such learners learn and develop skills and progress in their occupational life in Nepal. The study explores the following questions: 1) How do informal skills learners acquire their skills? 2) How do informal skills learners experience the drivers and barriers in skills learning? and 3) How do informal skills learners develop occupational skills at the workplace? Following Robert Yin’s qualitative case study approach, I designed the research. I observed small-sized enterprises of four different occupations—pottery, metalcraft, two-wheeler mechanics, and fast food—located in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. The study had 17 informal skills learners from those occupations as the research participants. I interpreted the information obtained from the field based on learning theories, particularly the workplace learning theory of Knud Illeris. The study concluded that the primary process of skills learning is the herne/sunne-sochne-garne-saparne [see/listen-think-do-improve], but not as a linear process that relies on some specific skills learning approaches. The study explored that informal skills learners use mainly two learning approaches. The first is reflection and action, including observation, memorization, imitation, and performing trial and error. The second is social interaction, including feedback. The research also found that informal skills learners face multiple drivers and barriers to skills learning, mainly related to the organization or their personal characteristics and situation. Overall, the study concluded that informal skills learning is a gradual process of skills development and occupational progression that passes through different learning phases—entry or orienting, skilling, improving, and mastering. Finally, the study presents a dynamic model of informal skills learning and development as a primary knowledge contribution of the research. Keywords: informal skills learning, learning drivers and barriers, TVET
... Elsewhere , Hodkinson and Colley 2005, we have developed this analysis to argue that it is profoundly problematic to construct discrete categories of formal, informal and non-formal learning. We agree with Billett (2002) that to reify discrete categories of formal and informal/ non-formal learning is to misunderstand dangerously the nature of learning. In particular, it leads us to ignore the social structures and covert formalities of power relations that exist in community and workplace settings. ...
... Thus, interest in the category of 'non-formal learning' may stem from growing dissatisfaction with over-rigid classifi cations of formal and informal types of learning, and a desire to engage intellectually and practically with their actual interpenetration (e.g. Eraut 2000, Schugurensky 2000, Billett 2002. But there is also a discernible change in the political dimension today with the intensifi cation of economic instrumentalism in educational policy. ...
... E-portfolios have a number of advantages over traditional portfolios, including accessibility, ease of duplication and storage, constant updating, and the possibility to add hyperlinks, audio and video data that provide a more dynamic presentation of the content (Koraneekij and Khlaisang 2019). Billett (2002) proposes that learning at work occurs through participating in work-related activities. These activities play a central role in our definition of professional learning. ...
Full-text available
This study was conducted in Cebu Technological University Main and Extension campus. It is a descriptive-developmental research that utilized survey questionnaires and content analysis. A purposive sampling identifying AACCUP Area 2 accreditors, task force and focal person. Frequencies, percentage and weighted mean were used as data treatment. Assessed the acceptability of developed Faculty E-Portfolio for Record Management System of Cebu Technological University – Main and Extension Campus, Cebu, Philippines. Identifies the information related and the AACCUP Area 2 Faculty parameters as basis of development of Faculty E-Portfolio for Record Management system. The acceptability of the developed Faculty E-Portfolio based on technology acceptance model. It also identifies the barriers and challenges in implementation of the Faculty E-Portfolio for Record Management System. Based on the findings of the study, it can be concluded that the Cebu Technological University Main and Extension Campus needs an information system that focuses on the record management of AACCUP Area 2 in Faculty parameter. The study also revealed that the technology adaption of Faculty E-Portfolio for Record Management System is recommended.
... Both these kinds of social practices are constituted historically, culturally and situationally … and share a common concern with continuity of practice. (Billett 2002: 56-57) Arguing that it is false to classify learning in educational institutions as formal and learning in workplaces as informal, with the latter valorized over the former as in some socio-cultural approaches, or the former over the latter as in traditional accounts (Billett 2002), allows Billett to focus on the quality of the social practices in each case, and the extent to which they facilitate learning. 8 This is helpful, because it provides a basis for critiquing many practices that pass as workplace learning and to argue that not all workplaces are good locations for learning, a problem which is rarely considered in many other situated learning accounts. ...
Different realist approaches have emerged as important positions within the sociology of education in theorizing the aims, purposes and structure of curriculum. This article discusses the philosophy of critical realism, Margaret Archer's social realist morphogenetic approach, the social realist school within the sociology of education, and transactional realism. It argues that: access to a knowledge-rich curriculum is a precondition for democracy; that the pursuit of truth about a real social and natural world is a normative goal of curriculum; and, that knowledge is fallible but that there are criteria through which it can be evaluated.
... Dabei sind direkte und indirekte Interaktionsformen zu unterscheiden. Bezogen auf die Interaktionen am Arbeitsplatz unterscheidet Billett (2002) zwei Formen der beratenden Interaktion zwischen Kolleginnen und Kollegen: die direkte Beratung durch Anleitungstätigkeiten und indirekte Arten der Beratung durch Gelegenheiten zum Beobachten und Zuhören. Beide Formen erleichtern den Zugang zu sozialem Wissen, bei denen direkte Anleitungsformen vor allem bei der Wissensvermittlung vordergründig sind. ...
Full-text available
Aktuelle Forschungsdiskurse zum Lernen in informellen und non-formalen Lernkontexten verdeutlichen einen Mangel berufsspezifischer Forschungsaktivitäten, die eine zielgruppengerechte und lernortübergreifende Gestaltung betrieblicher Gelegenheitsstrukturen ermöglichen. Gerade für Beschäftigte der Pflegeberufe gewinnen orts- und zeitflexible Lernaktivitäten aufgrund technischer, medizinischer, pandemischer und gesetzlicher Änderungen an Bedeutung, da regelmäßige Veränderungen und Neuerungen einen kontinuierlichen Wissenserwerb bedingen. Unklar bleibt,welche Charakteristika Lernaktivitäten in informellen und non-formalen betrieblichen Lernkontexten aufweisen, welche Einflussfaktoren die Wahrnehmung von Lernsituationen beeinflussen und inwiefern tätigkeitsbezogene Unterschiede in den Lernaktivitäten erkennbar sind. Bisherige Querschnittsanalysen gehen mit der Gefahr der Untererfassung von Lernaktivitäten am Arbeitsplatz einher und weisen infolge differenzierter Erhebungskonzepte eine geringe Vergleichbarkeit auf. Die längsschnittlichen Befunde der vorliegenden Studie ermöglichen eine detaillierte Beschreibung der Charakteristika und Einflussfaktoren der Lernsituationen in informellen und non-formalen betrieblichen Lernkontexten von Beschäftigten der Pflegeberufe. Grundlage des multimethodischen Untersuchungsdesigns bildet ein prozessorientiertes Lernverständnis, das verschiedene theoretische Erklärungsansätze miteinander vereint. In einem ersten Analyseschritt dienen 27 episodische Interviews dazu, arbeitsbezogene Lernsituationen der Beschäftigten der Gesundheitsberufe zu rekonstruieren. Die Ergebnisse der explorativen Vorstudie bilden die Grundlage für die Konzeption der Erhebungsinstrumente der Lerntagebuchstudie. In der 14-tägigen Längsschnittstudie werden differenzierte Lernsituationen von 40 Beschäftigten dermPflegeberufe erfasst. Die Befunde zeigen, dass Lernsituationen vornehmlich während dialogisch-interaktiver Tätigkeiten entstehen, wobei der Lernzuwachs eher unbewusst erfolgt. Insgesamt verweisen die Befunde auf die Dominanz fremdselektiver Prozesse. Demnach berichten Beschäftigte eher von Lernsituationen, wenn sie regelmäßig in den Austausch mit Kolleginnen und Kollegen treten, Zugang zu einem Desktop-Computer erhalten und digitale Endgeräte nutzen. Die Leitungsperson nimmt hierbei eine Schlüsselposition ein, da sie durch die Weitergabe der Arbeitsaufgaben auf die Lernförderlichkeit der Tätigkeiten der Beschäftigten wirkt. Aus den Ergebnissen der Studie werden Implikationen für die Forschung und Handlungsempfehlungen für die zukünftige lernförderliche Gestaltung der Arbeitsplätze der Pflegeberufe abgeleitet.
Full-text available
The web and learning have evolved parallel as technological changes have influenced teaching and learning processes. In this study, I intend to extend this parallel with two other dimensions, namely, human 1.0-3.0 and influencer 1.0-3.0. The concepts are closely related to how the online world became popular abroad and what their impact is on learning and education. Thus, the question, “what is the significance of social media, and of its latest, most popular actors, of the “work” of influencers (which can be interpreted as fake news) in the lives of students in higher education?”, is also a very pertinent issue to touch on. Its involvement in our lives is ever growing and very often influences our media literacy. This gives us even more reason to look into social media’s impact. However, our main goal is to find answers to the following questions: • What opportunities does the digital toolkit give to students? What kind of digital literacy do students think they need to thrive in the job market? • To what extent does the ICT literacy of pedagogical students differ from that of other students (lawyer, economics, doctor, technical)? What form of cognitive development is used for lifelong learning? • To what extent are students’ IT literacy influenced by cultural, material, and family capital? • How is information acquisition implemented in education? How conscious is the use of media among university students, and what is their critical attitude? • To what extent does online media penetrate the medium of formal-informal and non-formal learning? How does the influencer activity of professional opinion leaders help students to think critically and thoughtfully? The sample of the survey is made up of students from the University of Debrecen. From the results we can see, that university students behave differently in the online space, on social media platforms and on messengers than they would elsewhere, thus this affects how they get information. The current situation, the pandemic, clearly demonstrates that advanced digital competence is essential for a confident presence in the online space and advanced critical thinking. Problems of digital inequality and division have surfaced, and the constructed reality mediated by the media is becoming increasingly distorted. During this period, the relationship between the media and media consumers has changed greatly, and the interaction has intensified.
The initial source of motivation for this report was the national response to the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL) Report It’s All About Work (2013), and it addresses an issue that remains relevant to the current discussion about the creation of Professional and Technical Pathways to employment - the contribution that excellent vocational teaching and learning makes to the development of the forms of expertise that employers’ require and that facilitate learners’ continuing employability. In the course of discussions between the Gatsby Foundation and the research team the following rationale, focus and outcome was agreed. In the case of the former, to develop a conceptual framework to investigate vocational pedagogy that drew on insights from the academic and grey literature and, in the case of focus, to use that framework to investigate learning and teaching in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) programmes at Level 3 in a variety of SET contexts. In order to do so, it was recognised that it would be important for the research team to take account of the way in which colleges respond to known as well as emerging employer demand for SET skills.
In this meta reaction paper, I reflect on the initial paper by Wang and Doty (2022a), the two responses (Russ-Eft, 2022; Yoon, 2022), and the final response-to-respondents (Wang & Doty, 2022b). I focus on two observations that stood out for me, encompassing: (1) how HRD is defined; (2) what HRD should contribute to and to what extent the initial authors’ theorizing of HRD is actually “emancipatory.” First, I conclude that Wang and Doty’s systems perspective leaves little room for the individual agency and legitimate interests that various stakeholders have around the ways in which employee learning is organized. Connected with this, their treatment of “the mainstream HRD literature” is not convincing, which limits the rationale for and contribution of their own theorizing efforts. Second, I conclude that Wang and Doty’s work violates the ethical core of HRD and, moreover, falls short of being about “emancipatory theorizing” as they claim.
Full-text available
Excerpts available on Google Books. For more info, go to publisher's website :
Full-text available
John Dewey and L. S. Vygotsky share similar ideas concerning the relationship of activity and learning/development, especially the roles everyday activities and social environment play in the educational process. However, the two theorists are far apart in their conception of the relationship between process and goals in education. Dewey concentrates on means in education, believing that it is the ability of the individual to question through experience that is most important for the human community. Vygotsky, while recognizing the importance of (especially cultural) process in education, sees social and cultural goals as being integrated into social pedagogy. This paper compares Dewey and Vygotsky on three key points that relate directly to educational processes and goals. First, the two theorists are compared on the role of social history and the tools it produces. Dewey sees social history as creating a set of malleable tools that are of use in present circumstances. Vygotsky believes that tools developed through history have a far more lasting impact on the social community. Second, the two theorists are compared in their conceptualizations of experience/culture. Dewey sees experience as helping to form thinking, whereas Vygotsky, in his cultural historical theory, posits culture as the raw material of thinking. Third, the two theorists are compared on their perspectives on human inquiry. Dewey sees the child as a free agent who achieves goals through her own interest in the activity. Vygotsky suggests there should be greater control by a mentor who creates activity that will lead the child towards mastery. These differences are then explored in terms of how they might impact actual classroom strategies and curriculum.
Face-to-face communication in the workplace is often conceived of as consisting mainly of spoken language. Although spoken language is clearly a very important medium for the creation of representations, in complex work settings, it is one of several such media. Gestures and the space inhabited by speakers and listeners are normally thought of as providing context for the interpretation of speech. In this chapter we show how space, gesture, and speech are all combined in the construction of complex multilayered representations in which no single layer is complete or coherent by itself. We examine a brief explanation given by one worker to two others. We show how the meaning of the explanation is carried in the coordination among the spatial organization of specilized artifacts, the positioning of gestures with respect to those artifacts, and the words that are spoken.