|EUROPEAN CONFERENCE ON EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH*EERA*EDINBURGH
ECER CONFERENCE SESSION 12.01*22 SEPTEMBER 2000
Learning and work experience:
European perspectives on policy, theory and practice
Toni Griffiths, Director of Education and Professional Development, University College London, and David Guile, Lecturer in Higher Education, Lifelong Learning Group, Institute of Education, University of London
The research project on which this paper is based was developed in the context of the knowledge economy and the twin challenge of globalisation and regionalisation. It addresses the changing nature of work and the elusiveness of the true learning potential of work experience. The project has examined the processes of work experience in the light of: developments in learning theory, changes in the European labour market and national policies and trends in workplace requirements and organisation (Griffiths et al forthcoming). The project has been carried out under the EC Fourth Framework (Targeted Socio-Economic Research - TSER) under the title of Work Experience as an Education and Training Strategy: New approaches for the 21st. century and has prioritised the exploration of work experience as an informal (work-based) context of learning. It involved partners from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Denmark and Hungary. The project will be completed early in 2001 and a European research conference will be held on 2-3 February in London to discuss its findings.
The policy context: summary
The project’s policy studies have shown:
that progress in policy development appears framed as improvement in the quality of management arrangements, not learning process
that there is a failure to develop new frameworks – theoretical and conceptual – for relating learning in work-based contexts to formal education and training
that the multifunctionality of work experience falls short of capturing its learning potential, failing ultimately to be rooted in the knowledge that work is not solely a context which students learn about – but is also a context through which students can learn and develop.
that the difficulties experienced by policy makers in interpreting change and setting new developments in motion are confirmed and that they are exacerbated by the deep embedding of the academic/vocational divide, itself exacerbated by the ‘digital division’.
that these findings are in contradistinction to the easy consensus across the EU about the ‘value’ of work experience, despite the dearth of good evaluation studies, particularly of learning, and the fact that, for all the fresh thinking about work experience, the mainstream curriculum has remained largely unaffected – certainly in the UK but elsewhere in Europe too.
that the type of thinking devoted to ‘learning outcomes’ needs to be challenged. A narrow focus on outcome at the expense of the process of learning and the relationship between different types of learning (formal and informal) is at best counter-productive.
that the pressure to make work experience more widely available to young people has addressed new issues about skill development by relying on old models of learning in the workplace. Granville (1999) refers to the phenomenom of ‘innovation without change’, the capacity of a system to accommodate the rhetoric of reform within the culture and practice of the status quo.
Learning through work experience
The brief summary given above of the ‘policy context’ (Griffiths, Guile and Attwell forthcoming) provides the background to the project’s theoretical explorations of the following themes which have arisen recently as major topics of concern in socio-cultural learning theory. The themes are as follows: the question of ‘context’ – in the sense of the learning which occurs within and between different contexts of education and work; the question of ‘mediation’ – in particular, the process of mediation which can provide learners with the basis for connecting context-specific learning with ideas or practices originating outside those contexts; ‘boundary crossing’ - in the sense of re-examining and re-formulating questions about learning within and between the context of education and work; ‘consequential transitions’ - an individual, developmental process involving the full person, not just the acquisition of another skill; and the concept of ‘connectivity’.
The concept of context (Beach 1999; Engeström forthcoming; Hutchins 1995) and practice (Lave 1993; Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998) have in recent years become crucial to the debates about how students learn and develop through all forms of work-based activity. Up to now, however, most models of work experience have either ignored the influence of context upon learning or have approached this issue mechanistically (Guile and Griffiths 2001). In order to analyse the relationship between the learning which occurs within and between the different contexts of education and work, we discuss briefly the debate in contemporary learning theory about the way in which context helps to ‘shape’ learning and development. We go on to outline the typology of work experience developed through the TSER project which includes a new model of work experience – the connective model. Finally, we highlight through case study evidence how the connective model provides the basis for a productive and useful relationship between formal and informal learning.
Work as a context for learning and development
The reappraisal of the work of John Dewey (1981, 1986 and 1988) charted by Cole (1995), the recent interest in the affinities between Dewey’s and Vygotsky’s (1978) ideas about the social basis of learning (Prawat 1999), along with the growing influence of the cultural-historical school of psychology (itself influenced by the work of Vygotsky), has been very influential and has involved a revisiting of the question of context in contemporary debates about learning (Beach 1999).
Dewey emphasised the importance of not separating events and circumstances from their contextual whole: ‘in actual experience, there is never any such isolated object or event, an object or event is always a specific part, phase, or aspect, of an environment experienced world’ (Dewey 1986). This understanding that context is not fixed, well-defined and stable but is shaped by the relationships between people, their activity and the social world of which they form part is complemented by Vygotsky’s work and the work which it went on to influence. By placing the idea of mediation at the centre of the learning process, Vygotsky reconceptualised learning as a ‘complex mediated act’, a triad involving the subject (the individual), the object (the task or activity) and mediating artifacts (eg, communication and information technologies, books). Although they offer slightly different interpretations of Vygotsky, the ideas of situated learning (Lave and Wenger 1991), distributed cogntion (Hutchins 1997) and activity theory (Engestrom 1996b) have contributed to broadening the debate about the relationship between context, mediation and human development. These theories offer us different but complementary insights into the process of learning through work experience.
Lave and Wenger (1991) have demonstrated how, in fairly stable and well-bounded ‘communities of practice’, the process of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ enables individuals to acquire knowledge and skill through contact with more experienced others, while Hutchins (1997) has demonstrated how the learning of new tasks is mediated by many different types of structures distributed throughout different cultural settings. Engeström has concentrated on analysing how learning occurs in work situations which are not necessarily stable and well-bounded (Engeström et al 1995, Engeström et al 1996). His basic unit of analysis is the idea of an ‘activity system’, in other words, the complex interrelations between individuals and different workplace ‘communities’ or ‘networks’ which are influenced by the division of labour and workplace rules and procedures. Engeström argues that workers are increasingly expected to act as ‘boundary crossers’ between ‘activity systems’, in other words, to possess the ability to contribute to the development of new forms of social practice and to produce new forms of knowledge. According to Engeström, this involves learning how to contribute to the transformation of work contexts, an issue rarely raised in the work experience literature.
Lave’s and Wenger’s, Hutchins’ and Engeström’s analyses of the interrelationship between context and practice raise interesting questions, including the question of how easily students gain access to and operate in such work contexts. A recurring assumption in the general education and VET work experience literature is that this happens ipso facto. However, this neglects the extent to which participating in a ‘community of practice’ can be highly problematic. As Ghererdi et al (1998) have observed, it requires ‘host’ organisations actively to provide opportunities for learners to observe, discuss and try out different practices with members of the ‘community’ they have temporarily joined.
As we demonstrate through our case study evidence, participating in workplace ‘communities of practice’ raises serious questions for the providers of work experience about, first, the extent to which the ‘host’ organisation enables students to participate in interacting with more knowledgeable others in the workplace ‘zone of proximal development’ – something which may well depend upon its Human Resource Development strategy (Guile forthcoming). Second, the need for education and training providers of work experience to recognise that students need to learn in ways different to those in which they learn at school or college (Beach and Vyas 1998) and that students do not easily accomplish these methods of learning, partly because these types of ‘horizontal development’ are not easily reconciled with conventional ideas about ‘vertical development’ and run counter to school experiences. This calls for careful mediation. Consequently, Lave and Wenger, Hutchins and Engeström’s ideas suggest that new questions should be asked about how students learn through work experience provided as part of their general education or VET. It is thus important to explore how work experience can provide (i) a context for participating in ‘communities of practice’ and learning how to develop the ability to act as a ‘boundary crosser’ and (ii) a means of re-examining and re-forming the relationship between work experience and formal programmes of study.
The relevance of these issues for work experience is gradually being recognised elsewhere in Europe. In a report of the LCVP research and evaluation project in Ireland, Granville (1999) has criticised the dominant interpretation of ‘transfer’ in the education systems as stressing ‘the degree to which a behaviour will be repeated in a new situation’. In contrast to this restricted conception, he refers to the concept of consequential transitions (Beach 1999) which recognises an extra dynamic in the process, one which must involve the exploration of new territory for which pre-learned response and solutions are unavailable. Consequential transitions involve the construction of new knowledge, identities and skills through transformation (rather than the application or use) of something that has been acquired elsewhere. A transition of this form involves a notion of progress and is best understood as a developmental process. Such transitions may involve changes in identity as well as changes in knowledge and skill. In other words, they are processes that involve the full person and not just learned attributes or techniques.
Conceptualising approaches to work experience
A typology of work experience
Drawing on the theoretical explorations within the TSER project, we outline five different approaches to or models of work experience which embody changing responses to policy, to the learner, to skills needed and to pedagogy. This conceptual framework deploys a ‘five-by-five matrix’. The horizontal axis identifies five different models of work experience:
1. The traditional model of work experience: ‘launching’ students into the world of work.
2. The experiential model: work experience as ‘co-development’.
3. The generic model: work experience as an opportunity for key skill assessment.
4. The work process model: a strategy to assist students in ‘attuning’ to the context of work.
5. The connective model: a form of reflexive learning.
The vertical axis identifies five main features of the models:
1. The purpose of work experience (ie, the reason for providing the work experience).
2. The assumptions about learning and development (ie, the ideas about pedagogy and learning in workplaces).
3. The practice of work experience (ie, the extent to which practice is seen as divorced from context).
4. The role of the education and training provider (ie, the pedagogic strategies employed to support students in learning).
5. The outcome of the work experience (ie, the form of knowledge, skill or broader capabilities that students have developed).
The first four of the five models reflect the influence of different economic, technological and social factors prevailing within European countries as well as different ideas about learning and development. Although the models may be specific to different periods of economic and technological development and reflect changing educational ideas about the process of learning, as the final report from the TSER team indicates (Griffiths et al forthcoming), they do co-exist in different countries. They are analytical rather than descriptive; no specific work experience programme fits neatly into any of the models and some programmes may contain elements of more than one model. The fifth model presents a new approach to work experience which is based upon the principle of connectivity and takes account of the theoretical considerations discussed here. It displays innovatory features which are relevant to future approaches to effective learning through work experience and provides a basis for different explorations (Herlau, Krarup and Rasmussen 2000).
Typology diagram (attached) to be inserted here.
1. The traditional model of work experience: ‘launching’ students into the world of work
This model reflects the tendency in (i) apprenticeship-based work experience programmes to mould and adapt students’ skills in workplaces (Vickers 1995, Stern and Wagner 1999a, 1999b); and (ii) school-based work experience schemes, which were introduced in the UK in the 1970s, to assume that students unconsciously or automatically assimilate relevant workplace knowledge, skills and attitudes and internalise the implications of occupational changes occurring in the workplace (Watts 1983). This emphasis upon both adaptation and assimilation in the traditional model of work experience is a distinctive feature of a technical-rational perspective on education and training. Students engaged in work experience have often been viewed as ‘containers’ (Lave 1993) into which various forms of social interaction can be ‘poured’ and it has been assumed that knowledge and skills can be taught quite separately from the context of their use.
These assumptions about learning are consistent with what Kindermann and Skinner (1992) have termed a ‘launch’ perspective on the relationship between people and their environment. In other words, it is the initial learning situation (school, college or vocational training centre) which largely determines what a person will do in a new situation: the earlier learning determines the trajectory of later learning, with the environmental influence being fairly minimal. Thus, from this perspective, the prime purpose of traditional models of work experience has been to ‘launch’ students into the world of work
Conceptualising work experience simply as ‘launch’, however, leaves little incentive to develop a theory of how students learn and develop through work experience (McNamarra 1991, Granville 1999) and this has helped to maintain the divisions between formal and informal learning and academic and vocational education (Lasonen and Young 1998).
2. The experiential model: work experience as ‘co-development’
This model reflects the view expressed in many American and European approaches that all stages and phases of education should be made ‘relevant’ to students and that there should be a more problem-based approach to education and greater use of inquiry-based models of teaching and learning (Prawat 1993).
In the case of work experience programmes, it has resulted in the development of models of work experience which were based on a version of experiential learning. Specifically, Kolb’s idea of the experiential ‘learning cycle’ has been perceived in general education as providing a useful framework for understanding how students learn through work experience (Jamieson et al 1988, Miller et al 1991). One consequence of adopting this slightly broader perspective on work experience was that it placed the idea of a student’s interpersonal and social development at the forefront of the agenda for work experience (Miller et al 1991, Stern and Wagner 1999; Wellington 1993).
These attempts to take more explicit account of the actual trajectory of a student’s development resulted in greater dialogue and cooperation between education and workplaces. In many ways, they reflect Kindermann’s and Skinner’s notion of ‘co-development’ between interested parties (1992). This led to greater interest being displayed in ensuring that work experience took greater account of two issues in particular. The first issue was the need for educational institutions or intermediary agencies, such as education-business partnerships, to negotiate clear objectives for students, workplaces and schools/colleges in advance of the work experience (Griffiths et al 1992, Miller et al 1991). The second issue was the development of new pedagogic practices to assist students in identifying, possibly through the use of a de-briefing process after the work experience, the influence of the experience on personal and social development (Watts 1991).
Despite these pioneering developments, the mainstream curriculum in most EU countries was left broadly unaffected, with work experience effectively kept separate from it. Equally, the whole question of the relationship between theoretical study and work experience, even in countries with strong apprenticeship systems, was also left unresolved (Griffiths and Guile 1999).
3. The generic model: work experience as an opportunity for key skill assessment
One of the main educational debates in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s concerned the attempt to promote a greater sense of learner autonomy and self-discipline, particularly in low-attaining students, within general and vocational education programmes (Green et al 1999). These developments have led, in the UK in particular and, to a lesser extent, in other parts of Europe, to the emergence of what may be referred to as a ‘generic’ perspective on learning. By and large, this perspective is based on the idea that it is, first, more liberalising and egalitarian to adopt a system which attaches prime importance to the ‘outcome’, the result, and does not prescribe the form of learning necessary to gain a qualification (Jessup 1990). Second, it reflects the idea that an agreed series of common outcomes can be identified for any programme of study and on that basis it is possible to assess the learning that has occurred (Kamarainen and Streumer 1998). Despite being subject to considerable criticism about their behaviouristic (Ecclestone 1998) and mechanistic (Jones and Moore 1995) assumptions about learning, ‘learning outcomes’ have gradually become a feature of many work experience programmes.
In the case of work experience, the emphasis on student-centredness and learner-autonomy has been interpreted as planning a work experience placement and managing and evaluating the learning through the use of statements about ‘learning outcomes’ which are a part of a personal action plan (Miller 1996, Oates and Fettes 1997). The plan serves as a type of contract between the individual, the workplace and the educational institution, thus facilitating student self-assessment and external verification of key skill development within a workplace.
The idea of teacher/trainer-facilitated reflection, however, is problematic (Usher et al 1997). It rests on the assumptions (i) that ‘experiential learning’ is a natural category and (ii) that the ‘voice’ of an individual or community constitutes in some way authentic knowledge of a situation. As Moore and Muller (1999) argue, the idea of ‘experiential learning’ and ‘voice discourses’ are themselves endowed with theoretical assumptions. Accordingly, the meaning and significance of experience depends not only upon the experience as such but also on how and by whom it is interpreted (Brah and Hoy 1989).
By playing down the need for those in education or workplaces with responsibility for supporting the process of learning to explore with learners the extent to which experience is influenced by the constraints of its context, the generic model of learning has failed to accommodate the fact that leaners have to be immersed in ideas as well as in the world of experience. For example, using a scientific concept in a practical situation involves resituating it in a firm which fits the context (Guile and Young forthcoming). This is not a process of logical reasoning but rather of ‘mulling over’ the situation until ‘something seems to fit’ (Eraut 1999). It relies on the process of mediation being carefully managed to ensure that learners develop the basis for connecting their context-specific learning with ideas or practices which may have originated outside those contexts.
4. The work process model
One response to the classic problem of division between formal and informal learning that the other models have failed to address satisfactorily has emerged from within the German VET tradition. The concept of ‘work process knowledge’ - understanding the labour process in terms of product-related, labour organisational, social ecological and systems-related dimensions - has been introduced to assist apprentices and teachers in overcoming the dilemma of ‘inert knowledge’, that is, knowledge which has been taught but has not proved useful in practice (Kruse 1996).
The main distinguishing feature of the concept of ‘work process knowledge’ is that it draws attention to the combination of theoretical and practical learning which prepares apprentices to engage more rapidly with new organisational forms of production and enables them to move into alternative work environments more easily (Fischer and Stuber 1998).
The prime purpose of work experience, from this perspective, is to help students attune themselves more successfully to the changing context of work through the opportunity to participate in different communities of practice. The idea of ‘attunement’ recognises that the development of any individual is affected by the task or activities which he or she is asked to undertake in a specific context and that the context, in turn, is also affected by their development (Kindermann and Skinner 1992).
It has been noted, however, that work experience will not by itself promote work process knowledge and that it needs to be mediated - perhaps by the introduction of concepts, perhaps by subject knowledge, and that the process of mediation may take place within the workplace and company-training centres (Attwell and Jennes 1996). Thus, Attwell and Jennes conclude, in relation to the German VET programmes, that these programmes will have to be further evolved to help students connect formal and informal learning more explicitly.
5. The connective model
This model of work experience is based upon the idea of a ‘reflexive’ theory of learning (Guile 2001) which involves taking greater account of the influence of the context and the organisation of work upon student learning and development, the situated nature of that learning and the scope for developing ‘boundary crossing’ skills. It also entails developing new curriculum frameworks which enable students to relate formal and informal, horizontal and vertical learning.
The term, connectivity, defines the purpose of the pedagogic approach which would be required in order to take explicit account of the vertical and horizontal development of learning. Supporting students to understand the significance of these two dimensions of development constitutes a pedagogic challenge, albeit a rewarding one, for teachers in educational institutions as well as those with responsibility for development in the workplace. It involves encouraging students to understand workplaces as a series of ‘interconnected activity systems’ (Engeström forthcoming) which consists of a range of ‘communities of practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998) and ‘distributed resources’ (Hutchins 1997). In addition, it involves teachers and workplaces appreciating that work experience provides a range of very different ways of learning, compared with how students normally learn in school (Guile and Young forthcoming).
Consequently, learners, teachers and workplaces need to ensure that work experience, first, provides an opportunity for learners to ‘learn to negotiate how they learn’ in workplaces, since this is critical to effective workplace performance (Beach and Vyas 1998), as well as to learn the new capabilities that are gradually being required in ‘high-performance’ workplaces (Guile and Fonda 1999). Second, they need to support learners to appropriate concepts acquired through vertical development, and which are external to the context, and to mediate the relationship between their formal programmes of study and, for example, trends in labour and work organisation. Thus, learners not only have to develop the capacity to participate within workplace activities and cultures; they must also learn how to draw upon their formal learning and use it to interrogate workplace practices. Eraut (1999) suggests that this could involve: use of prior knowledge, seeing the relevance of concepts, resituating the concepts and integrating the new knowledge. These ideas about learning through work experience imply a reappraisal of human resource development strategies, as well as management and developmental practices, by ‘host’ organisations and of pedagogic practice by teachers, since students and workers have to learn how to enter unfamiliar territory and work collaboratively in different communities of practice.
One of the most significant implications of this re-conceptualisation of work experience is evident in relation to the question of the ‘transfer of learning’. Instead of viewing transfer as a matter of reapplying the knowledge and skill acquired in one context (a workplace) into another context (another workplace), it becomes more helpful to view transfer as a process of ‘boundary crossing’ (Beach 1999; Engeström and Terrtu-Grommi forthcoming). This reflects the recognition that students are likely to be engaged in a variety of different tasks and in different contexts and thus may come to demonstrate what Reder (1993) has referred to as ‘polycontextual skills’. Such an approach takes account of the fact that learning is a process both of self-organisation and enculturation (Cobb 1999) and that these processes occur while individuals participate in cultural practices, frequently while interacting with more knowledgeable others in the workplace ‘zone of proximal development’.
At one level, learning through work experience calls for the formation of new mediating concepts’ which assist learners in developing the forms of social interaction that support dialogic problem solving (Guile and Griffiths forthcoming). At another level, it involves learners in functioning as ‘connective specialists’ (Young 1998), using specialist knowledge and skill acquired in formal education to understand why certain types of performance are required in different work contexts and how to work with others to produce new knowledge. Thus, teaching and learning become more a product and process of interaction within and between contexts and the successful mediation of these relationships is based upon a recognition that learning involves the negotiation of learning as part of actual workplace experience.
Innovative practice in work experience
The idea of work experience as a form of practice
As the typology indicates, the concept of practice is central to understanding the learning and development that occurs through work experience. The idea of practice provides a way of analysing human cognition and development as an integral part of a larger system. It has a long and distinguished history in the social sciences (Bourdieu 1977, Wenger 1998) and is inextricably bound up with the idea of learning. Certainly, many accounts of practice emanating from cognitive psychology have stressed that one of its central features is the cognitive ability to acquire facts, knowledge, problem-solving strategies or metacognitive skills, while sociological accounts have tended to stress immersion in habitas, that is, cultural codes and conventions (Bourdieu 1977).
Recent work in socio-cultural learning theory, in particular, Activity Theory (Engeström forthcoming) and Situated Learning (Lave 1993, Lave and Wenger 1991, Hutchins 1995, Wenger 1998) has suggested, however, that it more helpful to view practice in relational terms. To begin with, this avoids treating the concept of practice and the context in which the practice is situated separately and allows both the macro-structural and personal process of construction to be taken into account (Lave 1993). Moreover, the development of practice is not simply a matter of solving problems through the application of cognitive skill; rather, it involves learning how to use the ‘resources’, which may reside in or be distributed across different contexts to develop understanding, identity, new knowledge and, ultimately, to transform practice (Hutchins 1997).
By specifically eschewing the assumption that students engaged in different forms of work-based practice can be viewed as ‘containers’ to be filled-up with relevant knowledge and skill (Lave 1993), it is possible to avoid assuming that the social practice in which students become involved automatically enables them either to assimilate relevant workplace knowledge, skills and attitudes or to internalise the implications of occupational changes occurring in the workplace, adapt to the ‘world of work’ and develop an occupational identity (Guile and Griffiths forthcoming). Further, a cautionary note is needed: namely, that mastery of a practice may not be possible solely through participating in that practice (Lemke 1997). It may be that full ‘membership’ entails participating in another ‘community of practice’ in order to be counted as having mastered the practices of the first community.
In the light of the above considerations and working from the insights of Engeström, Lave and Hutchins about practice, it is important to distinguish between the forms of practice, the meaning of practice and the historically constructed basis of practice. Forms of practice relate to the different types of vocational/professional practice (ie, ‘communities of practice’) in which students might participate, pedagogic practices which support learning through work experience and the forms of practice associated with different activity systems, which in turn help to shape the division of labour and rules which students encounter in workplaces. The meaning of practice reflects the idea that any form of practice has to be meaningful: (i) in terms of the activity system in which the practice is situated and (ii) for the individuals who are engaged in the practice. In the case of the historically constructed basis of practice, it is important to remain sensitive to the fact that all forms of practice are historically constructed activities which are constantly evolving and changing.
These distinctions alert us to the important relationship that exists between the context of education and the context of work. The Lave argument about learning stresses that mastery of practice is acquired by participating in specific forms of practice. However, as Lemke (1997) has observed, sometimes even full participation in practice is insufficient by itself to achieve full membership and understanding of that practice. For example, participation in the activities, rituals, etc. does not necessarily by itself reveal the esoteric meaning of practice. Sometimes, people have to be ‘schooled’ in the mysteries of practice, use formal education to explore the changing historical significance of practice in order both to be accepted as a member of a ‘community of practice’ and to develop the confidence to perform as a member of that community.
Because practices involve learning how to perform in different contexts, it is also important to bear in mind the earlier distinction between different interpretations of the concept of context in relation to work experience. One interpretation defined context as a pre-given object or condition or set of objects or conditions (with three different aspects: the organisational context, the production context and the changes occurring within context). The other interpretation reflected the idea that work and education are contexts through which students can learn and develop (Guile and Griffiths forthcoming). This distinction can be used help students appreciate that the meaningful actions in which people engage have what Lemke refers to as, ‘meanings of relations to one another in terms of a cultural system’. In other words, membership of a community of practice involves not only learning how to perform in one context but also what the performance means and how it might relate to other aspects of social or cultural life. We explore the significance of these issues in the Case Study below.
The Connective Model of Work Experience
The Connective Model of Work Experience is an attempt to formulate a model of work experience which does not restrict the focus of learning to the individual, seeking simply to identify development by describing the individual’s response to external stimuli. The Connective Model conceives the relation between people and the environment in terms of the complex processes of entrainment, coordination and resonance which characterise the interplay between practical activities in cultural contexts. The following Case Study helps to illustrate the principles of the Connective Model of Work Experience by exploring the practice of work experience in relation to the context where it takes place. In drafting the Case Study, we have endeavoured to identify the following four assumptions of ‘connectivity’. They are, first, that learning entails engaging in some from of activity that takes place in historically constructed social situations (Engeström forthcoming). The second is that the process of learning takes place in a mediated activity which occurs in a zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978). The third is the situated basis of learning (Lave and Wenger 1991). The fourth is that cognition is distributed across contexts (Hutchins 1997).
East Berkshire Further Education (FE) College and Legoland (Windsor)
In common with many other colleges of further education in England wanting to enhance the GNVQ framework though the provision of work experience, the Media Faculty at East Berkshire College attempted to use work experience to overcome the perceived limitations of the GNVQ framework (Helsby et al 1999, Hyland 1994; Hodkinson and Mattison 1995).
The Faculty is committed to providing students with a holistic curriculum which includes work experience. As a consequence, business partners have been identified who are prepared to work collaboratively with them and ‘host’ planned programmes of work experience. One of these partnerships is with Legoland.
The main aims of the partnership are to:
provide GNVQ Media students with the opportunity to develop their skills as journalists, as well as their practical media-based skills;
provide an insight into the ever-increasing application of media-based knowledge and skill within modern workplaces;
develop the capabilities of students to work in different organisational contexts (ie, as ‘boundary-crossers’) and thus support their future employability.
The practice of work experience
The work experience involves students producing Legoland’s Staff Newsletter. This newsletter is produced on a monthly basis and is distributed to all the full and part-time staff who work for Legoland. The work experience programme recurs throughout the year and this allows different cohorts of GNVQ Media students to produce each newsletter.
Producing the Newsletter not only involves students in researching and writing all the copy; they also have to learn how to work within Legoland’s corporate guidelines in order to design the final layout. Working on the Legoland site involves students developing their skills as ‘investigative’ journalists through talking to staff at all levels and identifying possible ‘human-interest’ ‘storylines’ for the forthcoming newsletter.
Producing the newsletter means that students need to have access to the College’s own internal Information and Communication Technology resources and involves liaising with staff in the Media Centre and at Legoland. Such contacts are invaluable in assisting students continually to improve their practical media-based skills and so enhance the design and layout of the newsletter so that it conforms to the publications criteria pre-set by the company.
The rotation arrangements which underpin the production of the newsletter enable a significant percentage of the GNVQ Media cohort to experience some form of ‘consequential transition’ (Beach 1999) by continually crossing the boundary between school and college and taking responsibility for varying their performance between two work contexts which are constantly evolving.
Developing this level of maturity can sometimes be quite painful. Some students report that it is much more daunting when Legoland’s staff point out the limitations of their work (eg, in relation to the content and layout of the newsletter) than it is when College staff make similar observations. Although the zone of proximal development that characterises the student-teacher relationship can be fraught with tensions, it still provides a space for students to ‘fail’ since it is accepted that their identity and expertise are constantly changing and developing. In contrast, once students enter Legoland, they are subject to the same type of demands that the company would place upon full-time staff and thus perceive that they are no longer in the comfort zone of ‘failing honourably’.
The process of mediation is supported through teachers encouraging students to apply the theoretical concepts and the technical skills that they have acquired through the formal component of their GNVQ programme in order to produce the newsletter. For example, each cohort of students is encouraged in tutorials to draw on their understanding of the idea of ‘target audience’, ‘register and tone’ and ‘sequencing’ of ‘storylines’ in order to draft copy that approximates to copy produced by a professional journalist.
One of the main ways in which students develop a more ‘connective’ perspective on the relationship between their formal and informal learning is by treating the production of the newsletter as though it were a ‘core occupational problem’ (Onstenk forthcoming). In other words, this would be the type of problem which might provide ideas as to how to tackle similar problems in future. Staff feel that this provides a spur for students to look beyond current practice and helps them shape how such problems could indeed be tackled in future.
Having opportunities to apply their conceptual knowledge to explain changes in journalistic practice is crucial and assists students in understanding the meaning of, for example, the practice of a journalist and in developing new knowledge about how the media industry or journalistic practice may change in the future. This provides students with a much stronger conceptual framework for developing the written assignments to be presented as part of their GNVQ Portfolios.
Working at Legoland has placed students in a position where they have to learn how to accept responsibility for their own actions as well as for the decisions they make when contributing to the production of the newsletter. Thus, in order to gain maximum benefit from the work experience, students have to demonstrate that they can respond positively to feedback about the need to redraft their own text or to amend their layouts in order to improve the quality of the newsletter. In this sense, they are modelling aspects of the practices associated with the role of ‘student’ and ‘trainee journalist’.
Students do not achieve this level of self-development and personal autonomy simply through their own capacity for autonomous self-directed learning or ‘learning-by-doing’. Staff at Legoland and the College have to collaborate in order to provide a supportive context, while students have to learn how to use effectively the learning resources (ie, mediating artefacts) which are distributed across two sites and which help to structure their learning. The learning and development which therefore occurs as a result of students moving from one context to another (ie, ‘horizontal development’) arises from the complex interplay between the students’ performance and the ‘environment for learning’ created by the Media Faculty and Legoland.
Creating environments for learning
One important element of this ‘environment’ is ensuring the students have access to a ‘learning curriculum’ (Lave and Wenger 1991). This concept emphasises that access to certain resources (such as people, networks technology) are an invaluable part of assisting students to become effective members of a ‘community of practice’, capable of developing greater degrees of independence. By providing students with access to the work site and the professional expertise of their Press Relations personnel, Legoland has recognised that ‘hosting’ a work experience involves staff actively in providing opportunities for students to observe best practice and to discuss and try out new practices with those members of the ‘community of practice’ which they have temporarily joined.
Unless students have access to a ‘learning curriculum’, it is very difficult for them to develop the capability to use the College and Legoland as dual ‘sites’ (ie, contexts) for learning. The opportunities to research, write and design an authentic media product in an environment not only provides them with a very effective simulation of the conditions they are likely to encounter once they leave College and take up full-time employment, either in the media industry or elsewhere; it also enables them to talk to and socialise with a diverse range of Legoland employees and thus enrich their grasp of the changing and uncertain nature of the practice of media work. In this sense, the actual experience of producing an authentic media ‘product’ helps students to develop ‘work-process’ knowledge,
Conclusion: the implications of designing and delivering the Connective Model
Supporting students to adopt a more ‘reflexive’ and ‘connective’ stance towards the relationship between their work experience and their formal study sets different challenges for educational institutions, companies and students themselves.
Educational institutions have to persuade companies to provide students with opportunities to participate in different ‘communities of practice’. In the case of East Berkshire College’s partnership with Legoland, the Media Faculty had to ensure that students would be able to work alongside members of Legoland’s Publicity and Corporate Relations department, Site Management etc. so that they could acquire the information and develop the expertise necessary to produce the Newsletter.
As a consequence, Legoland, as the ‘host’ organisation, had to ensure that staff who were supporting students’ ‘boundary crossing’ activities were: setting students stretching, but not unachievable, tasks; encouraging them to ask questions about work practices; and giving constructive feedback about their performance. This, in turn, involved Legoland’s own line managers in accepting responsibility for creating an environment which brought forth added value from all students as well as their own staff.
Educational institutions also have to be prepared to interrogate their own work practices. For example, having encouraged students to view all workplaces as a series of ‘interconnected activity systems’ consisting of a range of ‘communities of practice’, the Media Faculty recognised that it also had to respond positively to feedback from students about perceived deficiencies in the design and delivery of the College components of the work experience. This, ultimately, led them to re-think the relationship between learning processes which had been designed to support ‘sequential’ learning (ie, aspects of practice) and those designed to support ‘conceptual’ learning (ie, focusing on the relationship between practice and context). For example, the Media Faculty:
modified the delivery of certain GNVQ units to ensure that key parts of the programme were introduced before the students undertook work experience;
broadened the focus of tutorials to consolidate the link between different types of learning and ensure that core skill development was monitored and evidence of attainment recorded in students’ Records of Achievement.
Supporting students to develop a more ‘connective’ approach to their formal and informal learning led College staff and line managers to recognise that they shared some pedagogic aims. They recognised that they had different, but complementary approaches in supporting students to:
recontextualise the activities they undertook in College and on site at Legoland and see them as a part of a whole;
use their developing intellectual capabilities to criticise existing knowledge and practice and begin to conceive alternatives;
apply what they knew and be confident about performing in new situations;
connect knowledge and performance to the knowledge of other specialists in educational institutions and workplaces.
Achieving these pedagogic aims, however, involved students taking the initiative and being prepared to ‘learn-on-the-fly’ (Beach and Vyas 1999) in Legoland and in the College. Initially, this involved developing the confidence to make requests for help from people whom they did not know. Subsequently, students began to ask themselves the following types of questions:
How do I use the knowledge and skill I feel that I have gained to support my ‘practice’ as a journalist/as a producer of a newsletter/as a vocational student?
What have I discovered about myself as a learner as a result of undertaking simultaneously a wide range of tasks?
Asking such questions led the students to recognise that learning entailed some form of self-organisation and enculturation and, moreover, that these processes occured more readily if they were able to:
participate in different but related cultural practices, for example, journalism and the theory of journalism;
(Encouraging students to conceptualise their experiences in different ways and for this conceptualisation to serve different curriculum purposes, sets a new pedagogic challenge for teachers. In many ways, it is very similiar in intention to what Freire (Freire and Macedo 1999) has referred to as the task of creating new ‘pedagogical spaces’, in other words, the use which teachers (in education or workplaces) make of their expertise to pose problems in order to help learners analyse their own experiences and arrive at a critical understanding of their reality.)
develop new ways of mediating their understanding of the forms of social interaction that supported dialogic problem solving.
The changing context of work and the future of work experience
Current context and future practice
The context of work has undergone fundamental changes over the last 20 years. One of the challenges facing companies throughout Europe is the question of diversity and dialogue within and between the contexts of education and work. This challenge has partly arisen as a result of the process of globalisation and partly through the introduction of lifelong learning policies in an attempt to prepare and update people for a continuously changing world of work (Guile forthcoming). At one level, globalisation has meant greater mobility in the labour market and hence greater inter-cultural diversity in the workplace. At another level, it has had an uneven impact upon European companies. Some are striving to become high-performance companies and hence are actively engaged in transforming product and service delivery through developing ‘knowledge-intensive’ forms of work. Other companies are content to continue offering ‘low added value’ products and services.
The cumulative effect of these developments suggests that new conceptual ‘tools’ should be developed to assist learners who are undertaking programmes of work experience so that they may both understand the evolving forms of work practice, and the types of dialogue encountered in workplaces and education, and develop perspectives on the diverse activities in which they are engaged.
By focusing on the relationship between the practice of work experience and context of work, the Connective Model of Work Experience has allowed new questions to be asked about how students learn, when participating in a work experience programme:
to understand and use the potential of subjects as conceptual tools for linking their workplace experience to their programmes of study and thus seeing it as part of a whole;
to develop an intellectual basis for criticising existing work practices and take responsibility for working with others to conceive alternatives;
to develop the capability to resituate existing knowledge and skill in new contexts as well as being able to contribute to the development of new knowledge, new social practices and new intellectual debates;
to become confident about crossing organisational boundaries or the boundaries between different, and often distributed, ‘communities of practice’; and to connect their knowledge to the knowledge of other specialists, whether in educational institutions, workplaces or the wider community.
Although important insights have been generated about how to address these questions, the questions themselves have not yet been fully answered. This suggests that further work will have to be undertaken if the ‘connective’ model of work experience is to be developed in such a way as to realise its ambitions.
Recent work from Engeström and Hutchins has offered two promising clues about how to develop the Connective Model. In a paper discussing the ‘third generation’ of activity theory, Engeström suggests that the next step is to develop a theoretical framework that allows different activity systems to communicate more effectively with one another through the creation of a ‘new shared object’. By this, he means constantly maintaining a horizon of possiblilities in order both to scrutinise and incorporate new ideas or forms of practice which may originate outside the immediate context as well as to generate new practice from within a specific context. Such activity is, he suggests, most productive when conducted within the area of the ‘shared object’.
Hutchins, however, has drawn attention to the significance of the process of ‘metamediation’. He employs this term to illustrate that ‘learning curricula’ or ‘mediating artefacts’ do not just stand between people and the context in which they are working. They are one of many elements that can be called upon in the performance of a task or to support understanding about a subject. This leads Hutchins to stress that mediation is not a process that automatically occurs in a single direction, in other words, from a teacher to a student or from a computer to a student. He argues that certain mediating artefacts help to organise the use of other mediating artefacts and it is this process of metamediation that makes for a powerful learning experience. For example, in the case of the GNVQ Media students, access to the Legoland site mediated, amongst other things, their understanding of the practice of media work and the relevance of formal study.
There are, many senses in which the ideas of ‘new shared objects’ and ‘metamediation’ may be relevant in developing the Connective Model of work experience. For example, they could encourage educational institutions and workplaces to:
identify what may be the ‘shared object’ arising from analysis of the different contexts of learning – as part of the process of effective mediation;
thus, explore how work experience may enable different activity systems to ‘talk to each other’ about common goals more effectively;
enable teachers and Human Resource Development personnel to develop a shared understanding about the relationship between formal and informal learning and the pedagogic strategies which support learners in relating these forms of learning to produce new knowledge (and hence equip them as ‘boundary crossers’);
support learners to use work experience to develop a transformative rather than an informative perspective about different types of social practice.
These and other questions will be addressed further in work to develop the Connective Model and in explorations with other research projects where the testing of the Model in new studies and situations may yield further insights.