Theoretical Constructions of Workplace Learning: troubling dualisms and problems of scale

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Theoretical Constructions of Workplace Learning: troubling dualisms and problems of scale
Phil Hodkinson

University of Leeds, UK

Learning’ including workplace learning, is not a reified external entity. Rather, researchers and others construct what learning is, through the theoretical, conceptual and metaphorical frameworks that they use. That is, things become learning when they are designated so, and the meanings we give to learning deeply influence research, policy and practice. In this paper I will discuss two related problems related to the nature and influence of those constructions. The first is a series of troubling dualisms that are often presented as opposites or alternatives, but which may be more profitably combined. The second is the issue of scale of analysis or empirical investigation. The trick, I will argue, is to retain a relational and integrated view of the issues often described as dualistic, whilst recognising that these relations may be viewed differently at different scales of attention. I conclude by arguing that how we resolve and think about these issues is of direct practical significance for managing and improving learning at, for and through work.

This paper represents some early thinking about some conceptual and theoretical issues about learning in general, and workplace learning in particular. The ideas expressed have progressively surfaced/been developed through writing about a series of research projects focussed upon learning, in the workplace, in English Further Education Colleges, and a desk-based analysis of the literature on formal and informal learning. As a consequence, the substance that follows interlocks significantly with many of my other writings. In order to point up those parts of my work where key parts of the argument are more fully developed, my own work has become over-prominent in the references list. Yet , though I have been thinking about these issues for some time, the particular line of analysis developed and explored in this paper is very recent. What follows, is an incomplete and partly unthought-through analysis. I would welcome critical and constructive feedback at the ESREA workshop, to help further advance my thinking in this area.

Learning as a Contested Social Construct

Learning is a conceptual and linguistic construction that is widely used in many societies and cultures, but with very different meanings, which are at least partly contradictory and contested. Put differently, there is no external, reified entity that is ‘learning’. Rather, people construct and label certain processes/activities/products as ‘learning’. To substantiate this point I will briefly discuss some common, often tacit, root metaphors which are utilised or implied when learning is thought about. Sfard (1998) drew our attention to the significance of metaphors in relation to learning, when she analysed recent debates about the nature of learning as a contest between the metaphor of acquisition and that of participation. These two metaphors, she argued, present largely incommensurable views of what learning is. Acquisition focuses either on learning as a commodity or, perhaps more accurately, as a process whereby commodities of, say, knowledge are acquired. At its crudest, this amounts to little more than what Bereiter (2002) terms the folk theory of learning – putting stuff (what is learned) into vessels (the human mind). Participation, on the other hand, entails seeing learning as the undertaking of activities within a social context, sometimes conceptualised as an activity system (Engestrom, 1999, 2001, 2004), sometimes as a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Wenger et al., 2002). However, despite the wide impact of the Sfard analysis, acquisition and participation are not the only contenders as root metaphors of learning. Thus, there is a long tradition of seeing learning as construction. In addition to the intellectual movement that is often termed constructivism, which focuses mainly on the ways individual learners engage with new knowledge, Hager (in press) has recently argued that workplace learning is also best seen as construction, arguing that both acquisition and participation can imply learning as static, rather than as a process. If we move beyond English as a language, other root metaphors become apparent. As a non-linguist, I am singularly ill-equipped to make this jump, but can draw upon Dominicé (2000, p11) to introduce the French concept formation ‘[which] describes the alliance of formal and experiential learning that gives shape to an adult life’.

My purpose in this paper is not to argue for the adoption of one of these metaphors rather than the others – though the implication of what follows is that acquisition may be the least valuable in relation to understanding workplace and work-related learning. Rather, I wish simply to establish the point that learning is a contested social construction. The view we take of what learning is (pre)determines how we understand it, research it, write about it, construct policies to influence it or practices to enhance it. In a recent research project, with Heather Hodkinson, we encountered a clear example of this. The project was an investigation of secondary school teachers’ workplace learning. We approached this through a combination of repeated interviews and observations. When we first started asking the teachers about their learning, we got two apparently contradictory responses. The first was that learning meant being taught on courses. The second, often linked to the first by ‘but’, was that of course you only really learn through experience. None of the teachers could articulate the processes whereby learning through experience worked. For example, if asked how they learning to do something, the replies either entailed telling us in even more detail what they had learned, or simply applying the rhetorical label ‘trial and error’. However, as we discussed with them learning that we had observed – for example in informal meetings and lunchtime chats, and as we influenced their thinking by the ways in which we probed about learning in subsequent interviews, transcripts showed significant changes in the ways they understood and conceptualised their own workplace learning. In effect, we had taught them to adopt a view of learning that was closer to our own. A result of this was to reduce one head-teacher’s original enthusiasm for a performance management scheme as the prime means of enhancing the learning of his staff.

The implications of the contested nature of what learning is and how best it can be understood are difficult to exaggerate. In this paper, I want to focus on two particular sets of issues in relation to workplace learning that, in my view, confuse our constructions of learning. The first concerns some apparently fundamental dualisms. The second, concerns the problem of scale.

Troubling Dualisms

A major thread in much western thought since the enlightenment is the search for clear and distinct analytical categories. Often, this results in binary or dualistic classifications, and our thinking about learning is no exception. With regard to learning and more specifically workplace learning, many of these binaries are unhelpful, because they either force us to focus on or even prefer one half rather than the other, and in many cases artificially split things which can better be seen as unified. Here I concentrate on four examples.

Mind and Body

As Beckett and Hager (2002) argue, at least since Descartes there has been a deep-seated western tendency to see the mind and body as distinct, with the mind as superior. Thus, it is in the mind that human identity is thought to reside and, with regard to learning, propositional knowledge and intellectual ability are seen as the prime focus of and location for learning. The result is a significant body of writing about learning that at best brackets the body off as peripheral, and at worst, ignores it completely. For obvious reasons, the more recent workplace learning literature seldom makes this mistake. After all, most workplace learning entails practice and performance, which is obviously embodied. However, earlier work by Argyris and Schon (1974, 1978) and especially Schon (1983, 1987) shows the remnants of the split. Thus, for Schon, reflection is an inherently mental process, applied to separate bodily actions.

Like Beckett and Hager (2002) I believe that this view of a person, and therefore of learning (any learning) is untenable. All human activity is embodied, in the sense that we think, emote and practice as a holistic person. Writing this paper could be seen as a quintisentially rational/mental process, but I am writing using a computer (bodily practice) and my beliefs and interests in learning are coloured by and rooted in my partly tacit dispositions and emotional preferences (Bloomer, et al., 2004). Research data from a project investigating learning in English Further Education Colleges strongly supports the view that learning in educational settings is also embodied (Hodkinson et al., 2004). Accepting that learning is an inherently embodied process has significant theoretical and practical ramifications, which are under-represented within much acquisition or constructivist literature.
Individual and Social
Perhaps because of the dominance of psychology as a discipline in the learning literature, the conventional, ‘standard paradigm’ (Beckett and Hager, 2002) view of learning is as an individual phenomenon. Thus, a person learns in a social context, such as a classroom or workplace, which is external to them and separate from them. As I have shown elsewhere (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2004a), this assumption that the individual and the social are separate can even be found in relatively recent writings about workplace learning (Engestrom, 1999; Billett. 2001a). Yet there are two reasons why this split should be challenged and contested. The first was the clear identification by Lave and Wenger (1991), amongst others, that individuals are integral parts of the social and organisational contexts where they work and learn. (See Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2003, 2004b, for empirical examples of this.) Because of our western thought traditions, at least in Anglo-American thinking and in the English language, this integration of person and social context is difficult to grasp or express, and easy to slip away from. One difficulty as that no single person is synonymous with their working context, even though they are part of it. Each of us has lives outside our current workplace. We had lives before it, we have lives in other contexts alongside work, and most of us will have lives after we have left that particular workplace. Furthermore, the ways in which one person is part of a working context may be very different from the ways in which another person is part of even the same working context. This sense of individual difference is one of the main omissions in Lave and Wenger (1991) and in Wenger’s (1998) subsequent work, and in the activity systems approaches of Engestrom (1999, 2001, 2004).
The second problem with seeing the individual as separate from the social is more fundamentally important, for to be an individual person is to be a social person. To be human is to be socially positioned, with socially derived and constructed dispositions, and socially derived and constructed identities. Such social similarities and differences between workers in a particular workplace are of central importance in understanding their learning. This can be expressed in terms of more structural issues such as gender, ethnicity or social class (see below); in terms of social interests, affinities, relationships; and in relation to positions and roles within the workplace itself, including employment relationships and divisions of labour.
For me, the argument that any individual has to be understood as social is merely an extension of the argument for people to be seen as embodied. It follows that learning is inherently embodied and social. However, whilst accepting that learning is social, it is important to recognise that it is often also individual. That is, just as embodied learning includes the mind but does not give it either separate status or prior importance, so to say that learning is social must include the individual, without giving it either separate (non-social) status or prior importance. However, this leaves us with a third problem – how do we simultaneously recognise the learning of a particular social individual and the social learning involving many individuals within, say, and activity system, community of practice or work organisation? This, I will argue, is best understood as a problem of scale. Before doing so, there are two more troubling dualisms to be briefly discussed.
Structure and Agency
Within sociology, the relationship between structure and agency is continually revisited, and remains at least partly unresolved. In essence, this is an on-going debate about starting points. For structuralists, human actions are largely determined by the social structures that people inhabit. From a more agentic perspective, people’s own perceptions and actions govern their interrelationships with other agents, and with the social structures that they inhabit. Yet, though we may argue about their relative importance, it seems self-evident that both agency and structure strongly influence learning. Thus, from the agency perspective, if we focus either on social individuals or on groups of people, actions that they take impact upon their own learning and on the learning of others that they interact with. In my work with Heather Hodkinson on teacher learning, we showed how actions and interactions by and between teachers co-constructed the cultural practices of the subject departments where they worked, in ways that directly influenced the ways in which they learned (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2003, 2004b). Furthermore, the specific dispositions, preferences and actions of individual teachers resulted in significant differences in learning between them (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2004a).
It is equally true that social structures inter-penetrate all workplace activities, including learning. Issues of social class, gender and ethnicity are interrelated with issues of work hierarchies, power differentials, and labour relations. Opportunities to learn at work are strongly influenced by such issues. However, in ways that directly replicate the individual/social dualism, it is not enough to think of people acting as agents within a separate structural framework. As Bourdieu argues, we do not simply inhabit such structures. Rather, they exist in us and through us. Thus, to use some of his terminology, people (including people as learners) are structured through their positions in work and society, and through the dispositions that make up their habitus, which are developed through their positioned lives. At the same time, the fields within which people live, including the field of work (or learning), are themselves structured. Though often described separately, both the structured nature of the person and the structured nature of the field are integral to each other. Both are inter-penetrated by and themselves inter-penetrate what Bourdieu terms the field of power – the system of more macro social inequalities, supported by and supporting dominant elites – those who possess and in turn help define what counts as ‘distinction’.
In relating structure and agency to learning, therefore, we face an extension of the individual-social dilemmas. On the one hand, it makes no sense to think of learning without either agency or structure, or to think of either one as foundationally more important, or to think of the two as separate. As with the individual and the social, but if anything to a greater extent, it is very difficult to do this using the English language. Because of the evolving structures of that language and the enlightenment thought processes that are related to it, there is a strong tendency to ‘flip’ from agency to structure and vice versa when trying to write about both together, as can be clearly seen in the earlier part of this section. This may explain why Bourdieu uses some relatively obscure terminology (like habitus), and also why he is often accused of being structurally deterministic.
A further difficulty is that the natural level of focus, what I will later refer to as scale, differs from those most interested in structural views of workplace learning (globalisation, capitalist labour relations, the organisation, the activity system) from those who focus more on agency (the individual or small group).

Formal and Informal Learning
Another equally troubling dualism in the workplace learning literature is that between formal and informal learning. Though this is different in kind to the others already listed, it is significant for the argument advanced here. I have written much about this issue elsewhere (Coley et al., 2003a) so will keep this account very brief. Despite the almost ubiquitous presence of this dualism in literature about learning, there is neither broad agreement about what the distinguishing characteristics of formal and informal learning are, nor any foundational argument upon which such criteria could be based. Put simply, there are three inter-locked arguments. One is that formal learning is what happens in educational establishments, whilst informal learning takes place ‘in everyday life’, such as family, community and work. The second is a distinction between the particular learning processes. Thus, ‘formal’ learning might entail control by teachers, curriculum structures, assessment requirements, with a focus on planned and deliberate learning, often of propositional generalisable knowledge. ‘Informal learning’ entails the opposite. It is part of everyday practice, often tacit, entails doing more than knowing, etc. Thirdly, informal learning (or education) is sometimes seen as being led and con trolled by the learner, and therefore more democratic, whereas formal learning (or education) is controlled by a teacher and/or other external agencies. Both have been seen as empowering, but in radically different ways, and normally by different authors.
The problem is that, as Billet (2002) argues, all learning can be seen having formal features. Colley et al. (2003a) went further, arguing that all learning entails differing combinations of what they term attributes of formality and informality. By ‘attributes’, they mean that people, often researchers, attribute labels of informal and formal to aspects of learning. Hodkinson and Colley (in press) point out that much learning in educational settings is ‘informal’. On the other hand, in the workplace learning is often influenced by what can be seen as more formal attributes. For example, much workplace learning is strongly initiated and influenced by managers and employers rather than the workers themselves, and is increasingly deliberately specified and assessed – for example through staff development and performance management schemes, and through performance targets, and management induced changes to organisation or working practices.
Thus, like the other dualisms listed, both what is termed formal learning and what is termed informal learning need to be held always in view. I am of the opinion that it is better not to talk of formal or informal learning at all, because to do so perpetuates the apparent and constructed distinction between them in unhelpful ways.
One consequence of abandoning this terminology and the distinctions it brings in tow is to help us reconsider the relationship between on and off the job learning. This is different in kind from those other dualisms already listed. For it is possible empirically to identify the location of learning, such as on the job learning in the workplace, and off the job learning, say in a college. That is, these are not false distinctions, in the way that I am claiming the other dualisms are. However, the way in which the on the job off the job dichotomy is often presented brings three problems. Firstly, as Solomon et al. (2003) argue, much workplace learning takes place in locations that are neither on nor off the job, in the conventional sense – such as the works canteen, or driving with a colleague in a car. Secondly, on and off the job learning do not entail two distinctly different types of learning (informal and formal). Thirdly, the extent to which on and off the job learning are seen as separate is largely a matter of scale. That is, if the focus is on one or the other, the separation tends to be maximised. However, if both are located as small parts of a wider occupational and/or learning field, the extent and nature of that separation becomes more a matter of empirical investigation. (See Hodkinson, 2004, for a longer discussion.)
In concluding this part of my argument, I want to reiterate three things. Firstly, we construct learning and workplace learning in particular ways. Secondly, many existing constructions either entail or imply separations between mind and body, between the individual and the social, between structure and agency, and between formal and informal learning. Thirdly, these binary divisions impede our understanding of learning, in ways which are becoming increasingly untenable, given our current levels of understanding and empirical evidence. These three linked arguments apply to all learning in any situation, and to workplace learning in particular. However, many of our attempts to deal with these problems are further complicated by problems of scale, which often interpenetrate and confuse our conceptual thinking. It is to these problems that I turn next.

Problems of Scale
Another way of restating the conclusion to the previous section, is that understanding learning entails integrating not only each half of each dualism, but also all four dualisms together. This is possible, if we adopt a cultural and relational view of learning. I have argued elsewhere (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2004c; Hodkinson et al., 2004) that one way to conceptualise such a cultural theory of learning, is through a blending of one major thread in Lave and Wenger’s (1991) work with some of the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1998; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). This entails seeing learning as an integral part of human activity, taking place through blends of participation, construction and formation, in many or all of the contexts in which people live, including work. The interrelated concepts of field, position, dispositions (habitus), and capital (cultural, social and economic) give us a means of examining the process of learning and its outcomes holistically, culturally and relationally.
It is in understanding how to do this in practice that the problem of scale intervenes. By writing about scale, I am using the metaphor of map-making, in relation to studies of learning. Different maps are drawn for different purposes, and show different things. But whatever the subject of a map is, it will appear different, sometimes dramatically different, at different scales. Imagine a map to show the position of this seminar. A large scale map might show the layout of Northern College, and the position of this room within it. A smaller scale might show the position of Northern College in Yorkshire, with roads and towns shown in relation to it. A larger scale again, might show the position of Wakefield in the UK or even, if the scale was small enough, in Europe. Each time the subject is the same, but what we can see on the map is very different.
If we envisage different scaled maps of workplace learning, the same issues arise. The largest scale might focus on the learning of one individual worker. The next scale down might focus on the site where the person works – which might be a community of practice in the Wengerian (1998) sense, but might well not be. Decrease the scale again, and perhaps the whole organisation or activity system is the focus. Decrease it further, and we might be looking at learning in relation to what Bourdieu terms a field – perhaps an occupational area. At this level of scale, it becomes possible to investigate the relations between different sites of learning activity – such as a workplace and a linked college course (Colley et al., 2003b). Zoom out further again, to an even smaller scale, and we are looking at the field of power.
The problem for maps of learning is that some of those different scales appear also to roughly correspond to one-sided parts of the very dualities that need to be integrated. Thus, if the scale is the individual, the temptation is to overlook the social, and to privilege agency over structure. This is not inevitable, of course, and much of the Roskilde life history work, as well as my own work with Heather Hodkinson, try to avoid this pitfall. Similarly, if the scale is drawn around the local working site, there is a tendency to focus on the social, as Lave and Wenger (1991) do. This often results in bracketing off wider issues of social structure, and in overlooking individuals and individual agency. If smaller scales still are used, we tend to get studies of activity systems, labour relations and global capitalism.
The risk then is that rather than being different scale maps of the same thing, by which I mean an holistic construction workplace learning, each scale of investigation results in a different version of what workplace learning is. It is this that we need to avoid and that we can avoid, and I have used the four dualisms to illustrate both the need to do this, and the possibility of doing this. The need derives from the fact that none of the dualistic splits described is tenable. Each results is a distortion and over-simplification of workplace learning and each, if preserved, is likely to lead to erroneous or at least unhelpful understandings and implications. This happens when, for example, individual learning is considered with no reference to the social position of the learner; when knowledge is seen as a commodity to be ‘transferred’ from college to work and/or ‘applied’ in the workplace; when workplace learning is analysed and described as if all workers of a particular grade were the same, and as if none of them have lives outside work; and when workplace learning is examined at site level, without any analysis of the significance of social structures, labour relations and capitalism.
The possibility is that at any scale all four dualisms can be integrated, and focussing on the integration of each of them can clarify to writers what needs to be done. Thus, as Roskilde work shows, it is quite possible to write about social individuals, showing the significance of social structures in their lives and work. Similarly, it is possible to write about learning in a site, but to relate it to wider organisational issues, as well as incorporating social individuals. Macro analyses of the field can acknowledge the significance of individual variations in position, disposition and actions – to recognise agency as well as structures, even if the scale of attention renders the details of particular individual agency invisible. Though the scale will determine which part of the complex whole that is workplace learning is the prime focus of any analysis, it need not change the way in which the meaning of workplace learning is constructed.

The argument in this paper has been complex, and in conclusion I need to pull apart two strands that have, thus far, been combined. The first argument is a strong plea on my part for a more holistic, relational and cultural view of workplace learning, that integrates the various non-opposites of the four dualisms listed – mind and body, individual and social, structure and agency, formal and informal learning. My second argument is that in identifying and determining what construction of learning we chose to use, that construction should look broadly the same, at whatever scale the work is focused on. I have tried to show, if sketchily, that this can be done with the sort of theoretical conception that I am arguing for. Of course, some valuable constructions of workplace learning may only operate at certain scales. My argument then would be that this needs to be recognised and acknowledged by those concerned. What we must move away from is the situation where scale is determining meaning, without either writers or readers realising the significance of this.
If both parts of my argument are accepted, then several things follow. The first is that integrating these four dualisms is inherently difficult, at any scale, but that the effort is worth it. The next, is that there are advantages in those studies of workplace learning that can operate at more than one scale, and show the links between them. Finally, the analysis raises some intriguing questions about the possibility of improving learning. For if I am right, practices that focus on, say, only individual agency or only social structures are likely to fail. We will have a better chance of making lasting improvements to workplace learning, if they are based on a cultural, holistic and relational understanding of what workplace learning is. More intriguing is the possibility that interventions could be made, based upon such a holistic and relational understanding, but be designed to impact upon the practices workplace learning at different scales. Not much is known about how this sort of differentiated approach might work, but it might entail support for an individual learner through guided mentoring (Billett, 2001b); the construction of more expansive learning environments in an organisation or workplace (Fuller and Unwin, 2003, 2004); and making structural changes to wider social inequalities in work and society, through changes in economic, fiscal and social policies, or through effective pressures by organised labour, where this exists.

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