Book Review: 'Learning Through Practice: Models, Traditions, Orientations, and Approaches' edited by Stephen Billett

By Clark Quinn / July 2012

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Learning Through Practice: Models, Traditions, Orientations, and Approaches is written by academics, and for academics. Which is not a bad thing, but the topic is of increasing relevance to learning both in academic and workplace contexts. It would be nice if there were a "take-home" version of the implications discussed for improving outcomes of learning relevant to the ability to contribute to organizational outcomes.

In the workplace there is greater recognition that the traditional training model is broken, and that the connection between learning outcomes and workplace behavior needs to be more tightly coupled. Similarly, as for-profit universities tout greater workplace relevance, those institutions need mechanisms to ensure such proposals are valid, and other institutions need to seriously consider their value propositions.

This book, a collection of chapters staking out overlapping but unique perspectives on the topic, has a global span of authors, with contributors hailing from the Antipodes, Europe, and North America. The perspectives also cover a broad range: network models, phenomenology, historical, sociocultural, activity theory, and more. The editor, Steven Billett, does a nice job of contextualizing the contributions in the first chapter. For the reader willing to go deep in concept and language, there are rewards.

In an early chapter, Roth says "traditional theories of knowledge and knowing…are ill-suited to explain how people cope and learn in mundane everyday pursuits." His solution is you need to reflect on real practice. The inferred benefit of the classroom theoretical knowledge is potentially to provide a language for such reflection.

Eraut's Chapter 3 is one of the more accessible, and resonates strongly with Cross' book Informal Learning. As the abstract captures it: "most learning events are embedded in normal work." I particularly like the further comment, "key factors…are appropriate levels of challenge and support, confidence and commitment, and personal agency." This resonates strongly with the perspectives I proposed for designing meaning practice in Engaging Learning, as it captures both cognitive and emotional components.

I similarly was taken with the notion of recharacterizing competencies as "lifelong learning trajectories," implying the ongoing development of knowledge as a responsibility rather than achievement and stasis. There are valuable alignments of different types of cognition (a la Kahnemann's Thinking Fast and Slow) with types of workplace task, and typologies of learning via the workplace in different categories. Recommendations about the value of group work and being conscious of working together skills round out the value of this chapter.

Some chapters are more philosophically interesting. Nerland and Jensen's chapter focuses on how the increasingly abstract and interactive tools we use in knowledge work play new roles in developing our thinking. While not explicitly using a distributed cognition (a la Hutchin's Cognition in the Wild) perspective, an observation of how the tools we use mediate the ways we think in the context of symbolic manipulation engines provides an important new perspective on what it means to work and how to learn to do so. The recommendation for facilitated reflection again surfaces.

Going deep, chapters by Dall' Alba and Sandberg, and Axelsson, Dahlgren, and Dahlgren emphasize that just looking at the work isn't sufficient to understand meaningful practice, and different stances to knowledge and work build around specific roles. The importance of this perspective shift emerges as an understanding of "ways of being" as opposed to just knowing.

The chapters vary between more philosophical analyses and more pragmatic assessments. Practical guidelines are explored in chapters on cooperative education, e.g. internships, and others. A chapter on social networks, interestingly similar to work by Jarche looking at the nature of workplace learning through Snowden's Cynefin perspective, provides some frameworks by which to characterize practices.

Practical recommendations emerge from several later chapters. One on apprenticeships by Worthen and Berchman emphasizes a necessity for authenticity by citing the need in workplace contexts for "legitimacy, transparency, and access to 'mature practice' or opportunities to engage in real work." In another chapter on coaching, van Woerkom concludes the relationship between coach and coached benefits from mutual trust. While intuitive, the explicit documentation is a nice companion.

Most of the chapters combine a conceptual framework with exploration of a particular work context or several. Jewelry making, fish culture, computer-aided design, and teaching are indicative of the breadth of contexts explored. The ability for these frameworks to unpack complexity is both enlightening and daunting. In one sense it is amazing that we can and do learn in these contexts, and in another it is important that we understand these practices so we can make them more reliable and repeatable.

What is not as well explored are ways in which workplace learning goes wrong. Hazing, bullying, and other practices that undermine workplace learning are largely ignored. Filliettaz's chapter on guidance does examine workplace relations by apprentices and co-workers, including where requests for support are ignored, and makes a valuable recommendation to help ensure that mentors are properly prepared. While workplace problems are not the focus of the book, the realities of social characteristics that can undermine effective outcomes are a real problem. As a consequence, this book is in a sense a largely idealistic view of an important topic.

Such broadly different, yet synergistic, ways to look at work practices illuminate different facets of the complex interchange between formal learning, workplace practice, the objects of work, and the actors engaged. The fluid nature of learning and making meaning in these contexts is critical to success, and yet hard to understand. There are many indications from these chapters about insightful frameworks and valuable outputs.

However, this book is not for the practitioner but instead is aimed at theorists. The prose can be as seriously dense as academic sociocultural analyses might be expected. This is a good book, for the right audience. Only you can determine if that includes you. For most designers and practitioners of workplace learning and formal education looking to prepare people for same, I'd recommend searching out a more accessible guide for practical advices.

About the Author

Clark Quinn leads learning system design through Quinnovation, providing strategic solutions to Fortune 500, education, government, and not-for-profit organizations. He earned his Ph.D. in applied cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and has led the design of mobile, performance support, serious games, online learning, and adaptive learning systems. He's an internationally known speaker and author, with a book and numerous articles and chapters. He has held management positions at Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio, Open Net, and Access CMC, and academic positions at the University of New South Wales, the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, and San Diego State University's Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/07 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2328736.2343716


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