Insights into Vocational Learning from an Applied Learning Perspective

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  • ORIGINAL PAPER

    Insights into Vocational Learning from an AppliedLearning Perspective

    Bruce Pridham & Simon OMallon & Vaughan Prain

    Received: 16 February 2011 /Accepted: 15 July 2011 /Published online: 9 August 2011# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

    Abstract A theoretical framework for understanding applied learning processes isnow warranted given the frequency with which these processes are now beingutilised. Drawing in part from the literature on applied education in schools as wellas theories of vocational learning such a framework is offered here that seeks toexplain these learning processes in terms of the interplay of multiple accounts ofinfluences at micro, meso and macro levels. This framework integrates current andemerging theories around practical learning, and provides insights into vocationaland workplace education processes. We clarify how features of our frameworkcomplement broader current debates and concepts in the literature on vocational andwork-related learning, particularly focusing on influences for that learning at themicro level of individuals experiences and understandings entailed in embodiedcognition, or knowing through practice. Moreover, the value of this framework isdemonstrated through its application to two very different case studies of learningprocesses in workplace settings. In conclusion, some implications for furthertheoretical and practical work in this area are advanced.

    Keywords Applied learning . Embodied cognition . Barsalou

    The Challenge of Theorizing Learning in Vocational Education

    There is growing recognition of the need for diverse perspectives to explaininfluences on learning processes in vocational learning and education (Billett 2008,

    Vocations and Learning (2012) 5:7797DOI 10.1007/s12186-011-9063-8

    B. Pridham (*) : S. OMallon :V. PrainFaculty of Education La Trobe University, P.O. Box 199, Bendigo, Victoria 3552, Australiae-mail: b.pridham@latrobe.edu.au

    S. OMallone-mail: s.omallon@latrobe.edu.au

    V. Praine-mail: v.prain@latrobe.edu.au

  • 2009; Hodkinson et al. 2008). As noted by Billett (2008, p. 4), a broad platform oftheoretical perspectives and contributions will be required to address a morecomprehensive understanding about the project of vocational and professionaleducation. For Hodkinson et al. (2008), socio-cultural perspectives provideuseful organizing frameworks to understand the interplay of influences onindividual and systemic vocational learning. In theorizing workplace learningexperience, Billett (2009, p. 39) argues that such learning depends on relationalinterdependence between individual and social contributions, thus resisting areductive binary account of either social or individual determinism as the keyfactor in this process. From Billetts perspective, social practice and personalindividualistic cognitive experiences are both crucial mediating and mediatedcontributors to workplace learning. We agree, and in this paper advance a casefor the value of an applied learning perspective for theorizing practicallearning experience. Our framework draws partly from theories used in appliededucation, and from current accounts of learning processes in vocational andworkplace education. In developing our case, we draw on and provide usefulinsights into the necessary interplay between individual experiences andunderstandings, local contexts, and broader influences, on practical learningprocesses, focusing particularly on the micro level of individual experience.

    We begin by outlining the emergence of theoretical accounts of appliedlearning processes in vocational education, noting how these accounts tend tofocus mainly on the effects of classroom and workplace interactions. Ourproposed framework examines learning processes at this meso level, but alsoconsiders their interplay with micro and macro level influences and effects,where micro refers to individual experience and understanding, and macrorefers to systemic or broader cultural influences. We draw partly on the pastliterature in this field to develop this framework, but also incorporate relevantinsights from recent research in embodied or grounded cognition (Barsalou1999, 2008; Glenberg 1997; Damasio 1994; Wilson 2002, 2008), the sociologicalstudy of craft development (Marchand 2008; Sennett 2008), and broader accountsof macro influences on national restructuring of workforce skills acquisition(Bentley 2000; Kirby 2000; Organisation for Economic Co-operation andDevelopment 2005; Beare 2006; Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority2009). In reviewing current concepts about professional and work-relatedlearning, we seek to clarify how our account of applied learning processesadds to current understandings of these concepts. We outline our framework,and then demonstrate its explanatory value by applying it to two distinct kindsof case studies. Our first case study entails a retrospective account by one of usof learning to be an expert shoemaker, re-interpreting this experience in thelight of the model. In our second case study, we interpret the behaviour andperceptions of a group of pre-service teachers, formerly tradespersons, engagingin a vocational education program. We chose these cases because they havesimilarities around re-skilling processes in an applied learning context. The firstentails acquisition of expertise in a craft, and the second focuses on the use ofprior craft knowledge to becoming a teacher. We aim to show that ourframework of the interplay of micro, meso and macro influences on learningprovides useful insights into both cases, particularly in relation to embodied

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  • learning. We conclude by identifying various further implications arising fromthese insights into factors influencing applied learning processes.

    Theorizing Applied Learning

    There is considerable international interest in vocational education programsthat prepare school students for workplaces through guided experience in thesesettings, and where authentic practice is viewed as crucial for this learning(Harteis and Billett 2008; Harteis and Gruber 2004). This has led to a stronggrowth in school programs that offer what is characterized as applied learning, incontrast to traditional mainstream academic curricula. Learners can now undertakecourses such as Specialised Diplomas in the United Kingdom (Qualifications andCurriculum Authority 2009), the Ontario Specialist High Skill Major in Canada(Ontario Ministry of Education 2009) and the Senior Certificate (Applied) inIreland (Department of Education and Science 2009). Attempts to explain howstudents learn from these programs have drawn mainly on standard mainstreamtheoretical frameworks and pedagogies, such as experiential learning, constructiv-ism, and the value of practical group work (Dalton 2004; Harrison 2006; VictorianCurriculum and Assessment Authority 2009). This kind of learning is claimed tobe effective because it entails hands on problem-solving and guided learnerreflection (Dalton 2004), or because, following Dewey (1916), it links groupinteraction, meaningful experience, and guided reflection (Harrison 2006).Participatory experience and reflection are seen as key drivers of this learning.However, more comprehensive and informed accounts of this learning process arerequired.

    Indeed, these accounts of how applied learning works reiterate larger currentthemes in the literature on the nature of vocational learning. As noted by Billett(2004), Hodkinson et al. (2008), dominant theories of vocational learning arebroadly conceptualized in terms of two competing explanations. Learning is eitherpredominantly individual- or socially-dependent. At the micro level of cognitiveperspectives of individuals learning it is often held to be about mentalisticprocesses, where learning is understood mainly as the personal acquisition ofpropositional or declarative knowledge, skills and dispositions (Anderson et al.1997). By contrast, at the meso level of socio-cultural or situated learning theories,learning results from contextual and interactional influences, where participation inguided purposeful group activity produces both individual and group procedurallearning and tacit knowledge (Greeno 2009). From cognitive perspectives, individuallearners develop resources such as mental models, schemas, organizing strategiesand frameworks to learn from interacting with material and symbolic tools (Bruner2004). From socio-cultural perspectives, these tools are cultural resources, andlearners need to participate in authentic activities with these tools to learn effectively(Cole and Wertsch 1996; Vygotsky 1978). Both perspectives acknowledge insightsfrom one another, and recognize crucial reciprocities between active learners andsupportive environments, including the key role of mentors and coaches in guidedactivity in educational processes. However, they identify different key drivers andoutcomes of learning.

    Vocational Learning from an Applied Learning Perspective 79

  • Hodkinson et al. (2008) and others have identified concerns with this mainlycognitive perspective on learning at micro and meso levels. They argue that bothbroad theory families, despite differences, view learning as predominantly aboutconceptual gains and organizers, and that both fail to integrate four key dimensionsof an adequate learning theory. These are: i) that learning is both embodied andsocial, ii) that learning is always contextualized, iii) that learning incorporatesbroader social and institutional structures, and iv) that learning always entails issuesof political power. They argue that a more holistic approach is needed that takesaccount of the interplay of these factors. They claim an appropriate learning theoryneeds to integrate mind and body, the individual and the social, and the interplay ofstructure and individual agency. They argue for the central importance of culturalconsiderations in understanding/explaining individual learning and learninghistories, and that cultural influences explain learning processes within broadersystemic factors affecting curriculum and what counts as vocational learning.However, while they provide a persuasive organizing framework to understandthe interplay of individual and systemic learning in general terms, they struggleto explain the specificities of learning strategies of individuals and theirrelationship to broader systemic learning, particularly at the level of embodiedcognition, or learning through physical activity, such as those being promotedin vocational education programs in Australian schools. Our framework seeks toaddress this issue of exactly how these levels of influence interact. We hold thatan applied learning perspective, informed and enriched by recent insights fromcognitive science, and sociological accounts of workplace learning, cancomplement their account and provide insights into how individuals learn frompractice. In all, more encompassing frameworks are needed to integratecurrently isolated but compelling accounts of local and broader factorsinfluencing vocational learning for individuals, for groups, for sectors, and fornation states (Harteis and Billett 2008).

    A Framework for Theorizing Applied Learning Processes

    Our framework of applied learning aims to characterize and integrate currentand emerging theories and frameworks relevant to understanding vocationallearning (see Fig. 1). We characterize these theories as operating at micro, mesoand macro levels. Our use of a nested Venn diagram to locate levels and togroup complementary theories is also intended to signify reciprocities of effectsbetween levels. This kind of triadic framework has been previously applied toresearch in a range of fields, including critical discourse analysis (Fairclough1992), economics (Dopfer et al. 2004) and, in part, in the sociology of education(Hargreaves 1985). It assumes that in any system, or cluster of systems, there arespecific level effects as well as reciprocal effects between local, middle order andmore global aspects of a systems functioning and maintenance. Vocationaleducation, therefore, can be understood nationally and internationally as a clusterof such systems. In conceptualizing applied teaching and learning processes andinfluences at different levels, we propose that micro refers to accounts of

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  • cognitive/affective/perceptual/embodied processes and interactions experiencedand understood by individuals. These micro level influences should be understoodas more than purely cognitive. Meso refers to theories about these processes atthe level of interactions in classrooms, groups, workplaces, and communities, anddraws on a well-established literature about learning from guided groupparticipation. Macro refers to accounts of larger influences around the historyand rationale of practices, discourses, and policies at a broader state, national andinternational levels.

    Applied Learning at Micro, Meso and Macro Levels

    The vocational education literature, while drawing on theories at each of thesethree levels, has tended to focus mainly on meso and macro levels, rather thanoffer specific and theoretically justified accounts of how and why appliedlearning processes work for individuals, and interact with these largercontextual influences. Practical work is simply seen as necessarily entailingmeaningful clues that support performance and improvement, including thenotion that a hands on experience is self-evidently valuable for learners.However, the question of what exactly makes practical experience valuable forlearning has been assumed or left unexamined in these accounts. Sometheorists, such as Billett et al. (2006), have claimed reciprocal relations betweenindividual subjectivity and workplace learning, but this analysis has not focused onembodied cognition, or knowing through practice, rehearsal, mental simulation, orinformed reflection. Here, we outline the theoretical basis for a micro-levelanalysis beyond past straightforward cognitive accounts, indicating how recentresearch in embodied cognition at this level can strengthen a case for theeffectiveness of this approach to learning.

    By micro level we refer to the growing recognition in recent research bycognitive scientists of critical linkages between cognitive, affective, perceptual,social and embodied processes at the level of individuals interacting with physicaland social environments (Barsalou 2008; Calvo and Gomila 2008; Glenberg 1997).As noted by Barsalou (2008), there is now compelling evidence from a range ofrecent cognitive science studies and neuroscience research that indicates howcognition and learning are enabled by perceptual simulations, bodily states, feelings,introspection and situated action. From this perspective, individuals know and learnnot just through manipulating stored symbols in memory or cognitive schema, butthrough the interplay of mind, body, feelings and environment, supported through re-enactment of these experiences in offline perce...

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