Is it ‘learning to work’ or ‘working to learn’

This term I offered my students the option to blog on their journey as an assignment alternative; to reflect on one or two concepts that we talk about in class each week and  how they might apply these principles. How what we discuss might influence their current/future practice and how they might be able to ‘transfer’ academic learning to their clinical practices.

So, I thought…..why not try this concept out myself since I’m studying independently this term. Why not get back to my own blog, reflect on my own readings and think about changes I might make to my own practice….. AND even better if my own Prof will consider it for an assignment option :). So here goes……

I picked up a copy of Understanding Learning at Work edited by Boud and Garrick. The title is a bit dated, but when I hit chapter three and started reading about “learning to work and working to learn” by Ronald Barnett…. I found myself nodding in agreement. We do now live in conditions of supercomplexity. Learning in work does take on a new urgency, and the framework that we use for making sense of the world is fragile or as the author suggests ‘dissolving’.

This concept of supercomplexity intrigued me…. so with the luxury of the tools afforded to me in this complex time, within seconds I was able to search the term and find out more. Barnett (2000) tells us its an “epistemology for living among uncertainty” p. 409. It really is (as he suggests) a time when knowledge is produced both in and across society. We now have quicker forms of accountability, it’s a time where industry has sophisticated research capacities, and where everyone can gain expertise with access to the internet.

Leaving academic research and looking at what colleagues were writing about the term, I thought wow, yes there is a lot happening on the world wide web every 60 seconds. And even though all the sources aren’t listed – the video brings home the point of how quickly knowledge can now be changed and be transformed.

I concur with Barnett’s concept (Understanding Learning at Work) that organizations who aren’t embracing and embedding learning into their work have found themselves ‘out of kilter’ in this time of supercomplexity. It is a different framework to become an ‘organization which knows how to learn’. He writes:

We learn not by responding to supercomplexity but by contributing further to it. We can never get on top of supercomplexity, as it were. Instead, we cope with it by intervening in the world, learning as we are doing so… We learn not just by acting and evaluating but additionally by bringing to the party and inserting into the world – through our thinking and our acting – multiple frames of understanding… life itself remains our best university but only through our best critical, active and creative efforts that we bring to bear in the process. (p.41)

So, if we are going to change our organizations to know how to learn, where do we start? Well, how about by reading an article called “When is it OK to Learn at Work” by Sheers et al (2010). This groups’ interests lie in why the discourse of learning is taken up at one place but not another. They believe when learning becomes a legitimate part of everyday work, when it is part of the practice memory of the organization, when it doesn’t occur only when there are teachers, trainers or managers present – then we are working to learn. The authors offered up Delors (1996) four pillars of learning as helpful in this time. The first two pillars are familiar within the workplace – ‘learning to know’ and ‘learning to do’.  They suggest however, that the latter two – ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’ had been reserved for our lives more holistically and not thought of in a work context to this point. Learning to be – helps us to develop autonomy, judgement and personal responsibility but also recognizes that learning takes place in a social context and is culturally loaded. Learning to work together – helps us to gain an appreciation for interdependence, the need to work together on projects and manage team conflict.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, in the journal Praxis (how fitting a name), also supports the need to recognize workplaces as a site of learning, and the need for learning to be built into our everyday work activities. These authors support the creation of ‘expansive’ learning environments where employees are encouraged to be flexible, questioning, creative and independent (which supports the earlier concept of ‘learning to be’).  And they propose the concept that learning is fostered through social relationships, and interactions with resources and ideas in the workplace (which is similar to ‘learning to live together’). Their ‘Working as a Learning Framework’ helps us to understand the productive system and the constituent parts that determine if we’ll create a ‘recipe following’ culture or a ‘freestyle’ productive system. Successful organizations, according to the authors, are able to balance the regulation of work (at all levels) and the stages of production. These organizations have engaged employees, who are encouraged to share their ideas alongside job specific skills, that are supported to develop informal communities of practice and rewarded for positively engaging in work tasks.

So now the hard part, how do we take these concepts and create environments where employees are comfortable with change, and able to transform what they know and do today into what will be coming at them tomorrow – which might look quite different. How do we complete a radical rethink of our practices? How do we create environments where along with learning to know and do, we also learn to be and live together?

At a meeting this week, I heard a senior organizational leader comment that we need to become ‘a living lab’. I quickly scrambled to write the concept down – because it’s exactly what we need to thrive in supercomplexity. We need to brand our organizations as such. At interviews and orientations, we need to let employees know that doing a good job includes examining and refining our work practices every day. Rather than paying lip service to the concept of teamwork it becomes an expectation that employees will collaborate with colleagues (from all areas). We’ll try to understand what others do and the interdependencies between our roles. We’ll become comfortable with the fact that new knowledge will constantly be available and that best practice may evolve between coffee break and lunchtime. We’ll seek out leaders who believe in working to learn. (The questions on p. 19 of Praxis – serve as a great starting point for discussion).

But as I tell my own students – it starts with a small step. As Barnett’s quote earlier suggested….. we must insert our selves into the world – intervene….. SO HERE GOES…. In my own world at work, I lead a team that facilitates learning at work in a lab setting. We have a variety of complex equipment in our lab that allows us to ‘practice danger safely’. It’s a perfect setting for us to work as teams, and to practice complex problem solving and ask ‘what if’. So far however, we’ve asked everyone to book lab time, fill out forms, etc – so I guess I’m suggesting that we are still steeped in tradition, we are more of a ‘restrictive’ learning environment. Some of this is required to avoid complete and utter chaos. BUT, to be truly helpful to the team we support, we also need to be flexible enough to allow staff and students to ‘work to learn’.  We need to build some flexibility into our schedules, letting leaders and teams know that its OK to drop in and solve a current work problem, refresh a skill that they might need later in the day, come down with a colleague who wants to share their expertise in a safe and private setting…. We need to commit to learning to be and live together. This week our team will start to talk about how we support this concept in our lab.

What about you? What small step can you take to start ‘working to learn’?


Barnett, R. (2000). University Knowledge in an Age of Supercomplexity. Higher Education, 40: 409- 422.

Boud, D. and Barrick, J. (1999). Understanding Learning at Work. Routledge: New York, NY.

Felstead, A., Fuller, A., Jewson, N. & Unwin, L. (2011). Praxis: Working to Learn, Learning to Work. UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 7: 1 – 22.

Scheeres, H.,  Solomon, N., Boud, D. & Rooney, D. (2010). When is it OK to learn at work? The learning work of organisational practices. Journal of Workplace Learning,  22:1/2, 13 – 26.


1 Comment

Filed under Teaching Tools

One response to “Is it ‘learning to work’ or ‘working to learn’

  1. Pingback: Iceberg…. Straight Ahead | ReenieLarson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s