Critiquing workplace learning discourses: participation and continuity at work

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Stephen Billett critiques some assumptions shaping current discourses on workplace learning and proposes that these assumptions restrict how workplace learning is conceptualised and discussed. In particular, he focus on how describing workplace learning environments and experiences as ‘informal’ and that ‘informal learning’ occurs in workplaces constrains understanding about how learning occurs through work and, consequently, the development of a workplace pedagogy.

contents: preface · introduction · workplace participation and sustaining practice · negative and inappropriate premises · the structuring of workplace activities, participation and performance · learning as a negotiated and reciprocal process · workplaces as centres of inquiry · how to cite this piece

In this piece Stephen Billett argues that workplace activities are structured by historical, cultural and situational factors and these factors influence the kind and quality of learning that occurs through work. As with educational institutions, there are intentions for work practice, structured goal-directed activities that are central to its continuity, and interactions and judgements about performance that are shaped to those ends. These practices determine the kinds of activities individuals participate in and the guidance they access in workplaces from which they learn. Therefore, describing learning through work as being ‘informal’ is incorrect. Instead, the structuring of workplace activities has dimensions associated with learning for sustaining practice which are inherently pedagogical. Moreover, the unqualified description of learning in workplaces as being either ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ suggests a situational determinism that de-emphasises the role of human agency in the constructive processes of thinking-acting-learning. Learning is proposed as being interdependent rather than situationally deterministic. The core tension in this relation is that occurring between the needs of the social practice and individuals’ ontogenies. The need to consider learning, learning in workplaces and the development of a workplace pedagogy in terms of participatory practices is advanced. 

This paper was originally given in 2001: Billett S (2001) Participation and continuity at work: A critique of current workplace learning discourses. Context, Power and perspective: Confronting the Challenges to Improving Attainment in Learning at Work. Joint Network/SKOPE/TLRP International workshop 8-10th November 2001, Sunley Management Centre, University College of Northampton.

Dr Stephen Billett teaches in the School of Vocational, Technology and Arts Education, Griffith University, Australia

To understand further how learning through work occurs and it can be best organised, necessitates a critique of some assumptions in the current workplace learning discourse. A proposition advanced here is that workplaces and educational institutions merely represent different instances of social practices in which learning occurs through participation. Learning is both can be understood through a consideration of their respective participatory practices. Therefore, to distinguish between the two in terms of formalisms of social practice and propose general consequences for learning is not helpful. These social practices are constituted historically, culturally and situationally (Billett 1998), and share a common focus on the continuity of the practice. The need for workplaces and educational institutions and other kinds of social institutions have evolved over time and are constituted as the product of particular cultural practices and needs (see Scribner 1985). The manifestation of the particular social practice (e.g. a particular workplace or school) is shaped by cultural need and situational factors such as local needs, the individuals involved, the goals for the activities and the bases for judgements about performance (see Engestrom & Middleton 1996, Suchman 1996). The structuring of learning experiences in workplaces is directed towards sustaining practice, (albeit directed towards sustaining one or more groups’ interests in the practice) is shared with those of educational institutions. However, there are distinctive qualities in the practices, activities and goals of these two kinds of social practices. For the purposes of this paper, central to these differences is the likely claim that educational institutions have learning as their principal and privileged role. However, if learning is seen as something privileged by practices within educational institutions rather than as a consequence of participation in social practices more generally, (such those involved in the production of goods or services), this may inhibit understanding about learning generally and learning through work, in particular. However, if, on the other hand, learning is conceptualised more broadly as being the product of participation in social practice through engagement in the activities and access to support and guidance, it may be possible to adopt a broader view of learning experiences in workplaces and their enhancement. The widening acceptance of learning as an inter-psychological process (i.e. between individuals and social sources of knowledge) prompts a consideration of learning as engagement with the social world, and not only through close personal interactions as Vygotsky (1978) and others propose.

Other reasons warrant making participation a central concern for a workplace pedagogy. For many workers, perhaps most, the workplace represents the only or most viable location to initially learn and/or develop further their vocational practice. Workplaces are becoming even more salient as the responsibility for maintaining the currency of vocational practice is being now being increasingly transferred to workers in the current reformulation of lifelong learning policies and practices. In this context, opportunities to engage in work, the kinds of tasks individuals are permitted to participate in and the guidance provided become key bases to understand and evaluate how and what individuals learn through their work. How opportunities to particiapate in the often contested relations that constitute work practice become central to understanding learning through work. It is important therefore to understand how workplaces afford individuals or cohorts of individuals these opportunities. These affordances (Gibson 1969) also likely shape how individuals elect to engage in goal-directed activities and secure direct (close or proximal) and more indirect (distal) kinds of guidance (e.g. opportunities to observe and listen) (Billett & Boud 2001). Both kinds of participatory practices have consequences for the knowledge individuals construct, with the former being central to assist with learning that would be difficult without aid. The use of intentional learning strategies in the workplace, such as guided learning, is also subject to contested participatory practices.

It is equally important to account for how individuals elect to engage with work activities and access the support and guidance that workplaces affords them. Ultimately, individuals determine what constitutes their invitational qualities. Hence, workplace practices such as those shaping individuals’ participation and how they elect to engage in workplace activities become central to understanding learning at work and the construction of the knowledge required for work. It is these relations that are central to the social basis of knowing.

It is worth noting that what is proposed here is not intended as a gratuitous critique of educational institutions or practices. The central concern here is to provide a space for learning in workplace to be discussed at least partially unencumbered from assumptions based on practices in educational institutions. 

Workplace participation and sustaining practice

Describing workplaces as ‘informal’ learning environments is negative, inaccurate and ill-focussed. It does little to assist the standing of or understanding about workplaces as learning environments. However, the use of negative terms to describe workplaces as learning environment, such as ‘non-formal’ and ‘informal’, persists, often without a critical appraisal. In the following, three different premises are advanced to question the assumptions that underpin the use of these terms to describe learning experiences and outcomes in workplaces.

Negative and inappropriate premises

Firstly, describing a phenomenon by what it is not: (e.g. informal– ‘not formalised’, unstructured – not structured) is unhelpful. It does little to assist understand its qualities or characteristics. In this instance, the use of concepts and assumptions associated with particular social practices — educational institutions — are advanced as premises for what constitutes the formalisms and structures of workplace learning experiences. For instance, teaching and learning are commonly, if erroneously, held to be synonymous or at least associated. Therefore, the absence of qualified teachers and didactic interactions in workplaces leads to assumptions that learning will be inferior to that occurring in educational institutions. This learning might seem adhoc because the activities are not consistent with practices adopted in these institutions. So, from a perspective that privileges the practices of educational institutions, the absence of a written curriculum document which aims to order teachers’ actions and learners’ experiences, and qualified teachers and teaching practices, raises the concern that learning through work — if it occurs at all — will be weak, adhoc, concrete and incidental. However, there is evidence aplenty that rich learning occurs outside of educational institutions (see below). Consequently, assumptions based on practices in educational institutions may not be wholly useful in considering learning in or the development of a pedagogy for other kinds of social practice, for instance workplaces. Therefore, if the discourse on learning through work uncritically privileges assumptions and practices within educational institutions and learning is not seen as a consequence of engagement in goal-directed activities more generally, then a limited understanding of workplace learning may perpetuate. If, however, the discourse on workplace learning holds learning as an outcome of participant thinking-acting occuring, through engagement in goal-directed activities that are structured by workplace experiences then this may provide richer bases to discuss and conceptualise workplace learning experiences.

Structuring of workplace activities, participation and performance

Secondly, it is inaccurate to describe workplace learning experiences as ‘unstructured’ or ‘informal’. Norms, values and practices shape and sustain activities and interactions within workplaces, as in other social practices, such as homes (see Goodnow 1996). Moreover, the structuring of these experiences in workplaces is often inherently pedagogical as they are concerned with the continuity of the practice through participant learning. Furthermore, workplace norms and practices also structure what constitutes performance in workplaces and bases for judgements about performance. These three points are now discussed in turn.

Constituting workplace experiences. Rather than being without structure, workplace activities are often highly structured. Just as the goals, norms and practices of educational institutions frame the activities students participate in, similarly workplace goals and practices determine workplace tasks and activities, and which individuals engage in these activities and how they engage (Billett 1996; Lave 1990; Scribner 1988/1997). Rather than being unintentional, the activities of participants in social practices and their learning, outside educational institutions, are often central to the continuity of their communities. Examples include learning to navigate (Hutchinson 1983), weaving (Childs & Greenfield 1980), coal mining (Billett 1993), dairy workers (Scribner 1984), midwifery (Jordan 1989) and tailoring (Lave 1990). Also, rather than being adhoc, approaches to work practice are often intentionally organised to structure workers’ access to the knowledge they need to learn to sustain the practice. This structuring has been referred to by Lave (1990) as the ‘learning curriculum’.

Although not intentionally stated in a syllabus, the pathways of activities in workplaces are often inherently pedagogical, as they focus on continuity of the practice through learning. Lave (1990) found that tailors’ apprentices learnt by participating in work activities that were sequenced to provide engagement in tasks of increasing accountability and complexity. This pathway of participation incrementally provided greater access to the capacities required for work. The apprentices moved through experiences that first provided access to the overall goals required for performance, then the requirements for performance in particular tasks. For instance, initially, the apprentices finished and ironed completed garments. Engagement in these activities provided opportunities to understand work goals, including the standard of finish demanded for garments and understanding the shape of garment components. Next, the apprentices learnt specific procedures for constructing garments. The pathway of learning experiences was ‘formalised’ by a progression through tasks of increasing accountability — that is, movement from tasks of low to high accountability (i.e. those where mistakes can be tolerated to those where mistakes have significant consequences, e.g. making children’s and under garments first). Access to requirements for performance, and indirect guidance through observation were available through the apprentices’ participation (Lave 1990). Accordingly, the workplace’s norms and practices structured the apprentices’ activities and shaped their learning. Lave (1993), an anthropologist, concludes that whenever you examine practice you identify learning. The cognitive (e.g. Anderson 1993) and sociocultural (e.g. Rogoff 1995) constructivist psychological perspectives advance analogous propositions through the linking of engagement in goal-directed activities to learning, with the latter emphasising the intra-psychological processes that occur through engagement. This engagement is held to reinforce, refine or extend individuals’ knowledge. Therefore, more than an end in itself, engagement in work activities incites change in individuals’ capacities: learning. A cognitive account adds that the novelty or routineness of the activities provide opportunities for new learning, and refining and honing what has been learnt from new activities and the support and guidance with new tasks and their refinement.

Pathways of learning activities have also been identified in contemporary work settings. In hairdressing salons, the tasks apprentices engage in and their progress through these tasks are determined by the particular salon’s approach to hairdressing (Billett 1995a). For instance, in one salon where clients are attended by a number of hairdressers, the apprentices first engage in ‘tea and tidy’ — keeping the salon clean and tidy, and providing hot beverages for clients. More than ‘busy work’, these tasks are necessary components in understanding about and initially participating in hairdressing practice. Through these activities, apprentices learn about hygiene, cleanliness and procedures for determining client needs. This initial participation includes the building of the apprentices’ confidence to negotiate with clients. Next, the apprentices wash and then later rinse out of clients’ hair the chemicals used to shape and/or colour hair. Engagement in these tasks advances the apprentices’ capacities in communicating and negotiating with clients in more intimate ways. The apprentices learn inter-psychologically through direct interpersonal interactions and more indirect kinds of participation (observation and listening) to understand and practice important elements of each task (e.g. the importance of removing all the chemicals), and each task’s place and significance in the hairdressing process (Billett 2001a). Later, the apprentices work alongside experienced hairdressers, helping to place rods and curlers in clients’ hair. Later still, before being permitted to cut women’s hair, they commence cutting men’s hair, which is held to be less difficult and of lower accountability than cutting women’s hair. The apprentices continue on this pathway of activities until they can style hair independently.

However, in another salon, where each hairdresser undertakes the entire hairdressing task, the apprentice is required to learn to cut and colour far earlier than in the salon referred to above. The structured pathway of activities in the second salon includes gaining competence with procedures that permit early independent practice. In the same vocational practice, the particular workplace’s goals and practices will determine much of the structuring of activities and also the kinds of tasks to be undertaken and to what standard. The two salons have quite distinct hairdressing goals and practices, and different bases for learning for their continuity. Accordingly, the pathways for participation directed at learning for the continuity of the two hairdressing practices will have be structured quite differently, thereby reinforcing the localised negotiations that constitute a particular work practice. Darrah (1996) has also shown how access to work in a computer manufacturing company is organised and sequenced to structure learning through a pathway of activities. In commercial aviation, a pathway exists comprising movement from the role of flight engineer, to first officer through to captain (Hutchins & Palen 1997).

Other practices have been identified outside of educational institutions associated with learning for continuity. Hutchins’ (1983) study of fishermen identified a deliberately structured approach was used in learning to navigate. Substitute objects (shells and other beach debris) were used to represent objects (night star and constellation patterns) that cannot be seen during the day. So where the learning to sustain the practice (fishing) could not proceed through normal work activities, a substitute activity is provided. The Guarenos of the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela teach cultivation, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing in ways that are highly structured through learning by doing and being provided with an initial understanding of each task and its goals (Ruddle & Chesterfield 1979, cited in Rogoff & Gardiner 1984). Jordan, (1989) notes how Yucatan birth attendants learn their profession through the structured observation of more experienced practitioners. Their apprenticeship proceeds with little or no separation between daily working life and the learning of midwifery. These kinds of learning experiences, which are essential to their social practices and communities, would be categorised by many as being ‘informal’. However, they are highly structured and formalised by community’s norms and practices. Moreover, the learning arising for these activities is not necessarily concrete — wedded to circumstances of their construction — they can incite adaptable learning. Rogoff (1982) and Rogoff and Gauvain (1984) concluded that the potential for transfer from these kinds of activities was as great as that from schooling. The development of what Vygotsky refers to as scientific, rather than everyday concepts, is not dependent on whether they were learnt in a school or not, but whether the concepts were made accessible or not (Billett 1995a). So assumptions about the concreteness of learning arising from participation in social practices other than educational institutions needs to be critically appraised, particularly in light of the crisis of transfer claimed to be occurring with learning from educational institutions (e.g. Raizen 1994). Therefore, in sum, although concerned with continuity of practice rather than individual learning, the structuring of workplace activities is often inherently pedagogic. Their pedagogic qualities are shaped by participatory practices: that is how individuals engage in the inter-psychological process of thinking-acting-learning through workplace activities.

Constituting workplace participation. Workplaces constitute participatory practices (Engestrom and Middleton 1996, Suchman 1996). The norms and practices often structure how individuals participate in work. Given the salience of access to the kinds of activities individuals engage in and guidance by more experienced coworkers, how the workplace affords these opportunities is key to the quality of learning through participation. Workplace factors structure and distribute opportunities for participation and, hence, the prospects for learning. Seniority in workplaces (Dore & Sako 1989) and work demarcations (Danford 1998), as well as internal and external competition, restructuring and redeployment all influence the bases for access to work-tasks and guidance, particularly prized opportunities for individual advancement or continuity. Workplace cliques, affiliations, gender, race, language or employment standing and status are also factors that influence the distribution of opportunities to participate. Hence, while workplace participatory practices may be benign they are often contested. Indeed, contestation seems an enduring feature of work practice, whether it is between ‘newcomers’ or ‘old-timers’ (Lave & Wenger 1991), full or part-time workers (Hughes & Bernhardt 1999); teams with different roles and standing in the workplace (Darrah 1996, Hull 1997); between individuals’ personal and vocational goals (Darrah 1997) or among institutionalized arrangements such as those representing workers, supervisors or management (Danford 1998). This contestation can determine opportunities to engage in novel activities (from which new learning might be derived) and access to close guidance by more expert co-workers. Those inhibited or excluded from engaging in new tasks and denied access to goals and understandings will likely have more restricted learning outcomes than those invited to participate more fully (Billett 2000). In these ways, the norms and values of the workplace shape and distribute opportunities for participation and opportunities to learn. They structure the participatory practice of the workplace, and shape how the continuity of practice is directed. However, these values and practices might well be organised to maintain the status and standing of one group of workers (e.g. full-time workers) at the expense of another (e.g. part-time workers). Workplace practices may also reflect the employers’ attempts to limit the range of task and decision-making that workers can engage in order to maintain the employers’ control of the means of production (Danford 1998). Therefore, the bases for maintaining continuity of practice may be complex and contested. Certainly the tensions between the participatory needs of the individual and the workplace arise through such practices.

Constituting workplace requirements for performance and its acknowledgment. What constitutes workplace performance and its acknowledgment is shaped within workplaces. Situational factors constitute what passes as appropriate performance. The requirement for performance is not a historical (phylogenetic) or socio-cultural given, it is also situationally constituted (Billett 2001b). As judgements about performance will be made in the circumstances of enactment, there is no such thing as a vocational expert per se. What is taken as expertise in one situation might be judged inappropriate in another. Moreover, beyond its constitution, how performance is acknowledged and rewarded in the workplace is also determined situationally. In Darrah’s (1996) computer manufacturing company, the ‘heroes’ were those who worked in the systems design area. These workers received accolades and support of a kind that was quite the opposite of what the production teams received even though their work was as demanding and central to the company’s continuity. In hairdressing salons, it was acceptable for an experienced hairdresser or owner/manager to give a treatment outside the salon’s practice, but a novice would be admonished for doing the same.

In sum, the bases for participation and learning in workplaces are constituted by the goals, activities and culture of the work practice (Brown et al. 1989), or what Suchman (1996) refers to as local negotiations and Engestrom and Middleton (1996) as local orderings. This structuring often has inherently pedagogical qualities focussed on continuity through participant learning. This structuring extends to how and what is valued as effective workplace practice. Together, the bases advanced above suggest that describing workplace learning as ‘informal’ or ‘unstructured’ is far from accurate or helpful.

Learning as a negotiated and reciprocal process

The third proposition refers to the unqualified use of the term ‘informal learning’, which limits understanding both learning through work, and learning more generally. To describe the process of learning as being either ‘informal’ or ‘formal’ suggests either an irreducible relationship between the circumstances in which the learning occurs and changes in individuals, or that it is possible to approximate that learners’ engage in a qualitatively different way in different kinds of social practice. That is, that the kinds of circumstances determine the kind of learning that occurs (i.e. those that are ‘formal’ and those ‘informal’). Both views promote situational (social) determinism and de-emphasises the role of human agency in the construction and further development of their knowledge. Even the most structured learning experiences can only shape individuals’ learning. Therefore, it is probably neither helpful nor precise to describe learning outcomes solely on the basis of the structuring of learning experiences. As Wertsch (1998) notes, unwelcome social press may lead to a kind of learning, which he refers to as mastery, that is a superficial learnt response to that press. He distinguishes this kind of learning from appropriation where the individual embraces the knowledge to be learnt as their own. Knowledge constructed through mastery is less likely to be exercised voluntarily, as is what is learnt through appropriation. In considering these relations, Valsiner (1994) refers to the relatedness between the values of the social practice and those of the individual as a basis for the relations between the individual and social practice.

Despite the many contributions to learning arising from participation in social practice, individuals’ learning is therefore not socialisation or enculturation. Individual agency also shapes engagement in work practice and what is learnt (Billett & Boud 2001). Socially constituted personal histories or ontogenies (Cole 1998, Scribner 1985) likely premise this engagement, which result in particular ways of knowing —- understanding and engaging with the social world. These ontogenies are uniquely socially-shaped through participation in different social practices throughout life histories (Billett 1998). Consequently, individuals’ learning will always be unique in some ways, because as Valsiner (1994, Valsiner & van de Veer (2000) propose knowledge is co-constructed: reciprocally constructed between the individual and the social experience. Likewise, Meade (1934) also views cognition as an ongoing process of negotiating with the social world in which individuals engage. Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that individuals dis-identify with the social practice in which they engage (Hodges 1998); workers elect not to engage in team work when it clashes with their cultural more (Darrah, 1997), workers resist training which they believe to be compromising (Billett 1995b) and new recruits ignore and deny affordances intended to assist their participation. The tensions here are between continuity as goals for learning: those of the social practice versus those of the individuals. So while acknowledging the contribution of the workplace, it is imprecise to describe the process of learning that occurs as a result of those encounters wholly in terms of the circumstances in which it occurs (i.e. ‘informal’ or ‘formal’). Such descriptions de-emphasise the co-constructive inter-psychologically process between what is afforded by the evolving social practice and how it is construed ontogenically. In considering these relations we should heed Miller and Goodnow’s (1995) advice to avoid the twin perils of social determinism and individual constructivism (particularly when portrayed as being overly mentalistic). Analogously, the relations between workplace participatory practices and individuals’ engagement are those that shape learning through work can be thought of being co-participative (Billett in press) We need to consider learning as being co-constructed in relations between the evolving social practice and individuals’ ontogenies. These relations are founded, at least in part, on the relatedness of the goals of continuity between the individual and the work practice.

In sum, it is not helpful to describe or discuss learning in workplaces using discourses and concepts drawn uncritically from practice within educational institutions. Instead, the core of workplace pedagogic practices may be understood through a consideration of reciprocal participatory practice at work, which include the tensions between the continuity of individuals and the continuity of social practices are played out in workplace settings and through work.

Workplaces as centres of inquiry

It is worth concluding by a consideration of the importance that studies of learning in workplaces can make to understanding human cognition and development. A focus on practice, participation and engagement in social practice and continuity as ontogeny and changing social practice offers alternative bases for considering both cognition and pedagogy unencumbered from assumptions about direct relations between teaching and learning. Perhaps the most central concern in contemporary discussions about cognition is the focus on the enduring problem of relations between individuals and the social world. So the conceptual significance of examining participation at work can be seen as illuminating relations between the social world and the mind at intersections between the trajectories of the transforming social practice of the workplace and individuals’ evolving ontogenies as they engage in work. Rather than proposing the mind as either individual or social, it can be conceptualised in a complex of relations between the two. Here, the relations are seen in terms of participatory practices or engagement founded in intersections between the ontogeny (which is socially derived) and the social practice, and in associations between the continuity or sustaining the two. Workplace practices and affordances, like those in other kinds of settings, are dynamic, as their tasks, goals, interactions, participants and relations are likely to be constantly changing. Moreover, the kinds of inter-psychological encounters that Vygotsky proposed as leading to intra-psychological outcomes are not the product of single interactions, but rather as ongoing and iterative interactions that likely change in their qualities of interdependence and purpose, probably leading to great independence. Rather than being a once-off source of knowing, participation needs to be enduring in order to learn richly as well as remain engaged with the changing requirements for practice.

Procedurally, participatory practices provide useful bases to discuss and appraise learning through work. The utility arises because of close associations between engagement in goal-direct activities and learning; the centrality of access to activities and guidance in inter-psychological processes to access knowledge that has a historical, cultural genesis, and needs to account for the agency of individuals. As with any learning environment, workplaces have strengths and weaknesses. Access to activities and guidance through work can render learning opportunities either rich or poor. However, the participatory factors that make available and distribute these opportunities are not benign Whether the concern is about learning through everyday activities at work or through the use of guided learning strategies, the degree by which workplace factors support this learning is central to its outcome (Billett & Boud 2001). The dangers of superficial learning and poor conceptual development are not reserved for educational institutions, as they also beggar the outcomes of learning through work. As with educational institutions, there remains an abiding concern that learning arising from workplace experiences may be fragile and not readily adaptable to new situations and circumstances. All this suggests that a workplace pedagogy is needed urgently in order assist effective workplace learning. The urgency can be located in the demands of learning throughout working lives being increasingly directed towards individuals who may be ill-placed to secure that development in contested workplaces that may resist their efforts at continuity of practice.


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How to cite this piece: Billett, S. (2001) Participation and continuity at work: A critique of current workplace learning discourses. Context, Power and perspective: Confronting the Challenges to Improving Attainment in Learning at Work. Joint Network/SKOPE/TLRP International workshop 8-10th November 2001, Sunley Management Centre, University College of Northampton. Available in the informal education archives:

© Stephen Billett 2001.This piece has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.
First placed in the archives: February 2003. Updated June 2019.

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by