New Ways of Learning in the Workplace. ERIC Digest.
by Lankard, Bettina A.
In today's "high performance organizations," workers must be prepared
for continuous on-the-job growth and development. Given the increased age,
variety of experiences, and diverse lifestyles and cultures of the working
population, it is understandable that adult education practices must move
beyond the traditional model of teachers as purveyors of knowledge and
learners as passive recipients. Methods and techniques that draw upon workers'
previous experiences, link concepts and practices, and encourage reflection
and the transfer of knowledge from one situation to another are vital to
the learning process. This Digest addresses some of the new ways to learn
at work, such as action learning, situated learning, and incidental learning.
Action learning is a systematic process through which individuals learn
by doing. It is based on the premise that learning requires action and
action requires learning. It engages individuals in just-in-time learning
by "providing opportunities for them to develop knowledge and understanding
at the appropriate time based on immediate felt needs" (Lewis and Williams
1994, p. 11). Learning itself is the desired outcome of action learning,
not problem solving. It is the learning that occurs in the process of finding
solutions to problems that constitutes action learning. It is a type of
learning that helps individuals respond more effectively to change.
Action learning has been adopted in the workplace as a viable approach
to experiential management education and development and an important element
of a training and development strategy (Vince and Martin 1993). It involves
the members of an organization in group situations with the goal of helping
each group member learn through the process of finding solutions to their
own problems. Through this process, learners increase their self-awareness
and develop new knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and skills for making
changes and redefining their roles within new contexts (Williams 1992).
The properties of action learning clarify its relevance to workplace learning
(Beaty et al. 1993):
Learning is based on the solution of real problems.
Learning occurs with and from others who are also engaged in
managing real problems.
Members of the group are responsible for solving their own
problems, unlike those on a project team or task force.
Members of the group are concerned with implementing actions,
moving beyond the stages of analysis and recommendation.
Situated learning is another approach that is receiving attention in
the field of adult and workplace learning. In the situated learning approach,
knowledge and skills are taught in contexts that reflect how the knowledge
will be used in real-life situations. This strategy is based on the premise
that knowledge is not independent, but fundamentally situated, being in
part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed
(Brown et al. 1988). Orey and Nelson (1994) elaborate on this explanation,
stating that "learning requires more than just thought and action, or a
particular physical or social situation, or just receiving a body of factual
knowledge; it also requires participation in the actual practices of the
culture" (p. 623). Thus, in situated learning, it is the authentic social
context in which learning occurs that offers the benefit of increased knowledge
and offers the learner the potential for applying that knowledge in new
ways and in new situations.
Cognitive apprenticeship is one example of situated learning in which
learners participate in a community of practice that is developed through
activity and social interaction, in ways similar to that in craft apprenticeships
(McLellan 1994). However, "cognitive apprenticeship supports learning in
a domain by enabling students to acquire, develop, and use cognitive tools
in authentic domain activity" (ibid., p. 5), which means the activities
are performed in the context of the work environment. Student teaching
is another example of situated learning in that learning occurs in an authentic
setting where learners experience the cultural and interpersonal aspects
of work in the teaching profession.
In the theory of situated learning, "knowledge is viewed as co-produced
by the learner and the situation; engagement of the learner in the situation
is critical" (Damarin 1993, p. 28). Damarin clarifies learning and cognition
in a situation by using the distinction between traveler and tourist as
a clarifying metaphor:
A traveler and a tourist can visit the same city, but experience it
very differently. A tourist's goals are typically to see all the sights,
learn their names, make and collect stunning pictures, eat the foods, and
observe the rituals of thecity. A traveler, on the other hand, seeks to
understand the city, to know and live briefly among the people, to understand
the languages, both verbal and non-verbal, and to participate in the rituals
of the city. At the end of equally long visits, the tourist is likely to
have seen more monuments, but the traveler is more likely to know how to
use the public transportation. (p. 29)
Situated learning, like action learning, stresses that behavior change
is more likely to occur as a result of reflection on experience. Incidental
learning--another way to "learn at work"--differs in that it involves little
or no reflection. Ross-Gordon and Dowling (1995) give the following definition
of incidental learning:
Incidental learning is defined as a spontaneous action or transaction,
the intention of which is task accomplishment, but which serendipitously
increases particular knowledge, skills, or understanding. Incidental learning,
then, includes such things as learning from mistakes, learning by doing,
learning through networking, learning from a series of interpersonal experiments.
Incidental learning is unintentional and unexamined. It is not based
on reflection; thus the learning is embedded in the learner's actions.
The difficulty in validating incidental learning as an effective learning
strategy is that learning is not anticipated, and, therefore, not easily
assessed. The primary intent of the activity is to accomplish the task,
not to learn. When incidental learning occurs, it is a surprise--a byproduct
of other activity. The learner discovers something while in the process
of doing something else. To act upon and pursue that discovery, the learner
must pull away from the primary or planned task and examine the discovery
clearly before he/she can learn from it. Awareness of opportunities and
the value of such learning may be brought to learners' attention by emphasizing
the outcomes they might anticipate through incidental learning (Mealman
Value for lifelong learning
Improved life skills
Development of self-confidence
COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF ACTION, SITUATED, AND INCIDENTAL LEARNING
Each of the ways of learning reviewed in this Digest share common qualities
and attributes. For example, action learning, situated learning, and incidental
learning all engage learners in experiential learning. The gap between
the learner and expert disappears as all individuals are considered to
be expert in some capacity in the work community. Additionally, all three
ways of learning have a collective dimension. In the workplace, learning
often takes place in teams, enhanced by communication and collaboration
among the individual members and groups and shared across the organization.
"Decisions are often taken and implemented by groups and are affected by
explicitly or implicitly shared social norms, social history, social values,
and social beliefs" (Watkins and Marsick 1992, p. 294). Because the workplace
context is social and requires interpersonal interaction, the individual's
interpretation of a situation and his/her subsequent actions are subject
to a great number of differences. Learning in context--action learning,
situated learning, incidental learning--provides the opportunity for workers
to clarify their understanding of a situation within the social context
and reduce the incidence of misinterpretation or faulty learning.
Conditions that enhance learning that are common to the three approaches
are as follows (ibid.):
1. Proactivity--in which the learner takes charge of and directs his/her
learning. It is similar to the conditions of autonomy and empowerment.
2. Critical reflection--in which learners "identify and make explicit
norms, values, and assumptions that are hidden from conscious awareness"
and challenge the "way things are done around here" (p. 297)
3. Creativity--which enables people to think beyond their own points
of view, to see situations in a variety of different lights.
VALUE OF THE THREE APPROACHES IN HIGH PERFORMANCE ORGANIZATIONS
Today's high performance organizations foster continuous learning for
continuous improvement, a practice congruent with total quality management.
Driven by a rapidly changing global market, organizations are seeking new
ways to think, organize, communicate, and work. The relationship between
workers and managers is shifting. Workers are required to take more responsibility
for their work and to have skills in critical thinking and problem solving.
Managers need to learn the role of facilitator and change their old patterns
of directing. New ways of learning that involve experiential activity offer
promise to organizations striving to achieve high performance. The concepts
and practices of action learning, situated learning, and incidental learning
also have potential for the professional and self-development of workers
who will work in these organizations.
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