Monday, September 27, 2010

Meta-learning: educational fungus

When I was at school we showed up, we were told a bunch of stuff and we went home. This model pretty much continued throughout my education - A levels and degree were all completed in a bubble of self-ignorance. Work-place learning similarly was usually fairly direct: "here's a bunch of stuff you need to know. We've told you. You know it. Now carry on"*

Not so any longer it seems.

It appears that all learning these days needs to be presaged by a lengthy study of what it means to be a learner. I first noticed this in my first job as a trainer with a government agency - we ran a course that simply focused on how to develop your skills as learner, but this was optional thing. My colleagues in the "soft-skills" team were switched on to getting their delegates (always "learners" in their parlance - never "trainees") to reflect on their development, and mandated by things like Investors in People, we encouraged everyone to discover their learning style, keep a CPD folder, start a journal of reflective practice and so on.

This was something that was at the heart of the Certificate in Training Practice too - my first formal step in qualification as a workplace learning "professional".

And now it seems it is a primary part of ANY learning opportunity. The foundation degree we offer has extensive opportunities to reflect on the experience of being a learner - indeed the first module our students undertake asks them to think about nothing else!

Now I am looking at a variety of off the shelf NVQ type qualifications aimed at lower level learners - Levels 2 & 3 in the UK structure - and as much as a quarter of a qualification can be taken up by learning about the process of learning.

I am wondering just how useful all this is in some cases. In knowledge based work, characterised by variety and difference in activity, reflective learning might pose a great help in considering how to approach similar but different material in future. In in the type of repetitive, process driven work I am looking at in these qualifications the opportunities for reflective learning are surely somewhat limited. Often there is not a great deal of variety in activity and the focus is more on following guidelines quite closely for compliance issues as much as anything. Even if there is any variety, the nature of the work means that time for reflection in the workplace is somewhat limited - the emphasis has to be on simply getting the job done.

While I'm all for the reflective ideals of continuous professional development, surely at the point at which thinking about yourself is 25% of a qualification - ostensibly aimed at getting you up and running as an entry-level technician - things have gotten out of hand. It's too much and misses the imperative to focus on the needs of the business in producing effective training interventions that will be valued by managers?

My feeling is that this is self-aggrandisement by the learning/education/training people responsible for developing these qualifications. By playing up the knowledge of learning they are keen to show that learning has to be held in some kind of complex structure; almost as if they are building some kind of arcane lore about it all. I'm not sure, but my instinct is that for many learners this is a turn off. For lots of people the goal is to show up at work, do it right, then go home, and hopefully not have to think about it. Perhaps I wouldn't be so worried, were it not for the fact that from what I have seen and what I have experienced, this part of their learning experience is going to be occupied with thoughts of learning styles, Maslow, "10% of what you read", left and right brain and other elements with a hint of "truthiness" about them.

Which may not really be to the advantage of someone who simply wants a decent qualification so they can earn more money.

* This wasn't THAT long ago, I'm only 34.


Thatcher Bohrman said...

It does seem like a bit of extra mental paperwork before getting to the heart of the matter. I hope all this reflection will get people closer to finding their true motivations.

Dan said...

So do I Thatcher, but I can't help think that it probably just annoys or bemuses some learners and managers.