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06 Feb 2013

Beyond Informal and Towards a Science of Learning through Practice

By Stephen Billett.

It’s time to reassert the legitimacy and worth of learning through practice. The learning of occupations that serve the social and economic needs of individuals, communities and countries is an important project. Across human history, the initial and ongoing learning of those occupations has largely occurred through the circumstances of their practice (e.g. in places of work). For over a millennium prior to industrialization, in Europe the learning of occupations occurred in family or small businesses that met the needs of their communities. Even earlier, similar processes were enacted in Mesopotamia, Hellenic Greece and Imperial China, with the latter offering the most enduring example of learning through practice across five millennia. However, since industrialization and the formation of modern nation-states, and with the introduction of mass schooling, vocational and higher education systems, the standing of practice-based learning experiences has been denigrated within these schooled societies, where it is often referred to pejoratively, as being informal, non-formal or ad hoc, thereby belying its significant contributions.

A science of learning through practice

Yet, recently governmental, societal and personal concern about the applicability of what is learnt through educational institutions is now seeing a renewed interest in workplace experiences within tertiary education programs preparing students for specific occupations. These programs are now the major elements of tertiary education in most countries with advanced industrial economies. So, as noted above, it is timely to reassert the legitimacy and worth of learning through practice. Moreover, such is the power and ubiquity of the discourse of schooling in contemporary schooled societies that it is necessary to advance a science of learning through practice to secure that worth and legitimacy.

Such an account of learning through practice needs to be informed by explanations of processes and outcomes on its own terms and shaped by its own precepts, not through the dominant discourse of ‘schooling’. So, what would such an account look like? What are the premises and key elements of a science of learning through practice, whatever it is named?

Accounts of human learning

Perhaps, most centrally, it needs to be premised on accounts of human learning. The evidence suggests that before there were places and processes of instruction and where these do not exist today, the learning of and developing further occupational knowledge is premised on individuals’ active learning. Whilst the places of work provide support and guidance for that learning, it is also shaped by learners’ interests, capacities and ways of engaging, much of which are products of earlier experiences. As these experiences are socially shaped by what has been learnt earlier, this account emphases relations between the social world that forms what and how individuals know and learn, and the personal-particular interests, capacities and intentions that shape how they elect to engage in and learn through their work.

The key elements of an account of this learning and, therefore, bases for how it might be enhanced, are likely to be threefold:

  1. A practice based curriculum – Curriculum is the pathway of experiences learners have or need to experience. A practice curriculum probably has two key elements: i) the pathway of experiences comprising the lived experience of the occupation, such as might be secured through participating in that work; and, ii) particular experiences required for learning the occupation but which are not accessible through the lived experience of work. So, identifying what can be learnt through the provision of pathways of work experiences – referred to as the learning curriculum – can assist replicate processes enacted across human history for the initial and ongoing learning of occupations through every day activities and interactions in places of work. In addition, experiences can be identified and provided to make accessible what might not be learnt through everyday work activities and interactions. These can include preparation in educational programs, integrated experiences with such programs or other kinds and combinations of experiences.
  2. Practice pedagogies – Pedagogies are means to enrich learning. Practice pedagogies are likely to be distinct from those used in classroom settings. They will mainly be enacted in work settings and through work activities and interactions, and be enacted by more experienced or expert workers, to augment pathways of experiences. For instance, they comprise storytelling, the use of analogies, mnemonics, sharing of heuristics (e.g. tricks of the trade), engagement in potentially rich learning activities, and guidance provided by half completed examples, and direct interactions (i.e. explanations, coaching, modelling etc) by experts.
  3. Personal epistemologies – Personal epistemologies are the bases of and means by which individuals utilise and construct further their knowledge. These are essential both for when direct guidance and interactions with experts occurs, and the far more common circumstance of learning for just about everything that occurs outside such circumstances. Across history, it seems it was not the responsibility of others to teach novices, but for novices to learn. Essentially, they have to learn, how, what and why they should learn through practice. Variously, this has been referred to their need to apprehend, gain access to and even steal the knowledge required to practice their selected occupation. The process of mimesis (i.e. observation and imitation) is likely to be central to this process, as are other aspects underpinning active learning. Associated with such active learning is individuals’ readiness to engage and learn richly through those activities and them assenting to wanting to learn their occupations.

Although tentative and warranting much more elaboration than can be provided here, these elements provide some bases for a science that can assist legitimise, further inform and promote learning through practice. In doing so, it may well engage more fully and give credence deserved of a process of learning and societal development that has well served humankind.

Learning thro practiceStephen Billett is a Professor of Adult and Vocational Education at Giffith University, Australia. Email:

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