Pete Boyd, Professor of Professional Learning at the University of Cumbria, discusses how applying theory in the workplace could help to develop the workplace learning environment in your organisation.
Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), the inventor of ‘action research’, suggested that ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’. But I wonder how useful, on a day-to-day basis, you think ‘theory’ is to the success of your business?
Perhaps we might all be able to agree that there is valuable knowledge underpinning most areas of work, but we might argue about the nature and source of that knowledge and how it is best learned.
I am interested in ways of understanding professional learning, meaning learning in the workplace or at least learning that is useful for the workplace. Perhaps ‘theory’ is particularly useful when you are trying to change things or when you move from one company to another, but I will argue that all professional learning needs to involve some engagement with theory, if it is to make a significant improvement in your business.
Metaphors are linguistic devices that are useful in capturing the complexity of human learning; they are figures of speech that compare learning to an apparently unrelated activity. To help run a successful business I might give you some knowledge, just tell you something of value, pass it on like a gift – this suggests a learning metaphor of ‘acquisition’.
On the other hand, a new employee might gain some useful knowledge by doing the job in hand and fitting in with current ways of working - this suggests a learning metaphor of ‘participation’. Perhaps more significantly a team of employees might collaboratively struggle with a problem and come up with a solution, a new way of working that moves the business forward – this suggests a metaphor of ‘contribution’.
But metaphors may be misleading…
A widely used metaphor for professional learning is the theory-practice ‘gap’. You will often hear people talk about ‘bridging the gap’ and this is often termed as applying theory to practice in an attempt to close the gap. I believe this metaphor of a gap is unhelpful because it depends on there being two separate bodies of knowledge – theory and practice. This assumes a separation between more abstract theoretical knowledge and more practical procedural knowledge, of how to get the job done. Such a view perpetuates a modern myth that new knowledge is created only in the university and research laboratory rather than in collaboration with practitioners in the real world, Kurt Lewin, as the founder of action research, would be disappointed with such thinking.
In my research, building on the shoulders of giants such as Kurt Lewin, Basil Bernstein and Etienne Wenger, I have developed an alternative metaphor for professional learning as ‘interplay’ between the vertical domain of ‘public knowledge’ and the horizontal domain of ‘practical wisdom’.
The vertical domain of public knowledge foregrounds published ideas including theory, research evidence, professional guidance and policy. It is hierarchically organised by peer review and publication in more or less prestigious texts.
The horizontal domain of practical wisdom foregrounds socially held knowledge about ways of working situated in particular workplaces. It is horizontal and segmented meaning that moving from one workplace to another, even in the same area of work, practical wisdom will vary from one business to another and even from team to team within a large organisation.
Importantly, the two domains of knowledge are not separate bodies but merely foregrounding or emphasising different elements of knowledge within the field. Interaction between both domains of knowledge is necessary for professional learning as ‘interplay’ and the term interplay helps to capture the power involved in workplace learning as different members of a team, and different sources of knowledge are involved in tackling a problem.
In your efforts to make a contribution to the collective leadership of a business, as a worker on the factory floor or as a manager, it might be useful to consider learning as ‘interplay’ between the vertical and horizontal domains of knowledge.
I wonder if my little theory about learning as interplay might have some practical implications for how you develop the workplace learning environment in your organisation. You might consider how to make learning part of everyday work, how to encourage inquiry and experimentation, how to support learning on and off the job, and how to develop distributed leadership.
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