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What L&D can learn from FE?


IMAGENAMEThink Further Education is a separate world to the workplace? Think again, says Donald H Taylor.

What on earth can workplace Learning and Development (L&D) learn from the Further Education (FE) sector in the UK? The first reaction of many in workplace L&D is probably 'not much'. FE colleges are a place that people go to instead of university, aren't they, and surely a different world to that inhabited by L&D? Yet, more than any other part of the training establishment, FE overlaps considerably with the work of L&D. Not just because FE provides training for working adults, but because it has the time and resources to research how to do it.

Recently I attended a seminar on 'Learning to Learn', hosted by the Campaign for Learning during the course of which it became very clear that FE has a great deal to offer L&D. Most of all, there is a tradition in FE of a research-based approach to learning typified by the event’s keynote speaker Professor Frank Coffield of the Institute of Education. This approach is coupled with a willingness in FE to take the time to consider the implications of this research.

Photo of Donald H Taylor"Slow moving it may be, and underfunded, and the butt of changes and reversals in government policy, but the education sector aims to really understand how learning happens, based on solid research rather than whimsy and an eye for a headline and a fast buck."

Most famous for his 2004 work on the poverty of learning styles theory Coffield is a laconic but intellectually vigorous Scot who does not absent himself from rigorous inspection, exhorting his audience to "read my research and write and tell me what's wrong with it".

Coffield and the other speakers were there to discuss 'Learning to Learn' in the context of Further Education, yet much of what they said would be directly useful to those in workplace learning and development. One example is the development of the concept of Formative Assessment, based on Assessment for Learning (AfL) – not, notice, assessment of learning, but for learning. In other words, not tests taken at the end of a course, but ongoing interaction between teacher with students (in the FE case) to establish where the student is now, where the student is going, and how best to get the student there. Expressed so baldly this sounds like little more than an exercise in stating the obvious – teachers (or trainers) should talk to students (or employees) to ensure that they are learning the right things to meet their aims.

However, precisely because the education sector has invested in understanding learning and teaching, there is more detail to AfL than this, beginning with a 1998 paper in Assessment in Education by Black and Wiliam. This paper was a survey of existing literature on assessment, looking at 580 articles or chapters, of which the authors used materials from 250. That's a substantial amount of work, leading to authoritative results as a basis for action. For a 14-page overview of Black and Wiliams' work, see Inside the Black Box.

Nobody outside the education sector gets paid to do this sort of work, and despite the fact that it has direct relevance to workplace L&D, I would doubt if more than a handful have heard of it, or of the five factors that Black and Wiliam say can be used to improve learning through assessment:

  • The provision of effective feedback

  • The active involvement of students in their own learning

  • Adjusting teaching to take into account results of assessment

  • Recognising how profoundly assessment affects students' motivation and self esteem

  • The need for students to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve
  • What happened after this paper was published? The idea of AfL became part of educational discourse quite rapidly, but there were no stand-out implementations that changed education dramatically. After all, as the authors made clear, what happens in the classroom is complex and not susceptible to easy solutions and none but the very best teachers can implement general principles on their own: 'Their classroom lives are too busy and too fragile'.

    "The emphasis of workplace L&D has to be on performance."

    If they had been in the private sector, I cannot believe that any of this would have held Black and Wiliam back. They would have launched a book ('Change your Classroom teaching in five easy steps with AfL'), backed by a controversy-seeking PR and marketing campaign ('"Assess this," – top profs slam poor teaching'). With luck they would have landed a high-profile TV slot ('The education make-over reality show – who will survive the classroom jungle this week?'). The result would have been plenty of money for them, a rapid take up of their ideas, the creation of a band of zealots and a series of poor implementations that left students worse off than before.

    The point is this: frustratingly slow moving it may be, and underfunded, and the butt of changes and reversals in government policy, but the education sector aims to really understand how learning happens, based on solid research rather than whimsy and an eye for a headline and a fast buck. As a result, they have produced a body of work that we in the workplace learning and development could benefit from examining. We just have to make the time to read it fully.

    Of course the education sector and workplace L&D are different. Education has an explicit broader social purpose which can only ever be implicit in training at work. The emphasis of workplace L&D has to be on performance. Education can, and should, have a wider aim. Prof. Coffield expressed this as "to teach people to be better at learning; to teach them to be better human beings". As long as the employer, rather than the state, is the one paying the bills, this will never be the first aim of workplace L&D.

    Both establishments can learn from each other. L&D is already much further from the trainer-centred model still in use in FE, and more advanced in its adoption of supporting technologies. On the other hand, the depth of research available in the academic training environment as a whole and the amount of time that FE puts into considering the best ways of teaching, certainly challenges us in workplace L&D to be as active in our research, and as reflective in our practice.

    Perhaps we should take the time to learn a little more from each other.

    About the author: Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning and Skills Group. Read his blog here


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