What does language have to do with learning and change in adult and work based learning contexts?
This short essay covers some thoughts about the use of language in relation to ‘learning and change’ (also the title of my Masters subject).
Language plays a central role in learning as both seek to develop understanding and make sense of the world. Language enables us to interact with others in a shared process of making meaning. We use language to describe our reality and to communicate our sense of the world to, and with, others. In this same process, we also communicate who we are; that is, we construct not only our reality but also our ‘self’. When we learn we are engaged in a process of developing our understanding, attempting to make sense of something new or unknown to us. As described in the subject learning guide, ‘learning means getting access to new ways to mean’, so we not only learn new things but refine our learning process at the same time, or ‘learn how to learn’. Change then, is impacted by our efforts in learning new ways to mean; that is, to step from the known to the unknown (learning) and then to mark the transformation (change) from something unknown to known.
In an adult or work based learning context, language plays a significant role in one’s learning, as much as it does in early childhood development and learning. A workplace contains a specific profession (such as auto-mechanics), which involves language and discourse highly characteristic of that profession. The role of apprenticeship (a key component in the training and development in para-professions and trades) is in effect an initiation into the culture, context and discourse of a para-profession or trade. An apprentice, or ‘initiate,’ learns far more than the skills spelt out in a training package or work placement; I am certain that if one was to compare the language and demeanour of a third-year apprentice to a first-year, one would note significant difference. A third-year would use language and terminology with more authority and confidence and perhaps even embellish this with a greater experience than what you’d expect from a first-year, who would use the language more tentatively (and perhaps at times inappropriately).
It is important to also mention that teachers in the adult learning field are also challenged by language and discourse. Often a teacher in auto-mechanics is firstly an auto-mechanic prior to becoming a teacher. In fact, ‘becoming a teacher’ is as much an initiation for them as becoming an auto-mechanic is for their apprentices! It is this aspect of teaching in adult learning that is of most interest to me, being an educational designer and staff developer in a vocational education and training (VET) institute. In this short essay I wish to reflect on the VET teacher in relation to the overarching question:
What does language have to do with learning and change in adult and work based learning contexts?
Contributions from the research literature
I had not fully or explicitly considered the role of language in learning, prior to reading Painter (1989). Painter’s view of the role of language in learning is that we scaffold learning through the progression of our language development. While Painter refers to language development in children, this no doubt can be continually applied into adulthood. We can then add Halliday’s thinking about learning as a semiotic process, where he posits an approach to learning theory informed by language, where “theory would be based on natural data … in context, not in a vacuum; observed, not elicited” (1993, p.94), because “the process of language development is still a continuous learning process” (ibid, p.93). Again this highlights the inherent relationship between language and learning.
Just as Painter refers to scaffolding, Halliday uses the phrase ‘magic gateway’ (see p. 98) to discuss ways in which we might explicitly use language forms and interactions to develop strategies for learning. It is interesting that in adult learning approaches we engage in experiential learning approaches quite explicitly yet don’t seem to engage strategies informed by language. It is as if we assume adults have fully developed their language and it needs no further attention.
On reading Solomon (2003), this is not the case. Solomon discusses the role of portfolios in textually producing ourselves as worker-learners, as she outlines the use of portfolios in a higher education work based learning program. Solomon (2003, p.76) considers portfolio development as a pedagogical tool for learning in the program, and as a narrative text, and suggests that
portfolios can be understood as a site where learners reflexively create a life story of themselves by drawing on available social and cultural resources.
She then endeavours to answer a series of questions about how (and what) we can learn about the worker/learner, and indeed, importantly for me, when a learner or a worker becomes a ‘worker/learner’. The VET teacher is an ideal expose of the worker/learner, given they are in the unique position of being dual-professions as I call them. That is, VET teachers are firstly industry professions and secondly teaching professionals and need to constantly reconcile the two roles.
The scaffolding referred to by Painter (1989) is also evident in Solomon’s discussion around the work site as a site for learning; the academy explicitly frames the work site as a learning site, ‘reconstituting it as a learning experience’ (2003, p.79). This notion forces me to reconsider what we mean by informal learning (taken to mean learning that occurs in less formal settings, such as social and public settings, workplaces or otherwise), where we perhaps think too much about the physical setting and not enough about the frameworks that manifest or account for sites for learning. Reflection helps describe the learning encountered through the learner’s (work based) experience. Reflection is textually produced so thus involves written language. Solomon discussed the ways in which this reflective process is scaffolded (pp.79-83).
Having worked through the literature in this module, I see some connection with aspects I would associate with in adult learning and work based learning contexts; namely reflection and the writing process involved in journaling, and in the development of portfolios. Reading the literature in this module has opened up some questions to me:
(1) Does a child’s internalisation of interactions (to produce models for speaking and writing, as described in Painter, 1989 and Halliday, 1993) pose a correlation to an adult’s learning in the process we call reflection?
(2) Does the textual production of oneself through the development of a portfolio adequately capture the discursive and dialogic processes adult learners engage in when they are learning in a workplace context (Solomon, 2003 and Kerka, 1996)?
(3) Is it possible to reconfigure adult learning spaces in ways similar to that proposed by Painter, to draw more deliberately on learners’ (and teachers’) interactions in talking and writing, especially in professional contexts (such as business administration, plumbing, hairdressing and other vocations)? Would this reconfiguration enhance what we have come to know as reflection, and also enhance the understandings about portfolio development for learning and assessment in adult learning settings?
Literacies (Macken-Horarik 1996) and contemporary learning settings which include information and communication technologies (ICTs) is a highly debated topic. The shift from commonsense to uncommonsense, or systematised, language (see Halliday 1993, pp.93-4) fits with this debate, given the rate of change in technology-enriched learning environments: portfolios are now e-portfolios, work based learning is often supplemented with online components, and one’s reflection can be recorded for ‘playback’ via online forums, emails, electronic documents, and audio and video clips. For example, I have found that new ICTs like blogs and wiki provide me with a greater space in which to write that potentially widens my audience (and thus my critics) to enable me to broaden and deepen my ideas as I ‘script’ them in the writing process. I have always kept a journal from a young age and now find that these web based tools complement my journaling in a positive way, extending my writing and discursive and dialogic processes at the same time. In addition, I have also found that I take copious amounts of notes knowing I can revisit (and thus re-use or re-organise) these (e.g. on a wiki) whenever and wherever I may be. Consequently, I feel as if my vocabulary, as well as my understanding of topics, is being enriched more deeply and more broadly than ever before. It seems that while we privilege experiential learning processes in adult learning settings we don’t necessary make the language development process as explicit.
What I’ve found incredibly interesting in this module is my journey of understanding as it has been reframed through a consideration of the role of language in learning. Speaking and writing in adult learning settings are manifested in textual practices such as portfolios, essay writing and structured discussion. I would contend that while language and learning share much, so too do text and identity in parallel, as posited by Solomon (2003, p.87) in her closing remarks:
Our focus here has been on the textual practices [used in a higher education Work-based Learning program], suggesting that these practices are an interesting pedagogical site to explore the way learners produce themselves as worker-learners.
Forming our identity is a key part of making meaning. Our ongoing development of language is also a key component to expressing our identity as well as new understandings and knowledges, and we can discuss our experiences and how we grow and change as a result.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1993. Towards a language based theory of learning. Linguistics and Education 5, 93-116.
Kerka, S. 1996. Journal writing and adult learning. ERIC Digest No.174. Retrieved 08/09/2007 from http://ericdigests.org/1997-2/journal.htm (ID: ED399413).
Macken-Horarik. M. 1996. Literacy and learning across the curriculum. In R. Hasan and G.Williams (Eds), Literacy in Society. London: Longman.
Painter, C. 1989. The role of interaction in learning to speak and learning to write. In J.R. Martin and C. Painter (Eds), Writing to mean: Teaching genres across the curriculum. Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Occasional Papers 9. Sydney: University of Sydney, pp.62-97.
Solomon, N. 2003. Writing portfolios in work-based learning programs: Textually producing one-self. In C. Chappell, C. Rhodes, N. Solomon, M. Tennant and L. Yates (Eds), Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner: Pedagogy and Identity in Individual, Organisational and Social Change. London: Routledge.