Thinking about workplace learning

“Women operators at Midvale Company payroll machine in Time Office, April 29, 1949” flickr photo by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This is one of those posts where I need to get something out of my head and see what it looks like ‘on paper.’ I’m trying to rewrite a section in the literature review chapter of my thesis. I’ve explored workplace learning in a rather narrow way, mainly by distinguishing it from the PD literature in the way it emphasises the informal or non-formal nature of learning. I’d like to expand that into a more rounded consideration of how the literature informs my study. In this post then, I want to explore some of the definitions and conceptualisations of workplace learning, but specifically in the context of TPD – Twitter Professional Development [footnote].

The term ‘learning is used in a number of diverse and diffuse ways, compounded by the fact that it is often deployed when referring to a process and a product. Broadly speaking, there are also two competing and largely incompatible theoretical paradigms: cognitive, and socio-cultural or situational. There is no single, general account of learning and different conceptual lenses are needed, each employing different metaphors and assumptions (Hager & Hodkinson, 2009). Learning is a contested concept, so relying on a single conceptualisation will limit understanding. In what follows, I attempt to lay out some of the ways that learning has been conceptualised, and whether they may be applicable in the context of TPD.

Table of contents
Sfard’s (1998) two learning metaphors
Beckett & Hager’s standard and emerging paradigms
Fuller & Unwin’s Restrictive-Expansive framework
Lave & Wenger’s situated learning
Jacobs and Park conceptual framework
Final thoughts

Sfard’s (1998) two learning metaphors

The two metaphors that Sfard (1998) offers are of acquisition and participation. In the former, the human mind is seen as a container to be filled with something which is acquired, developed or constructed. It involves taking ownership or gaining possession over knowledge, concepts, facts, meanings etc. Verbs like acquiring, gaining, possessing, grasping and accumulating are prevalent, so once ‘acquired,’ like any other commodity, it can now be transferred, applied or shared.

When discussing learning as participation, there is a subtle shift in the discourse, from having to doing, from knowledge to knowing. Rather than there being a possible end state to reach, like having accumulated a body of knowledge, instead it becomes about ongoing active involvement within a particular context. Participation is a process of becoming a more adept actor, a member within a community.

Sfard does not argue for one metaphor over the other, but that both are necessary. Whilst one might be adequate for one particular area, it is unlikely to adequately cover the entire field. Sfard advocates for metaphorical plurality. In the case of TPD, this plurality becomes useful, since there are aspects of both acquisition and participation which are readily apparent. Teachers share resources and experiences; they ‘magpie’ ideas; they curate content; they offer support. In some ways it is an exchange economy, one which lends itself to an acquisitional explanation. On the other hand of course, teachers regularly talk about participating in hashtag chats, or being involved in ‘communities’ like the MFLTwitterati or Team English, or indeed progressing through stages of involvement from lurker through to moderator.

Although this doesn’t help frame TPD in one way or the other, the fact that both metaphors are applicable possibly lends credence to those claims that teachers do in fact learn on and through Twitter.

Beckett & Hager’s standard and emerging paradigms

The prevailing view of learning that has persisted for some time is what Beckett and Hager (2002, 96-98) propose as the ‘standard paradigm of learning.’ It implies that:

  • learning resides in individual minds,
  • learning is propositional (true/false, more certain/less certain),
  • learning can be expressed verbally and written in books,
  • when acquired, learning alters minds, not bodies,
  • can be applied by bodies to alter the external world.

Missing from this account of course is any acknowledgement of collective knowledge within communities, or organisations, or of the part that practice plays in learning. Given the way in which informal learning in the workplace appears to arise in and through practice, and that that is markedly different from the those characteristics in the standard paradigm, Beckett and Hager proposed the ‘emerging paradigm’ (2002, 146) as an alternative. The main features of informal, practice-based learning within the emerging paradigm include that it:

  • is organic/holistic (involve propositional knowledge, cognitive skills, psychomotor skills, attitudes, values, capacities and capabilities without being reduced to any of these individually),
  • is contextual
  • is activity and experience-based
  • arises in situations where learning is not the first aim
  • is activated by learners, rather than teachers/tutors
  • is often collaborative/collegial.

The outcome of learning in the standard paradigm is that somehow the properties of the learner are changed, whereas in the emerging paradigm, the outcome is a the creation of a new set of relations in an environment. However, the standard and emerging paradigms should not be seen as polar opposites, but that the former simply presents a limited and special instance of the latter.

TPD could be explained through either of these paradigms; not surprising if the standard paradigm is a special case of the emerging. Nevertheless, it could be argued that TPD isn’t always collaborative/collegial and although open to serendipitous opportunities, sometimes learning is indeed the ‘first aim’ of teachers as they start up their Twitter app. Although learning may be ‘activity and experience-based’ – if for example someone is sharing and discussing a classroom resource – invariably the activity is abstracted from the context from which it belongs. TPD is not by any stretch, learning during ‘hot action’ (Eraut, 1994: 53) i.e. in the heat of the classroom. These paradigms of learning, although appropriate for for workplace learning more generally, perhaps are less well suited for conceptualising TPD.

Fuller & Unwin’s Restrictive-Expansive framework

In their research into apprenticeship, Fuller and Unwin (2003) drew on situated learning theory to explain how new entrants into a workplace developed the skills and knowledge they needed to progress. In addition, they developed a framework to better understand the barriers and enablers of learning in the workplace. They argue that the notions of expansive and restrictive are helpful in understanding the learning environments in which apprentices are immersed and the expansive and restrictive experiences which therefore arise. The following table highlights those features associated with the two poles of an expansive-restrictive continuum that I consider meaningful in the context of TPD.

Expansive Restrictive
Participation in multiple communities of practice inside and outside the workplace Restricted participation in multiple communities of practice
Breadth: access to learning fostered by  cross-company experiences built in to programme Narrow: access to learning restricted in terms of tasks/knowledge/location
Gradual transition to full participation Fast—transition as quick as possible
Apprenticeship aim: rounded expert/full participation Apprenticeship aim: partial expert/full participation
Explicit institutional recognition of, and support for, apprentices’ status as learner Ambivalent institutional recognition of and support for, apprentice’s status as learner
Apprenticeship design fosters opportunities to extend identity through boundary crossing Apprenticeship design limits opportunity to extend identity: little boundary crossing experienced

Although these, and the features I left out, were drawn from the context of Modern Apprenticeships, there are some useful parallels to be drawn with TPD. Teachers on Twitter have access to multiple communities, whether they are through hashtags, like #MTBoS, EduMatch, or through ongoing activities like EduTweetOz. The only limit is that which is self-imposed and as such, although ‘company’ and ‘organisation’ have little meaning in this context, TPD is better characterised by ‘breadth’ rather than narrowness. The ‘transition to full participation’ depends on the learner themselves, the rate of progress they feel is appropriate, and the point from which they started. Someone familiar with the workings of hashtag chats might make faster progress towards full participation in a new chat than someone which has never been previously involved in one. Furthermore, they may not even seek out full participation, but be comfortable as a partial participant. ‘Institutional recognition’ perhaps has less relevance to TPD since teachers’ institutions aren’t as intertwined in the process in the same way that apprentices’ are. Nevertheless, since teachers tend to participate in TPD of their own volition, institutional ambivalence towards that participation is more likely to be the norm. There are rare cases in some US school districts of teachers’ participation in TPD counting towards required hours of PD, that is far from usual. In fact, not everyone craves institutional recognition, fearing the formality and accountability that might then intrude on their personal learning experiences.

One aspect of TPD which is clearly expansive is the capacity for boundary crossing. This can be through the access to peers from different disciplines, educational sectors or even internationally. Although this may begin ‘virtually’ through the Twitter platform, the breadth of offline opportunities arranged through Twitter continues to grow, whether through TeachMeets, conferences like ResearchEd, unconferences like #BrewEd, movements like #WomenEd, or by arranging visits to other schools.

To be more applicable beyond the context of apprenticeships, I think the expansive-restrictive framework presented above would need more by adapting the features to be more specific to Twitter. Fuller and Unwin contend that when organisations adopt a more expansive approach to supporting apprenticeships, the conditions for ‘deeper’ learning are more likely to be fostered. I’m not convinced that the arguably expansive environment that Twitter offers necessarily leads to deeper learning. And yet for some, it could of course.

Lave & Wenger’s situated learning

‘Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation’ by Lave and Wenger (1991) has become a landmark volume which has gone on to influence thinking across a range of fields, including both workplace learning and professional learning. Asserting that learning is socially situated, it contested the then dominant discourse on learning as cognitive and individualist, and a shift from

‘the individual as learner to learning as participation in the social world, and from the concept of cognitive process to the more-encompassing view of social practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991: 43)

They go on to propose the concept of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ as

[…] a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artefacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. It concerns the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice. (Lave & Wenger, 1991: 29)

Learning is manifest in the way novices become increasingly capable participants within the cultural practices of a community which shares common interests or goals. Learning is neither the acquisition of knowledge or skills, but mutual engagement in ‘an evolving, continuously renewed set of relations’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991: 50) and it is the set of relations amongst people, activity and the world which constitutes the community of practice. Later, Wenger (1998: 73) went on to suggest three dimensions by which a community of practice could be identified. These are ‘mutual engagement’ in a set of activities, a ‘joint enterprise’ and a ‘shared repertoire,’ and that these dimensions could be manifest through fourteen indicators:

  1. Sustained mutual relationships—harmonious or conflictual
  2. Shared ways of engaging in doing things together
  3. The rapid flow of information and propagation of innovation
  4. Absence of introductory preambles, as if conversations and interactions were merely the continuation of an ongoing process
  5. Very quick setup of a problem to be discussed
  6. Substantial overlap in participants’ descriptions of who belongs
  7. Knowing what others know, what they can do, and how they can contribute to an enterprise
  8. Mutually defining identities
  9. The ability to assess the appropriateness of actions and products
  10. Specific tools, representations, and other artefacts
  11. Local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter
  12. Jargon and shortcuts to communication as well as the ease of producing new ones
  13. Certain styles recognized as displaying membership
  14. A shared discourse reflecting a certain perspective on the world

Anyone familiar with TPD will doubtless recognise many of these indicators, whether in the context of a clearly defined community like #edchat, or one that is more diffuse and somewhat less bounded, like physics teachers. Within my data [need a better term than ‘my’ data] there were examples of sustained relationships, shared ways of engaging, rapid flow of information, absence of preamble, awareness of who ‘belongs,’ knowing who can do what, shared tools, local lore and jargon, shared discourse. Maybe therefore I could conceptualise some groups on Twitter as communities of practice; many certainly self-identify as communities. I’m reluctant to go there however, firstly because I’m not sure it would add anything, given that others have already trod this ground (Gilbert, 2016; Rosell-Aguilar, 2018; Wesely, 2013). Secondly, there have been a number of critiques of communities of practice over the years including definitional issues around the terms, how communities deal with something new, the direction of travel of learners from out to in, and the place of individuals within the community (Cairns, 2011). Thirdly, I’m not sure how well this explains or describes the activity of teachers who operate across multiple communities, or communities within communities, or who have shifting roles with respect to peripheral participation. And finally, I’m not at all sure how well communities of practice, or situated learning help to answer my research questions.

Jacobs and Park conceptual framework

Workplace learning has two components, formal training and informal learning, each of which has a particular discourse associated with it. Formal training involves programmes devised, delivered and evaluated by the organisation. Informal learning emerges in the context of working where individuals respond to the activity in which they’re engaged or the people with whom they’re working. Jacobs and Park (2009) proposed three variables which might help understand a workplace learning scenario:

  • the location of the learning (which could be on- or off-the-job)
  • the degree of planning (which could be structured or unstructured)
  • the role of the trainer/facilitator (which could be passive or active)

These three variables, each with two dimensions, are assembled into a conceptual framework with eight possible combinations. Jacobs and Park go on to provide for each of the combinations; for example: {on-the-job/unstructured/passive} Learning occurs at the actual work setting without use of a systems approach, and with limited involvement of a trainer/facilitator e.g. ad hoc mentoring or job shadowing.

Although this framework might be applicable in a school context, it is less useful when applied to TPD since there are no situations where teachers might be involved in TPD whilst on-the-job (or rather I have no evidence of teachers who do use Twitter (for learning) whilst they’re teaching). In fact, other than chat moderators or founder members of certain groups, trainers/facilitators are notable by their absence in most TPD.

Before throwing out this framework entirely, there may be other variables associated with informal learning which are more appropriate. At this point however, I need to dig a little more deeply into differences between formal and informal learning, but also to deal with other related terminology like non-formal, semi-formal and incidental learning. In fact I’ve covered this already in my thesis and the point of this post, as I outlined at the start, was more for me to braindump the supplemental work I wanted to add to provide a more rounded picture of workplace learning.

Final thoughts

Having explored some of the ways in which workplace learning is defined or conceptualised, I’m left with two problems. The first is related to the way in which workplace learning ‘represents a variety of strategies and perspectives that enables co-workers to learn as part of their everyday experiences at work’ (Clus, 2011). Although this is only one among many definitions, the majority also discuss learning specifically in the context of work activity. As I mentioned in the previous section, that’s not the way that teachers do TPD; in the classroom, they neither have the time, nor access to other colleagues. Either I need to bend what workplace learning is, or, despite some similarities, TPD is actually something different.

The second problem I have is that none of the conceptualisations I’ve presented here consider materiality. Given the degree to which activity on and through Twitter is mediated by technology, that’s an issue I feel. I elected to employ a sociomaterial approach from the outset, so I’d remain open to different ways that learning would emerge. Whether workplace or professional learning literature provides the more appropriate hinterland might depend on how or whether it can be adequately be coupled with sociomateriality.


Beckett, D., & Hager, P. (2002). Life, work and learning. practice in postmodernity. London/New York: Routledge.
Cairns, L. (2011). Learning in the workplace: Communities of practice and beyond. In M. Malloch, L. Cairns, K. Evans & B. N. O’Connor (Eds.), The sage handbook of workplace learning (pp. 73-85). London: Sage.
Eraut, M. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Fuller, A., & Unwin, L. (2003). Learning as apprentices in the contemporary UK workplace: Creating and managing expansive and restrictive participation. Journal of Education and Work, 16(4), 407-426. doi:10.1080/1363908032000093012
Gilbert, S. (2016). Learning in a twitter-based community of practice: An exploration of knowledge exchange as a motivation for participation in# hcsmca. Information, Communication & Society, , 1-19.
Hager, P., & Hodkinson, P. (2009). Moving beyond the metaphor of transfer of learning. British Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 619-638.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E.,. (1991). Situated learning : Legitimate peripheral participation Cambridge University Press.
Rosell-Aguilar, F. (2018). Twitter: A professional development and community of practice tool for teachers. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2018
Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13. doi:10.3102/0013189X027002004
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wesely, P. M. (2013). Investigating the community of practice of world language educators on twitter. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(4), 305-318. doi:10.1177/0022487113489032


One thought on “Thinking about workplace learning

  1. […] Deploying this body of literature when discussing teacher learning is far less common, but given the informal nature of the experiences described in the Twitter PD literature, perhaps this might offer an alternative lens. Workplace learning occurs at the intersection between working and learning; it is not a separate event or practice from either. It can include: reading professional literature, observation, collaboration with colleagues, reflection, learning by doing/through experience, browsing Internet and social media, experimenting, trial and error, talk with others, sharing materials and resources, and storytelling. Like the PD literature, a clear and consistent definition is elusive, but one way workplace learning can be framed is using either a metaphor of acquisition or of participation. In the former, something such as skills, knowledge or experience is gained, shared or applied. The latter is less about accumulation and reaching an endpoint, and is instead about ongoing active involvement in a particular context. The point is not that one is preferred over the other, but that both may be appropriate in different circumstances. I discussed this and other ways to conceptualise workplace at much greater length in an earlier post. […]


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