We’re so good at switching people off learning

The Matthew effect is well-known among adult educators: the already well-educated get more, and the least well educated get none. So I was interested to read a recent piece of research examining the learning intentions of low-qualified workers (a link is below).

The researchers surveyed 673 workers in 39 organisations, who had few if any school-leaving qualifications. The results were analysed using methods that allowed the researchers to control for a range of variables, so that they could isolate the factors that predict intentions to learn. They also interviewed 14 workers to provide greater depth.

Two factors were clearly linked with intentions to learn in the future. The first was what they called ‘self-directedness’ in their views of work. People who had a high degree of self-directedness placed a higher value on learning. This is an interesting finding, but of course self-directedness is not an abstract and free-floating personal quality – it develops over time as a result of being involved in work and workplace relations that make you feel there is a point to positive planning.

This is why researchers like Lorna Unwin and Alan Felstead have placed so much emphasis in their recent writing on what they call ‘expansive workplaces’ that promote high levels of autonomous learning. And interestingly, one reason why some of the low-qualified workers rejected learning was that they thought it would lead them into more stressful and unpleasant roles.

The second factor was people’s earlier experiences of education.  It wasn’t just that school learning had switched people off, though that was certainly one of the findings. The researchers also reported that learning intentions were higher among those who had learned during working hours, gone on study tours, or had taken part in an innovation project or a study group. For other activities – including self-tuition through online learning and after hours taught classes – there was no positive effect on learning intentions.

In other words, bad memories of schooling are overcome by positive experiences of adult learning. The question is then how we get people back into learning – particularly if they are on the margin of the labour market, in precarious work, or on a fixed-term contract.

 

‘Examining the learning intentions of low-qualified employees: a mixed method study’, by E. Kyndt, N. Govaerts, L. Keunen and F. Dochy, Journal of Workplace Learning, 25, 3, 2003 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=1366-5626&volume=25&issue=3&articleid=17085193&show=abstract

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One thought on “We’re so good at switching people off learning

  1. Good to see research supporting what we instinctively know in adult learning. I suspect the issue is complex and requires many different interventions according to need and circumstance. However, one practical step that springs to mind is adapting the Learning Champion model developed by NIACE into the workplace so ‘the art of the possible’ become embedded informally through low paid, low status working environments.

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