Learning through practice: Origins, practices and lessons

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Billett, Stephen
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Jian Huang, Liu Deen, Songge Peng Smith

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Shanghia, China


Across human history, by far the vast majority of learning for occupations has occurred within occupational practice in European, Central Asian, African and Asian countries. Indeed, the learning of occupations within family was the almost universal approach up until the various industry revolutions across the Western world (Greinhart 2002). The key exceptions were programs in universities that had specific and prestigious occupational focuses (i.e. medicine, architecture) (Clarke 1971). However, since the development of mass higher and vocational education systems, that arose as a result of industrialisation and modernity (Hanf 2002), little attention has been given to the traditions of learning through practice and within family and practice settings and that had generated the kinds of artefacts and services that societies and communities needed. It is only now when considerations of workplaces as learning environments, integrating experiences within practice settings in an increasing number of university programs and a broader emphasis on vocational education that has led to considerations of learning through practice (Billett 2010). This paper compares and contrasts the curriculum and pedagogic practices that were utilised long ago in Hellenic Greece (Lodge 1947) and Ancient China (Ebrey 1996; Portal 2007) and the ways in which the nature of work, working knowledge and practice pedagogies were enacted. These two cultural traditions generated quite distinctive views of what constitutes skilled artisans, the processes of working and learning through and for that work. It is proposed that the ordering of these experiences can assist inform how learning through practice might progress in contemporary times. The paper commences by proposing why there is a need for a science of learning through practice, and particularly in an era of schooling. Then, a consideration of how cultural, societal and situational factors shape the goals and opportunities for learning. Outlining developments in Ancient China and Hellenic Greece, and accounts of practices associated with learning occupations within those cultures and communities these range of factors are elaborated. Although far from complete, the evidence points to the structuring of learning experience as being of a particular kind. Following this, consideration of pedagogy is a practice that arise through these historical accounts are offered as a means of understanding that particular approaches to and purposes of learning through practice. From this analysis, concepts of curriculum can be broadened and ideas associated with pedagogy as part of practice can be reassessed.

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Proceedings of 7th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning 7 (RWL7 2011)

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Technical, Further and Workplace Education

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