From education to employment

What professionalism really means: Expansive and restrictive learning environments

A model of the type of learning environment learners or apprentices inhabit when they are engaged in work based-learning has been developed by Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller.

Their model presents a continuum from ‘expansive’ to ‘restrictive’ learning environments and it has caught the imagination of those shaping opinion in the sector.

A seminar paper published by the IfL and the 157 Group reveals the potentially exciting way the model can be applied in FE colleges. They framed their inquiry as:  ‘how best to lead culture and systems that encourage teachers and trainers to take ownership of their professional practice and development and that deliver measurable improvements in learning outcomes.’ Such an ambition calls on responses from all those interested in raising the status of the sector and the staff who teach and work in it. In today’s challenging times this is a call that should not go unheeded.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has promoted the model for some years now in response to consultations around apprenticeships, work-based learning, and teacher training, so it was really pleasing to see serious work being devoted to the idea. Furthermore, ATL’s post-16 member steering group (the Further and Higher Education Sector Advisory Group) invited Norman Lucas (Senior Lecturer in Post Compulsory Education at the IOE), who had worked with Lorna on an application of the model to teacher training, to speak at our FE sector zone at ATL’s annual conference in March of this year. Their research had shown that the support for trainee teachers in FE was, broadly, poor.  In keeping with the model that would then suggest that the learning environment in the college was restrictive.

So, what is the model?

The model had been developed in Lorna’s and Alison’s research into apprenticeships. They found that some apprenticeships, particularly in traditional areas of industry (engineering, electrical, automotive) had established practices that informed and supported the apprentices’ experiences and learning opportunities. From periods of on the job training,  off the job education, relation to skilled workers, facility to move around and try different skill sets in the firm, the apprentice had a rich experience that was underpinned by a legitimate learning identity (the ‘apprentice’).  This describes the expansive apprenticeship framework.

However, they found that in less established areas of apprenticeship formation such experiences were not found. Training was for the job at hand and the only relation to expert workers was the person doing the job they were employed to do. There was little or no facility to move to different parts of the organisation and very few, if any, wider learning opportunities. This describes the restrictive apprenticeship framework and it chimes with recent criticisms of the use of the apprenticeship model for retraining employees or as a proxy for ‘on the job’ training.

Really, then, the model is a framework that enables identification of learning activity in a workplace and the sorts of relations and identities that are promoted within it. Activities could be what people are doing (‘shadowing’; ‘mentoring’), what they can do (‘doing research’; ‘attending an event’), and what sort of legitimate developments around learning there are (‘application for continuous professional development (CPD)’; ‘timetabling my CPD for this year’).

The expansive-restrictive framework, then, can help identify how staff, from any workplace or organisation, have access to support networks, training opportunities, and opportunities for developing their expertise. For an apprentice this would, primarily, be to a skilled worker but, in other instances, it would be about providing a sustainable ethos of learning and opportunities to learn in the workplace or college. In other words, an expansive learning environment in an organisation can create the conditions for more training and learning and, in turn, more dynamic roles and innovative ideas. But it depends, crucially, on a network of activity, legitimate identities and relations with others, and ongoing opportunities.

In restrictive frameworks the apprentice or the learner tends to be focused on the tasks at hand to do the job, and these only change when technology changes or working practices change. The possibilities of learning new skills or passing on expertise are greatly reduced, sometimes to just the task itself.

Of course, as Lorna Unwin says, a workplace can have different levels of activity and some departments within a workplace may be more expansive than others. This gives a ‘Russian Doll’ effect whereby what happens at one level of the organisation does not necessarily happen at another.

Moreover, as Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson’s broader model of learning ecologies, suggest the opportunities for development may also hang on relations to other institutions (universities, businesses, agencies) and how the policy around learning is mediated by key stakeholders.

Reasons for the success of the model

The model is so successful because it is based in reality, it is simple, and it is clear as to how colleges and organisations can become better learning environments for staff.

In regard to the robustness of the model, Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller have researched the different forms that work based-learning can take, particularly apprenticeships. They have shown how the learning environment dictates the speed and richness of the learning taking place within it.

The simplicity of the model is that it gives an easily identifiable focus for what is happening in a workplace  or college. For example, the much lauded Rolls Royce apprenticeship is clearly on the expansive edge of the framework and some retail apprenticeships are at the more restrictive end, which is straightforward and understandable.

In the demand for quality around apprenticeships the Minister is not alone, but we need to recognize that as with all emerging ambitions for quality, not everybody will make it to the top. An employer today, offering a restrictive apprenticeship framework, might rightly argue that they are conforming to the regulations around apprenticeships and that what they are doing is the same as everybody else. This works in a promiscuous system but will be read differently in a more refined system. If focus is put on standards as well as effectiveness of organisations then change would surely follow in terms of where public money is going and why.

This would apply for colleges too. An expansive learning environment is a pretty good place to work in, according to the research. What you would find is trust, autonomy, innovation, and legitimate learning opportunities manifest wherever you look.

Bright future?

ATL views the ‘learning environments’ that have developed in colleges as forming a mixed picture and we are interested in developing learning opportunities with colleges through our growing Unionlearn reps and reps’ network. We want the virtues of trust, autonomy, creativity, and learning to be promoted to staff in a systematic and supportive way. And ATL knows accountability follows  – ‘giving more expertise leads to doing one’s work better’.  But accountability, in terms of measurement, is not the whole story and can never be in an expansive learning environment. The joy of teaching should be inherent in the practices of a college, and getting more expertise or knowledge about one’s area of learning has untold consequences not only for oneself, but others (peers and students) and the wider ethos of the college. But the more it is seen as a performative indicator done for the benefit of measurement, the more it will be distorted into a caricature of teaching.

Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller have given us a robust model that can have multiple implications for a variety of work contexts, and it is certainly more complicated than the outline I’ve given here. Nevertheless, the elegance of the model is that it can be employed quickly and ‘focuses on what is really happening in a learning environment’.

Recent events show that not all is well with professionalism in the FE sector, and the reality on the ground leaves something to be desired, but, nevertheless, let’s praise the better stories we are beginning to tell because they are better informed. And the Minister’s initiative of setting up a Further Education Guild will neatly fit what research is showing us works. In framing expectations and providing the key elements of an expansive learning environment the Guild could play a significant part in developing a more sustainable professional identity and status for FE lecturers than we have ever seen. ATL’s challenge remains: Is the college an expansive learning environment? If that is what gets a college the new ‘chartered’ status then it is warmly welcomed.

Norman Crowther is the national official for post 16 education at Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the education union

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