Workplace learning experiences of TVET college candidates in learnership programmes : an exploration of the workplace learning environment
Skills development policies in South Africa and further afield consider learning in and from the workplace as critical to the training of artisans at intermediate level. Since the inception of democracy, South Africa has become part of a globally competitive economic arena where highly skilled workers capable of engaging with new technology in a changing environment are increasingly required. Continuous innovation, it is held (Kraak, 1997), is dependent on the presence of two knowledge forms in society and work: an abundance of formal (scientific and technological) knowledge, and skilled worker 'know-how' or tacit knowledge. In the present system of technical and vocational education, theoretical learning and some practical skills are obtained in institutions, mostly in the recently renamed TVET colleges, while job specific training occurs through prescribed periods of work placement. In light of common assumptions about the value of workplace learning, this research was concerned with exploring whether, and how such learning is taking place. It sought to understand the methodologies, practices, and affordances available to learning in the workplace, from the perspective of candidate apprenticeship/learnership students. To this end this study employed a qualitative approach for investigating how candidates experienced and interacted with the 'real world environment' of the workplace. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposively selected sample comprising candidates engaged in programmes that necessitated a workplace learning component, namely, the apprenticeship and learnership in fitting and turning, motor/diesel and the auto electrical trades. Data analysis was undertaken using both Atlas ti software and manual methods for coding and identification of themes. Lenses used to describe and explain learning in the workplace included the conceptual frameworks of Engestrom‘s (1987) Activity theory; Vygotsky‘s (1978) notion of learning via the 'expert other' within a Zone of Proximal Development; and Lave and Wenger‘s (1991) theorising of situated learning in Communities of Practice. This triangular juxtaposition of complementary theories formed a richly informative explanatory system for my further exploration. As a qualified artisan myself I was familiar with the negative connotations of a historical 'sit by Nellie' approach, a phrase used to caricature the way apprentices learned in the past, by simply being passive observers of the experts. However, my findings were to reveal a vastly different picture of learning in this modern, visual and tactile age. Learners in this study experienced a range of learning modalities, methodologies and affordances that were reported in 'thick' descriptions, building a vivid picture of engagement and interaction. In addition to the abundance of learning opportunities candidates experienced, their responses revealed the indisputably central role played by 'expert others' in moving them towards competence – the expert artisan emerging as the quintessential didactic practitioner. This thesis proceeds to highlight the experiences of candidates on their learning journey in the workplace, and suggests recommendations in respect of these. Key learnings are distilled, which ultimately point to the need for collective effort in appreciating and retaining for the benefit of future generations of artisans, the mentoring potential that exists in our expert artisans wherever they may be found.