NALL Working Paper #24-2001
Tacit Skills, Informal Knowledge and Reflective Practice
Karen Lior, Advocates of Community-Based Training and Education for Women (ACTEW)
D’Arcy Martin, Labour educator
Anne Morais, Independent researcher
Prepared for “Learning Capacities in the Community and
Workplace: An action research project” sponsored by Advocates for Community
Based Training and Education for Women (ACTEW) and, initially, the
Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union.
Funded by the Canadian Labour Force Development Board, the National
The New Approaches to Lifelong Learning Network (NALL) at OISE/UT,
and the Joint Union Management Project (JUMP) in British Columbia.
Community sites provide a range of pictures of “adult learning” in this
research report. By interviews and by work with a Skills and Knowledge
Profile, we note patterns of gender, culture, employment status, and strength
of social organization when identifying learning needs and recording learning
Les sites communautaires fournissent toute une gamme d’images des
“besoins d’apprendre” dans ce projet de recherche. Par des entrevues, et
en employant une “profile des connaissances et des compétences” nous
avons remarqué des différences entre homme et femme, et l’influence de la
culture, de l’emploi et de la force d’organisation sociale quand les gens
identifient leurs besoins en éducation, et quand ils font le bilan de leur
This project builds on site-specific qualitative data to develop a profile of
learning activity which now is largely unrecognized by education providers.
We are exploring the various learning strategies used by adults in three
locations: a unionized factory, a community based training program, and a
Our identification of tacit skills, informal knowledge and reflective
practice uses some of the tools developed in the Working Class Learning
Strategies project led by David Livingstone of OISE from 1994-97. As well
as the interview format employed in that project, we have developed a Skills and
Knowledge Profile (SKP), as a tool for prior learning assessment and
recognition. In each site, we are revising and refining this tool based on
learner and participant feedback.
In this research, we examine the educational opportunities provided by the
sponsors as well as to collect and integrate suggestions for enhancing a
learner-centred climate. More broadly, we aim to contribute to the broader
national policy debate and implementation strategy for Prior Learning Assessment
and Recognition (PLAR), pressing both employers and educational institutions to
validate a broader range of informal learning activity.
B/ WOMEN LEARNING
At this half way point in a two-year project, we are presenting results from
thirteen interviews, comments from twenty-two Profiles, and a videotaped
discussion among five people. All the participants were women, all in southern
Ontario, ranging in age from mid-twenties to early fifties. The interviews took
place in donut shops, a hospital lobby, their homes, at work, at school, in a
restaurant, in a bar, and in community centres.
Three of the women are immigrants whose first language is English, five are
immigrants whose second language is English and the rest are Canadian born.
Three women are at the beginning of their career, two are seeking more education
to further the chances of employment and one is redefining her career goals
because her two university degrees have failed to help her secure employment.
Three participants have marketable skills learned during a long and rich
employment history in their home country and they are seeking training to help
them find clerical work. Seven women have Canadian work experience but
have been affected by downsizing, outsourcing and contract work.
One outstanding theme that has persisted throughout all the interviews is
that these women love to learn. They have chosen to learn on their own;
but more surprisingly they have taken many informal courses that may or may not
be job related.
Yeah, I knew it would be easy for me to learn new things and I know I
would provide a good mark when the test comes. But it is not just the
class, but I would study at home. Tests would be very exciting because I
would go and get a good mark. I like learning.(Lucy)*
I took them (workshops and courses) for me. There was a
sense of immediate gratification for me of getting what I wanted and getting
it right away and that is important to me, but they opened up the doors to
other possibilities. (Berry)
* Note: all names are changed.
C/ WHAT HELPS LEARNING
The interviewees identified four themes that help them learn: an appreciation
for their independence; a supportive community; a feeling of self confidence;
and applying or practicing the newly acquired skill in a real situation.
The women clearly stated that adult education programs work best when structured
on the assumption that the learners are independent adults who have voluntarily
chosen to study. Adults walk into programs with life survival skills and
those skills must be recognized, if not incorporated into the curriculum.
It is different because it is adult learning, it respects your
abilities, it is more independent, you can choose whether you want to
participate or not, you will not be expelled if you do not show up, basically
it is voluntary. (Carol)
I like to be challenged and stimulated. I felt that it was challenging and
stimulating, we were treated as adults right from the very beginning. Not
that there wasn’t support, there was a lot, but you were very responsible for
yourself and your actions and I liked that. (Berry)
The interviewees stressed the importance of having a community of women around
them who could share their experiences and lend support. This included
both participants and staff.
The most important thing is the supportive environment because adult
students have all kinds of adult difficulties, we are not teenagers.
Adults have all the stresses of getting job and family, so you need a
supportive environment to encourage you. (Natalie)
And the group was almost the same age, like in their thirties and
forties and fifties. And when I came back from my father’s funeral,
they gave me a nice welcome, they gave me a card and made a little donation
for me. I felt welcomed and when you are in this situation you need that
support from you friends and classmates which I never found in the other
places. I told them that I found new friends here. (Marla)
You feel that they (staff in the program) really do care and want
you to succeed. They are trying and they are open to suggestions and
they are willing to help. You can go in if you are having problems, like
a lot of people are having personal problems with their families, children,
health or whatever, so they are very open to helping and going to the office
to talk to the staff. (Debbie)
On the one hand, some women did complain about the tendency of the group to
spend too much time on commiserating and not enough time on learning necessary
skills. However, when we explored this point a more constructive criticism
emerged. The women not only appreciated the supportive environment but saw
it necessary for their own struggle. However, they did not want program time
allocated for learning soft skills replaced by women sharing their negative
experiences. The learners recommended that the teaching of soft skills be
within a structured format similar to the teaching of the computer skills; and
the support integrated into the curriculum at another time, not at the
expense of the skills training.
One idea that continuously emerged throughout the interviews was that learning
is not only about skills and knowledge but also about gaining self
confidence. Too often, women live work and play under the assumption that
they are incompetent learners; incapable of learning computers or learning a
trade. Interviewees recommended that adult programs and high schools must
work to elevate the self confidence of the learners. We heard that the
first step to learning is learning to be self confident.
The lady tried to help me to read and write. I would not say I
was getting good but I was getting better and I was feeling confident. (Illy)
I would like to see a lot more emphasis on either acquiring or
reinforcing part of you, the inside person of who you are. In terms of
assertiveness, confidence building to give a better foundation to go out
Applying the Skills in a Real Situation
I think school children should be taught people skills,
communication, how to feel good about themselves, the inner self, like
emotions. They should be validated. The only way people can say
you are inferior is if you give them permission. (Carol)
A number of interviewees emphasized the positive learning experience of applying
their newly learned skills in a real situation like a co-op or a job. They
felt that practicing skills in the classroom does not hone them enough: a
classroom is a fabricated environment which does not reflect the realities of a
workplace. Women commented that it is the responsibility of a good program
to provide placements offering the potential to learn. Three women did not
have fruitful experiences at their placements and of one of them felt that the
lack of remuneration undermined her self esteem. The majority of the women
felt that the pressures of a real work site provide ideal conditions to practice
The co-op was amazing, for me, I had the very best time. I went
to NOW magazine and it was excellent. I really took all the stuff that I
have learned, and all the experiences of my life and really applied it.
D/ RECORDING LEARNING: THE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE PROFILE
This project is providing the researchers with a systematic approach to
capturing the initiatives of working people, employed and unemployed, as
learners. The Skills and Knowledge Profile (SKP) is the tool we are using to
help learners identify and value their skills and experience. This is an
action based research approach to explore the various learning strategies used
by learners across locations.
The Skills and Knowledge Profile has proven a complicated and subtle document
to produce, and a slippery tool to use consistently in different circumstances.
The tool itself has six sections. The first section asks for personal
information. Section two, entitled “Courses and Workshops” elicits a
history of the individual’s classroom learning. Section three,
“Personal Informal Learning” asks people to describe the learning that takes
place in their daily lives, through watching TV, reading, or talking with
neighbours. Section four chronicles the job-related informal learning of
the participants. The fifth section, “Future Learning Plans” asks the
learner how they plan to apply their skills and experience, in combination with
their training program. The last section, “Your Comments on the
Profile”, solicits suggestions and revisions to the instrument from the
learner. We have used comments from this section to repeatedly revise and
refine the tool. For example, it now includes a category called “major
events”. These events may have taken place either in society, such as a
depression or recession, or in the personal life of the respondent, such as the
birth of a child, death of a parent, or the difficult process of immigration.
The Skills and Knowledge Profile has an accompanying Coach’s Guide,
incorporating multiple examples that make no assumptions about the
respondent’s employment status, (dis)ability, and/or language proficiency.
The Coach’s Guide was revised in response to suggestions from participants in
a literacy program who were in the program to learn but not necessarily to
secure employment. The SKP and Coach’s Guide form the basis for our
discussions in policy forums and have been very successful in focussing debates
around literacy, PLAR and democratizing access to training and education.
E/ IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
The educational research outcomes of this project will be:
a. Determining the strengths and weaknesses of the different locations
as vehicles for employed and unemployed people’s learning.
b. Understanding the possibilities for cross-organizational support and
c. Defining possible alliances among and between locations
d. Developing a generic Skills and Knowledge Profile that can be adapted
for literacy learners, participants in community based training programs, and
We look forward to discussing these with other theorists and practitioners at
the CASAE conference, in a participatory workshop.
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