NALL Working Paper #45-2001
The Final Report of the "Learning Capacities in the Community
and Workplace Project": Unionized Industrial Workplace Site
Peter H. Sawchuk
Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/
University of Toronto, Canada
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, National Literacy Secretariat, New
Approaches to Lifelong Learning network at OISE, University of Toronto and the
JUMP Project in British Columbia.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1.1 The "Learning
1.2 The Industrial
Workers' Site (Ontario)
1.3 Goals of the Research
1.4 Understanding Previous
2. SITUATING THE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
2.2 SKP and Formal
2.3 The SKP and Work
2.4 Understanding Working
Class Learning Strategies
2.5 Making Meaning out of
"Education" and "Learning"
2.6 Finding Alternative
Meanings for Learning Through Practice
3. PLAR AND LABOUR UNIONS
Class Consciousness in the Workplace
3.2 Solidarity as an
3.3 A Workers'
"Knowledge Bank": Shifting Contexts/Shifting Meanings of the SKP
4. THE SKP AND LESSONS FOR PLAR PROCESSES
4.1 The SKP Process
4.2 The SKP Instrument
5.1 Some Notes on
Alternative Theories of Learning and PLAR
Like most reports of this kind, it owes
everything that's useful to the ongoing struggles of the workers involved, in
this case, theCommunications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local
Both on their part and mine, it is a
product of unionized intellectual labour. Workers like these re-invigorate the
spirit of progressive social change at the hand of union rank-and-filers.
"Learning Capacities" Project
The basic goal of the "Learning
Capacities in the Community and Workplace" (LCCW) research project
(1) was to understand and to build upon the existing learning
capacities of working people. In this way, project researchers entered the
research process with a focus, first, on facilitating already existing practice.
This report deals with only one specific site within the larger overall project
(see figure 1). Other sites included Community-based Training and Literacy
program sites in both British Columbia and Ontario. Overall, the LCCW project
offers an important in-depth look at working class learning that is essential to
the continued development of PLAR scholarship - including building our
understanding of variation across employment status, literacy levels, gender,
group settings/organizational context, and even region.
In the LCCW project, our general interest
in working class learning was combined with our interest in Prior Learning
Assessment and Recognition (PLAR (2)). PLAR can
be defined as,
...the process of identifying, assessing,
and recognizing skills, knowledge, or competencies that have been acquired
through work experience, unrecognized training, independent study, volunteer
activities, and hobbies. PLAR may be applied toward academic credit, toward
the requirement of a training program, or for occupational certification.
(Human Resource Development Canada, 1995)
These combined interests led us toward the
design, development and pilot-testing of a Prior Learning Assessment and
Recognition tool that would be uniquely suitable for use by and for working
people. The tool we developed and tested was called the "Skills and
Knowledge Profile" (SKP). The SKP was designed for the recognition of the
practices of a diverse range of working people; and, in this project working
people themselves, in the context of its actual use, were to be the primary
judge of the tool. We entered the research process with a prototype SKP
(generated through a review of previous research). As Morais (forthcoming)
outlines, the SKP underwent considerable modification in the course of this
research. In the end, the suggestions of workers were woven with our analysis of
the interview data, our review of previous research, as well as the results of a
series of workshop and conference presentations - all of which provided critical
feedback that allowed SKP to be better understood and more effective to use.
Industrial Workers' Site
The Industrial Workers' research site
involved chemical workers in the Greater Toronto Area. The main products of
their labour include automobile and home-appliance coatings, as well as
household paints. Organized by the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union
of Canada, the workplace employs approximately 144 hourly-waged production
The selection of this particular union
local was based upon its progressive track record of effective collaboration
with allied union, academic and community researchers. The local union executive
participated in a selection process in which a range of workers of different
backgrounds (n=12) were asked to volunteer a significant portion of unpaid time
in order to participate in the study. The selection of the workers was meant to
reflect the make-up of the workplace itself (3)
(age, sex, schooling, union activism - see Table 1). Interviews were audio taped
which facilitated the development of detailed field notes.
In addition to academic publications, a
companion video tape of this project was produced by the workers. This video was
produced to educate other workers on the issues of educational
Table 1: Research Participants
Notation Key: Activism
(h=past/present elected member; m=activist;l=non-participant);
Schooling (h=post-secondary schooling; m=
high-school; l=less than high-school diploma);
Interview Format (s=individual interview;
g=focus group interview)
research, workers' learning and PLAR
specifically. The technical work of producing the video was done collectively by
the factory workers themselves drawing on their own, informally developed
expertise, skills and knowledge; and, in an instructive way, the video itself -
in the process of its collaborative production - is an example of precisely the
types of activities and strategies this report is meant to deal with.
The data are primarily qualitative:
loosely structured, in-depth interviews. While there was a series of questions
and issues that were to be examined in each meeting (see appendices for
interview schedules), often the most relevant material arose at points in which
interview probes were pursued and the interview appeared to be more of a
conversation broken up by extended personal narratives.
The general structure of the encounters
was as follows: a brief introduction of the SKP and research; discussion of SKP
as it was being completed by the participant; and finally the interview schedule
questions. In addition, the interviews were completed using two different
formats: individual interviews; and, a focus group format. Each format had its
strengths and weaknesses, however it became clear that for understanding
informal, collective learning - collective research methods/settings have a
particular importance. As we'll see, particularly in section four of this
report, traditionally denigrated, denied, underestimated, or ignored forms of
knowledge and learning practice seem to gain fuller and clearer expression
within collective formats. Indeed, it is probable that in the absence of, and
on-going struggle for, viable "proletarian public spheres" (Negt and
Kluge, 1993) - collective research formats are not only better to assess and
recognize social processes such as learning, but actually contribute to their
full, transformative development.
1.3 Goals of the Research
The LCCW project utilized what is known as
the "Participatory Action Research" (PAR) approach as its general
underlying method. As Sawchuk and Martin (forthcoming; also see Forrester and
Thorne, 1993) point out, selection of methodologies are an important element of
social research with unions. PLAR fits well with values of union culture such as
participation, respect, and direct action. While we must be ever concerned about
over-simplified notions of the "'innocent researcher' working in solidarity
with the oppressed" (Fischer, 1998:100); nonetheless, PLAR methods offer
opportunities for educational researchers to work, in allied fashion, with the
labour movement. The approach assumes that one of the most effective ways to do
good, practical and effective social research is to actively engage with the
people who are being researched. This means that as much as possible the
research "subjects" are to take an active role in directing the
outcomes of the research. This also means that as much as possible the goals of
the research are produced based on the needs of the interviewees as they see
these needs themselves. Of course, the formal structure of the academic research
funding process in Canada and elsewhere partially work against realizing these
types of goals. To obtain funding, research proposals must have a
pre-established focus, they must typically be sponsored by professional
researchers who often must agree to use traditional social scientific
techniques. Despite obvious constraints, the structure does, of course, present
opportunities for flexibility. In the case of this research, there was enough
flexibility to see that interviewees and their organizations contribute
significantly to the ultimate directions and outcomes of the process.
To put this 'flexibility' to good use,
dialogue must occur with interviewees and where available the groups that help
represent them. In the case of the Industrial Workers' research site, this
involved listening to the needs of both individual worker/interviewees, and the
labour union of which they are members. And, in this report the ongoing
directions, suggestions and information provided from each were reflected in the
final products. As could be expected, the information from individual workers
was most often directed towards issues like how the SKP could better suit them
in their individual circumstances, whereas suggestions that arose from the local
union (speaking through its elected representatives) revolved around collective
concerns. Both types of suggestions affected the development of the SKP as well
as the actual collection and analysis of the research itself.
Each research site in the LCCW project had
its own unique features. In the Ontario Industrial Workers' research site, we
are dealing largely with employed, English-as-a-first language, male, skilled or
semi-skilled, stable-income earning respondents. There is little doubt that
these features greatly affect the priorities and issues seen as relevant. In
this site, the three basic issues that workers appeared most interested in
pursuing are outlined in Figure 2. These three basic issues can be seen to have
been woven into virtually every aspect of the research site work; and, in turn,
these issues form a strong thread that runs the length of this report.
Figure 2: Emergent Workers'
i) Understanding the
relationships between schooling, training, knowledge from the experience of workers' themselves.
ii) Understanding the
places or 'situations' in which PLAR tools such as the SKP have the potential to make a contribution to the
lives of working people, and to anticipate the situations in which they probably will not.
iii) Establishing policies
and local practices that would produce some lasting change in workplace or local union structures.
Understanding Previous Research
Efforts to understand previous research in
the field of PLAR take on new and unique meaning as they mesh with the concerns
of particular individuals and groups at the different research sites. While I
won't offer an exhaustive review of PLAR literature here, there are several
relevant findings that are of direct interest. As Thomas (1998a; 1998b) has
remarked in his work on the development of PLAR in Canada, the literature is
generally comprised of "a good deal of polemical, anecdotal and technical
how-to-do-it material, but little is research based or contemplative"
(1998a:334). Further review of the literature in fact confirms specific
weaknesses in three key areas:
- There is a lack of research that deals
directly with the views and experiences of (classed, gendered, racialized)
participants themselves (4).
- There is comparatively little research
that deals with PLAR in contexts other than those associated more or less
directly to formal schooling (5).
Each of these gaps can be considered in the
light of this research. Specifically, the data add a great deal to our
understanding of such issues as: the relationship between past learning
experiences, expectations and experiences of the PLAR/SKP process; PLAR from the
vantage point of a largely ignored social group; the possible use of the SKP
outside formal schooling; and, our ability to assess the theoretical
implications of PLAR.
- There is a general lack of theoretical
development of the meaning of "informal,"
"experiential," "incidental" learning
(6) on which PLAR is largely based.
The domination of PLAR literature in North
America by institutionally-based policy and procedural, 'how-to' work is an
important realization if we're to understand the kind of shift that this
research seeks. Here, participant vantage point, and the social setting are
outside the mainstream. While in the Britain PLAR has made an important jump to
more direct connections with the world of work through the National Vocational
Qualifications (NVQ) structure (Evans, 1992), and in France ongoing efforts have
seen experiential learning become more closely integrated with both work and
professional accreditation (Perker, 1994; McDonald et al., 1995) - the research
gaps cited above seem to persist. In Europe as well as North America, it appears
that PLAR remains a relatively isolated movement unable to make progressive
shifts beyond the realms of mainstream education.
Another issue in the PLAR literature that
is relevant to the Ontario Industrial research site is the issue of control over
information. This involves much more than merely guarding access to personal
records, although this is a part of it. Rather the issue can be understood in
slightly more abstract terms as implicating issues of the social construction
and organization of knowledge itself (Michelson, 1996). Butterworth and Bloor's
(1994) comments are relevant here:
...the apparent 'openess' of APEL is a
promise never realized: what [participants] experience is closure, a selective
process of higher education reasserting itself, social control rather than
empowerment. (Butterworth and Bloor, 1994:17)
Far from being a concern of academics alone,
this was an issue that, as we'll see below, workers also identified as central
to understanding PLAR. The situation in which the SKP is used is at least as
important as the character of the instrument itself. The web of social and
historical relationships that "set limits and exerts pressures"
(Williams, 1980) in the formation of meanings and activities must be viewed as
an essential component of PLAR discussions. Michelson (1996) makes much of this
very issue. She suggests that PLAR (APEL) processes have the potential to strip
participants of their knowledge, making them the object (rather than the
subject) of information gathering and knowledge development processes. In her
terms, the remarkable potential of PLAR is accompanied by the danger of
hyper-exploitation, surveilance, discipline, etc., i.e. "Galileo's
telescope meets Bentham's panopticon" (1996:192).
I would argue, however, that APEL can
become an important venue for revisiting the relationship between authorized
and devalued forms of knowledge precisely because it formalizes it. It is
therefore a node for negotiating epistemological visibility and for
re-examining the notion of authoritative community. (Michelson, 1996:194)
While there are a wide array of approaches to
take, here is a level of critical theorization that is typically missing from
PLAR literature, but which must be made essential to it.
The division between theoretical
abstractions and more practical concrete issues may not be as deep as expected.
In fact, as we'll see below, Michelson's concerns over the internal power
relationships between dominant and subordinate knowledge forms parallel those of
workers. The important difference, however, is that rather than riding a wave of
theoretical discussion, workers begin from their own history, and ongoing
struggles in the workplace and community. Like the LCCW project itself - the
workers begin their theorizing from already existing practice.
2. SITUATING THE
SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE PROFILE
One of the most important findings at the
Industrial workers' research site concerned the situated and objective character
of the SKP. On the one hand, the SKP was understood to be an objective PLAR
instrument that was being developed to translate skills and knowledge into
something tangible for further use/exchange. On this account, particularly in
terms of tailoring the instrument to the needs of working people, the
development of the SKP has been very successful. Our research team reflected
upon and made use of a myriad of feedback including comments from: individual
employed and unemployed workers; women and men of a wide range of ethnicities
and personal backgrounds; labour unions; community and literacy professionals
and activists; community college and Human Resource professionals; and, an
inter-disciplinary and international range of academic scholars. As Morais
(forthcoming) outlines, the SKP represents significant improvements on the PLAR
process itself from the perspective of working people. The SKP was seen to be a
stable and relatively objective opportunity to represent existing skill and
On the other hand, this research also
revealed relevant 'situated' dimensions of the SKP (Sawchuk, 1998a). These
dimensions emerged in the assessment and collection processes, but most clearly
in the application and recognition practices, i.e. the ways materials actually
enter into social practice. It is in actual practice that the SKP gains its
particular identity as an educational tool. The LCCW research team outlined four
types of practice to which PLAR could contribute:
These four contexts have been unevenly
weighted in past discussions. As a group of labour educators and researchers has
- Personal development;
- Academic development including the
recognition of credentials from outside Canada;
- Collective development of community
life, social organizations, and social movements such as labour;
- Job-related/career development.
While there is some understanding of PLAR's
use in the first two contexts, we feel the creative approaches to the
application of PLAR in both workers' own communities and on-the-job lag
seriously behind. Using these contexts as a starting point, we've identified a
number of more specific purposes which expand the application of PLAR.
Similarly, in this research rank-and-file
workers highlighted the way that the actual meaning, usefulness and even
subjective experience of any PLAR instrument, including the SKP, is dependent
upon the context of information collection, development, application and
For these chemical workers, the situated
character of PLAR/SKP processes emerged as an important element. As we'll see
below, according to workers the processes of identifying, assessing, and
actually recognizing and rewarding prior learning shift radically from context
to context. Participants spoke at length about several specific contexts:
schooling; the workplace; the labour market; the local union; and, the home and
Rather than passively and superficially
commenting on the SKP and PLAR - many of the chemical workers in this research
actively discussed deeper issues such as the meaning of learning, the uses of
education and training, and the relationships of the workplace and the labour
market that affect their lives and their learning. Given the general research
methods used in the LCCW project, a relevant way to present its findings is to
allow the reader to 'listen in' on the perspectives, reflections and meanings
that workers are making of the issues themselves. At this early stage in PLAR
research with industrial workers, it is vitally important to offer a level of
descriptive depth, what some anthropologists call "thick
descriptions", of the workers' perspectives in order to inform further
research later on. Serving these purposes, I offer generous quotations (in both
number and length). Who better to describe workers' practice then workers
2.2 SKP and
Well say if I wanted to go back and get
into the health and safety field and you had a background like I had, this
would be really good I think. It would help transfer all the stuff I've done.
As outlined in section 1.4 above, PLAR and
instruments such as the SKP are most often discussed in the literature in terms
of their application in connection to the formal schooling process. As the
worker quoted above suggests, prospective students would typically use the PLAR
process (7) as a substitute for traditional
progression through formal schooling. Students would get credit for learning
they have accomplished outside of formal programs and would be allowed to enter
programs, or even skip certain requirements if their experiences were certified
through an accepted PLAR process. It is generally understood that this is a way
of making the formal education system more efficient by not duplicating the
lessons taught outside of school. Embedded in this perspective, however, there
is also a tacit analysis of inequity: an admission that mass schooling has its
'insiders' and 'outsiders' (Thomas, 1998b), and that PLAR may be a means of
allowing the outsiders the chance they missed the first time around.
It is important to note that the formal
schooling context of PLAR offers its share of contradictions as well. The
liberatory overtones that accompany so much of the policy discussion surrounding
PLAR may be somewhat premature. Although detailed longitudinal research is only
now emerging, evidence from Ontario Community Colleges, for example, indicates
that (rather than drawing in new populations) PLAR processes simply expedite the
careers of existing students (Thomas, 1998b). While this reflects a gain in the
efficiency of the system and accelarated growth of credentialism, it says
virtually nothing about "liberatory" potentials. In fact, there is
every reason to think that, despite the growing credentialization of society
(Livingstone, 1998), educational systems are every bit as reproductive of
existing social conditions as they ever were. The by now well-worn dynamic of
'them who has - gets' in Participation in Adult Education (PAE) research
extending back to the early part of the century in the western world (Ward and
Taylor, 1986; Training Agency, 1989; Candy, 1991; Courtney, 1992) would appear
to be alive and well.
Those who have not completed high school
and those who occupy manual, blue-collar occupations are far less likely to be
represented among the ranks of the educationally participating. It is a
phenomenon whose socio-economic structure has hardly altered since the first
systematic surveys documented the relationship in the late 1920's (Courtney,
The situation is made all the more serious
when we carefully consider the apparently progressive additions of programs such
as Paid Educational Leave (PEL), and now PLAR. While we cannot dismiss the
progressive potentials of these and other tools of social/educational
transformation, they clearly are no panacea. Rather they must be understood in
context. These otherwise progressive programs can no more be understood outside
of general efforts towards social change than these general efforts can be
understood outside of practical, concrete programs.
Many of these critical views about PLAR
were voiced amongst the chemical workers as well. For example, despite the
progressive appearance of the SKP process, workers said the social context of
schooling - with its drive for efficiency and integration with the needs of the
(capitalist) world of work and labour market - would probably cause people to be
no better off than before. When asked if they felt the SKP would help them in
making better use of formal education, workers responded with comments such as
Well the only reason I have doubts is
because again you're dealing with a kind of management. Now we're
sitting in this room in 1997 and we're under a looming teacher's strike. Like
they're trying to restructure the educational system, so right now as we sit -
yeah, I would like to say [the SKP] would [increase opportunities], but I
don't know. Like there's other factors, but if they accepted it and said yes
we will make this part of our system to help the mature adult student to
further their education I'd be all for it. This would be a great tool to help
people figure out what you're looking for, what you already have and is it
really going to be important to take a course to give you something you
already have, or can they give you something that would free up time. Here,
you don't have to do 3 years or 4 years - you only have to do 2. We don't have
to re-teach you. (LR (8))
Workers outline the potential efficiencies to
be gained through the PLAR process, but cite important reservations drawn
directly from their knowledge, experience and understanding of work and
management imperatives. What was called "a kind of management" was a
dominant logic of an institutional system, which included schools, which workers
felt put the progressive nature of the instrument in serious jeopardy.
2.3 The SKP and
Interviewees focused a great deal of their
attention in the interviews on issues of work and the workplace. Several
outlined potential positive features of the PLAR and SKP process.
For myself, this would be good if you have
to go out and get another job or something. You wouldn't take this in as a
resume or anything but you could go back and look back on it and it can
refresh your memory on different things... This would be real handy to take it
in with you to fill out an application too... (RR)
Here, the SKP was seen as a personal resource
to help a worker conveniently negotiate the application process in their job
search. It was thought to facilitate the quick and easy transfer of previous
learning histories into the standardized forms that employer's typically provide
the applicant. In the context of the workplace however, major reservations about
the liberatory potential of PLAR/SKP process became clear, especially in terms
of its use for workplace promotions and career development within the company.
It should be pointed out that this particular company is no 'back-water'
operation. Indeed, in company literature and policies it promotes itself as a
company that is intensly interested in ongoing training and the development of a
knowledge-intensive labour force. It is an expansive multi-national with net
sales in the coatings and resins division alone of over 3 billion dollars in
1997 (Company Quarterly Report, 1998), an extensive structure of training and
Human Resource development, and is part of a sector of the North American
economy that, contrary to many others, continues to experience growth in capital
investment and relatively stable employment levels (Industry Canada, 1997). It
is just this type of workplace where we could reasonably expect to see the use
of leading-edge initiatives such as PLAR. By increasing the efficient use of
"human resources" alone - PLAR practices would seem ideal for this and
other corporate settings.
These workers, however, tell a different
story. They recount a working environment that does not value workers' knowledge
and workers' skill/career development. In this extended portion of the focus
group transcript, workers outline the relationship between getting a job,
getting promoted, and the potential use of PLAR/SKP processes. Alternative
viewpoints are expressed in the group discussion, however in the end the
prerogatives of management control were thought to outweigh the potential gains
that PLAR might offer.
I have a hard time thinking [the company] would look at anything other than the
standard information. I mean, they look to see if you have grade 12. If you write down
no, then your gone right off the bat. And would [the SKP] make any difference with human resources?
Unless their culture changes or their thought processes change - I don't think it would. We have
to face the reality of the workplace today - it's who do you know. If you don't know anybody you have a
real hard time.
But something like [the SKP] might be very good because it's different. I
was doing resumes a while ago and I found out that anything that makes me stand out that makes them
stop and take a look, 'Well what's this? I've never seen anything like this before.' It's a nice
profile of the person. They don't have time to go through everything carefully. They look for highlights and for
something that stands out, but at least with this you can look like something different... But any more
than 3 or 4 pages and they're
going to go - fine. Then in the garbage.
GT: One of the
key claims you can make in this day's manufacturing climate is to say you know a
the quality process and the whole nine yards there. It's a lot of bullshit,
but the fact is that's what employers want and that's how they run their businesses. Things such as
QS-9000, ISO... that's one thing that employers look for... I'm not saying that I lied or anything, but
I used that as something that stands out.
RD: You gotta
think that today, you got 500 people applying for a job and if it's just
the basic resume, you're not going to get looked at - you gotta have something different.... But
like [VH above] said, I have to agree, in our company anyway, you know there's lots of nepotism and
stuff and in terms of somebody getting a fair shake off the street, it's not realistic. It
doesn't happen. We all know that from where we work.
VH: It even
happens within the plant, like we have some women who wanted to transfer out
into a better paying job in the plant, and [management] wouldn't let them.
said they were over-qualified.
yet, they like to espouse how in their hiring practices they're into
"diversity" yet here they are holding women back in the plant!
So taking what you've been saying, then this [SKP] might make you look too
All: Exactly! That's
The emphases throughout the transcript
portion help draw our attention to several key issues that arose throughout the
research. Similar to perspectives voiced within the PLAR research community
internationally, there is a mix of optimism and scepticism. While some workers
express hope that the SKP will allow them to stand out and compete as
individuals in the context of high unemployment, others warn that the company
really isn't interested in capturing skills and knowledge but is interested only
in the short-term bottom-line, balanced with control over the production
process. For workers, this situation produces the concept of being
"over-qualified" - a notion workers felt was antithetical to either
fairness, efficient production, and even legitimate self-expression.
How can you be over-qualified? How could
you be over-qualified to be a garbage man? What does that mean? I mean if my
life-long dream is to be a garbage man - then I want to be a garbage man! It
doesn't matter what schooling I've got or whatever. (BD)
Often finding or creating interest in their
jobs to balance the rigid and alienating structures of capitalist labour process
- workers outline how they take pride in the development of extensive knowledge
of work processes (9). It is important to say
that, in relative terms, few workers interviewed found any particularly profound
sense of satisfaction in their work. At the same time however, rather than
making workers over-qualified and encouraging them to seek employment elsewhere,
workers described how they accumulate skills and knowledge in and for
application to the daily activities of work; and, that this development of
skills and knowledge was one of the main sources of intrinsic satisfaction. In
discussions about how this process of skills and knowledge development is
impinged upon by management, workers typically offered explanations such as the
RD: I think an
important point to bring up is, at our company we don't have any
apprenticeship programs right now for the simple reason that the company, I think, they don't want to
educate the people outside their area because they might just go looking for a job somewhere else.
Don't move them around eh.
GT: That and, the
just the basic cost of it. Given the economic circumstances of today they can
get millwrights for the penny. Get one for 9, 10 bucks an hour right, so there isn't the demand
there for them to train any of us.
VH: I think too
it's basically that if they officially recognize it, they're going to have to
pay for it right? They're getting the knowledge on the cheap right now. We're providing it
basically free of charge, you know why would they want to formally recognize it and then have to
compensate for it.
[following discussion of a particular workmate having appropriate credentials
and seeking promotion] On top of that is that when they hired him originally he had to fill out all his
credentials and stuff and they had all that down, and they obviously wanted him because they hired him right. But
when it came down to the crunch they wanted to keep him in production instead of allowing him to
move to maintenance.
Again, several key issues are highlighted
above which outline the internal contradictions of what, on the surface, should
be a straight-forward process: people with skills and knowledge seeking to apply
them productively in the workplace for fair compensation and intrinsic
satisfaction. Relations of power and control dominate. Control over information,
control over skill development, knowledge, and ultimately the production process
are central features of any possible use of PLAR.
What I find, with this company is that
[management] promote worker driven products, until it becomes worker driven.
Then it becomes, 'Oh they really know what [workers'] are really doing out
there and we can't control it anymore'... (LR)
If knowledge is power, then employer
resistance to the use of PLAR in the workplace involves far more than merely not
wanting to have to pay for legitimate productive skills. From the company's
perspective it makes a good deal of sense to attempt to maintain control over
production knowledge through the recognition process - the very process PLAR is
designed to democratize. One of the most practical issues for the company then
becomes the control over internal career progressions - again, a process that
PLAR, when used properly, might tend to democratize.
PLAR and instruments like the SKP, when
used in the workplace are an ideal way to share information, to facilitate
promotion, to recognize how and amongst whom suggestions for greater
productivity, safety, work-life quality, etc. are actually being generated. In
fact, the general notion of the assessment of workers knowledge and skills, and
maintaining a record of this assessment has not been lost on management at the
plant. Several workers recalled previous efforts of the company in this area.
Efforts however that ultimately became blocked somewhere before the point of
About 2 years ago they gave out these forms
asking what you've been trained on [including informal training], what you
need training in and it never really came to anything, but there were people
who were saying like I don't want to be answering that stuff. (BD)
Programs such as the company's training
inventory are not the only initiatives to appear, then sink into practical
irrelevance. Workers outlined how the company's formal training courses for new
skills are sometimes abandoned. Both management and workers seemed to arrive at
similar conclusions that, as the existing workplace structure does not seem to
actually facilitate the use of these particular types of (formalized) skills
such initiatives are probably not the best use of (company's) resources and
I had a form that I filled out once for
the company. I completed it and I signed it, but they never asked me for it so
I never handed it in. I have it I'll show it to you. (TV)
[workplace courses are both] good and bad.
They teach you just what they want you to know. They'll put something on and
teach you, but as far as sticking to using it they don't. That's why a lot of
people now don't bother, they feel they're wasting their time... As far as
following through on a course, the company follows through on it when it's
feasible for them, but if turns out not to be feasible, forget it. (RR)
In this context, workers' experiences with
another workplace tool ("Team-Building" structures) may be relevant
here. Experiences such as the one outlined below teach workers the lessons of
social context and the role it can play in the assessment, recognition and use
of skills and knowledge:
I was the only union employee to be a part
of 7 to present Team-Building skills for a period of a year and half [at the
workplace]. During that time I will admit quite honestly, that I truly
believed in the Team-Building, how it worked, how it could help us out with
union and non-unionized workers and management especially. Because we know in
the past, not just with this facility but with any jobs out there, there are
problems when you're trying to speak to someone in a prestigious, or I guess
you'd say, higher position in the company because sometimes your managers,
presidents and vice-presidents, etc. are really hard to talk to. So I saw [Team-Building]
as a tool we could use to open up the door to allow us to say what it is, from
the floor, that we'd like to see expecting management to meet us half-way.
And I fully believed it was going to work and I was promoting it for a year
and half and fully believing in this. And people were saying to me, 'Ah you're
nuts!' Those are who I called the 'Hard-Cores'. Those people who've learned
by experience when to open your mouth and when to be quiet, and they'd say,
well we're going to be quiet because we know what it's like to speak our
minds. And here I was doing it for them, and a lot of them were saying,
'You're really nuts!' But others were saying, 'Good let's hope it works.' But
now I can say, that I've found that five years later that it has not changed a
bit. All they're doing is changing a couple of words, making you feel a little
bit better about things, but when you go to approach management with things
that will improve the workplace, your surroundings, even your people to help
them understand what's going on. Management says, 'We don't have time,' 'No
we're not going to bother,' 'No we're not going to do things that way.' It's
like, we are the people who are going to make this work, and yet here you are
suppressing us. So once you're suppressed, once, twice, well with me it takes
a little longer, but soon I'll be just like the rest and say [sitting back
with arms folded], 'Do what you want because you're going to anyways.'....
You're listening to me but you are not hearing me. And on top of that, they'll
take the best out of your ideas, put it aside and when you're not looking,
bring it out and say, 'See the idea I've got! Isn't it a great idea?' All this
without even recognizing the person who it actually came from. (LR)
Though "Team-Building" and the use
of PLAR are very different, they are both directed towards integrating knowledge
and skills, previously untapped by management, into work processes. They are
also both touted as means by which worker's skills and knowledge could be
shared, assessed and recognized. Thus, it is possible that experiences of
"Team-Building" from the perspective of workers both in North America
(e.g. Parker and Slaughter, 1995) and abroad (e.g. Fitzgerald, Rainnie and
Stirling, 1996) can offer a good deal of information on just what we can expect
from PLAR in the context of the workplace. In other words, under what conditions
can we expect the liberatory dimensions more or less associated with both to
The workplace and labour market context
for the use of PLAR concepts and the SKP can be seen to offer significant
limitations. There are hopes of individuals becoming more marketable within and
beyond the plant, but workers typically realize this merely heightens overall
competition rather than altering the overall situation. Despite usefully
assessing the vast array of skills and knowledge that workers have - the SKP
process in these contexts provides few, if any, of the liberatory dimensions so
often touted by PLAR enthusiasts. Rather, it appears that PLAR must be linked to
broader progressive programs and/or social contexts if it is to bring about
significant progressive changes for workers.
Understanding Working Class Learning Strategies
Before moving onto discussions of other
alternative uses of PLAR/SKP - in order to more fully understand the potential
of these alternatives it is important to reflect on the types of practices and
strategies that instruments like the SKP are meant to assess. I argue here that
well-grounded alternative perspectives on the conception of learning itself are
central to realizing the liberatory dimensions of PLAR. From the beginning this
was one of the interests of the LCCW project, and the Ontario workers' research
provided a good deal of important information.
One of the central contributors to the
notion of working-class learning strategies in the Canadian context, has
been the research group working out of the Centre for the Study of Education and
Work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. Discussions
of the basic concepts began back in the early part of the 90's and crystallised
in a large-scale qualitative study called the "Working-Class Learning
Strategies in Transition: Home and Work-based Perspectives" (WCLS) project
(Livingstone, Hersch, Martin and Stephen, 1994; Livingstone and Sawchuk,
forthcoming). The basic goal of the project was to establish a qualitative
data-base of the learning strategies of working class households in the context
of economic restructuring. This research focused upon unionized workers in five
key economic sectors of the Canadian economy (Auto, Chemical, Garment, Service
and Steel), and in particular began to document the substantial "informal
learning" in which working class people typically engaged. Since then,
several other large scale projects have been initiated which, partially, seek to
follow the major trends discovered in these areas - the most impressive being
the first ever Canadian National Survey on Informal Learning (Livingstone,
forthcoming) which arose, in large part, in response to the WCLS work. In turn,
the LCCW project fills a gap in this research by looking at the strategies of
working people in conjunction with a specific assessment and recognition tool,
the SKP. Based on this research, it is now becoming clear that many of the basic
trends and relations of learning identified by the WCLS project have continued
relevance for use in understanding issues such as PLAR. Briefly, the notion of
working class learning strategies refers to the plans and practices that working
people typically make use of in response to ongoing struggles as working people
in advanced capitalist society. Issues of vantage point are of central relevance
in the concept, as is the suggestion that working people react to (in a complex
mix of resistance, accomodation, appropriation and domination) existing
educational forms, and produce their own emergent forms of educational practice.
For an example of the type of relations of
informal working class learning that I'm talking about from the LCCW project, we
can take this workers' experience. As a young man in a detergent factory, this
worker learned a valuable skill that in fact helped him gain his current
production job at the chemical plant. Amongst other things, the story helps
ground the idea of how working class communities, and in particular skill bases
I was doing just some basic maintenance and
cleaning and it turned out an old guy taught me how to weld. And it
just happened that a job came up for maintenance and you gotta know a lot of
stuff like welding and I had a lot of stuff, but I remember they wouldn't
accept the welding that I'd learned at the plant.... One of the guys from
the maintenance shop who I was working with and he was supposed to build this
railing system, and I was cutting all this tubing for him and we were talking
and he says to me, 'Have you ever done any welding?' I said 'No,' and he said,
'Oh well I'll teach you.' So I just started with some tack welding and I
went from there. (RR)
In this simple story - repeated in a myriad
of forms throughout the worker interviews in this research and the WCLS project
research - we get a glimpse at the sea of learning on which working class skills
and knowledge, indeed capitalist production, are actually based. Rather than
formal education (although as we'll see below - this is pursued as well),
working class learning strategies are based largely in the cultural networks of
community and workplace.
The historical-social relations that
direct workers towards these kinds of practices (and away from others), and in
fact give these practices the meaning that they have (for workers) are key
dimensions of working class learning. These are the relations that have
traditionally produced the skills and knowledges on which the working class
community depend. These are, in fact, the very forms of skills and knowledge
regeneration that are in continued jeopardy within capitalist society: in fact,
forming a practical expression of the inherent contradictions of capitalist
production. As Smith has recently observed,
[There is a] dependence of industrial
production on systems of storing and transmitting skills that were buried in
the informal relationships between stable working class communities and
large-scale industrial enterprises. These systems of storing and transmitting
informal skills have been disrupted and virtually wiped out in processes of
technological and managerial restructuring which have radically reduced the
numbers of workforce in a given industry and hence its ability to sustain a
stable working-class community over several generations. (1998:168)
The main point here is that if we are to
understand dynamics of working class learning we must see it as dependent on the
viability and ongoing stability of cultural communities which produce specific
networks upon which people individually and collectively draw. It follows that
we must view forces that tax, or indeed as Smith observes threaten the existence
of, these communities as important structures of learning itself. Thus
the closure of a workplace, the instability and transitory nature of employment,
diminished discretionary time for participation and other effects of capitalist
"restructuring" - far from providing the mere backdrop for people's
ongoing activities - to a large measure define the possibilities and limits of
them. We can thus begin to talk about working class learning as not simply as a
preliminary concept, but one that can be empirically analyzed not only for
structures and determinations, but also potentials for change, or what
sociologist call 'human agency'. From a Marxist perspective which places class
struggle at the centre of historical change, we can begin to understand
"working-class learning" as a dimension of cultural practice
generally, and a conceptual means of analyzing the motor of societal
transformations within capitalist society.
Working-class learning is structured by
several key variables, and the workers in this research outlined these variables
clearly. We can first consider the structuring effects directly related to the
political economic conditions including (to name only a few): issues of falling
real wages (and the need for a dual earner household to maintain consumption
levels); issues of tariff regulation and "free-trade" that locate
shifts in capital investment; and, the effect that competitive pressures have on
actual collective bargaining options in the realm of workers' learning. Looking
at the way discretionary time is structured in working class life begins to
direct us toward the patterns of participation of working people in cultural
life. As one worker expressed it:
It's like that sixties fantasy about more
leisure hours that never came true. In fact now to make a decent living
because of taxes, inflation, economic factors, you have to work a lot longer
hours to maintain the lifestyle you had, or the lifestyle you want to have. So
really on top of it all, your time is even more limited because now instead of
having that 32 hour week and all this leisure time, now you've got to work 40
hours a week minium. So you have to lose something somewhere and it's either
sleep or time spent doing things together... [it's often the] social
The loss of this "social
interaction" time, far from simply a luxury for workers, is also a major
blow to informal discretionary activities such as the development of skills and
knowledge. In this regard, balancing the requirements of work, housework and
child-care is possibly the most important issue. Here one worker outlines a
typical situation in whcih he and his partner both try to take local courses to
upgrade their skills and seek to stay afloat in the "new" economy.
So where [other people] may be getting
quote, unquote sufficient sleep, say 6 or 7 hours a night. I have to operate
on 3. That's why when I came in today, buddy says to me, 'Are you alright? Did
you get your sleep?' I joked 'No,' because I got to bed at noon today and I
had to get up by 2:30 so I've had 2 and half hours of sleep. But that's what I
guess I have to do for now to keep moving forward, and do the housework and go
to work... (LR)
Similar descriptions of how basic human
limits are tested were provided throughout the interviews, and such pressures
are not unfamilar to most Canadian working class households. Indeed a membership
study by the national office of these workers' union had completed only a few
years earlier concluded,
The economic restructuring path that Canada
has chosen over the last decade has pushed real wages down, intensified work,
created high unemployment, endangered the environment, decimated some
industrial sectors and created others, increased part time employment and
reduced government services... It now takes twice the number of paid hours of
work to maintain a household as it did twenty years ago. A large proportion of
households now have two adult wage earners who are both working at higher
levels of productivity, for long or irregular hours. Most adult wage earners,
particularly women, are carrying two and sometimes three jobs: that is, one or
more paid jobs as well as unpaid caring labour at home. (Communication, Energy
and Paperworkers, 1994:2)
Rank-and-file workers such as these generally
understand the basic dynamics of capitalist political economy. While optimistic
outlooks of the present and future abound in popular media - when workers begin
from their experiences rooted in the workplace, home and community, they often
identify key contradictions. For example, in considering the drain on the
discretionary time workers have available to them for the development of skills
and knowledge, the discussion often turns to the effects of globalized capital.
then again, even in those countries competitive pressures are now coming in to
the workplace to take down the lifestyle they've built for themselves over the years. You know the Canadian
company's that don't pay their workers a fair price and are made to work longer hours are able to offer their product
at a lower cost than these european countries you know with like 8 weeks vacation, you know and big maternity leaves
and 32 hour weeks.
GT: But the
real pressures are not really from the European markets, it's coming from the
Asian countries and the Pacific Rim... and the southern states [of the United States].
VH: So we go
up to management in the next negotiations and we say that we want 8 weeks
vacation, paid and what are they going to say to us - 'Hit the road there buddy! It ain't going to happen!'
GT: But, on
the other hand more free time has never been a priority for the North American
Here, in focus group discussion workers
talking about learning and the distribution of discretionary time quickly
identify key global forces and link them directly to the issues of local
Linking opportunity to participate in
specific spheres of activity, for example paid work - it becomes obvious that if
learning is understandable as participation in particular spheres of social
activity than it can be effected by the range of social relations that shape
society more generally, for example, ageist relations of participation, i.e.
But finding a job is much more difficult.
The older worker, the younger worker - they have to put up with a lot of shift
for fear for their job right.... the same opportunities aren't there. (VH)
If employment is segmented vis-ā-vis various
forms of age discrimination, it is roughly accurate to say learning itself is
structured by these dynamics. Indeed, important sources of learning for the
working class, like the experience of the young detergent worker's informal
welding lessons cited above, are limited by these effects. Older workers'
consigned to isolated work or forced into early retirement; younger workers not
given chances to participate in training and informal learning opportunities; or
worse, people not being given the chance to participate in the workplace at all
via unemployment - have their opportunities to develop productive skills and
knowledge seriously challenged. Such relations belie otherwise progressive talk
of the committment towards lifelong learning, and, as Livingstone (1998) has
argued, they may even belie current efforts towards the full development of
knowledge-intensive capital production.
The other major dimension which structured
working class learning that became clear in the analysis of these data concerned
gender relations. Like the patterns of opportunity for participation shaped by
political economic variables or age segmentation of the labour market - gender
relations also structure learning opportunities. This is accomplished in a
number of ways, but most obviously through the persistently inequitable division
of household labour which produces differences in discretionary time between men
and women. In her fascinating longitudinal research series on working class
families (1974; 1994), Rubin reviews household labour time-budget research in
working class American homes. Quoting a range of North American research, Rubin
indicates an average 17 hour/week difference in discretionary time between men
and women. Other sources such as the National Research Council of the United
States (1991), cite the figure of 12 hours/week, and the Communication, Energy
and Paperworkers review of the status of working families in Canada (1994) sets
the number at approximately 12.25 hours/week. While these studies do not
directly determine that this time would be used for learning activities - it is
worth pointing out that Livingstone's (forthcoming) Canadian national informal
learning survey determined that the major reason people do not engage in
learning activities generally is a lack of time and opportunity, with the survey
establishing the average number of hours of informal learning per week at
As leading Marxist-Feminist scholar Sandra
Harding argues, typically those in positions of power are less able to
understand the precise workings of those power relations. It is often the case
that the social construction of these power relationships are naturalized and
assumed by those in the more powerful position. Just as workers are uniquely
positions to understand the inner workings of capitalism, so are women uniquely
positions to understand patriarchy. This presents challenges to those wishing to
generate critical analysis, grounded in the experiences of research subjects,
particularly when working with subjects which are overwhelmingly male (as they
were in this chemical factory). As the company employed three women workers out
of 144 production employees in total - there is ample opportunity to have
gendered dimensions overshadowed and generally underrepresented. However,
providing there are some basic sensitivities to these power relationships, this
needn't be the case. Critical interviewing and analysis of the data allow us to
"read" the relations that exist behind the descriptions that otherwise
mask patriarchal relationships. For example, when male workers talk about
free-time we must probe in order to understand how this free-time is constituted
in relationship to the labour required to reproduce not only the household but
the household wage as well. As the time-budget study figures cited above
suggests - this implicates gendered relations. The lone women in the study
characterized her household relations (as do the majority of people) as
equitable. Based on the larger amount of data from the male workers, however, we
begin to get a view of the character of this gendered dimension, and its effect
on discretionary time and learning through a critical analysis of their views on
Well it's just the nature of the family,
the make-up of the family, the age of your children if you've got children
especially with two people working, to fit that into your day. You know
I know some guys at work who get to bed every night at 9 o'clock and you know
they get upset if they end up getting to bed at 9:30 because they're really
tired the next day. Shit, I haven't been to bed before 1 o'clock for, well my
daughter's six years old now. You know you've just got so much to do, you
don't have that free time. Either of you. Especially the female in the
relationship just because of the upbringing. (GT)
Here we see a variety of statements that
indicate more and less progressive awareness of gendered relations of power and
its effects on discretionary time, however there are a number of regressive
assumptions peppered throughout. We see, for example, that the material need for
the dual earner household as a central material force is beginning to draw into
question the legitimacy of 'common-sensed' notions of the "nature of the
family", the power of "upbringing", and ultimately notions of
essentialized (gendered) identity. It is noteworthy that Rubin speaks positively
in regards to the working class household in terms of the division of household
Well for some people it does but like
with my wife and I, we don't have any kids, and instead of spending
time cleaning the house and stuff like that, we pay someone to do it. We both
work, why should we spend that time. If I have a day off, I'm not going to
spend a Saturday cleaning my house. That's nuts! (DJ)
I can say that, for me my wife and I
have changed roles recently. I've become a house-father. I'm actually
the mom of the house now and the wife has a job that takes her out of
the house anywhere between 10 and 12 hours of the day. She's also now taking
what's known as the Dale Carnegie course. As a matter of fact she's there
right now... Slowly, we're learning that we have to share in the raising of
the children, but in our house we getting to that point where now she can
go off and do what she want's to do. I've pushed her to do that because I knew
she needed the challenge for things to be more fulfilling. So I opened the
door for her, so now more doors open up because of it. So it's an attitude in
the house that creates that. (LR)
In fact, it may be that over the last two
decades, the greatest shifts in relations between men and women have taken
place in working-class families rather than in middle-class ones. Two decades
ago I found few working-class men who would even give lip service to the
notion of gender equality, whether inside or outside the house. Today many of
the men I interviewed are quite sensitive to the needs and wishes of their
wives. It's true that this sensitivity often isn't translated into action. But
the very assertion of the ideology of equality by men who resisted it so
thoroughly before is itself a step forward, the first perhaps in the struggle
for genuine change in the family. (Rubin, 1994:78)
What was made relatively clear in this
research, and which I've tried to point to here, is that gender relations are
not only a significant structure of social life in general, but are a
significant structure of learning in that they can be seen to partially
structure cultural life and, of course, discretionary time that might otherwise
be devoted to gaining desired skills and knowledge.
Finally, beyond the material dimensions
that structure the opportunities to participate in specific communities of
practice (in the workplace, the community, hobby groups, political activism,
etc.) - in this research we can also detect what could be understood as
"cultural" features of working class life which more or less directly
affect learning practice. A full discussion of studies of working class culture
is beyond the scope of this report, and even so the data does not support these
features as dominant structuring factors. Nonetheless, cropping up throughout
the interviews were statements such as the following which suggest that specific
sets of values, inclinations and sensitivities, e.g. values of solidarity, play
a role in the way people understand, plan and carry out their
learning/participation in society. In this segment, while one worker indicates
why informal learning is important for working people in terms of the basic
material constraints already discussed, another introduces another important
feature, in this case implicating class and formal schooling credentials,
introducing an oppositional form of what Bourdieu (1984) has called cultural and
some of the difference is because that's the only way we can afford to do our
Do you think that's the only factor?
LR: Yes, time
VH: No I
don't think so.
VH: I don't
think that's the only thing, it's like do you want to be a management
scum-bag. If you want to be
you have to at least have your university education.... That's where some of
this false sense of superiority comes from with management. 'Oh well I'm university educated and you're not!'
Well, 'Hey buddy, I didn't want to go through that just to get the bullshit job you got!'.... It's like, I
could've done it if I'd wanted to, but now you're holding it against me because I didn't!
These workers introduce the notion that
individualist assumptions inherent within the credentialization of learning in
formal education (and the use of credentials in competitive labour markets) are
contrary to notions of collectivity and solidarity that characterize relations
upon which these and other workers depend. While we mustn't idealize the
existing state of solidarity amongst workers, strong statements such as these do
give pause for thought. It's clearly possible that people see the individualist
assumptions of educational credentials as contrary to the lessons learned on the
shop floor and at the bargaining table? If so, we must more seriously consider
these and other dimensions of cultural life more generally in assessing the
structures of working class learning.
2.5 Making Meaning out of
"Education" and "Learning"
There's a lot of people who don't go to
school, but you can only pick up so much in school. There's lot's of stuff
you can pick up on the street... even after a person is officially trained
there's still lots of stuff you have to learn and pick up. (RR)
Academic literature that has tried to
understand the power relationships between different forms of knowledge are
quite clear in their basic conclusions. In the popular consciousness, the
differences between manual and mental labour, the differences between formal and
informal knowledge, the differences between skills and knowledge, etc. are
distinctions that people use everyday as well as over the course of a lifetime
to order their plans and activities. These distinctions are treated as objective
and real and of course come to have very real material effects. However, writers
as diverse as Bourdieu (1984; 1994); Harding (1986; 1991), Hartsock (1983) and
Collins (1986; 1990); Haraway (1988; 1991; 1996) and Michelson (1996; 1998);
Smith (1974; 1990); and even Woolgar (1988) and Latour (1987; Latour and
Woolgar, 1979) - all point (in very different ways) to the way the meanings we
ascribe to these distinctions are actively constructed by us all. The general
suggestion is that, rather than being necessary and "real" differences
(10), these differences rely on the daily activities, and our own
collective assumptions and collusion.
The problem with formal schooling is
it's impractical... I mean you could be the most practical person in the
world but have absolutely no knowledge of what to do in a school setting.
So what we're doing here [with the SKP] is more dealing with the knowledge not
the practical. To mesh the two that's the difficulty. (VH)
I really think people get robbed in
the real world. There are people who really could get straight A's in
university but they dropped out in grade 10. It doesn't mean they're stupid, it
doesn't mean they deserve a shitty job, but it usually ends up that way right.
This basic realization allows us to look
at issues such as working class learning in a very different way than people
typically do. Rather than simply seeking greater access to the
"canonical" body of dominant forms of skills, knowledge, and even
processes of learning - we can begin to see that the practices that people
already engage in, sometimes very different from the canon
(11), produce forms of skill and knowledge themselves. The problem of
education for the "missing millions" (Ward and Taylor, 1986) then is
broadened to see that subordinated, taken-for-granted knowledge forms must be at
least included within, and can at points contest the legitimacy of, the canon.
Important to the understanding of the
practices that reproduce (and contest) the hierarchically ordered distinctions
between dominant and subordinated knowledge means looking to the daily
activities that people, like the workers in this research, participate in that
(re)produce these distinctions. While it is impossible for us to draw into view
the range of experiences and reflections that have contributed to the meaning of
notions such as "education" and "learning"
(12) over a life time - from a working class standpoint, this does not
stop us from obtaining glimpses of the development of these meanings. This
research provided a venue for workers to discuss important issues and anecdotes
that underlie the meanings of words like "learning" and
"education" as they make use of them in their daily lives. In
comparative analysis of the experiences and perspectives of different workers we
can begin to distinguish between idiosyncratic experiences and those that are
To understand and suggest the notion of
dominant and subordinate perspectives on the meaning of education and learning
requires us to first outline the type of relationship that these different
(dominant, subordinate, etc.) meanings have with each other. In the analysis of
this research I've sought to understand the relationship between dominant and
subordinate perspectives as hegemonic (Gramsci, 1971). In short, this
means that dominant meanings are always contested in practice. Dominant and
subordinate perspectives are contained within a hegemonic order (a structure)
and vis-ā-vis a process of hegemony (in which features emerge, recede, contest,
are appropriated, etc.). As such, the concept makes room for the way that new
ideas emerge and can sometimes co-exist with a diverse range of ideas, however
the concept of hegemony rules out understanding either dominant or subordinate
perspectives in isolation from each other. Any discussion of, for instance,
working class or bourgeois culture cannot degenerate into autonomous cultural
A more complex view of alternative
practices and the relations between them such as the one I advocate for here
allows us to begin to approach the contradictory notions that coexist within our
understandings and descriptions of notions such as education and learning. Such
a process draws into question many of the 'binary' or dichotomous views that
inform much of our everyday practice. Take for example this worker's
reformulation of the mental/manual dichotomy.
It's like if you got a guy who's been
learning about fixing engines and how engines work in university but hasn't
worked on engines, I'm going to take the guy who might not have the schooling
but has been fixing engines for 6 years.... There's theory in the hands-on
In this example, the worker outlines that the
mental/manual division of labour and learning is largely a 'false dichotomy'.
There is theory in the hands-on just as their is hands-on in the theory (e.g.
see Woolgar, 1988). Understanding this distinction is important for us to
clearly recognize the social organization of skills and knowledge when we see
This research did not attempt to re-visit
workers' experiences of schooling. Though these institutional experiences are
clearly the major force in generating dominant meanings of
"education" and "learning" (Lave, 1988; Engeström, 1987;
Thomas, 1991; Livingstone and Sawchuk, forthcoming) - rather in this research
the focus was on current activities. Even here however, we can begin to detect
features of the social organization of skills and knowledge. One typical
experience that workers discussed concerned how those with "clean"
white-collar jobs, treat them as 'factory workers'.
Actually I find it really funny because
when we're dealing with office staff or lab staff and when they're dealing
with workers on the shop floor, you know, we have guys like John - has got an
engineering degree, guys like Rod - who has a teaching degree, I have my CRA
[real estate certificate] and lots of things like that, but the people you
deal with don't realize this. I'm not saying it is good or bad or whatever,
but I just find it funny because in general they will look down because you
are in manufacturing.... It's like anywhere, they tend to look down on the
blue collar worker. (RD)
This is a common form of interaction seen in
this and other research with working class people (Sennet and Cobb, 1972;
Bourdieu, 1984; Livingstone and Sawchuk, forthcoming). Setting aside the new
realities of an increasingly 'credentialized' working class (particularly
amongst workers in the higher-paying, unionized manufacturing firms -
Livingstone, 1998) - workers engage in interaction on a daily basis (indeed they
contribute to this interaction substantially) which reinforce the notion that
formal credentials, mental labour and clean work are superior. As I've mentioned
however, the notion of "hegemonic" entails that this process of
domination is never total. As a basic illustration take for example this short
exchange during the focus group session. Here one worker begins by signaling how
the formalizing processes of PLAR can be "intimidating". Workers feel
they are being measured against some sort of dominant ideal (i.e. "the
canon") which is closely tied to the formal schooling processes and
credentials. However, as soon as the worker offers this observation it is
SKP process] can also be very intimidating.
Were people intimidated by this form?
All: No. [in
Beyond these provocative but nevertheless
only anecdotal illustrations of the contradictory, incomplete and complex inner
meanings associated with education, learning and the PLAR process from the
vantage point of working people - the central point is simply that there are
complex relations of power hidden beneath this thin veneer. In fact, these
relationships and views become increasingly important when, through processes
such as PLAR, alternative educational experiences and knowledge forms
integrate/contest dominant forms which are so coherently integrated with central
institutions of our society, namely work, training and schooling.
For those experienced in manufacturing
work, or even those familiar with academic literature which provide some insight
into it (e.g. Kusterer, 1978; Burawoy, 1979; Peterson, 1986; Terkel, 1974;
Hamper, 1992) - it is well known that the appearance of trained engineers and/or
management personal on the shop floor is often an occassion to practice, i.e.
(re)produce, the clash of dominant and subordinated knowledges. Here formalized
credentials, white-collars, and "mental" planners of work in a
"clean" jobs meet informal skill/knowledge, overalls greasey from
machine fluid, and "manual" work in jobs that are typically hot,
routinized, and/or dirty. While earlier research on the topic rarely sought to
understand this clash specifically in terms of relations of learning and
knowledge - these are semi-regular encounters which, to workers, are important
moments through which the landscape of power, knowledge, learning and education
are both understood and produced.
Sometimes they ask you your opinions on things, what do you need, how do you do
this, how much space do you need, but in the end it's all their call right. I remember one time we
told them that in this one situation we were getting these sparks coming off, so we were told to start using Nitrus. We
told them that we didn't think it was going to work. It's not strong enough to clear the tanks, and then what
happens? The guy goes to take the hose off and he gets covered in paint! It just didn't have enough pressure, it
wasn't going to work, but they just do what they want anyways. They're the ones with the formal schooling,
they're the ones with the high paying jobs, they know better then the guys on the floor.
Would you say the engineers in the plant have lots of knowledge?
BD: You mean
of the process?
Yeah, how would it compare with the workers' knowledge?
doesn't. We deal with the stuff. You could be a engineer for Chrysler
designing Chrysler vans or something, but I don't care what you say, the guys who're actually building the engine
are going to know more about it than the guy who's writing it down on the blueprint... For sure we
know things that engineers don't have any knowledge of. One is theory and one is practical.
Speaking about another facet of his job on
the floor, the worker goes on to outline his experiences with lab technicians in
a similar way.
There are these Lab Technicians telling you
to do things but they don't know. They don't know that there are tricks to
the trade... These people with prestigious jobs don't want to
listen to some grunt. (BD)
Other workers reiterate,
We've had company's and engineers come in
with new products like a new pump and they don't know about how it will work
because they've never been there, and we say, 'No, change it this way,'
and they say, 'No we can't do that because it's a poor design,' and we say,
'Well change it because it won't work and we won't want to use your
As I pointed out earlier in my citation of
the range of authors who write about relations of dominant and subordinated
knowledges, the distinctions and dichotomies that these selected quotations
point to have been recognized elsewhere in various ways; however, anyone wishing
to argue, that modern manufacture has truly given rise to a genuine
"Team" process and that the skills and knowledge of "knowledge
workers" are valued in the modern workplace would be straightened out in
short order and in graphic detail by these workers. Prestige, pay, credentials,
actual working knowledge, and of course the power to make "the call in the
end" - in many ways define these important interactions; and, even in the
setting of the research interviews workers only partially contest the legitimacy
of these structures. As this research helped clarify, without stable
'proletarian public spheres' the 'isolated' worker is typically diverted from
understanding these relations in any other way. In the Ontario (Canada) context
specifically, Dunk's (1991) critique of working-class male cultural practices is
a detailed example of this diversionary process in which class experiences
become understandable, primarily, within the realms of consumption, patriarchal
and even racist discourse and practice. In this research, workers entered
discussions with a patch-work of experiences that provide ample fodder for
producing emerging, alternative ways of understanding knowledge relations, but
it was actually in the process of sharing and comparing experiences collectively
that provided the engine to begin to convert these experiences into the
rudiments of an oppositional framework (13).
What's more, it was the connection to broader oppositional structures, in this
case trade unionism, that helped keep these developments on track in concrete
You get these people with their
university educations saying 'Well what the hell could you possibly know that
I don't know?' So meanwhile you stand back and say, 'Well go ahead then.' (VH)
Another issue that becomes more clear from
workers descriptions of their learning experiences is the inherently collective,
social nature of the enterprise. Throughout the descriptions of their learning
(as well as the assertion of these skills and knowledge on the shopfloor)
workers consistently characterized these practices as definatively collective,
collaborative and cooperative. The constant insertion of "we" in the
development of workplace knowledge is was standard. While having learned
(the state of 'knowing') may be individualized (i.e. in some sense it is
'logged' in an individual body), the process of learning is more
accurately understood as participatory relationships.
Perhaps due to the fragmentary dimensions
of these experiences, they do not, generally speaking, generate oppositional
plans or practices for workers in relation to formal education. Many workers
plan to or would continue to pursue formal education rather than engage in the
conscious development of other ways of creating and using knowledge (e.g. in the
workplace, community centre, neighbourhood, etc.). While workers appear
"resistant" to the hierarchical order of knowledge (with the knowledge
they themselves generate typically low on the list), as individuals most
workers do not seriously entertain developing upon their own alternatives
Of course as is generally well understood,
the pursuit of formal education is never easy for the working class. In the
Ontario (Canada) context, Curtis, Livingstone and Smaller (1992; see also Davis
et al. 1989) point out, this pursuit is wrought with cultural as well as
material barriers. In the LCCW data, workers described some of their past
difficulties and indicated that these experiences have largely determined the
meaning of notions of learning and education. Beyond just finding the time,
space and human energy for discretionary "learning" (as discussed in
section 2.4) - formal education has been problematic for these workers. Below a
worker recounts past experiences of education that are representative of many of
the anecdotes shared in this research. One of the defining moments of this
worker's view of "education" came through his attempt to gain a
carpentry "ticket" (14) through
community college. Obtaining a ticket meant learning through practice
(completing various "projects") which sounded attractive. The programs
also allowed students to earn a wage while doing the work/learning. This was
another important issue growing up in a working class household. However, in
practice the program ended up turning this worker away from formal education.
RR: You got to
move around from company to company but work was really too hard to find... See
it's not one company that does all the kind of work you need. One company will do one thing
that's a couple of projects another company might do another so you could do some projects there. So you
really couldn't get done because what you have to do is keep going around to all these different
companies and there's not a lot of
company's or work out there to begin with.
So you gotta do so much running around.
RR: And I got
sick of it so I moved up here [to Toronto from Canada's east coast]. In fact, at
the end, when I was almost finished I got two job offers one was for $5.50 and the other was for $6
bucks an hour, but I had to have all my own tools, my own transportation. It turned me right off the courses. I
never wanted to do a college course again.
Even the 'luxury' of "jumping through
hoops" is seldom an option for working class students, and despite the
appearance of the right combination of financially supporting himself and an
active-learning environment -the notion of "schooling" and
"education" through the experience took on a negative character.
Another worker recounts a similar story,
I didn't actually get my mechanics ticket.
I went for four years of the apprenticeship but just didn't quite follow
through.... I went into [the apprenticeship] and I was working for a mechanic
for a really low wage right out of grade 10 [after dropping out]. I went in
and out of the program for about 10 years mostly because of financial reasons.
In cases like these workers are unable to
complete their programs and are left with only an employment history of low-wage
jobs to show for their effort. For workers like these the credential system
could not be navigated and as such served as a filtering process for even the
motivated. In this sense, the meaning of the concept of "education"
comes to take on the feel of a system of barriers rather than opportunities.
The discussion of
"over-qualification" in section 2.3 helps introduce another fairly
common dynamic that workers experienced with regard to the relationship between
formal credentials, education and employment. Beyond the issues of educational
opportunities and barriers - the central issue that is raised in this discussion
points to the unwillingness and/or inability of the contemporary industrial
workplace to make productive use of (and thus be willing to compensate for)
highly skilled workers.
LR: Yeah, you
can learn from the guy next to you too. That's actually how I learned
welding. See Canada doesn't have a program for a certificate as a fitter-welder. You have to be a skilled
tradesman outside this country and brought in and their programs are usually through the ship yards and stuff like
RD: [to LR]
yeah, my buddy works for X and they have to test themselves.
LR: [to RD]
Yeah that firm is big enough but... When I was working for a place, the boss
said that there's no exam for fitter-welder... but they finally brought over a test and the 10 of us were
able to get our certificate that way.
So the company helped to get that going?
LR: Oh no,
the company gave us a hard time we had to get it going. As soon as I passed
and I got my certificate I walked into the office and I said, 'Here I've got this certificate. I'd like a
raise.' They said, 'Oh yeah sure. Your raise is with a different company across the road and down the street!' Like
thank you! So in that case, I've been penalized for getting an education.
Here, similar to the way the SKP took on
different meanings as it was inserted into different social contexts, in these
situations formal educational credentials take on take on a negative character.
Here credentials do not work for workers but against them. Their choice becomes
accepting wages below their skill-level, or having to leave the firm and enter
an uncertain labour market. Though they continue to do so in droves, it is a
wonder that workers' bother at all.
Here one worker outlines his union's
attempt to progressively build upon the informal learning capacities of workers
in such a way as to also benefit the implementation of computers technologies on
the shopfloor - a plan which was summarily rejected by the company.
We tried to tell the company that workers
will learn stuff together on their own at home, so why don't don't the company
offer us rebates on home computers we buy, because what you'd be doing would
be beneficial for them too right, and it's that much less training that they
have to do. But they said no.... See their general attitude is that their
trying to run something but they want to put the sole responsibility for it on
the worker. (RR)
Another worker recounts a similar situation
in which he poses the question of whether formal qualifications should be
understood as a requirement or a barrier in stark terms:
I'll explain to you what happened, I think
we might have a good human rights case actually, what happened was that, there
was this women who had worked as a summer student a number of years and she
was completely familiar with all the procedures and layout of the plant
and everything, and when she went to apply for full-time, she was told that she
was over-qualified. And the union objected and I went to see management
about it just to try to get a reason why she was considered over-qualified.
And it turns out that she was studying some law course... And she was working
at the race track at the time making 8 bucks an hour, so I was trying to get
them to explain to me how she was over-qualified if she was doing a job that
paid her 8 bucks an hour... So she was caught between be over-qualified for
this job and under-qualified for another. The company still hasn't explained
to me the use of this term over-qualified.... At our place, which is just your
standard manufacturing facility for making paints and resins - I mean it's not
rocket science - I think a lot of the qualifications are manufactured....
I mean the grade 12, is that a real qualification that you need to do the
job - or is it just a barrier to some people? Especially when you look at
the older workers who sometimes have lower grades and also immigrant workers
who've been making paint for 30 years and they're still making paint - how's
the qualification question fit with them? (GT)
As Livingstone (1998) points out, from the
perspective of capital there are several reasons for these types of procedures:
control over knowledge and the labour processes goes hand in hand with efforts
to compete and accumulate profit under the logic of capitalist production. Only
alterations in the structure of work processes (predominantly controlled by
capital) can advanced forms of workers' knowledge be productively put to use.
Livingstone and others (e.g. Beckerman et al. 1992) recommend that workers do
not necessarily need more training, but that the organization of work must be
altered to make current skill levels productive and thus "feasible"
for the company. Drawing on, amongst other sources, the work of Lazonick (1991)
on the structure of capitalist organizations, Livingstone outlines the
historical shifts in the organizational structures within capitalism noting that
it is through the movement toward democratization of the workplace which would
allow the skills and knowledge of workers to be more fully utilized.
Alternative Meanings for Learning Through Practice
In a recent article on PLAR (RPL) in the
South African Labour movement - Cooper (1998) voices concern over the
possibility of discursive shift from union education as embedded in practical,
oppositional action towards more corporate, individualist discourses of learning
and education associated with the emergence of PLAR. She is clearly less
optimistic than Thomas or Michelson in her characterization of PLAR as either a
means of "rethinking the entire enterprise" (Thomas, 1998:341) or as
"a node for negotiating epistemological visibilities and for re-examing the
notion of authoritative community" (Michelson, 1996:193). However, though a
sensible first response her concerns may be somewhat premature. We needn't throw
the PLAR baby out with the "individualist" bath-water. Cooper's dire
account is typical of discursive analyses that allow actual material activity to
slip into the background. Hegemonic shifts are obviously a complex inter-weaving
of discursive/ideological relations within the limits and pressures of actual,
ongoing cultural-material practice. In this regard, systematic assessments of
the practices and sense-making of rank-and-file workers is an essential, and
often ignored, feature. The research presented here is obviously embedded in a
different national context, however it does suggest that the shift Cooper speaks
of may not be as hegemonic as she indicates. At least the comments of these
rank-and-filers do not register such a shift. Indeed, articulated with ongoing
community building and collective bargaining, workers in this research seem to
'shift' the other way, i.e. in a more radical direction, when provided with a
forum for understanding their experiences and practices from their own class
standpoint. "Articulating with" is an important element here. Linkages
with practices such as (informal) community building around sharing
knowledge/skill resources, and (formal) around putting together new bargaining
proposals and perspectives on training and learning is essential for critical
reflection to have meaning. While, in Cooper's case, the discourse of some
activists, some union representatives, some officers may have shifted, the true
proof (as in the pudding) in democratic movements such as organized labour has
always been in the rank-and-file membership. In the LCCW research the
rank-and-file "proof" tends to support conclusions that are less
alarmist than Cooper. This being said, Cooper's essential argument is correct.
Discursive shifts are and will continue to be up for grabs vis-ā-vis the
articulation of these discourses with actual cultural/material practice.
As suggested in the previous section,
workers sometimes are able to generate alternative, more transformative notions
of learning and education. Again, as I've mentioned above, these views do not
necessarily arise from reflection on academic literature nor do they typically
arise in isolation. Rather the roots of alternative views of learning and
education overwhelmingly lie in actual, concrete collective practices.
Re-visiting the situation of the worker above (RR) who vowed as a young man
never to return to formal schooling, we see the context in which his view of
learning and education underwent a significant shift.
[Now] I pay a lot of attention to health
and safety because you know somebody really has to learn a lot about it or the
workplace won't be safe. At first how it was is you would just learn from
other workers all the different rights you have, your obligations. And
gradually I thought I would start taking courses on my own.... Now the company
puts on courses which is their safety program, and me and this other guy we
teach it, but with each course I learn more and more. (RR)
Here we see practical needs in the workplace,
and concrete responses to these needs and social practice giving rise to a new
sense of engagement with formal learning. Informal working class learning
networks provide information and valuable perspective, but also the recognition
of capacities to take in, process, and make use of complex information. The
point here is not that this worker can learn, but that he recognizes these
capacities as specifically learning capacities. With this basic
recognition, confidence grows, and in the case of this worker what I would argue
to be an "organic" (Gramsci, 1971) vantage point on education and
learning begins to emerge. As a result, he not only begins to critically engage
with the formal education system, but even begins to lead courses in the
The traditional unwillingness of workers
to participate in formal education, as mentioned in section 2.2, has been a
stable trend for some time (15) - however there
is some isolated evidence that factors such as opportunities for greater
participation in key spheres of activity brought about, for example, through
trade unionism can significantly affect this dynamic. It is worth noting here
that in Sawchuk (1997) I examined the relationship between progressive trade
unionism and participation in adult education. In this study evidence suggested
that the sense of active engagement in learning/education/training decisions (in
the workplace) and the greater sense of control in the workplace brought about
through active union locals - had positive effects on workers views of schooling
and willingness to participate. In addition, it was seen that workers'
participation was integrated into a broader, ongoing, collective learning
network amongst co-workers, friends, and neighbours. The data in the LCCW
project, as seen in the example of RR above, would seem to support these basic
The notion of collectivity appears to be
very important in the context of working class learning. As mentioned earlier,
as individuals, workers typically affirm dominant views, though in brief and
fragmentary moments workers do assert oppositional views concerning the value of
their knowledge and skills as something that does not just happen. At these
moments - when grounded in viable collective action - workers seem to generate
more stable alternative positions. Take for example the following anecdote.
We're going through a thing right now.
There's a move from the old warehouse to the new warehouse and the manager was
saying this is how we're going to move things, this is how we're going to do
things, but it was done in the guise of consulting with you and brainstorming
and basically the guys told the manager to go fuck himself, 'Fuck off we run
the place, and we're running it our way.' I mean, really, that's what they
literally told them, and the management agreed they said, 'Okay, you're
running it. And that's where [the fact that workers do have important
knowledge] comes in - why can you get away with saying things like that?
Because it's true and [management] know it.... It really wasn't done in a
crude, arrogant, militant sense. What they were really saying is, 'We know
what we're doing. We know how to run it.' Collectively I think they got 213
years seniority between them and they told them that... At the end of the day
the plant manager did recognize what they were saying, they do have the
knowledge, they do have the experience, and if it isn't broke don't fix it.
But unfortunately workers don't realize how much power they have. (GT)
Several factors appear to have contributed to
these workers' ability to generate definitive, affirmative statements of
alternative knowledge forms and process of learning through which they
collectively obtained them. One contributing factor certainly was the topic
area. Unlike understanding of isolated technologies, product-knowledge, etc. -
the understanding of actual collective work processes, rhythms, informal norms
of participation, and the storage and transmission of vital practical skills and
knowledge has always been the relatively exclusive domain of workers. The
attempt to re-locate and modify work stations, makes this knowledge central
giving the workers important leverage. Workers in this department opposed the
original plans and asserted the relevance of their own knowledge collectively.
Taken together the opportunity arose for an assertion of working class
knowledge. Taken further, an event such as this - which typically becomes a part
of a local union's collective oral history - has the potential to ground the
development of more transformative programmes of workplace militancy when
articulated with existing oppositional structures, i.e. the union local, the
bargaining process, etc.
Discussions of informal learning have a
comparative presumption: informal learning stands in relation to more formalized
learning. "Learning" about different ways of learning, for workers,
was a product of practice. In other words, workers learned about alternative
learning in the context of a specific set of social relations that were not based
in the institutional setting of schools (although they did involve
reflecting on classroom practice). Here one worker discusses another past
experience of the development of a new department in the workplace.
was a great deal of training, but a lot of it wasn't hands-on training
unfortunately. We went for a lot of team building seminars, quality processing, SPC (statistics) and all this kind of
So together it took a couple of weeks or
So six months before the [department] was up and running?
DP: Yeah, it
was basically for 6 months we didn't produce anything, we were just learning
about the technology and
Learning about the process and what it was going to be like?
So what were those days like, you just come into work and what, or did you even
come into the workplace?
DP: Oh yeah,
well some of the time it was off-site but.... We did have one tank in the plant
that we were making one batch of sort of thing, like there were 14 of us swamping around the thing - I
mean it was ridiculous, but some of the courses were good. We took one, I think it was a team building, I'm trying
to think of the buzz word they had, but it was along the lines of team building, I can't think of the name.
It was kind of a social thing
DP: Yeah, it
was conflict resolution that sort of thing. It was interesting, but most of the
training for the most part was just a joke.
After the 6 month period of formal
training, the interviewee described the learning that went on in actual
production. This type of learning and these types of knowledge and skill
development were the strict domain of the chemical workers themselves.
It was all hands-on... We learned
basically that the last 6 months [of formal training] was a waste of time.
Obviously nothing worked, and when they were trying to set up the building we
were very much involved in you know where things were to go and how we wanted
things set up, and of course when it came down to practicality a lot of it
didn't work, which was good, but the bad part of it was that we couldn't
blame it on the company you know because we were involved [laughs]. (DP)
The hands-on, practical and informal learning
- in comparison to the more formalized sessions - was seen as the superior of
the mode of workers' learning, in part, because they were controlled
(collectively) by workers.
What percentage [of workers' learning] would you say, is from out there doing it
and learning from other workers especially?
DJ: I'd say
about 90%. The training programs we get are pretty well useless. They're
not very good at all. They give you just a very basic idea about what's going on and they say, okay, go. But
it's the co-workers around you who fill you in and say, 'Hey - don't do that!'
While the formal sessions undoubtably
contributed to the overall knowledge base, it is important to note how the
worker characterizes the difficulties experienced during start-up phase in a positive
light. In the context in which this worker is speaking, this can be understood
as a recognition that the control over knowledge and skill is a key component of
workers' lives, and that the only direct path to this control is by use of the
informal activities involved in actually being there. The point that these
workers' comments help to make in this regard is that there is a close
connection between notions of the informal and subordinate learning. As writers
such as Certeau (1984) and Fiske (1993) have pointed out in the context of
workers knowledge, the informal cultural networks are largely definitive of
subordinate knowledge forms. While the realm of the "informal" cannot
be understood as unique to the subordinate groups such as workers, it is clear
that there is a special relationship between the informal and these groups as it
is primarily upon these 'hidden' social systems that they depend.
Working class learning, in its most
productive and progressive instances, can also be closely linked to the effects
of trade unions. In Certeau's terms (1984), trade union structures mark the
potential for a shift from informal 'tactical' practices, to socially
transformative or 'strategic' ones. As we'll see below, the union structure is a
vitally important component for this transformation and this learning. In
contrast to descriptions above of encounters with engineers and management
authority which do not typically end positively for the workers (i.e. engineers
just "do what they want anyways") - an alternative forum and structure
with which to organize working class activities changes the nature of these
activities and the uses to which these activities and capacities can be
3. PLAR AND LABOUR
Every time the company manipulates a
worker. Every time a company screws a worker or abuses a worker - then you got
a union member. And then it's up to the union to use that experience to
educate the union member and others. I keep telling them, 'Thanks again
you're helping us!' Every time the company turns on the worker that's when the
union has to step in and expose them, and that's where the education comes in
from the union to make it available to those who want to learn.... Some people
in this room learned about health and safety the hard way. They learned about
workers' compensation the hard way. Only through their experience. They
never went to any OFL [Ontario Federation of Labour] course or any Union
course - they learned it when the employer fucked them and then they had
the time to sit down and say, 'Why'd they do that to me - after all I've given
them?' And that's the best, unfortunately it's the hardest as well, the best
experience a worker can get because it cuts through all the nonsense, because
it hits you directly, it gives you time to think and to read and to ask
questions and start understanding what it's all about. (GT)
As this opening quotation outlines,
progressive trade unionism has always relied on workers' own learning capacities
to both reproduce itself as an organization and to change with the times and
issues. As I briefly mentioned in discussion of the effects of progressive trade
unionism on PAE in section 2.4 above, these learning capacities are related to
the experience workers obtain taking an active role in a key field of social
practice (i.e. the workplace).
One of the central emergent issues of the
Ontario Industrial workers' research site concerned the relationship between
PLAR, the SKP instrument, working class learning strategies, and the
labour union itself. Of course, in Canada PLAR has been written about fairly
widely in terms of vocational education (e.g. Cherry, 1995/96; College of Nurses
of Ontario, 1996; Bragg, 1997; Burke and Van Kleef, 1997; Tourangeau, 1997).
These sources integrate certain dimensions of the labour process but only in the
context of formal schooling, professional qualifications, and individualized
action. The relations between PLAR practices and the world of work, training and
workplace learning have also been discussed within isolated patches of the
international literature (e.g. Carmichael, 1992; Fennell, 1993; Leader, 1995;
Inman and Vernon, 1997). However, in Canada PLAR has not been widely taken up
amongst labour education researchers. Outside a small cadre of Labour Education
specialists (e.g. Gereluk, Briton and Spencer, 1998; Sawchuk, 1998a), and with
the exception of the labour perspectives represented within the Canadian Labour
Force Development Board - the recently produced Labour Perspective on Prior
Learning Assessment and Recognition document (NALL-Labour Caucus, 1998) is
perhaps the most relevant general statement of the connection between organized
labour and PLAR practices to date. This is not to say that PLAR issues have not
entered discussions in organized labour circles and isolated unions in Canada as
the NALL-Labour Caucus paper indicates,
For well over a decade now, trade unionists
have maintained that PLAR can be a useful tool to help workers get credit for
their knowledge and skill. Far too often workers' knowledge goes unrecognized
or ignored. A labour position on PLAR reflects a progressive educational
philosophy through which we, as working people, collectively develop the tools
and strategies we need to identify and fight against inequalities based on
race, gender, class, age and ability practices of systemic discrimination
which the labour movement has traditionally battled. (NALL-Labour Caucus,
Despite these dispersed efforts however there
is, to my knowledge, no previous research that documents the views of
rank-and-file unionized workers on these issues which at the same time seek to
articulate the full sense of labour's "progressive educational
philosophy" mentioned in the quotation above.
Previously in this report I've outlined
the contextual nature of PLAR processes which emerge as the process is applied
to particular social settings. We've also discussed at some length the
theoretical dimensions of the concept of working class learning strategies and
relations of informal learning (16). In the
following section we will deal with the ways that working class learning
strategies, informal learning, and the situated character of PLAR combine to
make local trade unions an excellent alternative application of PLAR. Before
discussing this however it is important to briefly outline data from this
research that deal specifically with issues of class consciousness and
solidarity building. This is essential, as I suggest above, because the
emergence of relevant 'strategic' initiatives require collective action linked
to concrete organizational structures like the union local. In this sense,
notions such as "class consciousness" and "solidarity" are
not only essential components of trade union activity, but are also
indistinguishable from issues of "learning" and the development of
educational initiatives for progressive, transformative purposes.
"Learning" Class Consciousness in the Workplace
As Canadian labour historians (e.g.
Morton, 1998; Heron,1996; Palmer, 1993) have often indicated, through time
workers' collective consciousness of the basic dynamics of capitalism and
workers' place in these dynamics has been both a "product" of work and
a "project" for organized labour. In other words, relations of work produce
a level of consciousness (as the quotation which opened section three indicated;
in the Canadian context see for example Livingstone and Mangan, 1993 for
detailed sociological discussion of class consciousness) as a result of the way
that companies typically treat individual workers over time and the inherent
nature of capitalist labour process. At the same time, organized labour attempts
to build these experiences into a coherent and progressive project of
social transformation. However, as individuals and even as isolated groups, as
I've indicated workers' consciousness is easily diverted.
[Working class culture] is prosaic rather
than poetic... [T]his culture is intimately related to a sense of class, and
the rejection of and resistance to a perceived dominant culture [which] is
expressed and deflected into non-class discourses. (Dunk, 1991:3)
Class consciousness and learning are related
via the types of hierarchical relations of knowledge that I've outlined in
section 2.5 above, where I suggested that in order to be developed fully,
working class learning strategies and working class knowledge forms must be
understood - and practiced - as relevant sources of collective power. If these
strategies and forms are subjected, particularly by workers themselves, to
denigration or dismissal it is clear that they can never serve as a starting
point for social change of any kind. My argument here is that class
consciousness is thus not only a "project" for organized labour in
terms of its struggle with capital directly, it is also the central means of
developing and making use of alternative educational strategies such as PLAR.
Learning and class consciousness in the
workplace are, in many ways, inseparable. Workers in this research recounted
many anecdotes in which changes in knowledge - in particular through practical
experience - was an important event for them on the road to becoming critical,
class conscious workers and progressive trade unionists. The flavour of these
expereince is expressed concisely below where one worker outlines just such an
I'll give you an example of how people
learn. I'm working with a guy, and he turns to me one day and says, 'You
couldn't get a better place to work. This place treats you like gold.' I said,
'Yeah! [laughing] All you are is a number. They don't know you by name. When
you're time comes up all they see is a number. They don't feel sorry for you.'
And he's looking at me as if I didn't know what I was talking about. So he was
trying to get his cousin in one time and they wouldn't hire him and he was all
mad because look at all the good work he's done, and I said to him 'They don't
know you from Adam. Look they don't know how much paint we each put out and
they don't really care - I get paid the same as you. The paycheque won't
change.' But he's coming around I think. He's kind of iffy now you know he's
only had that one experience, sometimes it takes a couple of experiences
before you learn. (RR)
To hear workers in this research discuss it,
"learning" is the heart of trade unionism. Another worker details a
story that appears to be common amongst workers today in the context of Quality
movements and TQM (17) generally.
Well they started calling us
"Associates" and then the reality set in, and people started saying,
'Wait a minute! How can we be Associates? Don't we have to work together?
Don't we have to work as a team? So if we're not really a team, then your the
employer and I'm the employee.' And that's why I said to you earlier that it
took a bit for me to get it through my head, but if we were really
"worker-driven" then we wouldn't have any middle-mangers. They'd be
all gone by now. (LR)
In this case, the "reality setting
in" is the significant learning experience for this worker as a
trade unionist. It is in the presence of progressive informal and formal
educational structures that diversions into non-class discourses are avoided,
and true labour education occurs. Like several others, this worker makes this
very point by comparing unionized to non-unionized workplaces specifically in
regard to the effect it has on how workers view their own knowledge and its
potential to bring about better conditions.
In other workplaces that don't have a
union or any other means of educating themselves. They do have knowledge right,
but the trick [for the company] is to keep this knowledge down because an
uneducated worker is a cheap worker and one who'll do what you say no matter
what even if it's harming them. (VH)
3.2 Solidarity as
an Educational Resource
As we've seen in this research and
elsewhere, workers learn a great deal in collective, cooperative, informal
networks (Sawchuk, 1996; 1997; 1998a; 1998b; forthcoming; Livingstone and
Sawchuk, forthcoming). At the same time, central to trade union activity is the
notion of worker "solidarity." If we understand workers' solidarity to
be roughly composed of, on the one hand, collective action, and on the other
organized class consciousness - then we can begin to see important linkages
between solidarity, working class learning and progressive educational
initiatives such as PLAR/SKP. The development of these linkages would appear to
have the potential to make major contributions to the invigoration of union
culture and, following this, creatively renewed efforts at social transformation
in the workplace and beyond. In this sense the development of solidarity is both
a result of workers' collective learning and a contributor to it.
In the context of the LCCW research, one
of the most interesting findings was the effect that the process of going
through the SKP form, particularly in collective settings, had on workers. As
other researchers have noted (e.g. Thomas, 1998b), PLAR processes such as
portfolio development have been seen to have important effects on self-esteem as
well as self-understanding; however, in connection with trade unions
specifically, these otherwise individualized, realizations become something more
People don't realize it but if they started
writing it down in something like this it starts to click in. Hey,
[management] can't do this! They sit and push pencils but they can't do this!
It would take them a long time to learn all of this because it took me a good
while.... but if not to give to an employer, just to be able to say, 'Yeah, I
learned something.' It would make a lot of people feel better about themselves
on the floor. It would raise the moral because every job at our place had to
be learned. You can't put someone in there and expect them to able to get
along without the training. The managers tried to do it. They just hurt
themselves and the whole thing stopped dead that time we were out on strike.
They just couldn't do it. They reason they couldn't do it was because every
job in there had to be learned. (DJ)
In this example we see that, as Freire has
pioneered, 'realizing' what one knows is a source of power. The SKP process,
indeed the research process itself, becomes a medium for developing another way
of thinking about and talking about workers' knowledge and skills. It is an
opportunity for workers to seriously reflect on the relations of learning in the
workplace, and to see relationships of power in the ways we think about skills
and knowledge. To the degree that these relationships are identified, workers'
knowledge is (re)asserted.
Re-emphasizing the situated character of
the SKP that we discussed throughout section two, this worker attenuated the
positive outcomes of occasions when workers get together to share knowledge and
develop collective perspective with some sober reservations.
From my point of view, from the workers'
point of view where I'm coming from - I don't think it's too practical. I
mean it's good to write everything down, but as long as there is always the
two sides drawn between management and the working class a lot of it is not
applicable. They just are not going to listen right. I'm not trying to be
hard-nosed about it, and a lot of it I think is great for the amongst
workers, but as far as management and workers coming together and people
saying, 'Yeah we're going to listen to you.' I just can't see it happening.
But like what we did here tonight I thought was really good. Guys opened up
and they talked about the way things are. The way they really are, not
just theoretically like when the company offers "team-building
skills" which is a crock of shit. I mean this is team building right.
Real "team-building" is, by another
name, solidarity, and workers such as this one came to understand more fully
within the research process itself the power of collective action/reflection
(i.e. praxis) amongst organized workers.
3.3 A Workers'
"Knowledge Bank": Shifting Contexts / Shifting Meanings of the SKP
In the labour movement [informal learning
is] like a tool and it's an excellent one. We've sent people to many courses
to require some formal and informal skills or whatever, but this [SKP] would
be a good tool to keep a record of their learning, personally, and for a local
- to show what people of capable of in the labour sense. And then you can get
into things like electronics, and car mechanics, painting and decorating,
etc., etc. You could sort of build it out from there. But all with the idea
that you pass the learning on. When we teach people it's with the intent that
when they learn, they have to come back and teach others. So you're always
passing on your knowledge, experience and skills. (GT)
PLAR must be seen as having important
potential for achieving recognition that workers have sought since the rise of
industrial capitalism. As the NALL-Labour Caucus statement tells us,
There are already several opportunities to
learn from existing uses of PLAR by organized labour. Examples include the
United Steel Workers of America's (USWA) progressive influence in the Canadian
Steel Trades and Employment Congress (CSTEC) in which PLAR issues are being
negotiated in terms of training courses in a number of colleges throughout
Canada and a variety of other union locals, such as the Communications, Energy
and Paperworkers (CEP) Local 200-O which has attempted to begin a discussions
of PLAR in terms of fuller recognition of extensive informal on-the-job
However, it remains to be seen whether
Canadian organized labour (and Canada's tripartite training bodies) can achieve
tangible, stable structures which will help realize the transformative potential
of PLAR. One of the conclusions in Sawchuk (1998a) and in this report is that
left to the managerial logics of mainstream institutional settings such as
formal schooling or the workplace - PLAR cannot deliver the
"liberatory" goods. Following this, it would seem reasonable that PLAR
would have the best chances of seeing its most liberatory dimensions emerge in
settings congruent with a general conception of the need for social
In my view and in comparison to existing
PLAR literature, by far the most interesting idea to emerge from this research
concerned the relationship between the SKP and what these workers called a
"Workers' Knowledge Bank". Approximately half-way through the data
collection phase, workers in the focus group session spontaneously began
discussing using the PLAR and the SKP specifically in the assembly of a
data-base of workers' skills and knowledge to be used by other workers in the
local. The PAR research methodology is flexible in such a way (indeed it
demands) that such respondent-generated, action-oriented material be
incorporated into the research agenda - thus the notion was integrated into the
basic interview structure thereafter. At the time however, with excitement
running high workers competed with each other to clarify and refine the idea
within the focus group setting. One of the early points of consensus concerned
the fact that it would be completely voluntary, free, informal and strictly
for workers. The following is the portion of the transcript when the notion
first appeared in group discussion.
LR: What I
find is that amongst the bunch of us here we'd be willing to help one another
outside of work, or whether it be on the job - we'd be more than willing to help one another. I have
skills that maybe X doesn't have. X has knowledge that maybe I don't have. We draw on each other as a personal
thing, I guess as a personal connection, but when it comes to the workplace and management and if you are
being resisted for the knowledge you have - you're not going to give any to them! So that once again
you're forced. This particular [SKP] package is great but it's only going to really work if I give to X or Y or
somebody else. Like this is what I know! If I was to read what Z has learned or somebody else, because this is cool. I
can say, well look I was actually thinking of doing something but I didn't know who had the skills and the
knowledge. All of a sudden I know that my neighbour or a friend or a co-worker has the knowledge and you can draw on
it. Because, they're going to
give it to you more willingly than if I was wearing the badge
"Manager" or the blue-coat [supervisor].
GT: Like a
knowledge bank! Like a knowledge bank for workers internally. [to the group]
You know it's like X is a dap hand at mechanics. If anybody want's help winning a grievance - give
me a shout! [all laughing]
DJ: And L with
the camera there. [L the camera man]
GT: Yeah the
LR: Yeah, it's
like when you know that a co-worker like L has this expertise, we keep that in
mind and we give him a call. Like I had a video that needed to be done and I couldn't do it. I knew L
had the expertise, so I gave him a call and you know. That's just how we do things.... It would be most useful
Later in remaining individual interview
sessions the idea of the Knowledge Bank was introduced. Typical responses such
as, "For sure, great use of the SKP form, but all that kind of happens
anyways..." (BD) were recorded. What we see then is that instruments like
the SKP have the potential not to create new practices, but rather to make more
effective use of the practices, strategies and collective capacities already in
existence amongst workers by linking them to existing oppositional structures.
Quoted at length, this worker paints a vivid picture of the progressive
potential within workers' practices, and suggests how educational practices such
as PLAR, and instruments such as the SKP can contribute.
Overall, I see a lot of value in [the SKP].
Especially the idea that eventually you can have something in your pocket
that's portable to use. A worker can take it with them, to employers.
Ideally, that's what I think this is about. As to the other ideas that were
raised today, you can think about the "knowledge bank," which I
think is a really good idea. To me the best learning you can have is the
informal learning, as X called it the education of life. I could go on all
day about different examples, but I'll just give you one and it's about
politics, and people not equating politics with what it really means. I've
been accused in the local of being political, which we should be as far as I'm
concerned. But the example is as simple as a guy came to me last week about
his friend who doesn't work at our workplace and isn't unionized, and he asked
me a simple question about the hours of work the guy should be working. From
what I could gather the guy wasn't being paid any over-time and he was working
60 hours a week and he wasn't getting any lunch breaks, so the education
that I've attained through the years - which isn't hard to learn - I basically
tried to pass on to him which opened his eyes. You know like, wait a
minute this isn't right. There are actually laws governing how long you can
work, etc., etc. And you know, I don't know who the guy voted for, and I don't
really care, but I said to him, look what I'm telling you right now is subject
to change very shortly. And he says, 'What? It can't change! That's a basic.'
And that led to a political discussion about how can I change things and what
can I do and stuff like that. So what started as a simple informal
question, I tried to develop it into a sort of broad education for him to
think about at least. Maybe even do something about. But the point, is you
learn everyday, and you teach everyday.... That's right. Because in the labour
movement it's like a tool and it's an excellent one. We've sent people to
many courses to require some formal and informal skills or whatever, but this
[SKP] would be a good tool to keep a record of their learning, personally, and
for the local to show what people of capable of in the Labour sense. And then
you can get into things like electronics, and car mechanics, painting and
decorating, etc., etc. You could sort of build it out from there. But all
with the idea that you pass the learning on. When we teach people it's with
the intent that when they learn, they have to come back and teach others. So
you're always passing on your knowledge, experience and skills. (GT)
4. THE SKP AND
LESSONS FOR PLAR PROCESSES: WORKER'S PERSPECTIVES
In a study of the use of PLAR by teachers
for in-service professional development, Butterworth and Bloor outline the type
of difficulties that participants typically experience.
Models of experiential learning follow the
'reflection' stage of learning with one of 'conceptualization', during which
the individual analyses the particular experience in terms of more general
categories which make possible the transfer of the original learning to new
contexts. Accordingly, the Greenwich APEL process asks candidates to produce a
reflective account that is analytical rather than merely descriptive.
Feedback from our APEL candidates has shown how difficult some of them find
this task; a specific difficulty is bridging the gap between their personal
understanding of what happened and the kind of account we ask them to make.
Such people may experience the APEL procedures just as Usher's (1989) critique
defines them: "mechanistic, time-consuming, and potentially
demoralizing". (Butterworth and Bloor, 1994:17 - my emphases)
In this context, participants (teachers) are
asked to both describe and understand their learning activities for the purposes
of translating them into a recognized PLAR format. It is more than simply ironic
that professional educators have such difficulty in this task (see Lave, 1988)
though such a discussion is beyond the scope of this report. Certainly, the
workers in this research experienced few if any of the type of negative effects
outlined above - but why might this be? The sample is too small and the contact
time too limited (18) to provide any definative
answer; however several key issues have arisen that can perhaps help us to
understand the pleasure, willingness and productiveness of the SKP experience
for these workers in the setting of this research.
4.1 The SKP
In this research, workers indicated that
the practical use-value of the SKP was, in many ways, embedded within the
process of administration itself. Peppered throughout quotations above, we can
see that the SKP allowed an opportunity for the participant to collectively and
critically reflect on the actual meaning of their experiences and the
relationship these experiences have to the notion of "knowledge" and
"skill". Success in these terms was more modest in the individual
interview sessions. While some workers were able to draw far-reaching
connections concerning subordination, their learning/life experiences as working
people coming from working families, and the problematic associations between
working people and formal schooling - the development of a coherent
oppositional understanding of these experiences typically alluded them. Some
participants in the individual interviews were not interested or able to engage
in this type of reflection at all. This latter group of workers confined their
discussions to brief answers to interview questions, and typically offered
critiques of the physical instrument itself (some of which we'll learn more of
below). It is very likely that, as 'meaning' is generated socially - so tasks
that ask people to 'make new meaning' must take place in a social, interactive
context which I earlier referred to as a "public sphere". While this
confirms the importance of the facilitator role in PLAR, in addition it
suggests, similar to the conclusions of George (1994), that facilitation
requires deep familiarity, if not solidarity, in terms of the issues relevant to
the participant. Thomas and Klaiman (1989) appear to make similar suggestions.
A witness to an evaluation being carried
out by a secondary-school assessor is struck by the degree to which the
assessor's experience with the community from which the candidate comes plays
a part in the evaluation... (340)
In applications of PLAR to working class
groups, this role must be seen as crucially important, ideally suited to members
of this group, or deeply familiar with this perspective. Thus the facilitation
role is particularly important for individual encounters. The differences seen
in the focus group interview format also support this conclusion. The group
sessions provided the most expansive and unique data in terms of working class
learning, and though the character of the facilitation role was significantly
altered it was nonetheless important to the proceedings. In the group session
workers frequently made comments that referred to the importance of "People
from the same perspective getting together" (RD); or, that "We could
call this team-building or workers' solidarity building" (GT).
Filling [the SKP] out in a setting like
this is really good, so that you have time to discuss it, and see each other's
and say, 'Oh I never thought of that,' or 'Oh that's education - I didn't
think of that as being education.' Whether you could walk into an employer
with it in the current format it's in and how they'd take it - I couldn't
really say. The idea in regards to the workers' knowledge bank, or even
collecting it in a whole workplace or even workers in general. I can see a lot
of value in that. I didn't really think about it until we all started
talking about it actually [laughs]. (GT)
Another worker remarks,
Well, I really enjoyed this, but what I
enjoyed most was the interaction. Because, a lot of times with co-workers
once you leave the workplace you just don't have the time to talk with
all the different workers you work with and to hear other people's views and
experience and what's happened to different people and how it relates to each
one of us. Because, like it was mentioned, there are couple of workers here
that the company put a good screwing to, and as far as I can tell for
absolutely no reason at all. I don't understand it, but the thing was I didn't
know about it until I started getting it too, and then it was like, 'Wait a
second this is crazy!' But if you had more of this type of thing, and not just
airing out beefs. But to find out things that other people are doing,
because you get talking you find out that, 'Hey I learned a lot, and like
everybody else.' This shows you on paper what you've learned.... I think
this is the greatest tool to give to people on the shop floor working and to
give to students because the uplifting experience and the amount of good
feeling they'd get when they started filling this thing out because they'd
realize, 'Hey, I'm learning things every day. Look at all the things that I
actually can do. It could just open the door. Instead of things just
seeming narrow, your outlook could just expand on what you could do because
the amount you can learn if you want to is just amazing. (DJ)
It would seem that the ability to understand
one's learning experiences in an alternative way is significantly affected
through the interactive, meaning-making connections amongst like-situated
people, in this case workers. Clearly, factors in PLAR/SKP success such as
these, for which Canadian organized labour could find strategic use, must be
4.2 The SKP
Another of the means by which the LCCW
project accomplished the goal of developing a PLAR instrument suited to working
people was to engage in critical ongoing discussions about the instrument
itself. In the Ontario Industrial workers' research site the individual
interviews produced a several important observations in this area. Just as
everyday communication is composed of subtle as well as more obvious cues, so
does the composition of an instrument that seeks to 'communicate' and 'ask'
questions of the PLAR participant. What's required is to take the text
Workers felt that for the PLAR experience
to be as successful as possible the instrument must 'communicate' appropriate
messages to the participant. By the end of a typical interview session, workers
had often developed a expanded set of ways to understand their existing
practices, skills and knowledge as having been learned, but more specifically
workers tended to understand that - in formal contexts such as this research,
Human Resource interviews, or formal schooling - many working class people
'down-play' their own achievements. Workers are quick to point out, that in
other settings such as around the workplace, the union hall or the
neighbourhood, these experiences are better understood by others and in these
settings valuable skill and knowledge are understood as such. These issues again
signal the effect of the local production of skills and knowledge as
"skills" and "knowledge". Nonetheless, the instrument itself
made some contributions to this 'local' production of meaning. Here one worker
outlines how cues from the SKP set the stage for a particular type of response
(see appendices for the copy of the SKP to which she refers).
The boxes were good at directing people to
things they could be thinking about, but the boxes are way too small... Do
people kind of look at you funny when you ask them to put all their learning
in these boxes? They kind of keep you from wanting to try to fill in as much
as you can... It probably looked all nice and symmetrical on the computer
screen but, if we are going to do as you say and try to list all the different
things we learn each day, then the page should say that to you. I mean,
there should be rows and rows of blank sections under a whole bunch of
different headings so people get the impression when they're writing things
down that, 'Oh, well there's plenty of room here - there's probably more I
could write down', so it goes along with what you said, that even normal
everyday things like housework has a lot going on in it, maybe not day to day
but over the long haul especially if you work too. (TV)
Other workers made similar comments.
I think you're limited on the box size.
Once you start to put something in you can't describe it all so it doesn't get
all the stuff you know. (BD)
General observations that the SKP provoked
new understandings of one's own skills were also discussed. It seems that one of
the most difficult, but at the same time one of the most empowering aspects of
the SKP was its requirement that experience - through a specific style of
reflection - be translated into something somewhat more general. This is the
process, refered to by Bloor and Butterfield (1994), in which experience through
reflection be translated into learning. A typical comment such as the following
helps to demonstrate.
I've learned this and I learned this, but
if I never thought of it in order to write it down - how would you be able to
know where you could take it and put it somewhere else. Because otherwise you
might not know. I wouldn't think about, you know, all the fork-lift
experience, all the different steps in making the batches and stuff - how
could you take that and be able to apply it somewhere else if you didn't take
the time to put it down and say I know this and this and this, and wait a
second, this qualifies me for over there. And this qualifies me for over
here.... If you see it on paper - that's a completely different story.
Because when I was going through this [the SKP] the informal type learning. I
was amazed at all the stuff I was actually learning, all the stuff that I
learned in the workplace. And if you actually got people together to
sit down in a group like this, say all the people in your department, and said
okay what did you learn so far since you've been in this department, like from
your co-workers around you. You could fill out 10 or 15 of these things
easy. And that's just from your workplace, what you learned which is not
formal training. Because, you know we had a lot of formal training as well in
the job, but when you write it all down you really see that we know a lot of
stuff and everybody in that plant knows a lot of stuff. You forget about how
much you learn because you do it every day and you think it's only second
nature, but it's not when you think about it. Most of the things you do in
there you learned. Like the computer stuff you do in your department, driving
the fork-lift, the safe procedures for doing things... Most of it is just out
there doing it. (DJ)
However, the notion of 'style of reflection'
is important here. Workers' descriptions of reflecting on experience changes as
they move from formal to informal contexts; and, this shift involves a set of
practices, a type of rationality, and presumes a certain logic underlying
context of use. In the collective setting of the focus group, workers commented
that the SKP encouraged them to expand their ideas of skills and knowledge to
include things that they hadn't considered before.
saying not in the workplace, but outside of [the SKP] would it be useful? Maybe.
I'd say, yeah I guess, and it's valid too eh. If you can get credits towards a certain thing then I'd
say absolutely - it should be done. I mean if you've been through the learning once and you've got the experience -
you should get full credit for it.
RD: Yeah, child-care
Of course, for PLAR processes to be
effective they must offer certain levels of validity and accountability. In the
context of the workplace (e.g. for promotions) or the labour market (getting a
job) - this seems to be especially important. In the workplace for example,
companies require a certain level of assurance that often only integration of
the PLAR with formal schooling, professional bodies, etc. can provide. In this
extended segment of a transcript, a worker outlines a number of key points that
concern these issues, and in the end offers an interesting suggestion.
BD: I think
people are also afraid though. You could fudge in what ever you want here. Like
if you don't have your ticket and you work in maintenance - well you've been working there so long that
they know you can do it all, but you go to another employer and they'll say well where is your ticket. Well
they're going to take the guy with the ticket. Does it mean that the guy with the ticket knows better then the
other guy - probably not depends on the experience level.
So that's one thing that a college might be able to provide - an official stamp
So what does that official diploma say then?
BD: Depends on the
particular situation. I mean obviously there are jobs out there that require a
person to go to school first in some cases. I mean to get the theory behind some stuff. Like would I
take someone who's been at home hacking on his computer on his own for 2 years over somebody who's been to
school and taken data processing, computer programming, windows and all that. Well it's going to look way better
on a piece of paper than the guy who just says, yeah, I've hacking on my computer for 2 years on my own. I mean
honestly, you'd wonder, you got a guy who's been hacking for 2 years and he could go ahead and put a virus on
your computer and blow the whole system away.
But lots of people with degrees fuck things up too don't they?
BD: Well that's
Do you think something like this form could help somebody who doesn't have the
credentials compete in the
BD: As it sits right
now? No. It needs to be structured different. It needs to be more, I'm not
trying to cut it up.
You should be.
BD: Well, it's too
boxy, it's too Mickey Mouse, it just looks too basic eh. So it really has to be
put into a form that is more specific to the job and looking a lot more official.
So maybe one form to collect the information and another to present the
The practical suggestion is that the SKP
come in two formats: one format for collecting information; and, another for
presenting this information in particular contexts. In this way, facilitation
issues relevant to the collection stage can be modified for optimal effects in
particular applications of the information.
It is constructive, though this general
issue may be beyond the scope of this report, to reflect briefly at this point
on a body of sociological literature called Ethnomethodology. It is constructive
here because the approach seems to speak, in some ways, to the issue of
"accountability" in a rigorous way, and specifically to the difficulty
that PLAR participants have in "translating" their experiences into
PLAR instruments. Although it is arguable, this approach can be associated with
the perspective which I've presented above as "situated". Situated
perspectives, in the way I am using the concept, involves a focus upon the way
local interaction produces the meanings we typically take for granted as given,
objective, or even universal, and can offer an empirical alternative (perhaps
compliment) to the emerging post-modernist critique of essentialism in
education. Situated perspectives, at the most basic level, priviledge actual,
ongoing cultural-material practice over imputed constructions. Boden (1990)
captures the central concern here nicely,
...people do what they do, right there and
then, to be reasonable and effective and they do so for pervasively practical
reasons and under unavoidably local conditions of knowledge, action and
material resources (189)
As obvious as this may seem to people, closer
inspection of much social scientific including educational thought
(19) often subverts this basic notion.
Specifically, the ethnomethodological
perspective casts various levels of doubt as to whether complex social
relationships could ever be meaningfully represented in the context of a written
or spoken statement.
This approach introduces the notion of a
"documentary method" of cognition, i.e.
...the activities whereby members produce
and manage settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with members'
procedures for making those settings 'account-able'. The 'reflexive', or
'incarnate' character of accounting practices and accounts makes up the crux
of that recommendation. (Garfinkel, 1967:1)
Indeed, several comments which workers made
themselves flag this type of difficulty as well. Here a worker talks about how
hard it is to translate the myriad of specific activities into a more general
format. His solution is to have an instrument customized to the workplace. In
the end however, he rejects this alternative as well.
BD: If the [SKP]
was structured differently it might be able to be done. Like if the company were
to do it they could
structure it with headings that are right dead on that would pull out all the
little things we do maybe....
Do you think this form could capture that experience and learning that buy who's
been working for years has?
As I briefly note in section 2.5 above, a
situated perspective that builds from the traditions of Ethnomethodology states
that particular ways of thinking and talking about activities (what Garfinkel
calls "constructivist social science" (20))
attempt to produce the appearance of objective generalizations. The approach of
Garfinkel (Garfinkel, 1967; Garfinkel and Sacks, 1970), in fact, claims that
these types of social scientific practice do not reflect the phenomena they
claim to, but rather reflect their own practice. They "accomplish"
phenomena in terms of social science in such a way as to say much more about
social science than any of the phenomena it claims to study.
[T]he argument made by some
ethnomethodologists (see Pollner, 1991) that the study of the reproduction of
cognitive order in action radically disturbs beliefs in the fixed nature of
all kinds of social order, including order in all forms of social scientific
knowledge. Enthnomethodology in this sense has the mission to reinterpret
unquestionable, timeless truths as locally contingent constructions that are
always subject to change. (Cohen, 1996:129)
The appearance of generalization is
understood from this perspective as a local practice carried out by professional
(and lay) social scientists with a relatively unknown relation to the practices
to which they claim to 'actually' refer. Actual practice in the fullness of its
context, perspectives, time, place, foci - i.e. in full sensitivity to its indexical
nature - are said to be unrepresentable in the forms of most social
scientific portrayals typically undertake. Thus claims to represent other
practices are, to varying degrees, self-referencing. In other words, educational
research says more about the context of 'educational research' than it does
about the actual practices that make up the phenomena of learning and education.
It is unclear the extent to which such
claims can be partially or completely supported, but it is clear that current
supportive approaches to PLAR would suggest these claims to be either false or
only minimally relevant. In short, PLAR assumes the transferability of skills,
knowledge and individual learning capacities: that general underlying features
derived from diverse personal experiences are developed and useful in general
terms. PLAR also assumes that these features can be meaningfully represented in
challenge exams, interview settings, portfolios, etc. I am not suggesting here
that these assumptions of PLAR (or any other types of educational assessment for
that matter) are completely unfounded - however, it is clear that notions of
transferability and validity are consistently seen as problematic for PLAR (and
were it not for the largely self-referencing system of formal educational
progression and credentialing this could be extended further). Given these
arguments, we could say that problems of transferability, validity, etc. are not
exclusively attributable to the various protocols and instruments, but rather
lie in the nature of what we think constitutes the concept of learning, skills,
knowledge, capacity, etc. These are the very questions which PLAR research has
consistently failed to investigate.
We can further develop these basic
arguments in regard to organized labour by reflecting on some recent scholarship
emerging from South Africa. In a report by Lugg, Mabitla, Louw and Angelis
(1998) it is outlined how workers in the South African PLAR research found it
difficult to translate their knowledge into dominant forms. The initial
explanation of the problem was that workers' knowledge and skills did not easily
convert "orally" to assessment procedures. However, this explanation
proved unsatisfactory on further investigation with workers commenting that once
only observations could not do the trick either (p.208). What the LCCW research
at the Ontario Industrial workers site, and traditions such as ethnomethodology
might further suggest, however, is that even lengthy observations, oral
examination, group discussions, and hands on demonstrations might not achieved
satisfactory results. When examined critically, notions of "knowledge"
and "skill" might not be understandable in individualized contexts
beyond actual practice. "Knowledge" and "skill" might need
to understood as 'language games' or at least social constructions that shift
radically in the course of active local construction (in our case in the local
construction of the research process). In essentialized terms, knowledge and
skill may be 'myths', though, as with other salient myths, not without palpable
material effects. These are far reaching and relevant conclusions for PLAR,
however the immediately practical dimension of these concerns comes in the form
of a warning that problems of PLAR's use are clearly not reducable to design
features of the instrument.
The LCCW project's Ontario Industrial
workers' research site has offered a basic analysis of several key issues that
are relevant to the PLAR research as well as to the labour education community.
The central goals of the overall project revolved around the need to examine
both the development and applications of a new PLAR instrument, the "Skills
and Knowledge Profile" (SKP) that would be uniquely suited to working class
participants; and, to examine the types of strategies, practices and capacities
of which working people typically make use. These two goals were seen to be
mutually reinforcing as the understanding of a specific educational instrument
and its applicability to specific groups entails a deeper understanding of the
existing practices of these groups. Primarily qualitative data was analyzed to
provide several important observations with regards to the relationships between
workers' views and experiences of learning in the workplace and the classroom;
dominant and alternative perspectives with regard to the learning practices;
and, strategies workers traditionally use.
The SKP could also be understood to
exhibit "situated" dimensions which, from a workers' standpoint,
largely determined the perceived effectiveness of the instrument. The
application of the SKP within the contexts of formal schooling, the workplace,
the labour market, the local community as well as to the trade union local were
all understood/anticipated by workers to be very different sets of experiences.
The social organization of skills,
knowledge and learning processes were seen to be a significant issue in the
context of working class learning strategies, workers' practices, and the
progressive application of PLAR instruments such as the SKP. Critical
development of workers' own views on their learning required alternative ways of
thinking about skills, knowledge and learning capacity. Collective interaction,
particularly in the context of the trade union was seen to be instrumental in
the generation of these alternative views. In turn, the development of
alternative perspectives on learning, skills and knowledge contributed to such
important features of trade union action as class consciousness and worker
In discussions of PLAR, the SKP, and
Labour Unions we saw how notions of "class consciousness" are
intertwined with informal learning relations. It was suggested that the
traditional unionist focus on workers' solidarity could actually be viewed as,
not only central to the labour movement, but to workers' learning practices
specifically. The intersection of class consciousness, and the development of
critical views on the power relations amongst various forms and conceptions of
skill and knowledge led to discussion of the notion of a "Workers'
Knowledge Bank". The active generation and modification of this idea in the
focus group setting itself suggested that shifting the context of PLAR processes
allowed the relations of PLAR to be significantly altered. In these 'altered'
forms PLAR instruments such as the SKP could be seen as an opportunity to
realize the oft-cited but seldom demonstrated "liberatory" dimensions
Finally, the SKP was discussed in-depth in
terms of both its process and the actual instrument developed within the LCCW
project. Many constructive critiques were gleaned from these data. In terms of
the processes of PLAR, it was seen that collective contexts produced the most
progressive effects on the ability to critically analyze relations of knowledge,
skill and learning. The PLAR process was seen by workers to be a "worker
solidarity building" event. Issues such as facilitation, the possibility of
"transferability" and "generalization" in PLAR, and
validity/accountability were also discussed by workers.
In terms of research on the issue of PLAR
and trade unions relevant to this general issue of learning theory, several
current examples are now emerging. One set of examples arises from recent
experiences of the South African trade union movement cited above. Lugg et al.
(1998; also see Cooper, 1998) conclude,
If RPL is not deliberately designed to meet
agreed and transformative purposes, it is likely to have a negative impact on
the workplace, both in terms of industrial relations and workplace training,
and work against a culture of learning. Instead of leading to equity through
valuing different forms of knowledge and skill, RPL can lead to increased
polarization and with this increased disadvantage. (Lugg et al. 1998:207)
The Learning Capacities project research
helps to clarify the findings of the South Africans in two key ways. On one
hand, in this report it's suggested that PLAR is most usefully understood by
recourse to the 'situation', i.e. in the context of the social/historical
relations in which PLAR is locally immersed. The accounts of Mine and
Metalworkers in South Africa appear to support this way of understanding PLAR
(RPL) when they find that when PLAR is linked to internal, capital-controlled,
human resource development structures; and, when PLAR is linked to
individualized credentializing structures - it's transformative character is
significantly degraded (from the inside). Destructive results for workers and
their unions, such as this one, follow close behind.
One shop steward described failing a worker
who had spent many years as a hub-cap fitter, because the standard required a
far broader range of competencies than this worker had been allowed to
perform. (Lugg et al. 1998:208)
The basic relevance of a situated,
praxis-perspective dove-tails with the traditional trade union precepts that
institutions of centralized, hierarchical power are changed by social movement
building, by popular ferment, by collective bargaining from positions of power,
etc. The Learning Capacities Industrial Workers' research begins from (and
affirms) the notion that gains are not made merely by making sound arguments in
favour of fairness, social justice or even, in some cases, sound long-range
productivity. Rather, the perspective that emerges from the workers in this
report is that building strength in labour locals and communities of workers is
the means by which the liberatory potentials of PLAR are realized. Contributions
to social transformation in the context of PLAR are realized through workers own
critical engagement with ways of understanding the relations between dominant
and subordinate knowledge and learning vis-ā-vis praxis. Beginning from this
base notion, we can then begin to see that for PLAR to be effective for workers
it must be somehow integrated with active movement building, collective
bargaining and agitation for popular ferment. As the workers who discussed the
notion of the "workers' knowledge bank" confirm - in this regard PLAR
has considerable potential. Given this, it is highly doubtful (though necessary
to explore) that the failures of PLAR/RPL in the South African workers' context
can be cured through a rehabilitation of basic design features of the RPL
instrument and process as Lugg et al. appear to have advocated. Though this
rehabilitation will contribute to achieving the liberatory potentials of PLAR,
the claim made in this report is that it is clearly not the sufficent to do so.
This supportive critique of the South
African interpretation/experience is not a call to rehearse the well-worn
unionist game of re-crimination/response along the lines of collaborationist
reformism versus "truly" oppositional class politics (see Lovett,
1988; Simon, 1990; London, Tarr and Wilson, 1990; Welton, 1987 for discussions
of this in terms of education). Rather, it is a call (for both
"sides") to view the larger context of this battle. That it must be
fought from the inside of joint structures and from the outside by oppositional
movement building practices - a point not lost on Lugg et al.
RPL, as a social process, has the potential
to be one strategy within a much larger project to transform work and our
5.1 Some Notes on
Alternative Theories of Learning and PLAR
The full development of alternative modes
of theorizing learning was not the object of this report. However, as I've
suggested above PLAR scholarship must increasingly entertain this level of
inquiry if it is to avoid merely rhetorical committments to notions of
liberatory outcomes. The theorization of learning, more or less explicitly, is
essential to the larger project of PLAR. In this short section, it is necessary
to summarize some ways the analysis offered here is aligned with the
possibilities of these alternative theoretical approaches. There are several
essential points of contact between a radical PLAR and radical critiques of
One of the simplest ways of understanding
alternative theories of learning that I've found is introduced concisely in
Cohen's (1996) essay on theories of action and praxis. While the author does not
seek to draw conclusions on theories of learning per se, his approach as well
suited for doing so, for radical theories of learning must ultimately be
understood in terms of a more general theory of social action/praxis and
participation in social life. In reviewing the founding problems and conceptual
vocabularies of a range of theorists, Cohen discusses the distinction between
subjective/normative action versus praxis using, on the one hand, the work of
theorists such as Weber, Parsons, and on the other, Mead, Garfinkel and Giddens.
In the broadest possible terms modern
theorists typically assume one of two basic orientatons towards their subject
matter. One orientation addresses the fundamental significance of subjective
consciousness in the direction of action. The other points to the fundamental
significance of social praxis, i.e. the enactment or performance of social
In applying these observations to theories of
learning we can begin to see how different approaches not only bear different
emphases but also partly condition the outcomes of research itself.
Specifically, Cohen's distinction help us see how certain theoretical approaches
fit better with understanding the maintenance and reproduction of current social
conditions while others offer some opportunity to focus upon those alternative
practices that offer hope for social transformation. Clearly, the emphasis of
the subjective/normative-based approaches on such issues as dominant subjective
meanings (versus emergent ones), individual consciousness (versus
collectively-based ones), etc. make these approaches less suitable for
understanding the largely hidden and/or taken for granted everyday practices of
subordinated groups such as the working class. Alternatively, the sensitivities,
conceptual terms, and emphases of praxis-oriented approaches appear to be better
suited to the understanding and documenting these practices and as such must be
carefully considered by PLAR researchers wishing to take its liberatory
qualities seriously. In the LCCW research the process of deconstructing dominant
meanings and practice and actively pursuing an understanding of emerging ones
has served as the basis for understanding the relations between working people
and PLAR. Now, in terms of the distinction between different ways of theorizing
social action/praxis that Cohen (1996) makes, we can begin to see a means toward
a more general crtique of dominant learning theory.
The preceeding sections on PLAR as well as
these latest section concerning the relationships between learning, PLAR and
Labour Unions have begun to outline alternative applications, paths for
development, and contexts of PLAR. Throughout the report we've also seen how the
experiences which workers relate help us to envision the power relationships
amongst dominant, subordinate and/or emergent notions of skill and knowledge.
The social organization of these notions and the practices which actually give
them substance begin to suggest the basis for alternative ways of thinking about
learning itself. PLAR obviously depends on the recognition of alternative forms
of practice which it seeks to make understandible as learning.
Critical research must begin with some
understanding of dominant approaches to understanding learning. My own expanded
attempt at this type of project in Sawchuk (forthcoming) begins from the work of
a small group of others (e.g. Engeström, 1987; 1992; Lave, 1988; Lave and
Wenger, 1991) and suggests that traditional modes of theorizing learning can be
seen to have several key, systematic elements or 'biases'. These biases revolve
around, what Engeström (1992) and others have called the "Cartesian
view" but also parallel some of the basic interests of Cohen's (1996) work
above. Briefly, in Sawchuk (forthcoming; see also Livingstone and Sawchuk,
forthcoming) I argue that in traditional or hegemonic modes of theorizing
learning is understood as an individualized and cognitive-physical rather than
social and interactional. Closely aligned with this view of learning as
internalized and definatively individual is the notion that the process rather
than being a contingent, ongoing, contextualized practice, is a largely
universalized, temporally/spatially fixed event. Tying much of this together so
that these biases come to have grounding in actual human practice is the effect
of what I've called a "formal schooling/pedagogical" bias. This last
feature is a bias of a very different kind from the others in that it includes
elements of actual institutionalized practices as grounding the more abstract
features of cognitivism and universalism. Evidence of the formal schooling bias
can be seen in this report in that interviewees generally begin with the notion
of learning as 'what goes on in a classroom' under the guidance of a leader
performing some variation of pedagogy. Workers can then be seen to proceed,
under appropriate conditions, in developing alternative views largely in the
course of reflection on actual practice. In the literature these alternative
modes of learning have typically been theorized under a range of headings:
"experiential," "incidental," "informal,"
"self-directed," etc., etc. - however, to date, these concepts can
also be seen to suffer from some if not all of the biases discusses above.
In my view one of the most productive
emerging approaches to understanding learning can be seen in a particular
cluster of scholarship. This cluster includes a variety of new and older
traditions including: "Cultural-historical/Soviet psychology";
"Activity Theory"; "Distributed Cognition"; and,
"Situated Learning/Legitimate Peripheral Participation". Their
intellectual roots are diverse including Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology,
certain streams of cognitive psychology and linguistics, as well as Marxism -
however, using Cohen's basic distinction they can all be considered (more or
less) praxis-based. The analysis presented in this report strongly supports an
approach to understanding learning not as an individualized, cognitive-physical,
universalized and internalized event defined by formal structures such as
classrooms, schools and teachers; but rather, as a process of participation in
particular spheres of social practice. Learning is thus defined by shifting
forms of participation. Workers generated descriptions of this alternative sense
of learning throughout the research. They also indicate that, though there are
skilled people, the line between learner/teacher, and learning/teaching is often
blurred to the point that young workers credit collective groups, e.g. a
department, with the "teacher" role and that this teaching is a
process that takes place over time in some form of actual practice. Conceptions
of learning that cannot explicitly analyse for these forms of social practice
will not only be inadequate in supplying convincing depictions of learning
through it full range of variation, but more importantly will tend to reproduce
existing systems of bias. Such biases are indicative of the (counter) subversion
of the liberatory notions that most PLAR scholars entertain.
The following are recommendations for
union-positive PLAR practice, the further development of PLAR instruments, and
the effective use of PLAR by Labour Unions. They reflect both the practical and
the theoretical observations that this research has brought to light.
As we saw in this research and as has been
dealt with periodically in previous PLAR research, the facilitation of PLAR
processes is an important part of progressive outcomes. PLAR facilitation
amongst workers requires a familiarity with workers' lives, workers' history and
workers' realities. It also requires a basic understanding of the tendencies and
patterns of dominant ways of viewing knowledge and skill - and how workers'
praxis can overturn the limiting features of these notions.
Recommendation: It is recommended that
if labour unions are to consider the application of PLAR that individual workers
be provided with appropriate training in the knowledge-bases including previous
PLAR research, and the social organization of skills and knowledge identified in
this research for the purposes of understanding the processes through which
workers' own learning is diverted, denigrated or ignored.
B) Collective PLAR:
In this report we saw how important
collective reflection is for developing alternative, progressive views of
workers' knowledge and skill. This requires the collective effort and
interaction of workers themselves. Focus group-style formats, for example, may
be ideal for these purposes.
Recommendation: It is recommended that
if labour unions are to consider the application of PLAR that where possible
group-formats of some kind be undertaken as the primary method of introducing,
discussing, and administering the process. And, where possible to have shop
stewards a part of this process.
C) PLAR for Collection / PLAR for
In discussion of the use of the SKP, it
was suggested by workers that while collecting, formulating and translating
skills, knowledge and experiences into forms appropriate for PLAR required a
certain type of instrument, that other formats may be more appropriate for
presenting this information in particular settings ranging from the workplace to
the local trade union.
Recommendation: It is recommended that
if labour unions are to consider the application of PLAR that instruments, such
as the SKP, be offered in flexible formats suited for the purposes such as
collecting information, presenting information, sharing information with a
D) The Development of Workers'
One of the practical and exciting ideas
that workers developed in the course of this research was the "Workers'
Knowledge Bank". This was suggested as an alternative use of PLAR
instruments such as the SKP. It would be a forum for workers not only to
exchange skills and knowledge for practical, everyday purposes, but also for the
facilitation of workers informal learning networks that are generally in
operation to various degrees already. The expansion of these networks has the
potential to invigorate the relevance of the trade union local, build solidarity
and class consciousness when articulated with existing union structures. It is
also important to recognize that any collection of information on the lives and
activities of workers is valuable and must be protected from possible abuse by
outside groups such as the employer.
Recommendation: While not a necessary
part of the use of PLAR by labour unions - if this concept is developed it is
suggested that it remain free and voluntary. It is also recommended that the
information that workers collect be under the democratic control of the local
membership. Administration of the process would ideally be put in the hands of
an education committee and/or an elected executive position such as an
E) Integration of PLAR Processes with
Workplace Collective Bargaining:
While not dealt with specifically in the
above analysis, the most suitable structure for the administration of any PLAR
initiatives is the local trade union autonomously, or alternatively, as dictated
by a legal collective agreement.
Recommendation: It is recommended that
if labour unions are to consider the application of PLAR that the process be
subjected to either direct control by the union or collectively bargained joint
F) Basic Research in Labour Education:
In this research it became apparent that
radical theoretical work on the topic of learning and PLAR were important
resources for workers. Similar to the natural sciences, in social sciences, we
can make the distinction between applied and basic research. One is seldom
appropriate without the other, yet currently, PLAR research only rarely deals
with theoretical issues, and when it does workers' perspectives are seldom the
Recommendation: It is recommended that
in the context of PLAR as well as other educational initiatives that
"basic" research be undertaken that specifically deals with workers'
issues from the standpoint of workers'. Ideally, this would be undertaken by
workers themselves. It is possible that progressive links with Labour Education
specialists may prove useful in the development of these capacities.
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A. SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
PROFILE (August 1997)
B.. MAIN INTERVIEW
Building Learning Capacities Interview --
Establish objectives and approach of
research project through open discussion with the respondent.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO READ THE QUESTIONS
VERBATIM. USE AS CONVERSATIONAL A MODE AS POSSIBLE.
1. Please tell me all about your current job. (GO SLOW HERE.)
-current employment status (f/t,p/t, unemployed, retired, student, homemaker,
-description of type of enterprise, work site
-job title and detailed description of activities
-how did you learn to do this job
-length of time in this job and with this employer
-how did you get this job
-formal qualifications required by employer for this job
2. Could you tell me how old you are?
ACTIVITIES & THE SKP
1. Now let's look over the SKP form with an eye towards
beginning to fill it out. At the same time I want to
have you comment on any part of the form, the process etc. that you think could
be improved and why.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR HELP.
SUPPLEMENTAL INTERVIEW SCHEDULE
The following supplemental schedule was
developed within the industrial workplace portion of the research process
itself. The goal of the supplementatl schedule was to have the interview process
reflect: 1) the researchers' evolving understanding of the situtation as the
research progress so that this information could also be systematically gathered
in a way as to support the original goals of the project; 2) better the needs of
the interviewees in within the context in which they were engaged as part of an
appropriate Participatory Action Research method.
SKP Interviews: CEP Local 200-O
The SKP itself:
1) How do think a form
like this one compares to a grade 12 diploma? Is one better or worse or are they
2) Do you think this
form would have the ability to help people who generally don't end up getting
credentials in the "credential race"?
3) What are you first
impressions of this SKP form? How did filling out the SKP feel?
4) There's no place on
the form for it, but can you recall teaching anybody anything recently?
5) Do you think this is
a valid way to earn a credential? Why or Why not?
6) Human Resource people
sometimes talk about people be "over-qualified" for a job? Do you
think that a form like
might make a person seem over-qualified for a job?
7) Do you think the form
can capture all the learning you've done in your life adequately?
8) There's been some
talk about the idea that this is a bit intrusive into a person's life - do you
have any thoughts on
Like is there anyone who you wouldn't want to have access to this type of form?
Schooling, Knowledge and Credentials:
9) What do you think
that schooling credentials say about a person?
10) Do you think there's a
difference between school-knowledge and life-knowledge or practical-knowledge?
11) Do engineers in your plant
have what you'd describe as knowledge?
12) Do you think that workers
13) Why do you think some
workers have a hard time describing this knowledge?
The Situations of PLAR/SKP:
14) In the workplace for
15) In the job market to get a
16) For extra credit to go
back to school?
17) For students to learn
better what their skills and experiences are?
18) Just for oneself - as an
uplifting confidence building experience?
19) Amongst co-workers as a
"Knowledge Bank"? Could the union help in any way?
20) Other uses?
FOCUS GROUP INVITATION
1. Project directors
Karen Lior (Advocates for Community Education and Training for Women) and D'Arcy
Martin (formerly Education Representative: Communications, Energy and
Paperworkers Union of Canada, Ontario Region). Funding for the project is
provided by the National Literacy Secretariat, the Canadian Labour Force
Development Board, the New Approaches to Lifelong Learning Research Network
(SSHRC), and JUMP Project of British Columbia.
2. Prior Learning
Assessment is known in other societies under a variety of titles. For example:
la reconnaissance des acquis experientiels (RAE)(French-Canada); Assessment of
Prior and Experiential Learning (APEL) and Accreditation of Prior Learning
(APL)(U.K.); Prior Learning Assessment (PLA); Prior Learning Validation
(PLV)(France); and, Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL)(Australia).
3. Reflecting the fact
that the workplace employed only 3 women out of the 144 hourly-waged workforce,
there is a small number of females (1) in the sample.
4. The 1994 Canadian
Labour Force Development Board document "Putting the Pieces Together"
outlines this feature, also mentioning how, along with those who have English as
a second language and others not typically engaged in adult education programs
of some kind (see also Thomas, 1998b), "non-transitional" PLAR
participants (i.e. those who are not looking for work; or are students) are
among the most often neglected in the literature.
5. Here the PLAR
process actually refers to a good many practical activities including assessment
via: the "challenge exam"; "portfolio" or
"dossier" development; personal interview to name the most popular.
Even within these there are a huge range of different policies, practices and
regulations that govern their administration and potential outcomes.
6. Some examples of
relevant exceptions to this third point are the work of: Elana Michelson (1996;
1998); Boud, Keough and Walker (1985); Boud (1985); and, Usher, Bryant and
Johnstone (1997); Cooper, (1998).
7. Here the PLAR
process actually refers to a good many practical activities including assessment
via: the "challenge exam"; "portfolio" or
"dossier" development; personal interview to name the most popular.
Even within these there are a huge range of different policies, practices and
regulations that govern their administration and potential outcomes.
8. Initials are coded
to protect anonymity in all direct quotations. In addition: I = Interviewer
9. Of course at other
times workers express profound alienation in their work:
You know it's like, 'I hear your job pays $25 an hour. Well what do you do
there?' I just say, 'I don't know really - it's
$25 an hour man. Who cares what the fuck I do.' (BD)
See Hamper (1992) for the fuller expression of these forms of profound
alienation and the ways that workers on the line
attempt to battle it.
10. This notion of
"real" or "actual" should be clarified a bit. The suggestion
is that the essential features of these "differences", i.e. the things
that we look to to decide that they are different, are the results of our own
(collective) practices cemented over time. This in no way entails that these
differences are "unreal" in the sense that they are imagined. These
differences have very real material effects despite the realization of their
socially constructed character.
11. I use this notion
of "canon" carefully as it is not, as the term in some ways seesms to
suggest, an entirely stable collection of knowledge, skills and practices. The
canon has fluid qualities that make is flexible, expandible in such ways as to
contain any serious challenges to it. This type of description is, essentially,
a description of cultural hegemony (Gramsci, 1971).
12. In fact, according
to some research traditions it is impossible to capture the meaning of
these relations in research that is removed from the actual practice it seeks to
comment on. The argument is that due to the indexical nature of language, i.e.
the fact that things literally cannot be fully related 'in-so-many-words', the
only accurate assessment of practice is to be found in in-depth sequential
analysis of actual practices (Garfinkel, 1967).
13. The relatively
militant nature of the local helped this process along, as did the basic
framework of the research. I do not mean suggest that simply bringing workers
together in one place does the trick. Again, Dunk's (1991) work establishes this
"Tickets" refer to a specific skill-trade certification gained from a
formal institution which often require periodic renewal.
15. According to the
NALL Survey on Informal Learning (Livingstone, 1998), in Canada this basic trend
may be shifting somewhat in absolute terms (i.e. greater participation levels
among workers), but it is important to also note relative changes in this
participation. Total participation is also on the rise which suggests the
"credential inflation" effects that, in relative terms, maintains the
relevancy of the basic dynamic (i.e. "them-who-has-gets").
16. For further
theoretical discussion of notions of informal learning which have now only
recently begun to emerge in educational literature - see Sawchuk (1998b; 1998c)
and particularly Sawchuk (forthcoming) and Livingstone and Sawchuk
17. The so-called
"Quality Movement" and TQM (Total Quality Management) are specific
managerial programmes for workplace reorganization. One management consultant
defines it as, "a cooperative form of doing business tht relies on the
talents and capabilities of both labour and management to continually improve
quality and productivity using teams" [Jablonski, J. (1990) Implementing
TQM: Competing in the 1990's. Albuquerque: Technical Management
Consortium Inc.]. For labour perspectives in North America begin with Parker, M.
and Slaughter, J. (1990) Choosing
Sides: Unions and the Team Concept. Detroit: Labour Notes/South End
"Limited" in the sense that extended, multiple interview sessions with
each participant would provide a depth of understanding of the web of
historical, social relations involved. In addition, as I argue in Sawchuk
(forthcoming) - it is desirable to use several different approaches to data
collection such as detailed, fine-grained analysis of actual
"learning" activities, as well as full depictions of the social
context of these activities. In this way micro-analysis of interaction, people's
understanding of their and others activities, as well as the social historical
context that structures these activities mutually inform each other to provide
far more definitive statements.
19. Partial exceptions
to this in educational thought are to be found in some post-modern discussions
(e.g. Usher, Bryant and Johnstone, 1997) as well as a small range of other
approaches to radical educational theory (e.g. Giroux, 1983; Hart, 1992; and
20. It is important to
note the range of the use of the notion of "constructivism" within
sociological literature. Here, Garfinkel wishes to emphasize the attempts of
social sciences to construct context-independent, universalized ways of
understanding specific practices.