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Alex Braddell: Beyond the classroom

What alternatives are there to conventional classroom learning for workers in low-paid, low-status jobs? 

In 2001, I was asked to manage a workplace basic skills project in a local hospital. About 10,000 staff (some of them contracted out to private companies) worked at the hospital, across a number of sites. Although the project’s initial remit was simply to offer ancillary staff (e.g. cleaners, porters, catering staff) classes in literacy, English language, basic IT and numeracy, we developed a rapport with management and over the next seven years supported many organisational initiatives, such as the introduction of annual appraisal for ancillary workers.

Our experience of supporting these initiatives led me to question whether classroom learning could really address the needs of workers in low-paid, low-status jobs. 

Workplace basic skills aims to improve the way workers communicate and process information. The skills of the individual worker matter, but work, including the communication and information processing it involves, is a collective activity carried out through established procedures. These procedures depend in large part on the quality of interactions between workers and managers – the key arena for communication and information processing. These interactions have a significant impact on performance outcomes. They also shape morale and worker perception of job quality. ( ‘I got sick of being shouted at by my supervisor,’ is a standard response to the question, ‘Why did you quit your job?’) Not only are these interactions the product of more than just the skills of the individual worker, they often determine the degree to which a worker feels it is worthwhile trying to improve their skills. 

We found that by combining our expertise in adult basic education with an understanding of workplace dynamics, we could make work processes more supportive of low-paid workers. In turn, we found this created productive opportunities to help individual workers develop their skills. 

Case study: Bite-size English (2003-4) [This account is adapted from Bite-size adventures in the workplace by Catharine Arakelian and Alexander Braddell, published in Basic Skills Bulletin issue 37, October 2005]

The hospital employed migrant workers from many different countries in ancillary roles. Managers wanted these workers to improve their English so we offered classes in the hospital. Due to pressure of work, however, staff could not attend regularly and we decided to experiment with a different approach.

Our plan was to create a learning programme based on ‘bites’ of learning that we could take directly into the work area. We would then schedule two or three brief appointments per week with individual learners at times when they had ten minutes free. 

With staff and their managers, we identified nine topics, e.g. Dealing with instructionsTalking about Health and SafetyFeedbackBeing part of a team. Within each topic we identified learning points such as ExplainingAsking for helpAvoiding a risk and When the job’s done. We mapped these topics and their learning points (60 in all) into a functional syllabus. 

This gave our programme structure and coherence, but also flexibility. There was no set starting or finishing point. One could study these learning points in any order (allowing us to respond to the learner’s immediate priority). Moreover, new learning points and topics could easily be incorporated. 

For each of our 60 learning ‘bites’ we produced a pocket-sized card that included a lexical set, grammatical structures (mostly at Common European Framework Level B1), advice on the British workplace (‘Helpful Tips’), and a scenario illustrating language use. 

Our idea was for the teacher to meet the learner in the workplace at a prearranged time. The learner would select a topic area and learning bite to focus on. The teacher would go through the card with the learner, explaining concepts, discussing workplace application, modelling pronunciation etc. Together learner and teacher would agree what aspect of the card the learner would focus on over the next couple of days. The teacher would suggest learning activities to help the learner and fix an appointment say two days later to check the learner’s progress. The teacher would leave the card with the learner. At the next appointment, learner and teacher would decide either to keep working on the card or move on to another – according to the learner. 

In addition to this programme-led learning, we hoped our cards would support language acquisition in other ways. Migrant workers are exposed to language all the time they are working. They listen to, observe and compare verbal and visual clues. They receive input from colleagues, managers and customers, who model, mentor and inform as well as directly instruct. We hoped our cards would make this input more accessible to learners, improving their ability to learn independently.

We hoped also that our cards would support peer-learning. This might be a case of two migrants working on a card together or in might be a case of a native speaker using the card to mentor a migrant colleague. Finally – and most ambitiously – we hoped our cards would be used by management within their day-to-day supervision of work activity.

We piloted our programme over a ten week period. Our team of six teachers enrolled 26 learners and delivered 230 brief sessions, all in work areas, including corridors and kitchens. Most sessions were 1:1 although in some instances other workers joined the enrolled learner. 

Managers reported that more English was spoken in the workplace at the end of the pilot. Workers showed more confidence (e.g. using initiative, opening conversations) and more knowledge of workplace conventions. All agreed that it was useful to have language teachers in the workplace. The programme had raised morale and reduced absenteeism.

Our short sessions were easy to fit into work routines without disrupting the services that staff delivered or increasing the workload of non-participating staff. The visibility of the learning reinforced employee perceptions of a supportive workplace and the programme actively encouraged non-enrolled staff to participate in the learning.

The learning cards proved popular. Content was judged relevant and at the right level of difficulty. About two thirds of our learners said they had shown the cards to other members of staff, family or friends and half had used the cards themselves to teach other people.  

In conclusion: our bite size project addressed some of the problems characteristic of the low-paid workplace, particularly around release. Learners benefited from 1:1 learning focused on language that was immediately useful, allowing more autonomy and involvement with others. Teachers gained access to the heart of the workplace, raising their profile and giving them insight into learners’ most immediate and pressing concerns. They enjoyed working this way. As one said: Fifteen minutes is just about right for discussing the situation and teaching / practising a couple of useful exponents to the point that they stick. I’m yet to be convinced that more can be done in an hour.

In the form piloted, however, the programme (including its materials) relied too heavily on teachers. We had the benefit of research funding. Under normal circumstances, it would be too expensive to pay teachers to work in this way. To make learning sustainable in these environments, the employer – not the learning provider – must manage the learning system. The teacher’s role is to support workplace coaching and mentoring, not deliver it. This requires a methodology and learning materials that are accessible to work teams with a minimum of professional mediation.

I have tried to explore these issues further in three subsequent action research projects. More information about each is available online, so I will be brief here.

Learning through Work (2005-9) 

This large project brought together employers, workplace basic skills practitioners and researchers to explore on-the-job learning opportunities in the low-paid, low-status workplace. After researching practices in a range of different workplaces, we asked teams of experienced practitioners to develop and trial approaches that used work activity itself as a vehicle for learning. 

Local circumstances varied, but a common model emerged: identify where work activity requires basic skills; help the employer to specify target behaviours (e.g. how managers and staff should interact with each other and/or customers); diagnose issues associated with current practices (i.e. how and why actual behaviour departs from target behaviour); create a text describing target behaviour in a way that is accessible to all members of the work group; develop workplace mentors able to communicate the text to staff. In other words, on-the-job guidance, supported by materials and mentoring.  

More information: http://www.niace.org.uk/research/workplacelearning/Learning-through-work.htm

Care Skillsbase (2006-9)

This web-based project was commissioned by government agencies responsible for knowledge and skills in the social care sector, where it is estimated that at least 20% of workers lack literacy and numeracy while another 20% have limited English language skills.

We assembled a team of workplace basic skills practitioners to act as field workers. Through them we recruited a nationally representative sample of employers and then researched relevant workplace practices and perceptions. Based on our findings, we created practical tools for care managers to check the skills of their staff and then take appropriate action.

This approach redefines basic skills as social care skills and supports the local care manager to take responsibility for the issue. Our resource has proved popular with care employers.

Access the resource freely at www.scie-careskillsbase.org.uk 

Care workplace learning booklets (2010-11)

This project drew on both Learning through Work and Care Skillsbase to develop materials to support coaching and mentoring of basic skills in the care workplace. In consultation with employers, a set of pocket-sized booklets were produced. The booklets were designed to support workplace ‘learning conversations’ by offering accessible explanations of why and how written communication and number skills are used in care work. The booklets include a focus on workplace language for migrant workers.

These resources are available from http://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/publications/Learning_through_Work_guides.aspx

These three projects used workplace basic skills practitioners to gain privileged access to the low-paid, low-status workplace. They drew on the practitioners’ expertise to look at practical ways to go beyond the classroom. In return, they offered practitioners an unusual development opportunity.

Alex Braddell