Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education

Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education

Teaching and Learning Research Programme

Annual Conference Papers

5th Annual Conference, 22-24 November 2004

Cardiff Marriott Hotel

Learning cultures, interventions and transformations: early and emergent findings from the Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (TLC)project

DavidJamesUniversity of the West of England, Bristol

DenisGleesonUniversity of Warwick

NB: This paper was presented at an internal TLRP conference; if you wishto quote from it please contact the authors directly for permission. Contact details for each project and thematic initiative can be found on our website (

Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education

Learning cultures, interventions and transformations: early and emergent findings from the Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (TLC)project

A paper prepared for the TLRP Annual Conference, Cardiff, November 2004, by

  • DavidJamesUniversity of the West of England, Bristol
  • DenisGleesonUniversity of Warwick

on behalf of the whole project team for Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education


This project operates in a ‘nested case study’ design and relies on a unique partnership between teachers and researchers. Analysis at the case level is well advanced, whilst that at cross-case level is well under way. A more holistic cross-project analysis, coupled with theoretical development, is the main focus of our work in the remaining year or so.

This paper provides an overview of early and emerging findings, focused on two of the project’s three core aims. In relation to our aim ‘to deepen understanding of the complexities of learning’, we illustrate empirical findings at the case level where there appears to be a high level of resonance across the FE sector. We then offer examples of some interim findings from cross-site analyses, outlining how theoretical and empirical work interact to address the second core aim of the project, namely ‘to implement and evaluate strategies for the improvement of learning opportunities’. We argue that our findings are beginning to challenge conventional and widely-held views of learning and – especially – of the means to bring about its improvement in the English FE sector.

An outline of the project

The TLC project is a four-year longitudinal study that comes to a close in 2005. The aims of the project may be succinctly expressed as to: (a) deepen understanding of the complexities of learning; (b) identify, implement and evaluate strategies for the improvement of learning opportunities; (c) set in place an enhanced and lasting capacity among practitioners for enquiry into FE practice.

We deliberately adopted a cultural perspective, because we believed teaching and learning, and the relationships between them, to be inherently complex and relational, rather than simple. Thus, our working assumption, now confirmed through data collection and early analysis, was that all of the following dimensions would contribute to learning, and had to be examined in relation to each other:

  • The positions, dispositions and actions of the students
  • The positions, dispositions and actions of the tutors
  • The location and resources of the site, which are not neutral, but enable some approaches and attitudes, and constrain or prevent others
  • The syllabus or course specification, the assessment and qualification specifications and requirements
  • The time tutors and students spend together, their interrelationships, and the range of other learning sites students are engaged with
  • Issues of college management and procedures, together with funding and inspection body procedures and regulations, and government policy
  • Wider vocational and academic cultures, of which any course or site is part
  • Wider social and cultural values and practices, for example around issues of social class, gender and ethnicity, the nature of employment opportunities, social and family life, and the perceived status of FE as a sector.

In order to examine the relationships between these dimensions, each of which is complex in its own right, we focussed initially on 16 learning sites, divided between four partner FE colleges[1]. The sites were selected through negotiation with the colleges, to illustrate some of the great diversity of FE learning, whilst, of course, not claiming to be representative of it. Changes since the project commenced extended the list to 19 sites in total (see Hodkinson and James, 2003). One key tutor in each site worked with us as part of the research team, which also comprised four college-based research fellows, five university-based research fellows and five Directors (a total of 30 people). Data were collected over a three year period, in a variety of ways: repeated semi-structured interviews with a sample of students and with the tutors; regular site observations and tutor shadowing; a repeated questionnaire survey of all students in each site; and diaries or log books kept by each participating tutor. We also interviewed college managers, as and when relevant.

Clearly, this is a large and complex project, and in this short paper it is difficult to do any justice to the multiple routes via which analysis is proceeding and findings emerging.

However, as far as possible we have used extracts from recently-published project papers to give a flavour of how we are arriving at findings via two of the most important of these ‘routes’. In the first, we illustrate those originating in analysis at the case level and that have quickly established a resonance across the project. In the second, we illustrate the sort of findings that originate in cross-case processes of comparison.

Illustrations of early findings that originate at the level of cases

The first illustration comes from a GNVQ Intermediate Business Studies course. A series of strong themes have arisen in our analysis here. Some connect with other research and/or widely recognised issues, such as the idea of ‘parity of esteem’: in this site there is a perception amongst staff of GNVQ being a ‘second class’ qualification, located here in a ‘second class’ sector. They also hold ‘deficit’ views of a group of students who have been held back by schooling or social disadvantage. However, these perceptions were in contrast to those of students, who see their prospects rather differently and who, on the whole, see themselves as ‘sorted’. This disparity of optimism is an important and interesting feature, to which we return. However, even more potent seem to be some of the contradictions in professionality in this and other sites. They are potent because they cast new light on some deeply-ingrained orthodoxies in FE:

‘(…) contradictions around shifting professionality are…expressed through the contested relationship between what we call biography and ‘baggage’. One of the current key beliefs in the GNVQ (and other sites) is that it is essential for tutors to understand the biographies of the students (where they come from, and what problems they experience), so that issues of social inclusion can be addressed to support effective learning, which then feeds into more reflexive professional practice. Thus, ‘addressing biography’ is another way in which the participating tutors currently define their professionality and, at the same time, feel threatened by it. In this and other sites, the case study reveals processes through which ‘biography’ is reduced to ‘baggage’, so that it can be compartmentalised or discarded. Examples of this include:

  • The self-definition of the tutor as ‘not a counsellor’ and, therefore, professionally unable to address certain parts of student biography;
  • A withdrawal from the suggestion (by students) that the tutor constitutes a ‘friend’, in whom one might therefore confide;
  • The pacing of a class so that students have a few minutes at the start of a lesson ‘to get things off their chest’. Biography is reduced to a set of tensions that can be disposed of a the start of a lesson;
  • The reduction of biography to the everyday problems of ‘boyfriends’ or broken washing machines, which are viewed as hindering getting on with the real lesson;
  • The belief that biography is reflected in a disposition to learning which then becomes part of a student’s individually preferred ‘learning style’. This can then be captured in an evaluation questionnaire or addressed in the classroom through offering a range of learning techniques. Biography here is reduced to learning style.

In these and other ways, genuflection to the importance of biography in students’ learning meets up with the real difficulties among tutors of how to address issues of biography. Tutors are uncertain about what aspects of biography ‘matter’ to learning; they discuss both ethical and practical problems of collecting biographical information; and they remain deeply uncertain about how to address any real issues of biography that come their way. They also recognise that not only do they feel inadequately trained to address ‘biography’, but that, by doing so, this may lessen their professional status still further. This is the slippery road to becoming merely ‘a welfare officer’. Thus, a central contradiction around ‘addressing biography’ appears to be between its (professionally avowed) centrality to support effective teaching and its (professionally avowed) centrality to the diminution of the tutor. Faced with these contradictory processes the teachers use strategies to ensure that ‘biography’ can become a form of disposable ‘baggage’, rather than something that might inform more reflexive teaching and learning practices’ (Wahlberg and Gleeson, 2003, pp 438-9)

A second illustration comes from a learning site that is also vocational and in a similar subject area (Business Administration), but which is very different. Officially it is a series of assessment processes, on employers’ premises, which bring together the FE college tutor and candidates for a series of meetings to review workplace evidence for the assessment of competence. As with other site analyses, the ‘answers’ we come to about the nature of learning and its improvement are not simple ones, and they demonstrate that much more is at issue (and at stake) than the actions of the individual tutor.[2]

‘NVQs opened the way to assessing workplace competence wherever it might be found, so that individuals could be assessed on what they could already do without having to do a course of study. But even more important, it permitted the emergence of a market in the assessment of competence across a wide range of occupations, and it was a market in which both public and private organisations could compete…

…One of the first things to strike us was an apparent fault line in the data in terms of describing activity in this site. On the one hand, a line manager and some college documentation (and indeed some learners’ accounts) described the activity as one of assessment only. That is, the process here was said to consist of a candidate and an assessor working together to identify and record examples, incidents or episodes that demonstrated competence in accordance with a specification. The tutor’s role would sometimes include using a tape recorder to gather evidence (where, for example, a candidate found it difficult to write about some aspect of their work). It would also include the ever-present need to explain elements of the language (of competences and range statements, for example) in the specification in ways that the learners would find accessible. Put simply, there was an official definition of the work and a level of resourcing to match the role of assessing competence under a series of headings.

Increasingly, however, it became clear that the tutor was working in a range of ways that took her well beyond the official definition of the work. Her activity included all of the following.

  • Close working relationships – at times indistinguishable from counselling – that would reduce the perceived threat of the qualification: ‘…the relationship is usually very friendly because you’ve got to get their confidence and their attention right away, and because people are very frightened of NVQ’.
  • Teaching – short episodes of ‘teaching’ and the provision of extra materials: ‘…[even though] you’re supposed to just assess them’.
  • Negotiation of learning opportunities – between the tutor and line managers and other colleagues of the learner. Examples would be arranging for a learner to chair a meeting where normally their role did not allow it, or devising new tasks that were compatible with other work practices, but which would not arise in the normal work role.
  • Unconditional personal support – wherein the tutor passed on her home telephone number and made it plain that she was ready to help the learner to solve a variety of problems related to the completion of units.
  • Critical moments of intervention – with learners, but also with employers or their representatives. On two occasions, in particular, this was about learners as employees who had weaknesses in the employer’s view and/or were at risk of losing their jobs.
  • Forward planning with learners – this is something that Gwen had continued to stress, while accepting on the one hand that the NVQ ‘is only supposed to be appraising somebody for what they can do now. But on the other hand, … I would want it to be a bit more than that … some kind of development through the thing’.

It is worth repeating that none of these tasks were part of the official picture of the work. Yet arguably (and as indeed argued by the tutor and some learners), they were all fundamental to the learners’ success in gaining the qualifications. Even in its simplest characterisation, the learning process here consists of helping the learner to reinterpret aspects of their everyday action that can be made to constitute evidence for a level of competence. Rachel, who works in a Social Services department and is registered for Level 2 Business Administration, spoke for many of the learners when she talked of a regular experience of discovering, during Gwen’s (the tutor’s) visits to her, that what she thought was complex and beyond her experience was actually ‘staring me in the face’. In the learners’ accounts, learning in this site often appears to be about the re-articulation of what is regarded by individual workers as too everyday to be worth noticing. In Wenger’s terms (1998), it is a supported act of reification. We might term this a process of consecration: it is largely a positive experience for them, and seems closely linked to the descriptions of growing confidence that so often accompany the pursuit of an NVQ for these individuals.

…there seem to be two possible explanations for the rather large gap between the rhetoric and the reality in this situation. They are not mutually exclusive, and both may be necessary. The first is that the conceptual separation of learning and assessment that is built into the NVQ system may be faulty. To put this another way, perhaps you cannot have one without the other. If the ‘candidates’ are to continue to complete their qualifications so successfully (and the pass rates are very high indeed), then perhaps the tutor cannot pretend to be a ‘pure assessor’. The second possible explanation is that Gwen’s own way of working, and her particular interpretation of the job, is unusual in some way. Is there something about her background and approach that means she operates in a particularly supportive way? She is most certainly not ‘doing it for the money’: most of the ‘learning’ work we have seen that she does is, simply, unresourced, and it has no place in the contract that the college signs with each of the organisations whose workers participate. She puts in vast amounts of her ‘own time’ – that is, time above and beyond that in her contract.

…Gwen’s own educational background seems to be very important in the make-up of her present professional identity – what we call, in the project, her disposition. In a nutshell, she has had some very negative and some very positive experiences as a learner in different educational settings. In the positive ones, she felt cared for and taken seriously, and the outcomes led to real shifts in her working career and prospects. These experiences seem to have left a real mark on how Gwen does her job. She has professional standards, a clear idea of how a tutor should be – almost, it seems, regardless of how the role is officially described. This leads to a great deal of discomfort… there is a mismatch between Gwen’s habitus and the field in which she is operating. Crucially, this field (in its material form of institutional rules, contracts, resources, time, encouragement and so on) does not directly acknowledge, expect or reward the tutor’s actions. Yet at the same time, the college and some other interests are actually dependent on the tutor’s actions continuing.

What, then, are the implications of all this, especially for the improvement of teaching and learning? They seem, suddenly, rather complex. What would ‘improvement’ look like in this site? Would it be better for all concerned if the extensive learning activity was less ‘underground’, more visible, properly resourced and recognised, and perhaps subject to the mechanisms that other programmes have for quality assessment? This would probably drive up the cost to the clients. In the highly competitive world of work-based assessment, the ‘business’ would go elsewhere, and it would simply cease to be part of what the college does. A number of staff redundancies and non-renewal of temporary contracts would follow, and the statistics for the successful completion of NVQs, locally and regionally, might well take a downward turn. We might conclude that there is no room for improvement at all on the part of the tutor and the college – that transformation of this site would require a rather more fundamental reform of the way that NVQs are conceived (Dugdale, 2004).