TAFE teachers and their role as workforce development practitioners in enterprises


One of the temptations in talking about TAFE teachers working in enterprises is to downplay the complexities of facilitating learning in off-job learning environments like those found in TAFE institutions in order to emphasise the differences (and virtues) of workplaces as learning sites. The reality is that all learning environments – whether they are in workplaces or in TAFE institutes – have the potential to be complex and dilemma-ridden environments for teachers, but often for different reasons and because a range of different factors and influences are at play.

There are tensions that exist between the needs of the workplace and needs of the workers.

For TAFE teachers, the key to crossing boundaries is engagement with the culture of a workplace and working with it, rather than injecting their own ways of working. In effect, teachers are challenged to see the workplace as a community of practice in its own terms – not, for example, in terms of what it lacks because it is not a formalised learning site.

by Professor Roger Harris and Associate Professor Michele Simons, Centre for Research in Education, Equity and Work, University of South Australia, for TAFE NSW ICVET, http://bit.ly/1SDB3G0


The workplace is increasingly becoming a key site for the activities of TAFE teachers. In one sense, this is rather ironic since many teachers have often made a deliberate decision to leave their first occupation and their workplaces to assume careers in TAFE. For many teachers, this return to industry in the capacity of a teacher and facilitating learning in the workplace is not an easy one and raises many challenges and learning opportunities for them.

In recent research we have taken a look at TAFE teachers’ work in enterprises using two different lenses –learning network theory (Poell et al. 2000) and communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991).  This research helps to analyse the different aspects of TAFE teachers’ work in workplaces and the implications that this has for those who manage and support teachers (Harris, Simons and Moore 2005, Harris and Simons 2008).

First… a reality check….

One of the temptations in talking about TAFE teachers working in enterprises is to downplay the complexities of facilitating learning in off-job learning environments like those found in TAFE institutions in order to emphasise the differences (and virtues) of workplaces as learning sites.

The reality is that all learning environments – whether they are in workplaces or in TAFE institutes – have the potential to be complex and dilemma-ridden environments for teachers, but often for different reasons and because a range of different factors and influences are at play.

The classroom learning environments

For example, classroom learning environments often bring together very disparate groups of learners – all with their unique needs, abilities and motivations. Because learners are often out of context (for example, away from their workplaces), issues such as transfer of learning and generalisability of learning to (often) unknown workplaces are genuine issues for teachers. Issues such as mental health, poverty, complex family situations and backgrounds, and unemployment can also add to the challenges that teachers face in managing and supporting learners.

Workplace learning environments

On the other hand, workplaces can present different sorts of challenges. One of the most significant is that workers are primarily there to work rather than to learn, so fitting learning in with work can be a real challenge, particularly if there is no scope for learning away from the job.

But perhaps the most significant issue for teachers moving into an enterprise is the issue of who generates and controls the curriculum that forms the focus of learning which might occur in a particular workplace.  In any workplace, the workers and management control the work – how it is organised and structured, who works with whom as well as the values and beliefs about work and working relationships?  As Moore (2004) points out, it is the work that forms the curriculum in the workplace, where curriculum is defined as the ‘socially organised stock of knowledge in use in the particular environment as it is experienced by the participants’ (p.329).

For the teacher entering a workplace, their task is to identify ‘the dynamic processes by which members define, organise and use various forms of knowledge … [which] emerges, evolves and changes over the course of its usage’ (Moore 2004, p.329). This fits very well with the knowledge production capacities identified by Lave and Wenger (1991) in their description of communities of practice, but as we shall note later, the extent to which a teacher might ‘join’ a community of practice and have access to this body of knowledge in a workplace may be problematic and vary greatly.

‘Reading’ and interpreting this curriculum becomes the terrain to be navigated by a TAFE teacher working in an enterprise. This activity may include fitting it with the requirements specified in Training Packages, customising and contextualising existing materials to the needs of a particular workplace while working with (perhaps) well established human resource management processes, standard operating procedures etc. – in addition to the role of assisting and supporting workers who are engaged in learning.

Arguably these activities will draw on existing skills of interpreting curriculum documents, preparing learning and assessment strategies, developing learning materials, conducting assessments and managing learning environments that a TAFE teacher already has developed – what is critical is the ability to work around and manage the tensions that will inevitably arise between ‘the ways we do things’ in a workplace and the frameworks of codified knowledge that are represented in Training Packages or curriculum documents generated by the TAFE institute. The teacher is challenged to ‘learn’ the work of the workplace in the same way that they learn about the learning and assessment strategies (i.e. the curriculum) that they need to master in their home institution.

Getting to grips with organising learning in workplaces …

In addition to understanding the notion of ‘work as curriculum’, teachers need to be able to develop ways of understanding workplaces as learning sites. Three issues are particularly important here.

  • There are tensions that exist between the needs of the workplace and needs of the workers.These tensions can exist on a number of levels:
    • There can be differences in management’s perceptions of what workers need to learn and what the workers perceive to be their most immediate learning needs.
    • There can also be tensions between different groups of workers (for example supervisors/managers and team members/employees) which can generate different learning agendas and needs.
    • Tensions can also arise for workers where they are asked to assume the mantle of ‘learner’ in their own workplace, which can suggest gaps in competence, and which do not neatly mesh with perceptions of themselves as workers who exchange their labour for remuneration. Billett, Barker and Smith (2005) have described this in terms of the tension between affordance (what the workplace has to offer in terms of learning) and engagement (the extent to which workers have the motivation and personal disposition to take up the opportunities available to them).
  • Work and learning are usually co-terminous, often to the extent that when one looks at a worker one may see one set of behaviours that in reality reflect two streams of activity – they are getting the job done and they are learning how to do the job at the same time (Scribner and Sachs cited in Harris, Simons and Bone 2000, p.6, Van der Krogt 1998, Poell et al. 1998).
  • This learning is also often informal, unplanned, unscheduled, unrehearsed and often will only become apparent in retrospect, when a problem arises or the nature of the work permits a greater focus on learning (for example, when the pressure of work eases on a worksite and an apprentice may ask to be shown how to do something or has some time to practise a skill). All these forms of learning exist side-by-side with more formal arrangements such as those organised by the human resources department in a large organisation.

Network learning theory provides a useful framework for bringing together ideas about the ways in which learning and work in an enterprise might be organised (Van der Krogt 1998, Poell et al. 2000). This theory explains the organisation of learning in workplaces as the product of interactions between the learning networks and the work networks that exist in a workplace (Harris et al. 2000, p.7).

The work network is created by the interactions of workers with the policies and structures that govern work; similarly a learning network reflects the actions of workers with the policies and structures that shape learning. Both these networks are influenced by the organisational climate and relationships between workers. This theory helps to explain why a teacher encounters different types of work patterns across workplaces as well as a range of ways in which learning is organised – including formal learning existing alongside informal or incidental learning – which may not always be aligned or in harmony.

Work will almost always take precedence over learning in a workplace. Our research has shown that learning in workplaces can be facilitated by trainers actively engaging in processes to structure and shape work processes to accommodate learning (Harris et al. 2000). While teachers are unlikely to have the power to alter the pace of work, monitor work flows or change the sequencing of work tasks to facilitate learning, they can use their knowledge of work in an enterprise as a starting point for the development of their strategies to support learning.

Teachers are also very likely to engage with the learning networks that exist in a workplace. The teacher is at once both a part of, and outside particular aspects of the learning network.  For example, much learning takes place in groups – sometimes as work is being done or around a particular problem that emerges out of the work (for example, a mechanical breakdown). Learning can also take place in a training room or when normal work practices are stopped for a short time and a new technique is shown to workers.

The teacher entering a workplace comes into a setting where learning has and is occurring in a myriad of these ways – their task is often to ‘formalise’ this learning by codifying it into competencies and then assessing and reporting attainment. Sometimes they complement existing learning networks by working with management to strengthen and enhance structures and processes such as training needs analyses, training plans and the like developed by human resource professionals working in the enterprise. And quite often the role of a TAFE teacher can be to create formal learning structures where none previously existed.

What are the different models that can be used to build TAFE-industry linkages?

Our research has shown us that there are potentially numerous ways in which TAFE institutes and industry can work together. These various models reflect the different purposes and objectives that each party has for initiating and building linkages. They also represent variations in the ways in which TAFE teachers interact and influence the work and learning networks in an enterprise. Here are three models.

  1. The Immersion Model – the TAFE teacher is based in a workplace or works across workplaces within a specified industry on a full-time basis. In some cases, the teacher may be employed as a consultant to the industry rather than as a teacher, perhaps for a pre-determined amount of time to fulfil particular contractual arrangements. In this model the teacher assumes a place within the learning networks of an enterprise and potentially acts to influence the shape of this network.
  1. The Visiting Model –the TAFE teacher is allocated a workplace, or a number of workplaces, which they visit on a regular basis – for example, as part of arrangements to support apprentices in the workplace. Engagement with the workplace is likely limited to short periods of time and focused around very specific issues (for example, validating assessment). In this case, engagement with the learning networks and work networks in an enterprise is often incidental, although as an externalagent, they can exert greater influence on the learning network.
  1. The Mediating Model – the TAFE teacher does not interact directly with workers but rather interacts with human resource management specialists within an enterprise to provide support, mentoring and expert advice. Engagement with the work network is most likely not to occur to any great extent. However, greater attention is focused on the learning network, particularly the formal learning systems that already exist as well as the external learning systems (that is, learning that is driven by external entities, such as the VET sector itself and/or professional associations).

It is important to note that these models are not mutually exclusive and can overlap. Furthermore, they are often largely shaped by the personal relationships built between the TAFE teachers and key players in workplaces.

What do enterprises want when they engage TAFE staff to work in their enterprises – and what do TAFE teachers have to offer?

Our research has shown that enterprises often have a range of reasons for wishing to engage the services of a TAFE provider. These may include:

  • a desire to offer formal and nationally recognised training as a key component of their business strategy – for example, to create or maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace, to assure the creation and retention of the skill base required to operate their business or to multi-skill the workforce
  • a motivation to formalise existing training within an enterprise in order that workers can attain formal qualifications
  • a requirement to ensure that an enterprise effectively manages risk and ensures compliance with legislative and other requirements (particularly Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare)
  • a way of offering support and expanding the influence and effectiveness of in-house training and development and/or human resource management professionals.

Other services and roles TAFE teachers offer the workplace

In addition to meeting these aspirations, our research has revealed that TAFE teachers offer other valuable services and knowledge in workplaces apart from their work related to the development, delivery and assessment of education and training programs. These include roles such as:

  • an interpreter and link to the world of nationally accredited training
  • a broker linking organisations such as training providers, apprenticeship schemes, employment agencies to help enterprises meet their broader workforce development needs
  • a consultant to the manager in the general operation of the business in areas where the TAFE teacher has specialist knowledge and expertise
  • a salesperson generating new business
  • a personal coach, mentor and counsellor to individual workers about their learning as well as their work.

Thinking about the different sets of arrangements that can be put in place between TAFE and industry helps to illuminate the different demands that can be placed on teachers and the different business processes needed in the TAFE system to support them.

What are the critical challenges that teachers and managers need to meet in order to support working in and for enterprises?

Building legitimacy
Unless a teacher is going to remain in one enterprise for a long time, it is not likely that they will move (as Lave and Wenger’s theory explains) from the periphery to the centre of the community of practice in an enterprise in an unproblematic way. Moreover, it is not likely that a teacher will have a guide in the sense of an ‘expert’ to assist them in their journey into the enterprise. Often a teacher has been selected for their expert knowledge and skills. They may not, however, possess the ‘soft knowledge’ (Hildreth and Kimble 2002, pp.9-12) held by an enterprise – the non-codifiable, often tacit, knowledge and practices that are reflected in sayings like ‘This is the way we do things here’.

Teachers need to be able to access such knowledge and practices at the same time as bringing in the social, cultural and intellectual capital desired by the enterprise. This means that the teacher needs to build relationships with key people in the workplace and spend time ‘getting to know’ the enterprise. The enterprise needs to engage in processes which help teachers to be able to develop a sound understanding of the workplace and its needs.

Strategies to build legitimacy: Some strategies that teachers have used to build legitimacy and effective relationships in workplaces include:

  • being responsive
  • negotiating what they will do
  • establishing regular meetings with  staff  to ensure relevance of their work
  • sharing the teaching/training role with workers
  • following up and seeking feedback
  • customising training and assessment materials and approaches
  • melding their work with the regular patterns of work, learning if and when to intervene
  • drawing on their previous industry experience, particularly in knowing how to behave and interact with different groups of workers in the workplace.

How managers can support building legitimacy:  In order to support this set of relationships, TAFE managers need to:

  • prioritise time and resources to allow the development of a sound understanding of how enterprises operate, their learning needs and the types of learning and assessment strategies that best match their needs
  • support the development of a wider skill base for their teachers – industry specific knowledge and skills alongside a working knowledge of issues related to industrial relations and human resource management.

Crossing the boundaries between the workplace and the TAFE institute
The work of Wenger (2000) raises the importance of boundaries where learning communities intersect and the importance that connection plays in generating learning. Learning arises because there is a shared focus (for example, legislative compliance or a commitment to enhancing quality). There is also an acknowledgement of the similarities and differences that exist between communities and a willingness to engage in ways that makes the communities accessible to each other.

For TAFE teachers, the key to crossing boundaries is engagement with the culture of a workplace and working with it, rather than injecting their own ways of working. In effect, teachers are challenged to see the workplace as a community of practice in its own terms – not, for example, in terms of what it lacks because it is not a formalised learning site.

Strategies used by teachers to build bridges include:

  • being sensitive to the demands of workplaces primarily as sites of production and only secondarily as sites for learning
  • serving as examples of learners to their workplace colleagues
  • developing high level knowledge and expertise in the current needs of industry
  • understanding the potential clashes that can occur between the practices expected in an educational institute and those existing in a workplace, and actively working to adapt and ‘translate’ artefacts from the institute environment into resources that can be of value to the company (new training processes, resources and so on)
  • developing high level skills in communication, negotiation and conflict resolution.

How managers can support bridge building: Managers can support their teachers by actively encouraging them to become familiar with all the ways that learning might take place in an enterprise. Careful and sensitive management of relationships and provision of support for the development of learning strategies that meld with the core business of the enterprise are essential. Managers need to support teachers to deal effectively with the tensions that inevitably arise around the intended activities of the teacher and the existing practices within the enterprise. Managers can also play a role in understanding the external environment in which enterprises operate and assisting teachers to be clear about the parameters within which they are contracted by TAFE to work in enterprises.

Managing power relationships: Moving from an institute to a workplace as their primary site for work fundamentally alters the work practices of teachers. As teachers become more engaged in the workplace they may be perceived as increasingly ‘absent’ from their institute. This physical absence can cause conflicts particularly where productivity is equated with visibility or particular types of work. Issues related to the exercise of authority over decision-making can also be raised between teachers and their institution-based managers.

Issues relating to control and authority can also extend to the workplace where TAFE teachers may find themselves in conflict with their workplace colleagues.  There can be tensions between teachers and managers over issues relating to control of learning processes.

There can also be tensions between the amounts of attention that teachers direct towards different groups in an enterprise – for example, workers vis-a-vis managers. Here the role of the TAFE teacher can be particularly conflicted. One the one hand, they are required to support the workers who are also the learners; on the other, they are required also to provide support to managers. Teachers need to be able to reconcile sometimes contradictory expectations on their time and efforts in order to minimise the possibility of role conflict.

How managers can support management of power relationships: TAFE managers need to acknowledge that teachers working away from their institute will require different levels of supervision and autonomy. Teachers will also be working within very different parameters in terms of the demands placed on their time and their ability to response to institute requirements. This has both human resource and industrial relations implications for institute management. The way teachers’ work is accounted for, lines of accountability and the nature of the performance indicators need to reflect the context(s) in which such teachers operate. The degree to which teachers have the autonomy to make decisions is also a critical issue.

Concluding comments

The shifting of teachers’ sites of practice from institutions to enterprises is a complex and dilemma ridden process. The changing nature of teachers’ work in these sites challenges the very core of what it means to be a teacher and affects their identities and even their loyalties.

What is also clear is that the management structures for supporting these new forms of work need to be developed hand-in-hand with the capacity of TAFE staff to undertake their work within enterprises. Structures based on relatively predictable forms of work, bounded in an institutional setting, will not serve well those engaging with the idiosyncratic and dynamic business environments of many enterprises.




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