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Interaction of learning and contexts

Learning always takes place in a particular context and the issues involved in the analysis of social practices oriented towards learning within different settings include:

  • opportunities for learning,
  • spaces for learning,
  • expectations for learning and
  • creating supportive learning contexts.

Other key areas include:

  • use of and access to artefacts, information, knowledge
  • pressure of work
  • expectations, rewards and punishment
  • availability and nature of feedback
  • challenge and value of work
  • organisation and nature of work
  • group learning: culture of setting; relationships

Additionally, contexts for learning include schools and colleges, workplaces, training centres, networks, communities and families. Contexts for learning at work include: meeting context; 'on the job' context; 'working alongside' context and 'work encounter' context . The TLRP project on Early Career Learning had a central focus on the relationship between learning and context, see, for example: Learning in the Professional Workplace: Relationships between Learning Factors and Contextual Factors. Richard Edwards (2005) acknowledges that all social practices are contextualised and involve learning, but argues how those practices are conceptualised is more contentious, and that learning contexts can be used in various ways and frame very different learning activities: Contexts, boundary objects and hybrid spaces: theorising learning in lifelong learning. The TLRP Learning in and for inter-agency working project also focused upon how in situations where professionals from different agencies had to work together then boundary-crossing and learning to work in a variety of contexts was of critical importance. The relationship between learning in different contexts is often framed by concerns of how to mobilise the full resources of learners in specific situations: for example, how to get adults re-entering the workplace to draw upon the skills, knowledge and understanding they had acquired elsewhere: see, for example, Recognition of tacit skills and knowledge: sustaining learning outcomes in workplace environments by Karen Evans and Natasha Kersh (2004). Questions about how to conceptualise the relationship between learning and context becomes even more challenging when the focus is upon learning across the life course: Learning Lives: Learning, Identity and Agency in the Life Course. The Vicarious Learning and Case-Based Teaching of Clinical Reasoning Skills projects tracked the learning of trainee speech and language therapists while making diagnoses of 'virtual patients' and in subsequent discussions of difficult topics with other students or tutors, learning that spanned a number of contexts.

Learning through the lifecourse

While the focus here is primarily upon workplace learning, this can be more broadly framed as an element of learning across the lifecourse. TLRP was interested in how some people develop confidence and succeed as learners, whilst others do not, and in how learning and development can contribute to work, careers, social inclusion and fulfilment through life. See, for example, a special issue of Studies in the Education of Adults (Volume 39, Number 2, Autumn 2007), which included:

All TLRP projects can be positioned within a lifelong learning framework, but one project explicitly engages with these issues Learning Lives: Learning, Identity and Agency in the Life Course. For other projects here we just highlight some of the issues that arise in certain stages of education that have profound effects upon learning and development later in life. The Effective Pre-School and Primary Education (EPPE) followed the developmental trajectories of 3000 randomly selected children in 141 preschool settings, and the EPPE study showed the positive influence of early childhood education, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those at risk of developing special educational needs. The Improving Learning How to Learn in Classrooms, Schools and Networks emphasised the importance of helping children become self-motivated, autonomous learners who enjoyed the process of learning and understood what they needed to do to meet new challenges, and this had clear consequences for how they were likely to regard learning and development in future. The Identity and Learning project showed how the patterns and dynamics in pupils' learning strategies, emergent identities and pupil careers unfolded over time and through successive learning and social contexts during their school careers from 5 to 16.

In further education, the Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education, Learning and working in Further Education in Wales and the Policy, Learning and Inclusion in the Learning and Skills Sector projects all emphasised how tutors could help learners rebuild their learner identities that had often been fractured in some way by their previous educational experiences. Workplace adult basic skills provision could also give workers confidence as learners as the Enhancing 'Skills for Life': Adult Basic Skills and Workplace Learning project showed.

In higher education, the Learning to Perform and the Investigating Musical Performance projects both highlighted how, while still undergraduates, many musical performers are preparing to play a number of diverse roles after graduation. These roles may involve performing, teaching and other work activities and the ability to continue learning could be central to maintaining a 'portfolio career.' The importance of the ability to transfer learning between contexts was also emphasised in the Seminar Series on Contexts, Communities and Networks: Mobilising Learners' Resources and Relationships in Different Domains and in the Early Career Learning project.

Learning and development also occur outside education and work contexts and both the Older people and lifelong learning: choices and experiences and Learning Lives: Learning, Identity and Agency in the Life Course projects examine the type of learning and development people engage in later in life and the significance of this for their identities. One of the outputs of the former project Exploring influences on later life learning showed how the intertwined themes that emerged from the discussions related to discontinuity and change, situational and institutional influences on education and learning and the possible influence of personality factors and values as well as issues of gender, class and race. The Learning Lives project publications offer a rich vein of outputs on how issues of learning, identity and agency change over the life-course.