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Identities and Vocational Learning

Identity and vocational learning

Identity gives people a sense of who they are and vocational learning also contains a sense of what people may become.

Hybrid identities as learner and prospective worker

Identity gives people a sense of who they are. Vocational learning is challenging because it draws on hybrid identities of individuals as learner and prospective worker, learner and worker, or worker and learner (Solomon, 2003). In this sense there may be additional 'identity work' for an individual to do as well as that involved in the immediate learning tasks. The social context of learning is often highly significant, but reflection upon work-based learning can be particularly productive for individuals because of what it tells them about themselves in a number of ways, including sometimes more positive things about themselves as learners than they received in more formal settings.

Because of the 'identity work' there are risks too. First, there is the question of whether the 'gaze' of learner, assessor or other is upon the work or on the portfolio or reflection. Second, in some circumstances, it could be that some people would regard this as intrusive upon what should remain private. Third, the potent mixing of learning and 'identity work' can lead to powerful engagement with values. We may approve of this where it is aimed at a goal such as improving communication skills of hospital staff, but be less sure when it is promoting organisational values, such as redefining customer service as selling more rather than helping customers in ways they define. Fourth, corporate learning goals could sometimes speak the language of 'empowerment, identity and voice' but the trainers did not want critical thinking, insight or 'disruption' of core values.

What happens where student identities are stronger than prospective worker identities?

There is also an issue in that a student identity often stronger than a prospective vocational identity. That is people often choose to become students in a vocational area for reasons other than a strong commitment to work in that area and even where they are so committed, their intentions may change? What are the consequences of so many people seeking work outside the sectors for which they have apparently been trained?

Although the high skills - high performance economic model underpins the policy goal low skilled work remains the biggest growth area. In the UK economy many people, including graduates, use experience of work itself as a means of working towards what they see as 'career-related employment'. People may work in a number of different sectors (e.g. leisure, retail, catering etc.) before deciding that they want to work longer-term in a particular area. These patterns emphasise the importance of 'working knowledge': knowledge that has high use-value, but maybe only for short periods of time.

This then presents a challenge for how to support vocational learning. Much vocational learning may be using the vocational theme as a means of generating interest in learning. That is an individual may be choosing to continue with a 'student identity' at say 16 or 18 but the apparently 'vocational' choice may be more of an 'interest' choice - something 'interesting' to study while being a student. It may be that it is the attraction of the 'student identity' as a whole that is driving the process for many. Certainly there is often great variation in vocational intent among those on programmes apparently for those who have made a 'firm' vocational choice.

Given the uncertainty of where students will go and how long they will stay in particular types of work then maybe for some students it may be helpful if the vocational learning focus was learner centred and work-centred rather than subject-centred. By learner-centred it could be that pedagogy should more explicitly address attitudes, values, ways of being etc. and by work-centred it could be that this approach dealt more explicitly with embedded learning associated with particular types of work. The latter approach has, of course, a long history in relation to use of industrial placements and so on. The problems with this approach in practice are two-fold: how to generate constructive involvement of sufficient employers and how to release tutor time to support this type of learning.

However, even if for pragmatic reasons the work focus is less strong than many tutors and students would like, there seems less reason why greater emphasis could not be given to discussing values, attitudes and ways of being. Could this be regarded as a 'guidance agenda' in a broad sense? These ideas also resonate with ideas about the emotional dimension to learning.

It may also be quite difficult to teach for future transfer, so perhaps an approach based upon 'preparation for future learning' might be more effective. There is a paradox here in that this puts a premium upon thinking reflexively and this presents a particular challenge to some of those who chose vocational learning because it seemed more 'grounded' in the 'present world'. However, it is possible to support transfer if transfer itself is regarded as a learning process: for example, having someone in a work setting who can help the ‘newly arrived’ to unpack the knowledge they already have. It is also important to recognise that while creativity, problem solving and critical thinking are contextualised differently in different work settings the ability to look across contexts can be developed and this can help people learn more effectively in new settings.

Tutor identities may be important too

When considering vocational learning and identity it is evident that there is a need to consider aspects of the learner’s identity. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is a consideration of aspects of identity of vocational teachers. For example, in the Netherlands they have arguably one of the successful vocational routes in Europe in terms of popularity and esteem, with very large numbers of those successfully completing senior vocational education (mbo) going into vocational higher education (hbo) (Brown et al., 1999). Some students, however, struggle as the hbo programme is more ‘academic’ than the more-practically oriented mbo curriculum. The ‘obvious’ solution to make hbo more ‘applied’ on the mbo model, however, is resisted by some hbo staff, because they identify more with university staff. Their ideal solution would be to follow the UK example of turning polytechnics into universities, because of the effect on their status (Brown et al., 1999).

In Germany too, curricular reforms aimed at updating the ‘dual’ apprenticeship system, through introducing more flexibility, promoting action-oriented learning, team-working and institutional responsiveness, paid scant attention to staff views (Sloane and Ertl, 2003). This was unfortunate because not only did some staff have reservations about their ability to manage complex learning arrangements (e.g. running complex simulations) and promote team-working, but they also believed in the centrality of their ‘old role’. They thought that students needed to be taught a traditional disciplinary structure first. About one third of all apprenticeships have moved to ‘new curricula’ since the mid-1990s and some commentators believe that about equal numbers of teachers support the changes, are against them or are in the middle. The teachers are also not used to working together – all these changes therefore also have profound implications for a teacher’s sense of purpose and identity (Sloane and Ertl, 2003).

Identities are produced through discursive practices

Solomon’s (2003) point about identity as being produced through discursive practices is relevant here, as in all the above cases individuals are subject to (but also contributing to) continuing social transformations. Identities are in flux. 'Identity therefore here is taken to be an ongoing discursive process that is neither quite complete nor ever unified. Identities comprise multiple processes that come about through different and often intersecting discursive practices' (Solomon, 2003, p. 3).

'If workplaces are different, then work is different, and learning at work is different as are the workers (and of importance for this paper as are their identities). In terms of these new identities as Champy (1995) Gee et al. (1996) Chappell (2003) du Gay (1996) Rose (1998) indicate in the contemporary workplace people are asked to bring more of themselves to work and invest more of themselves. Indeed the management of subjectivity, that is the discursive construction of workers as ‘subjects’ of a particular kind has become one of the central tasks of organizations. This management is not in the form of overt policy or directions such as ‘you must be an X person’, but it is more subtle. An emphasis on culture and self through the talk around belonging and managing the self and self-change, helps workers to see work as a source of learning, as meaningful and as essential to self fulfilment (du Gay 1996; Usher & Solomon 1999). This in turn works to help to maximise people’s capacities in the workplace' (Solomon, 2003, p. 4).


Brown, A., Moerkamp, T. and Voncken, E. (1999). Facilitating progression to higher education from vocational paths. European Journal of Education. 34, no.2, 219-235.

Champy J. (1995), Reengineering Management: the mandate for new leadership, New York, Harper Business.

Chappell, C. (2003) Vocational Learning for the 21st century – issues for pedagogy, SKOPE seminar on ‘Vocational learning for the 21st Century; international perspectives’, Oxford, July 2003.

du Gay, P. (1996) Consumption and Identity at Work, London: Sage.

Gee, JP, Hull, G. & Lankshear, C (1996), The new work order behind the language of the new capitalism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Rose, N. (1998) Inventing our selves: psychology, power, and personhood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sloane, P. and Ertl H. (2003) ‘Current challenges and reforms in German VET, SKOPE seminar on ‘Vocational learning for the 21st Century; international perspectives’, Oxford, July 2003.

Solomon, N. (2003) ‘Identity work and pedagogy’, SKOPE seminar on ‘Vocational learning for the 21st Century; international perspectives’, Oxford, July 2003.

Usher, R. & Solomon, N. (1999) ‘Experiential learning and she shaping of subjectivity in the workplace’, Studies in the Education of Adults, 31, (2), 155-163.