01 SES 02 A, Implicit and Collaborative Professional Learning
The landscape of professional development and learning knowledge has expanded steadily over the last three or four decades, and, to accompany this expansion, the field’s lexicon has inevitably widened, to include terms such as ‘situated’ learning (Hoekstra et al, 2007, 2009; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Sawyer, 2002) or learning ‘in situ’ (Webster-Wright, 2009), which incorporate recognition that professional learning and development occur as part-and-parcel of everyday working life, within normal working environments and contexts. Such professional development has been found to occur through social interaction (Adger et al, 2004), and much of it has been labelled ‘informal’ and/or ‘implicit’.
The origins of the term ‘implicit learning’ may be traced back to the 1960s, when experimental psychologist Arthur Reber (1967) coined the term. Reber later explained implicit learning as denoting: ‘how one develops intuitive knowledge’, characterising it by two ‘critical features’: ‘(a) It is an unconscious process and (b) it yields abstract knowledge’ (Reber, 1989). To him, it is about the acquisition of tacit knowledge and ‘the pickup of information … independently of consciousness or awareness of what is picked up’ (Reber, 1989). Other researchers - including Brücknerová and Novotný (2017), Simons and Ruijters (2004) and Eraut (2004) – have followed Reber’s lead in focusing on implicit professional learning; Marsick & Watkins (1990), Brücknerová and Novotný (2017) and Smylie (1995), for example, refer to ‘incidental’ learning, that ‘takes place in everyday experience and occurs without intention, from “doing” and from both successes and mistakes. People may not be conscious of it’ (Smylie, 1995).
It is widely accepted that individuals’ professional development involves much unconscious activity; indeed, rather like an iceberg, the bulk of it remains submerged, hidden from view. Yet, despite this recognition, the majority of studies into professional development and learning in education are focused on issues and processes that lie towards the ‘explicit’ end of the learning continuum, with ‘a focus on programs and content rather than on learning experiences’ (Webster-Wright, 2009). The ‘implicit’ end of the learning continuum, in contrast, is greatly neglected and under-researched. Not only does this represent an imbalance that does not reflect what research suggests is the dominant approach to professional learning, it also represents fixation with what is widely believed to be the least effective approach (Webster-Wright, 2009).
Located within a socio-cultural theoretical framework, this paper represents a small contribution towards redressing that imbalance. Focused on ‘implicit’ and ‘incidental’ professional learning in the context of higher education, it considers the potential contribution of particular contexts and ‘settings’ for fostering or promoting implicit professional learning. Specifically, it considers the potential for such learning of semi-social spaces, where people who share work-related or collegial ties interact in extra-work(place) environments.
The paper addresses the following questions:
- Are the extent and nature of implicit professional learning influenced by the spatial and interpersonal relational contexts in which it occurs?
- What – if any – capacity does semi-social interaction have for fostering professional learning?
- Is this capacity potentially greater than that of interaction that occurs in the designated workplace?
- What are the bases of any (superior) conduciveness to professional learning that semi-social interaction may be considered to have?
The paper then considers the implications of the answers to these questions for enhancing professional learning in the European HE sector. In the wider European context, the apparent efficacy of some physical spaces and some forms of collegial interaction for promoting certain aspects of academic work and enhancing certain dimensions of academic working life will be discussed, including the relationship between space and human interaction and the capacity of this relationship for fostering professional learning.
The analysis upon which the paper is based is exploratory. Being impossible to answer with any degree of certainty, the questions presented above broadly indicate, rather than rigidly direct, the paper’s focus. The paper takes the form of discursive propositional conjecture; research-informed evidence will be presented, but it will be emphasised that the paper’s focus represents one of several competing or plausible explanations or arguments. The paper thus promotes discussion, with the presenter encouraging criticism of the ideas put forward, particularly on the extent to which they are applicable to and resonate with different European contexts. The paper represents post-hoc consideration of the findings from research into academic leadership provided by (full) professors in the UK higher education sector. The research was completed 3 years ago and the issues raised are drawn from its reanalysed data. It thus represents secondary data analysis; it re-analyses data with a view to considering an issue that was not included within the original research focus, but which emerged as potentially interesting and worth further consideration. The questions presented in the section above therefore did not feature within the original research, and the issues upon which the ECER paper focuses were, at the time of data collection, nothing more than a faint blur on the radar of the researcher’s consciousness. The data reanalysed in this ECER paper are predominantly drawn from unstructured interviews with full professors, and are supplemented by data from questionnaire responses and interviews with junior academics and researchers. Whilst all research participants were based at British HEIs, several of them (almost 25% of the professors) were natives of other (mainly European) countries. Their accounts of their native national contexts provide an interesting comparative dimension. From data derived mainly from a small number of interviewees who had worked at Oxford or Cambridge, reanalysis suggests that the Oxbridge physical environment may be quite distinct in the opportunities it offers for semi-social collegial interaction that is conducive to various kinds of effective academic development and professional learning, through the kind of relationality that is becoming recognised in the leadership-focused critical literature as effective development-focused leadership. The ECER paper will present such data, and then extend it into consideration – supported by evidence in the literature - of whether implicit professional learning and development potentially occur more easily and effortlessly in such semi-social spaces and environments than in designated workplaces, and, if so, why.
Reanalysis of the data revealed that semi-social collegial interaction is facilitated and perpetuated at Oxbridge by several factors, including most Oxbridge colleges’ physical proximity to social spaces, the blurring of boundaries between town and gown, and the fluidity that this physical context affords to socialising as an extension of working life, as university space ripples out beyond its official boundaries to soak into certain ‘public’ spaces, submerging and subsuming them within the peripheral Oxbridge environment. The significance of collegial socialising is its conduciveness to implicit professional learning and development, which occur incrementally and cumulatively – most often through small, barely perceptible, development ‘episodes’ (Eraut, 2004; Evans, 2014). The ECER paper will present evidence of several such episodes that occurred in physical spaces that served both as a social space, in which colleagues chatted over drinks, and as what van der Zwet et al (2011) call a ‘developmental space’. The semi-social nature and the external spatiality of such arenas, it will be suggested, potentially alters people’s mind-sets and priorities, promoting a form of spatially-determined empowerment whereby junior academics may capitalise on their senior colleagues’ greater (than normal) accessibility. Research (Evans, 2014, 2015; Garud, 2008) reveals this to typically occur at conferences. The findings have applicability beyond the Oxbridge environment by indicating that any space may become a developmental space by virtue of the nature of human interaction and cognitive activity that occurs within it, presenting enormous scope for other universities to exploit the potential of what Halford (2005) calls ‘hybrid workspace’, or perhaps, too, what Furnari (2014) labels ‘interstitial spaces’: ‘small-scale settings where individuals positioned in different fields interact occasionally and informally around common activities’, facilitating their professional development. The proposition put forward will be that European universities have the potential to enhance academics’ professional learning by creating such development-focused semi-social spaces.
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