Workplace Learning. The mentor's role and relation to apprentices in vocational education and training
The aim of the paper is to reflect on the work place mentor’s role in vocational education and training and how the mentors can support the apprentices in their learning processes. The dropout rate in Norwegian upper secondary education in vocational education and training is alarmingly high (Byrhagen et al. 2006) and different models and pedagogical strategies are tried out to prevent dropouts. The background for the reflections in this paper is a pilot project “From talent to skilled worker” aiming to develop a new alternative model to improve the rate of successfully completed vocational education. This project included ten students within the Programme subjects for Technical and Industrial Production. The idea was to let students, who were at risk at dropping out of school, start their apprenticeship directly after lower secondary school. Thus, they would obtain all their education within the apprenticeship, as opposed to the Norwegian main model of two theoretically based school years followed by two years of apprenticeship in a training establishment. In the research we asked about the participants’ experiences and when learning occurs in the enterprise and what the nature of workplace learning is. According to Eraut et al. (2001), knowledge is situated in the context where it is acquired. Learning environment contributes to apprentice learning and development; the apprentices learn within a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). A community of practice involves much more than the technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking some task. Members are involved in a set of relationships over time (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98) and communities develop around things that matter to people (Wenger 1998). The fact that they are organising around some particular area of knowledge and activity gives members a sense of joint enterprise and identity. For a community of practice to function it needs to generate and appropriate a shared repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It also needs to develop various resources such as tools, documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community. In other words, it involves practice: ways of doing and approaching things that are shared to some significant extent among members. As Eraut (2007) describes, learners need to have the opportunity to listen and observe, reflect and distinguish significant learning and to learn from mistakes. Learning confidence e.g. in the enterprise is affected by social relations, levels of power, sharing and trust. Apprenticeship is a negotiated, constructed experience where developmental time is important. Apprenticeship is a time of turbulence and tension, and squeezing learning out of work is a core competency in apprenticeship.Helping the apprentices finding their place in the community of practice, the mentors play an important role. The relationship between apprentices and work place mentor is critical to the apprentice’s learning and motivation for accomplishing their vocational education (Connor & Pakora 2007; Eby 2007). As research points at, apprentices learn best when they are supported, stimulated and challenged in both formal provision and workplace development (Dweck, 1998). The mentors are important for all apprentices, but especially for those who are struggling to come to grips with the expectations of the workplace. Research indicates that in a relational mentoring model, where trust and social capital are developed, mentors also developing ways that benefit the organisation, and the culture of the organisation is improved. However, mentoring may also develop a hierarchical relationship where power and strict control of knowledge can become barriers to open communication between the mentor and the mentee. The mentors may also have difficulties in finding time to perform the role adequately (Billett 2003).
In the pilot project “From talent to skilled worker”,the researchers followed the apprentices and their work place mentors for four years, mainly using formative dialogue research. The research focuses on the processes in the project, the design of the model (including the roles of different participants), the experiences of the participants, the achieved results and the factors influencing the process and the results. The apprentices and the mentors were interviewed each year during the project period (2011- 2015). The interviews took place at the workplace and were audiotaped and transcribed before analyzing. We asked e.g. about their opinion of the pedagogical model, learning processes and learning results, the mentors' role and responsibility and the Learning environment.
The data analysis shows that mentoring is crucial for the apprentices learning progress (Hagen and Streitlien 2015). Much working knowledge is tacit and explicit versions. Some of the participating apprentices were tired of school, theoretical school subjects and expressed low self-confidence when the project started. The diversity has to be handled with a diversity of methods and strategies. The mentors experience many challenges in their relation with these young apprentices and have to play different roles in order to meet apprentices’ different backgrounds and abilities. The mentors emphasise the importance of meeting the apprentices with respect, trying to build up their identity as skilled workers, feeling pride of the profession in Technical and industrial production. Much learning at the work place is achieved by a combination of thinking, trying things out and talking with colleagues. The most common form of learning takes the form of consultation and collaboration within the working group and observation of others in action. The apprentices highly appreciate the immediate feedback from their mentors when a task is finished. Most of the learning described in the interviews is informal, neither clearly specified or planned. It arose naturally out of the demands and challenges of work, solving problems, improving quality and productivity, or coping with change and out of social interactions in the workplace with colleagues. Responding to such challenges, it entails both working and learning; one cannot be separated from the other. Success factors in the project seem to be that performing practical work and “real” tasks appeal to the apprentices’ motivation for accomplishing the education as well as their communication and relation to their mentors.
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