Revisiting the role of the ‘expert other’ in learners’ acquisition of workplace competence
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Skills development policies in South Africa and further afield consider learning in and from the workplace as critical to the training of artisans at intermediate level, bringing together theoretical learning undertaken in formal institutions and practical, on-the-job training for the purpose of achieving occupational competence, demonstrated ultimately in the prescribed trade test. Ellstrom (2001) asserts that “in spite of a widespread belief in the importance of integrating learning and work, little is known about the conditions that promote such integration” (p.421). While apprenticeship training has a long history in South Africa, and historical anecdotal accounts exist of the workplace experiences of trainee artisans, there are only a few recent local empirical studies that have advanced our understanding of this domain. This research thus sought to investigate learning in the workplace from the perspective of the candidates: the methodologies, practices, and affordances for learning which they perceived to be available to them, and employed a qualitative approach for exploring how candidates in engineering trades experienced the ‘real world environment’ of learning and engagement in the workplace. The juxtaposition of complementary theories that lent themselves to explaining workplace learning phenomena, in particular the works of Engeström (1987); Vygotsky (1978); and Lave and Wenger (1991), formed a richly informative system for the data which showed that candidates experienced diverse learning modalities and affordances in their workplace settings. However, the central role of the expert artisan as a quintessential didactic practitioner in moving candidates towards competence was a significant finding, pointing ultimately to the need for collective effort in harnessing the teaching potential of this ‘expert other’.