Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Afterword: Social Practice Theory and Learning Work

Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Afterword: Social Practice Theory and Learning Work

Article excerpt


Across the globalized world, structural crises in labor and education systems are exposing foundational cracks in the neoliberal consensus. As the contributions to this volume show, the Australian vocational education system finds itself at such a moment. At stake is the very conception of what (a system of) vocational education and training (VET) is for, and how it might best be transformed in order to ensure that the inevitable pitfalls of marketization (enmeshed with globalization and privatization) might be avoided. In their efforts to dissect the problem, the articles in this Special Issue reflect the fact that within any moment of structural crisis, recognizable problematics are always accompanied, however obliquely, by opportunities for positive change.1

The authors collectively suggest that the current crisis offers an opportunity for a broad, critical exploration of the problems facing the Australian vocational education system today, and potential alternatives to the system within the context of reformed institutional practices and curricular design. From our location, as cultural analyst and anthropologist working within an historical/ethnographic approach to theorizing learning, and aware of both advantages and disadvantages of our position as outsiders to the Australian system, we would like to join in on the conversation at hand.

The authors' of the contributions to the Special Issue foreground their collective confrontation in the recognition that deep structural flaws are apparent in the design of the Australian vocational education system, particularly its reliance on Competency-based Training (CBT). Taking off from their critique, this Afterword is an attempt to think about the possibilities contained within a radical shift of perspective regarding relationships between working and learning to work. Our aim is to reframe questions of state-mandated educational institutional practice through a theory of practice concerned with the lived realities and everyday potentialities for worker/learners' learning at and through work. In what follows, we will briefly analyze the current of thought running between various critiques of the crisis in the Australian VET system on the one hand, and its rootedness in a larger conceptual crisis produced by the structural dynamics of neoliberal economies on the other.

Following this, we offer a discussion of relations between learning and labor from the perspective of social practice theory. We suggest that reform of vocational education should start from close attention to workers learning and to their collective engagements in learning/working. We stress the importance of including critical analysis by participants of their own location in the debate in the struggle to come to terms with a paradox. Learning in practice is arguably the (only) way we learn while 'vocational education' whether laid out in theoretical, pedagogical, or on-site supervisory terms, more often than not consists of narrow schemes for task-sized instruction to be aimed at 'the other' - at individual workers - rather than attending closely to the broad social, organizational, spatial collective practice of which skillful laboring/learning is composed.

The Current System of Labor Preparation and its Crisis

The papers in this issue provide broad, nuanced - and converging - analyses of the current crisis in labor education, a rich critique of labor preparation in Australia over the last two decades. They do this via a trenchant analysis of the CBT model and its relation to issues of marketization. In so doing, they help lay bare the historical and contemporary links between behaviorist approaches to understanding learning, Taylorized forms of labor preparation, and neoliberal formulations of political economy. Contemporary political economy, practices of labor preparation, and theory of learning seem be locked in a race to the bottom, aiming at the most compartmentalized and minimal labor preparation. …

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