Monday, October 13, 2014

Mimetic learning at work: book summary

Professor Stephen Billett’s latest book, summarises some of the work undertaken through his Australian Research Council Future Fellowship on practice-based learning. This book – Mimetic learning atwork: Learning in the circumstances of practice (2014) and published by Springer - provides a timely contemporary discussion on the main method humans use to learn practices i.e. observation, imitation and practice – aka mimetic learning.

The book is a concise 100 plus pages divided into 5 chapters. Each chapter has references and is written to be ‘stand alone’. There is a short index and preface providing background to the work.

Chapter 1 – ‘mimetic learning at work’ provides definitions for mimesis and mimetic learning to anchor the book’s argument. Mimesis is taken to be “the active process of engaging (e.g. observing), imitating and rehearsing required performances, which constitutes microgenetic development – the processes of moment-by-moment learning” (p 6). Mimetic learning is defined as “the inter- and intra—psychological processes that constitute order and contribute to mimesis” (p 6). Inter- psychological processes are socio-cultural contributions to learning (from peers, other workers, experts, teachers etc. etc.) and intra-psychological indicates processes used by individuals to learn. The conceptual premises for the book are also presented: these are
·        Learning and development as separate
·        Co-ocurrences of work and learning
·        Co-ocurrence of learning and remaking culture
·        Individuals as social
·        Social genesis of occupational knowledge
·        Limits of educational discourse and science

The first chapter also provides brief one paragraph summaries of each of the other chapters.
Chapter 2 summarises ‘learning through practice across human history’ utilising examples from Mesopotamian, Ancient Greek and Chinese historical sources. In sum, the chapter presents the long history of mimetic learning through human endeavour as compared to the very short history of ‘schooled’ learning. In particular, occupational competencies have primarily been learnt ‘by doing’ and in authentic work environments, not through schooling.

Chapter 3 provides the foundation for understanding why mimetic learning can be used to explain much of what takes place in work and lifelong learning. The rationale for recognition of mimetic learning as the main way humans have learnt and the need to understand how mimetic learning occurs across specialised occupations are discussed in this chapter.

Chapter 4 discusses ‘supporting mimetic learning: practice curriculum, pedagogies and epistemologies’. Here recommendations from the studies undertaken through the previous 3 chapters are used to extend Billett’s conceptualisations of the practice curriculum practice pedagogies and practice epistemologies. Practice curriculum explains the conduct, context and objectives of occupations, are laid out to meet the ways of doing of practice communities. Examples of various approaches taken by individual workplaces practicing the same occupation used to support the argument i.e hairdressing apprentices ‘curriculum’ in various types of salons. Practice pedagogies deployed to learn work practices defer from ‘teaching’ approaches in formal learning environments due to the nature of work. Personal epistemologies are proposed to be individualistic as each person comes into an occupation with idiosyncratic personal history, makes meaning from their work experiences in different ways and implements their practice to fit into socio-historic work environment.

The final chapter discusses the implications arising from the recommendations and conceptualisations argued for and presented in chapter 4. The goals for mimetic learning are refined and presented. Implications for workplace practices and educational programmes are presented and discussed. The chapter closes with discussion on how mimetic learning could support learning for and through work.
The recommendations for support of practice curriculum, practice pedagogies and personal epistemologies are provided. For the practice curriculum, recommendations are included to assist with the design and deployment of the intended curriculum (identify from the outset, what is to be learnt through practice-based experiences; helping students to align their experiences with the intended learning outcomes; aligning the extend and duration of work experience with educational intentions i.e. academic literacies, where do they fit with work? And use institutional learning time to assist students with consolidating and reflecting on what was learnt at work). For the enacted curriculum there is a need to account for students’ readiness and prepare students for work with the need to provide some students with additional or specific experiences; maximise available opportunities for work placement (i.e. for the present, to use the Christchurch rebuilt as a learning resource); and to ‘think outside of the square’ as to what constitutes work placement.  For the experienced curriculum, assist student to bring their ‘interest’ into alignment with future work potentialities; support students before, during and after placements; and especially support students to deal with challenging aspects of their chosen profession.For the pedagogical practices, a range of support structures to support mimetic learning are proposed prior to, during and after practice-based / workplace experiences.

In all, the book represents a concise but thorough representation of Billett’s scholarship on mimetic learning's contribution to human development. There has been a need for this book for some time as higher education is being continually pushed to rationalise graduate outcomes. One strategy has been to increase work-integrated learning to increase graduates’ integration of theory and practice. In turn, to improve work readiness on graduation. Learning at work has also needed a firmer foundation to understand how learning occurs. Mimetic learning provides common ground to understanding how work place learning is enacted across a variety of work environments.

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