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Learning Theoretical Knowledge

It has often been suggested that one major weakness of on-the-job learning in apprenticeship is the inability for apprentices to acquire theoretical knowledge. To remedy this situation, apprenticeship on-the-job learning is often supplemented with off-the-job instructor-led learning. I believe that there is the need for such off-the-job learning, but would like to argue that the learning of theoretical and practical knowledge should be integrated and not to be treated as two separate processes.

In a study I conducted about workplace learning of IT professionals, quite a lot of the subjects reported that what they learned from books or training courses were often superficial. Mastery of the computer technologies they needed to learn was possible only when they had the chance to use them at work. What is more interesting is a case reported by one of the subjects about his experience of learning a technology from an instructor-led training course. He said because he had quite a lot of practical experience with the technology before attending the course, he learned much more effectively than other students in his class who had not. What this seems to suggest is that very often learners need hands-on experience to make sense and understand the significance of theoretical and conceptual knowledge they needed to learn.

From a socio-cultural perspective, knowledge is socially constituted. Each domain of knowledge is rooted in its own social practice, and maintained and developed by its community of practitioners. It follows that to help learners to master a domain of knowledge, they should be given ample opportunities to participate in the social practice which gave rise to the knowledge. Very often people might think that practical experience is necessary only for the learning of practical knowledge, I think that it also applies to the case of theoretical knowledge.

It is true that workers sometimes have the practical skills to perform effectively at work, but lack a comprehensive understanding of the theoretical basis of those skills. One of the computer programmers in my research who was quite proficient with a computer language admitted not having a solid understanding of the relevant theoretical basis. He believed that the theoretical knowledge is not important to his work. The reverse is often true for fresh graduates, who often have a basic understanding of the theories, but lack practical skills and experience to perform well at work. I would argue that this reflects different ways of knowing with regards to the knowledge domain. Professional programmers whose duty is to writing programs would try their best to polish their programming skills, but university students whose aim is often to obtain good grades would focus on learning what would be assessed in exams, which often has a heavy theoretical component.

Now if workers can perform effectively at work without a solid basis in the relevant theoretical knowledge, then we need to ask if there is a need for them to acquire such knowledge. I believe the answer to this question is complex and depends on the knowledge domain and the kind of theoretical knowledge involved. In some situations, theoretical knowledge which is considered important by the relevant professional body or educational institutions might not be considered useful to frontline workers. Hence, it is suggested that in designing a curriculum for apprenticeship, effort should be made to examine carefully the work setting of the apprentices to identify the kind of theoretical knowledge that is truly important to them, and identify a suitable time and method to teach them to the apprentices.

Tak Ha is the associate director of the Center of Enhanced and Teaching (CELT) of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has been associated with the Center ever since it was established and has been involved in a number of major teaching development projects, including the development of institutional level educational technology systems. Currently he heads the Evaluation and Research team which focuses on evaluation services and institutional research. His research interests include theories of learning, workplace learning, evaluation of institutional effectiveness, and use of technology in education.

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