A New Vocationalism

About learning: planned and unplanned

The last section identified a range of implications for universities and students. There is one more implication which goes rather deeper and is therefore worth exploring further.

The main conclusion of this paper is that the principal difference between graduates and non-graduates is that graduates are more prepared to learn and better prepared to learn. This implies that the primary task of university education is to develop students' powers of learning and inclination to learn.

But what exactly do we mean by the term 'learning'? 'Learning' can be unpacked into planned learning and unplanned learning. These two components of learning are exhaustive and mutually exclusive categories; all learning that is not planned must be unplanned (and vice versa) and no learning can be both planned and unplanned. Planned learning and unplanned learning are the two sides of the learning coin.


Planned learning is learning that is goal-directed. The term 'planned learning' therefore implies learning goals (or intended learning outcomes) together with some idea about how those outcomes will be realised. Most of the espoused learning of institutions of education, including universities, is planned learning. Typically teachers (and lecturers) set goals and try to manage the learning processes.

Unplanned learning, by contrast, is learning that can take place in the absence of learning goals. It is normally simply a by-product of experience. For that reason it is sometimes called experiential learning. If one wishes to develop the ability to distil more learning from experience then the key seems to be more reflection and better reflection. This is why David Boud et al titled their 1985 book 'Reflection: the Key to Turning Experience into Learning'. It is also why Donald Schon's influential 1983 book on learning from the experience of professional practice is titled 'The Reflective Practitioner'. And it is why education development units in universities emphasise reflective practice in courses of professional development for university teachers (Bourner et al, 2003).

Our understanding of unplanned learning (and its close relatives, experiential learning, informal learning, action learning, emergent learning and reflective learning) is relatively new; it is associated with such names as Kolb, Revans, Schon and Boud who produced significant work in the latter part of the 20th century. Consequently, it has, as yet, established only a limited foothold in educational institutions which remain focused on planned learning.

Within our education system most new knowledge appears first at the highest level and then filters down in increasingly predigested form. Doctoral study is aimed at the actual discovery of new knowledge. The reading lists of Masters' degrees are usually heavy with reference details of journal articles which report the latest findings in a field of study. As one moves down from the final year of an undergraduate degree through to the first year the appearance of journal articles on student reading lists become rarer and instead intermediate textbooks appear and then at first year level are the introductory textbooks. And material that was once taught only at university eventually finds its way onto the A-level curriculum and so on.

In a similar way we might expect the latest thinking on reflective learning to have most impact in the first instance in higher education. It is significant that the clearest evidence of such thinking within HE is the courses that universities provide for the development of university lecturers in learning and teaching where there is considerable emphasis placed in reflective learning and reflective practice (Bourner et al, 2003). Whether by design or by accident, it is through these courses that university lecturers are becoming equipped to extend university education to develop students' powers of unplanned learning in the form of reflective learning.

If the main advantage that a university education confers on students is the development of their learning faculties (and hence their capacity and disposition to learn) then there is no reason why this should be limited to planned learning only. Universities can confer further advantage on their students by developing their ability and inclination to capture the lessons of their experience in employment by unplanned learning.

In other words, a university that seeks to develop its students' powers of learning can ensure that, as well as developing students' ability to manage their planned learning, they also get an opportunity to develop their powers of unplanned learning i.e. their ability to capture the lessons of their own experience. It can do so by developing their ability and inclination to learn from reflection.


Next: Conclusions