College Quarterly
Fall 2009 - Volume 12 Number 4
Reviews Knowing Work: The Social Relations of Working and Knowing
Markus Weil, Leena Koski & Liv Mjelde (eds.)
Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2009

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

When discussing vocational education in polite company, two themes seem to predominate. One concerns the job market, and focuses on the sorts of skills that are or will be necessary in a changing economy. The other concerns pedagogy, are relates to the most effective and efficient method of transferring those skills to students who, very often, are not academically inclined and sometimes pose problems not only of inadequate preparation but also low motivation.

In both cases, the problem to be addressed is set out primarily from the perspective of potential employers. What kinds of workers are needed? How do we get them?

The answers are expected to come from curriculum and classroom experts, both of which are apt to provide solutions with the use of objective-based, standardized learning blueprints and up-to-date educational technology.

Weil, Koski and Mjelde try something different. The result is a minor gem.

Knowing Work approaches the subject from three different viewpoints, none of which are popular in customary work in the field. They situate the study of vocationalism in “the moral and symbolic orders that are embedded in cultural and social relations”; they address the nature of “working and knowing at school and in the work place”; and they give voice to the experience of “the dynamic combinations of knowing and working” in terms of “the ideas and practices of vocational education.” In short, they actually deal with students as people, not as commodity consumers or as potential human resources. They attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice in the context of the modern school and workplace. They do an exemplary job.

In the first part of the book, four contributors explore different dimensions of the “moral and symbolic orders in knowing work.” The moral dimension has long been acknowledged as one of the core components of vocational training. From the outset, mandatory schooling took as a key part of its mandate the inculcation of values of hard work, propriety and obedience in the working class. As much as the learning of the rudiments of reading and arithmetic (necessary skills for work in the developing nineteenth-century factory system), the indoctrination into factory discipline was a necessary bulwark against the slippage of the young working class into the habits of the “loose and disorderly people” who constituted the “undeserving poor” and, in bad times, the “urban mob.” Little has changed, except for the increased complexity of industrial work and the transformation of the labour market from one of routinized labour on assembly lines to the mastery of “people skills” in the service sector.

Here, co-editor Leena Koski ranges from an appreciative rendering and critical engagement of Zygmunt Bauman’s interpretation of the “self” in late modern (or postmodern) society, wherein Bauman disputes the authority of communities over the autonomous young who, in turn, create their own sense of identity using fragmented personal “self-assembly kits.” The consequences for meaningful personal development and any hope for social cohesion become problematic and intimations of a new sense of alienation emerge. Koski then addresses the vocational curriculum itself, and goes beyond the now-standard understanding of the “hidden curriculum” to explore the various ways in which carefully nuanced hierarchies of curriculum and social class cohere in a novel form of “entrepreneurial” education that is found mainly in European centres. Building upon traditional Protestant ideals of duty, resourcefulness and self-reliance, the new ideal, the consequence of using the “assembly kit,” are constructed self-images that reflect the hierarchical needs of contemporary production and consumption. For the replenishing of the upper-middle and upper classes, emphasis is placed upon critical citizenship. Critical, of course, means constructive problem-solving, not systemic interrogation. For the reproduction of the lower middle and working classes, entrepreneurship is translated into values of inventiveness, self-respect and commitment to perform the civic duty of productive labour as a worker or an artisan. Core elements of social responsibility and innovation are the basis for the universal value of “entrepreneurship”; the range of empowerment is, however, unevenly distributed. To the aspirant managers, ethics and aesthetics are crucial in order to produce the kind of person who can display “vocational ethics in his/her work, such as the requirement for professional secrecy with regard to clients, data security, and consumer protection policy.” Ordinary working class students need not trouble themselves with such subtleties. For them morals are primarily external and instrumental. As an analysis of one educational system revealed: “the students of vocational school and the apprentices required no Christianity, ethics or aesthetics. They were to be educated in accordance with the demand made by the labour market at any point in time.”

The second part of the book deals with education in the everyday life of the worker. It is no news to say that a significant number of young people lack basic literacy and are inadequately for college life. Many arrive in need of remedial education and, in many cases, as much as 50% or more of the entering students are incapable of handling college work. The result, of course, is to insist that academic standards be lowered to facilitate the continuation of fees payment. Other more ennobling alternatives have been proposed. Granting college credit for informal learning, invoking complicated prior learning assessment formulae, entering into co-op arrangements with employers to trade the exploitation of minimal skills for partial certification of marginally improved ones and, of course, the promotion of “lifelong learning” do fill some gaps. Focusing on recent educational reforms in Norway, Liv Mjelde is one of three authors who tackle the problem of worker education in the workplace. For all the talk about “student-centred education” in the classroom, Mjelde explores some contexts in which education truly is the key to the pedagogical puzzle. Emphasizing “vocational didactics,” she reveals a world of learning “in which the relation between the student and the task is central; the work activity itself is the rotation point for learning.” The reforms in question are those that, with the best of democratic motivations, sought to break down the barriers between vocational education and the gymnasia—an organizational change that was hoped to break down class barriers and, at the same time, to remove the economic exploitation inherent in apprenticeship programs by bringing vocational training into the same tent as academic studies. The primary challenge, of course, has been that almost no thought had been given to vocational education as an integral part of pedagogical theory or practical application. Under pressure from evident technological changes which made it plain that there was an enormous gap between technical training and the realities of the workplace, and in light of the transformation of the workplace (not least because of the intensive computerization of formerly skilled jobs), Norway and other Scandinavian societies have begun to come to grips with the nature of vocational knowledge, the most effective teaching and learning processes and the kind of secondary and postsecondary arrangements that can contribute both to educational effectiveness and social equity. In this, the intriguing concept of “praxis education” plays an important part. If Mjelde’s essay leaves us without a neat and satisfactory conclusion to the Norwegian experience, that is because it is still an experiment in process. What is commendable is that an active experiment is underway.

Finally, Knowing Work considers what might usefully be called the “epistemological” question the proper relationship between knowing and working. Christian Helms Jørgensen provides an excellent conceptual introduction to the topic by outlining the parameters of “technical-economic” concepts, “political-institutional” concepts and “cultural” concepts. Resisting the temptation to make analogies to Habermas’ triad of knowledge-constitutive interests including the empirical-analytical, the historical-hermeneutic and the emancipatory (Haberman, 1971, pp. 301-317), I will at least titillate readers with the suggestion that Jørgensen deals effectively with Taylorism and Fordism, addresses questions raised by Braverman (1974) and updates and applies concerns about the labour process in a way that successfully locates the discussion in the context of vocational education. Co-editor Markus Weil adds a very useful consideration of research methods and priorities that applies what he calls a “network” approach, enlivening what in other hands might be the sort of generic formula in which authors of a book or a research report conclude with a clarion cry for more of the same. It is, however, Bettina Siecke’s analysis of emotions and their relevance to understanding the social relations of learning and working that closes the book. It is a wise choice.

For people skilled in (or even reasonably knowledgeable about humanistic psychology) it will come as no surprise that emotions are essential to the understanding of individual attitudes and actions. Without once more blowing the whistle on Descartes and his debilitating “mind-body” dichotomy or, in the alternative, resurrecting the focus on “feelings” that made for excessively moist pedagogies in the 1960s and 1970s, it is at least worth saying (as Siecke does well enough) that irrespective of one’s general approach to teaching and learning, any method that does not take cognizance of emotional states reduces the educational project to a set of sterile abstractions. Of course, sterile abstractions are nothing new either. The language of teaching and learning is almost inevitably composed of pseudo-technical vocabulary that is eerily eviscerated and seldom the same from year-to-year. In countering this tendency (which seems just a trifle short of a law), Bettina Siecke gives us simple (not to say simplistic) accounts of what most of us think knowledge to be. She offers skeletal definitions of “cognitive-function” and “social-constructivist” orientations and goes on to show how different styles and different concepts can be at least tentatively resolved in what might tentatively be called a “holistic paradigm.” There is nothing here that has not been said often (and probably better) before. The delight is that it is said at all. In doing so, Siecke could have outlined the introductory chapter for a sequel. Who knows? Maybe the editors and others have such a volume in mind. At any rate, it is satisfying to see fresh approaches and (dare I say it?) an sense of emotional involvement in the discussion of a much ignored facet of modern education.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


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