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Conversation in the workplace sometimes referred to as ‘watercooler talk’, is an essential aspect of learning (1). Ann Baker and colleagues have shown precisely how an executive team goes about making sense of the various things it is experiencing and learning, using different kinds of conversation.

For conversations to occur, it helps to create spaces for them:

Making space for conversation can take many forms – making physical space, such as when a manager moves from behind his or her desk to join colleagues around a table; making temporal space, such as when a family sets aside weekly time for family conversation; or making emotional space through receptive listening (1).

Good vocational teachers deliberately seek to engineer rich conversations between learners at different stages, ideally putting apprentices and those studying for qualifications at higher levels in the same workshop space so that young and old, novice and expert can talk to each other.

Conversations Can Help Prepare Novices

Informal workplace conversations can help prepare novices for scenarios they may face in future jobs. Orr (2), reported how to photocopy repair technicians would share ‘war stories’ with one another, which built up the community’s knowledge of how faults were identified, diagnosed and repaired.

Similarly, in an empirical exploration of the learning dispositions developed by plumbers the authors found:

Conversations in the Merchants about a rare job that one person had come across would be ‘how that [other] person learns … because it’s so rare that you might not come across it [otherwise]’. The response from others was to listen and learn, which ‘saves you finding your own solution to it’ (3).

The role of conversations about problematic cases is important in apprenticeship learning. As stories were told by attendees at birth, other attendees offered similar stories. Together, the stories were packaged as ‘situated knowledge’. Becoming a midwife thus includes the possession of a store of appropriate narratives, and the discernment to know when to share them.

Of primary importance in terms of conversation is the role of questioning. In educational settings, the teacher asks questions in order to ascertain the degree to which learners are familiar with new learning content, as well as the extent to which they have grasped it (4). Questioning also plays a part in the effective learner’s repertoire of behaviour. The process of questioning facilitates reflective thinking by prompting meaningful discussion. And yet, the construction of intelligent questions requires a certain threshold level of domain knowledge and metacognitive skills (5). Ikseon Choi et al.,’s study demonstrated that learners can be taught to ‘scaffold’ one another’s questioning through the use of further prompting or probing questions.

A teacher is teaching the students in a classroom with multiple expressions and conversation

Teachers can scaffold learners in the same way, by asking three types of question:

Clarification or elaboration questions

  • Clarification or elaboration questions – it may be apparent that a learner has not thought through the full implications of an idea. Their explanation may be unclear, incomplete, or incorrect. For example, a hairdressing teacher might ask the learner how a client’s prior history of colouring treatment affects the way the learner intends to apply dye this time.


  • Counter-argument – when the learner and teacher have very different understandings, this type of questioning brings about ‘cognitive conflict’ in the learner, who either strengthens their position or re-evaluates their ideas. The teacher might ask a clarifying question regarding the learner’s reasoning for selecting a lighter tone over lowlights, and then ask, given what the learner knows about the chemical properties of the two types of colour, which might give the most natural look.

Context- or perspective-oriented questions

  • Context- or perspective-oriented questions – when there is nothing inherently wrong in the learner’s idea, this type of questioning stimulates the learner to consider multiple perspectives on the problem. The teacher might ask the learner how he might change his plan if the client had had no prior colour treatment.

Diving coach Andy Banks refers to ‘head sitting’, his method of questioning others, as a means of developing expertise:

I’m a big believer in if you want to become good at something you find someone that’s better than you and sit on their head, and hopefully not be too much of a pain in the neck but ask ‘why did you do that?’ ‘what did you do that for?’ ‘how do you do this?’ ‘how do you do that?’ until they swear at you and say ‘go away’ (6).


  • Baker, A., Jensen, P. & Kolb, D. (2005). Conversation as Experiential Learning. Management Learning, 36(4), 411-427.
  • Billett, S. (2000). Guided Learning at Work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 12(7), 272-285
  • Spencer, E., Lucas, B. & Claxton, G. (2012). Progression in Creativity – Developing New Forms of Assessment: A literature review. Newcastle: CCE.
  • Mäkitalo, Å. (2005). The Record as a Formative Tool: A study of immanent pedagogy in the practice of vocational guidance. Qualitative Social Work, 4, 431-448.
  • Choi, I., Land, S. & Turgeon, A. (2005). Scaffolding Peer-Questioning Strategies to Facilitate Metacognition During Online Small Group Discussion. Instructional Science, 33, 483-511.
  • Dixon, M., Lee, S. & Ghaye, T. (2012). Coaching for Performance: An interview with Olympic diving coach, Andy Banks. Reflective Practice: International and multidisciplinary perspectives, 13(3), 339-354.

Lucubrate Magazine August 2019

The Photo on the top: Learning through conversation in Vocational Education, by auremar

The article is from the report “How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy” by Bill Lucas, Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton, The City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (December 2012)

Seventeen effective pedagogical methods in vocational education

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Lucubrate Magazine
Lucubrate Magazine

Lucubrate Magazine highlights trends in education and development. Development in this context can be technological, educational, individual, social or global, and everything related to education.
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