The recruitment and recognition of prior informal experience in the pedagogy of two university courses in labour law

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis explores the epistemological complexities associated with the long-standing principle in adult education that the experience of the adult student should be valued, taken account of and built upon in the pedagogic process, to the extent that it can even be 'recognized' for purposes of access or credit. It asks how prior experience is recruited and recognized in a higher education context where commitment to the adult student is espoused but the curriculum is non-negotiable . Multiple research methods are used to pursue this question in two courses in Labour Law at separate universities . One, a certificate course, had admitted students with Grade 10 or less. The other, a post-graduate diploma, had admitted students without degrees. The thesis opens with a discussion of the ways in which formal and informal knowledge have been constructed in various theories of knowledge and thought, as well as in discourses on the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). Thereafter, drawing on Bernstein, Dowling and Bourdieu , and in dialogue with the empirical data, a language of localizing and generalizing strategies is developed to identify various forms of informal and formal knowledge and to describe their interplay. The range and interrelationships of these strategies is shown in the form of semantic networks. Attention is paid to the structure of law and its sub-field labour law as fields of practice and of study and it is noted that both are characterized by a deductive relationship between formal and informal knowledge. The practice of law is essentially about the application of rules, concepts and principles to actual events (a deductive process) while the development of laws themselves is in response to social conditions (an inductive process). There is always the potential for inequity between the generality of the law and the particularities of an individual case. The courses differ in the extent to which they follow the deductive logic of the practice of law. It is argued that the higher level course which explores the complexities of labour law and its application to actual reported cases and events, is closer to that logic than the lower level course which presents the law in terms of sets of rules and procedures and tries to simplify its application by the use of the hypothetical. The postgraduate course also offers students an opportunity to recruit prior experience in assignments, even though it has to be researched and recontextualized for the purpose. The research finds that both lecturers and students use localizing strategies, including the recruitment of prior personal experience. Three different pedagogic styles are identified, with the recruitment and recognition of prior informal experience as a major feature of variation . The lecturers' localizations have a generalizing trajectory in that they are expressed in relation to general rules, principles or concepts or case law. The localizations of students who have mastered or submitted themselves to the recognition and realization rules of the courses have a similar trajectory. A few students show a localizing trajectory, limited to personalizing strategies often used to challenge the general rule by asserting the particularity and difference of personal experience. These localizing orientations are associated with very limited formal education but not exclusively so. They are also associated with expectations that prior informal experience is valuable in a formal educational context and will be recognized. This promise, engendered by discourses on RPL and adult education, obfuscates the transmission/acquisition purposes of a formal education programme. The theoretical contribution of the thesis lies with the language of description which it develops to analyse the interplay between the multiple dimensions of formal and informal knowledge. The research also has important implications for two theories of Basil Bernstein's. It shows that it is difficult to identify horizontal discourse empirically and to separate it from vertical discourse. The two are inextricably intertwined. The discussion of students' orientation to the local and the general shows the relevance of Bernstein's notions of elaborated and restricted codes to adult education. At the same time it exposes the crudity of these notions, showing, through fine-tuned analysis, the multiple different ways in which context-dependent and -independent knowledge is combined in practice. Finally, the research shows that students with limited formal education can and do succeed in formal education programmes. Factors influencing their achievement include the nature of their work experience and the extent to which it has exposed them to formal literacies, and dispositional factors including a willingness to accept pedagogic hierarchy, to assume an individual rather than collective identity and to expend symbolic labour.

Includes bibliographical references.