Learning About Learning in Risk and Safety
A Google search of ‘risk and safety training in Australia’ reveals more than 103,000,000 results. The focus of such training seems to be programming people to absorb information on legislation, safety processes and engineering based subjects. This seems to be the common method we use in risk and safety, and one might be easily seduced into thinking that attending such training may result in greater wisdom and a workforce more capable of discerning risk. Some might even consider this training as ‘learning’ about risk and safety. But what do we really know about ‘learning’ in risk and safety?
I for one have done my fair share of ‘indoctrination’ sessions in the name of safety. Site inductions, toolbox talks, safety shares; you name it, we sure know how to tell people about the stuff that we think is important when it comes to safety. But, do we in risk and safety, really understand ‘learning’?
If we are to better understand what it means to ‘learn’ in risk and safety, I wonder whether we should shift our attention away from focusing on how we gather and process ‘information’ (about legislation, safety process and engineering) and instead progress toward a recognition that learning is a social (‘communal’) activity. Do we also need to recognise that much of what we learn occurs in our unconscious through activities like reflection, ‘experiencing’, and through our involvement in community? Do we need to do more learning about learning in risk and safety?
I had a very liberating and humbling experience recently while working with my good friend Gab Carlton. We were working with a client in the construction industry when I felt the urge to ‘tell’ (in the name of safety training). I thought that I knew something that the group wanted to know and my ‘inner crusader’ wanted to burst out and tell the group all that I knew. Gab cottoned onto this pretty quickly and during one of our discussions in a break, she simply asked “Hey Samsy, is this a learning experience about us, or the group?” It was a good question, and one that prompted me to recognise how easily I can slip into ‘telling’ mode, instead of allowing people to explore things for themselves. Learning isn’t about providing people with new information, learning occurs when we facilitate and influence a change in thinking, or as Howard Gardner refers ‘changing minds’. So if learning is not just about receiving and processing new information and it is about change, what other ways may we learn, rather than the traditional approach that we typically adopt in risk and safety?
To answer this, I turn to my own learning adventure through my studies in The Psychology of Risk program through ACU. I was recently privileged to participate in a day of presentations with my fellow students who shared some of the research that they have done in the area of learning, and relating it to how we deal with risk. Some of the examples of topics were; Propaganda, Critical Pedagogy, Experiential Learning, Scaffolding, The Work of John Dewey, Semiotics and Learning, Informal Learning, Social Learning, Hidden Curriculum and Standardised Testing, among others. While I gained a lot of new information through the presentations, the real learning for me has continued as I reflect on the presentations some weeks later, and through ‘social sensemaking’ with others in my community of learning. This had helped bring these topics to life and to find meaning in them. I can’t imagine the same learning would have occurred had I been forced to sit a comprehension test at the end of the day of presentations. That would simply have tested my memory, not my learning. There is so much more learning for me to do about learning (and I love that!).
But, I hear you ask, is learning at University really that different to safety with all those exams, essays, and effectively an indoctrination of its own?
If you did ask that, well I suspect you may be right. The paradox of learning about learning through a formal University program, including submitting assessments to be graded, is not lost on me. The paradox is highlighted as one considers learning in what Palmer et. al. (2015) refer to as the ‘academy’, where it is often considered that the higher the grade, the greater the learning. So, while there is much of the rigmarole that is University in our program, we also regularly step outside of the formalities to put into practice what we are learning about. I don’t know too many other University learning programs that challenge students one day through experiential learning activities, then the next moment quietly reflect on the learning in the silence of a cork plantation.
The reality is, that while I have gained much new knowledge by researching, writing assignments and studying, my real ‘learning’ comes from the sharing of conversations, from the exploring and critiquing of ideas, through testing things out, by making mistakes, all with the people that I share in ‘social learning’ with.
This is not what I observe in risk and safety, so I’m guessing that we do have much to learn about learning risk and safety, do you agree? Do you think we have had enough of the indoctrination and need to take things to a different level of critically thinking? What do we in risk and safety really understand about ‘learning’? Do we accept that learning may occur in our unconscious? Do we also accept that ‘comprehension’ does not always equal learning?
Are we mature enough in risk and safety to explore this notion? Are we able to move away from what seems to be the natural urge in our industry to ‘control’, to ‘protect’ and to ‘save’ others while they go about their work?
So many questions for us to critically consider, share and discuss.
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.
Author: Robert Sams
Phone: 0424 037 112
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