Activity-based learning modules

I spent time with another client this week developing activity-based learning modules. It was a manufacturing company which is introducing a new apprenticeship.

Even though we had previously used this approach as a starting point we had kept on being dragged back into the content-based approach.

First we heard suggestions such as, “You need to give the learners something.” Then we heard suggestions like, “You’ll have to compile a set of resources for the facilitator,” or “Put together a comprehensive set of x in the training room so the learners don’t have to go a find them in the factory.”

We did succumb to the latter two suggestions and compiled a set of resources. But the facilitators told us quite categorically that they don’t need them, “The guys will know!”

Content-based meant that the facilitators were in charge. Activity-based meant that the learners were in charge and the facilitators merely provided guidance.

So the guidelines to facilitators became phrases such as, ” Make sure that they have created at least 3 categories of x” or “If they don’t find relevant information of the WWW suggest this site, http…”.

In this case we ended up with four documents which made up the module:

  1. Learner guide
  2. Facilitator guide
  3. Assessment instrument
  4. Assessment guide.

15 of the 16 people who arrived as “experts” had never facilitated before. Yet within 20 minutes they had understood and supported the underlying logic of the modules. They were even willing to become facilitators if this was the approach.

I had a similar experience when using activities as the underlying basis of modules in a totally different industry and with a total different set of skills.

There will be more to come in the next few posts


Yesterday I was having a conversation with a a highly stressed young professional. I suggested using mindfulness to reduce stress levels and described a few techniques she could try.

This, in turn, triggered a memory of a workshop that ‘went wrong’ in the early 2000s.

Freddy had attended a mindfulness ‘bosberaad’ -a meeting in the bush to discuss weighty matters-  and couldn’t stop talking about it. The concept was new. So, too, were the concepts of skills development & workplace learning. I used a pause as Freddy caught breath to get back to group work. I couldn’t get my head around the cognitive dissonance of mindfulness and a bosberaad. So I asked the groups to consider how mindfulness could be applied to workplace learning and skills development.

Initially the groups stuttered along. A couple of groups asked Freddy to explain a point or two and then, suddenly, the groups were firing on cylinders.

By the end of the session the groups were so enthusiastic and eager that each report back became an extended larger group discussion.

The overall conclusion was that skills development and workplace learning were a form of mindful practice. You, the novice,  had to give up thinking like “Blooms taxonomy” and start to pay attention to what was around you. You had to focus on the people, the processes, the interactions and other situational cues and clues. You had to let go of theory and take on a non-judgemental attitude and be present in the moment. During your work experience you had to learn to take in information with your senses.

Then someone asked, “What about reflection?” It was one of the fashion terms of the time (it could still be). At first it was a show-stopper question. But within a few minutes the responses started bubbling up – the energy levels were high and the creative juices were running strong.

Without being present in the moment what could you later actually reflect on? Mindfulness was a precursor to reflection. Without focusing on the “theories-in-use”, as opposed to the “espoused theories” taught in the classroom, you would never be able to decode actual practice.

The discussion shifted the goal posts so far that I couldn’t return to the workshop programme.

Nor did I need to.



I chaired a Programme Advisory Committee meeting for the Academy@Work at the University of Johannesburg this afternoon. The A@W programme used to operate across and outside of traditional university boundaries providing access to courses and programmes that didn’t fall into the traditional higher education framework.

The university was requiring that the A@W pull back from the swampy lowlands of real problems to the traditional high ground education programmes (Donald Schön p2). So the A@W team had developed the first Human Resources Development qualifications in South Africa. Interesting. There is a qualification relating to Education, Training and Development. But not for HRD.

But their challenge is to replace revenue generating programmes that fund staff salaries etc. while transitioning to a new landscape.

As part of the discussion we had inputs from the sometimes violent processes at Wits University and the DHET’s forum earlier this week, as well as the proactive approach taken by UJ’s vice chancellor since late 2015. This last one (and other related initiatives) could explain why the levels of protest (and violence) at UJ are far lower than at Wits.

Our meeting eventually focused on how the intellectual property developed by the A@W over the last few years could be transformed into new initiatives and programmes.

The underlying challenge is to find out how higher education could be transformed to meet a wider range of audiences and objectives as well as a broader continuum of learning without compromising its key values.