Category Archives: learning

Finding fault with fault-finding


I was talking with a trainee this week about his progress towards becoming an electrician, and I asked him about his recent on-site work.  He replied,

I haven’t being doing anything major, just some fault finding and some small installations

It’s something that I’ve heard before…that ” just“. The OED defines one of the many subtle meanings of ‘just’ as a means of placing focus on a particular word. In a weakened sense it means ‘merely’: it’s not descriptive, it’s derogatory.

As I put this post together I began to uncover so many different possible ways of comprehending what had been said to me, and about how skills are discussed in a community of practice,  that it became too dense for a single post.   So, for now, I’m just going to focus on one particular interpretation.

In the current Assessment Specification for the Electrical Installation the “practical” Performance Objectives require the Competence Base to cover fault diagnosis over a range of common faults with the Evidence Source being that ‘faults are diagnosed correctly’, (pp.81-82). That seems perfectly reasonable – one expects an electrician to correctly find faults.

In their Guide to Student-Centred Learning, Brandes and Ginnis identify the valuing of process as an attribute of a progressive learning environment, (pp.10-11). With this in mind I tried to unpack the skills involved in diagnosing faults with this trainee. This was the first time that I’d challenged this way of talking about skills, and the list we came up with can be summarised as

  • Enquiry skills
  • Analytical and Deductive skills (Logic skills)
  • Reporting skills

He was quite impressed with himself.

Since our conversation I’ve been puzzling over how an adult trainee can get to near the end of his three-year training scheme, and not realise the qualities he has? I don’t think that this can simply be attributed to individual character: it happens too often .

As I said, there’s a whole host of possible things going on here but I’m minded to suggest that if the training is such that its focus is solely upon the goal then there is a failure in the training. Back in 2007 the Scottish Government published Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy. In the ministerial forward Fiona Hyslop wrote,

We need successful learners, confident individuals…We need a skilled population..We need employers that demand value, and make best use of their workforce’s skills.

but how can the trainee be confident in his skills if he doesn’t even know he has them, let alone know he’s using them?


“just, adv.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 5 March 2014 <;.
Fault, by Toastybob, Flickr, taken on 19 September 2013,, accessed 08 March 2014, CC-BY-SA 2.0
Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy (September 2007) The Scottish Government,, accessed 04 March 2014

Pedagogy and learner confidence

11194506586_58db9e3386During the week I had a conversation with an employer who told me that his trainee had the practical ability to become an electrician but not the self-confidence. I put forward the suggestion that the training of adult trainees was as much a process of developing confidence as it was one of learning content, and he replied that it was the same with apprentices, in the final stage of their apprenticeship, though perhaps for different reasons. This suggested to me that vocational pedagogy, both on-site and in the classroom, has to be one that enhances the learners’ self-esteem.

Brandes & Ginnes , (1996, p.3) note right at the very start of their book that student-centred learning ‘can have a tremendously powerful impact on self-esteem and mitigate the damage being done elsewhere’.

Wilkinson and Pickett, in The Spirit Level (2010, p.113) relate a number of cases where perceived social inequality has a negative outcome on educational performance. They relate how in one study, black students failed worse in the exact same assessment when they were told the test was one of ability as they did when they were told that the test wan’t one of ability. Similarly, students  in India were found to perform worse when assessed in the presence of ‘higher’ caste peers (p.113).  In one remarkable tale a teacher told her class that she’d read an article telling her that blue-eyed students were more intelligent and more likely to succeed than brown-eyed students. The consequence of this was that the school performance of the blue-eyed pupils improved. After a few days she confessed to the class that she’d made a mistake and that she’d got her facts the wrong way around. Instead it was the brown-eyed students who had superior intelligence:  the roles and and performance ‘rapidly reversed’.

In many ways one doesn’t really need to be an educational genius to  know that learners perform less well when their self-esteem is low. The risk is, like Orwell’s drinker, that low self-esteem begets a lack of confidence that begets poor performance which begets low self-esteem, which begets  a lack of confidence…ad infinitum.

Initially I thought this would be the end of this post but I googled “self-esteem” and “adult learners” and got the really helpful briefing sheet by Kathryn James and Christine Nightingale and published by  NIACE.

I think I’d already made the connection between pedagogy, self-esteem and confidence but I gained confidence by seeing it written down in this paper, (2005, p.9).

This way of linking self-esteem and confidence to adult learning is closely associated with quality standards in learning, because what promotes positive self-esteem and confidence in adult education is good teaching and learning. It is about adopting learner-centred approaches, about providing appropriate support and about respecting and valuing learners.

Which leaves me with the question as to whether a subject-centred pedagogy is designed to artificially cap self-esteem. That’s not to suggest a mass conspiracy of traditionally minded teachers to suppress the self-esteem of their learners, but that a subject-centred form of pedagogy always struggles to raise self-esteem because it is not designed for that purpose.


confidence, by Maria Malidaki, taken on 3 December 2013, uploaded to Flickr as m.thunderkit,, accessed 02 March 2014, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Brandes, D. & Ginnis, P. (1991) A Guide to Student-Centred Learning, Oxford, Basil Blackwell

James, K. and Nightingale, C. (2005) Self-esteem, confidence and adult learning, Briefing Sheet, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (England and Wales),, accessed 01 March 2014

Orwell, G. (2000) ‘Politics and the English Language’ in Essays, London, Penguin in association with Martin Secker & Warburg, pp.348-359

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, London, Penguin