“Transferring” formal knowledge to the workplace and life outside school*

Andy Blunden, December 2023

Abstract: This paper draws on the theory and methodology of CHAT (Cultural-Historical Activity Theory), a tradition of research that originated in Russia in the 1920s, with its roots in Hegel and Marx. In particular the paper draws on Vygotsky’s and Luria’s study of the development of self-control and the importance of context in activity.

The paper observes that most educational activity is based on the presumption that skills and formal knowledge mastered in school, using text and diagrams, listening to speech and occasional simulation or laboratory exercises. The basis of this practice is the presumptoion that such knowledge can be “transferred” to different contexts in later professional life or generally in the community. As a strategy for countering the shortcomings of this presumption, a number of researchers have developed practices which allow “safe-fail” rather than “fail-safe” methods of professional “apprenticeship.”

Key Words: transferable skills, professional learning, Vygotsky, Luria, decision making.


The problem of the place of concepts in human activity is this. On the one hand, the knowledge of adults is characterised by the use of concepts and concepts are forms of generalisation having universal applicability, not being dependent on the immediate appearance of the object of attention and the immediate context. Humans are universal beings, able to live in any environment found on Earth. As long ago as Spinoza’s time this was known. In the words of Soviet philosopher, Evald Ilyenkov:

Man, however, the thinking body, builds his movement on the shape of any other body. He does not wait until the insurmountable resistance of other bodies forces him to turn off from his path; the thinking body goes freely round any obstacle of the most complicated form. The capacity of a thinking body to mould its own action actively to the shape of any other body, to coordinate the shape of its movement in space with the shape and distribution of all other bodies, (Spinoza, cited in Ilyenkov, 1977)

On the other hand, acquaintance with a concept via formal education within a relevant institution does not yet constitute a concrete concept. I use Hegel’s term “concrete concept” to refer to a concept which has very many nuances and connections with other concepts, and combines formal definitions with sensori-motor knowledge acquired in use of the concept. Concepts acquired outside the context of their use, usually in the form of a definition, I call “formal concepts.” Such formal concepts cannot yet represent and direct a person’s actions in an indefinite variety of contexts, specifically the contexts in which professional knowledge is to be activated.

As Vygotsky (1997, p. 210) put it:

the basic law of our behaviour states that behaviour is determined by situations and reaction is elicited by stimuli; for this reason the key to controlling behaviour lies in controlling stimuli. We cannot master our own behaviour except through appropriate stimuli.

This suggests that learning to apply academic knowledge in the course of practising a profession implies a process which cannot be provided within the bounds of the education and training institution itself. Concrete professional knowledge implies a merging of everyday experience within a work context with formal academic concepts acquired at university - the merging of bottom-up with top-down knowledge.

This problem manifests itself in numerous problems which have arisen in the training of teachers, doctors and other professionals and in the effort to instil consciousness of the problem of climate change, environment degradation and a range of social justice issues which the school student will face in adult life. (See Horton 2003, p. 11, cited below) Teacher training institutions bemoan the high rate of attrition (Heffernan et al. 2022; Monash University, 2023, pace AITSL, 2023) among their graduates beginning with practicums and through the first few years of practice as a teacher. Medical schools and hospitals confront the problem (Dornan et al, 2023) that junior doctors, fresh from university, may suffer trauma when thrown into the challenging responsibilities of placement in a hospital and may in any case prove unable to meet the demands of their new role.

Institutions used Twitter and the COVID pandemic to elevate the status of graduates to heroes, which vicariously elevated their own status. Very soon afterwards, graduates entering practice constructed their identities as the precise opposite: inexperienced, incapable and fearful novices. Unlike the rhetorical, self-aggrandising posts of institutions, the posts of interns detailed how and why they were unprepared, chief amongst which was an undergraduate education that had not been attuned to service needs.


At the bottom of the hierarchy, the affective valence of interns’ posts was mostly negative: fear, apprehension and tearfulness. Being on-call was exciting, but, otherwise, it was fellow workers supporting interns that elicited posts with positive valence. The discourse constructed interns’ identity as one with little agency, the status of an imposter and strong negative emotions.

(Dornan et al, 2023)

Likewise, teachers often regret that all their efforts to instil environmental consciousness among students may be forgotten as soon as their pupils leave the school gate. Researchers (Ballantyne et al, 2000) report positive levels of engagement by pupils and parents, but this is hardly sufficient to equip students to change the practices of the well-established institutions whose activity is at the root of the problem. Others have questioned the effectiveness of many programs (Saylan et al, 2011). It is not just a matter of forgetfulness, as enquiry into the effectiveness of environmental education showed:

Being agentic in the Anthropocene includes having knowledge about the social structures that influence the conditions to be changed.

(White et al, 2023).

It is not enough to be conscious of the effect of good and poor practices on the natural environment; changing practices require social and political action in the face of forceful resistance by powerful protagonists. How are schools to prepare pupils for such situations?

Academic skills often prove to have little relevance to people’s post-school life. For example, Cole (1997) found that everyday life of people in Liberia was so remote from the way maths was taught in school, that students could make no sense of it at all, far less use in it their daily lives. Liberian youth were indeed just as smart as North American youth, but mental processes like categorising objects according to abstract features was not part of their culture. Nor was adults asking children questions the answers to which they already knew. All the practices which were taken for granted as part of maths education were foreign to these students.

Further, although it is a commonplace that successful education for citizenship depends upon strong links between the school and the local “community,” this sometimes indicates an abstraction. Embedding a successful education program in the community entails collaborating with specific projects indigenous in the local area, not just many supportive individuals (See Cole et al, 2014; Muranen, 2014).

This problem is aggravated by the fact that pressures from outside the education community have increasingly forced educators to emphasise classroom activities at the expense of apprenticeship-type work-based education and have encouraged the use of training institutions, some of them commercial, to provide “transferable skills” to professionals at the expense of the development of professional skills “on the job.” (Australian government, n.d.; 2022; Griffith University, n.d., Frank et al, 2010) Further, employers often value paper qualifications over achievements in the practice of a profession and remuneration structures may further incentivise students to seek paper qualifications over having relevant experiences in a workplace.

To address these issues I will firstly outline Vygotsky’s conception of how humans being acquire self-control and secondly the distinction between formal and concrete concepts. I will then reflect on some measures devised by Activity Theorists to address the problems of early-career professional work.


Although CHAT researchers generally focus their research and practical interventions on the observation of behaviour and pay minimal attention to problems of the physiology of behaviour, their theories are based on the experimental work of Vygotsky and that of Luria, one of the founders of neuropsychology. CHAT Theorists do not do their work with scalpels, microscopes and MRI machines, but rather observe and modify the situations which give rise to problematic behaviour.

A key concept which guides the interventions of CHAT researchers in their work is that of motivation. Every action a person takes is part of an aggregate of actions, their own, or very often actions carried out by other people, in collaboration, perhaps using some kind of division of labour. What unites all the actions which are aggregated is that they share the same motivation. This shared motivation characterises the specific activity. However, people participate in such activities also with their own motives in pursuit of other activities, such as career, personal interest or ideological activities such as patriarchy or feminism. Further, every activity finds itself in conflict or collaboration with other activities, such as those driven by family, government or administrators. The motivation of the activity derives from a shared conception of the normative state of the object of activity - the student, patient, client or whomever. These norms originate from societal practices and institutions and should be shared by all collaborators in an activity.

Problems which arise in professional activity may be due to problems in the concept which frames the shared motivation, or, most frequently, arise from conflicts of motive arising from some situation in which a professional finds themself. The methodology of CHAT research is to analyse activities and actions within the activity to identify these difficult situations. It is then generally possible to introduce changes into the activity which assist professionals in resolving these impossible situations and overcoming the difficulty.

It is part of the work of CHAT researchers, not only to analyse activities in this way, but to educate more senior and experienced professionals in this understanding of their work so as to ensure that they are able to assist in the professional development of neophytes who come under their direction. For example the practice of co-teaching classes gives the newly qualified teacher the opportunity to practice their new profession in close collaboration with a (probably) more experienced colleague. Both teachers and pupils benefit from this arrangement (See Dang 2013; 2017).

Becoming a professional is somewhat like having played Pin The Tail On The Donkey at kindergarten, and then having to pin the tail on a real donkey, without the aid of a seeing person to safely guide you to the correct spot.

It may seem strange in the context of this kind of research to talk about stimuli, as if human activity was a matter of biology. It is necessary, however, to keep in mind the physiological basis of human activity if we are not to slip into idealistic illusions about informing people of the error of their ways.


In his foundational work examining learning in childhood, Vygotsky demonstrated how the capacity to control one’s own behaviour in a culturally appropriate manner is acquired. This work is summarized in a chapter entitled “Self-Control” (1997) on pp. 207-219, Volume 4 of his Collected Works.

In Vygotsky’s (1997, p. 211) words:

intention is a typical process of controlling one’s own behaviour by creating appropriate situations and connections, but executing it is a process that is completely independent of will and takes place automatically. In this way, the paradox of the will consists in that the will creates involuntary acts.

Or, to quote Alexander Luria (1932):

the human cannot by sheer will control his behaviour any more than “a shadow can carry stones.”.. Voluntary behaviour is the ability to create stimuli and to subordinate them; or in other words to bring into being stimuli of a special order, directed to the organisation of behaviour.

Yrjö Engeström and Annalisa Sannino working from their institute (CRADLE) in Helsinki have promoted the ideas of “dual stimulation” to encapsulate Vygotsky’s idea of self-control by means of the use of tools and signs appropriated from the cultural context, and “conflict of motives” as the key concept for analysing problems that arise in professional organisations such as medical clinics, schools, etc. Engeström and Sannino (2012) were also the first to introduce the idea of safe-fail situations in which patients or newly qualified students could manage their activity, as opposed to “fail-safe” situation which fail to offer opportunities for development.

The importance of context in activity has been particularly highlighted by Mike Cole (1996) who has emphasised the importance of including context as part of the subject matter of research along with the relevant actions. Tim Dornan, in his studies of the British NHS, has highlighted the fallacy of resorting to the paradigm of “transferable skills” as opposed to the responsibility of senior doctors to participate in the training of junior doctors, much like the practice of earlier times when learning medicine was like doing an apprenticeship.

All the above researchers have worked in the CHAT tradition, focussing on motivation and context in the understanding of work activity in the context of education and professional collaboration. The point is that those whose responsibility is the education of professionals cannot see their work as confined to a classroom, but must actively share responsibility to ensure that their students’ first years in their profession is well supported by their co-workers. Students cannot simply be thrown out of the nest in the hope that they will fly.

Mastering One’s Own Behaviour

Vygotsky (1997, p. 214) distinguishes between two phases in the development of an action. First is a “neutral decision making process,” in which a person decides what to do, which is what we call “thinking” or “deliberation.” The final phase he calls “closure,” in which a decision is acted upon. This final phase is nowadays pretty well-understood by medical science as it involves the activation of the nerves controlling the sensori-motor system. The inner process of thinking can however only be well understood only by Vygotsky, Luria and those who have followed in this tradition. Only Activity Theorists have studied how artefacts acquired from the cultural environment in collaboration with more experienced others are “internalised” by the learner. Vygotsky’s (1934) study of how speech, initially encountered by a child in the form of commands by the parent, transformed via self-speech which a child uses to command their own behaviour, abbreviated into predicative speech, internalised in silent speech, and finally disappears into the depths of the mind, in the form of “scripts.”

Even concepts (See Blunden 2023, p. 36), which are commonly understood as some kind of mental construct, can only be rationally grasped as forms of human activity-the mental is a subordinate part of the activity taken as a whole and cannot exist in the absence of its connection with activity. Specifically, concepts are aggregates of actions sharing the same motivation. This motivation is the moment of volition which is at the heart of every concept and is the site of the emotional colouring of the concept and which is the germ cell from which all human actions originate.

Passed over in Vygotsky’s above schema is the remaining part of the “reflex arc,” perception, best described by the American Pragmatist, John Dewey:

the reflex arc idea, as commonly employed, is defective in that it assumes sensory stimulus and motor response as distinct psychical existences, while in reality they are always inside a coordination and have their significance purely from the part played in maintaining or reconstituting the coordination.

(Dewey, 1896)

Activity entails a continuous cycle in which perception, deliberation and behaviour are integral parts of the same action. In CHAT, perception is understood as an active process (Marx 1845), and is a phase of activity far less understood than the relatively straight forward “closure.” Before the deliberation process can begin, the subject must perceive the problem in its immediate context. This is an active, culturally determined process. Marx characterised the difference between his view (shared by CHAT) and the leading “materialist” of his time, Ludwig Feuerbach:

All social life is essentially practical. ... The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.

(Marx 1845)

The development of the deliberative phase was examined by Vygotsky (1996, p. 207) in a series of experiments with children who were engaged in tasks which were made increasingly complicated until the task exceeded the child’s psychological capacity to complete. When faced with this situation the child naturally turns to the researcher or a more competent peer for advice. Instead of advising the subject what to do (with or without explanation) the researcher gives the subject an artefact to use to help make the decision. This artefact could be a dice for example, a culturally established means of making decisions in the lack of sufficient information. It is the appropriation of artefacts, generally on the advice of more competent others, which is the key to the development of a person’s ability to control their own behaviour. Use of the artefact is internalised by the subject, eventually without the physical presence of the artefact. The physiology of this process is hidden from view. Nonetheless, we can observe its formation because we can observe the process of in-growing of the use of artefacts and experimentally intervene in the process of its formation by creating situations, setting subjects tasks and offering artefacts for the resolution of the given contradiction.

It is this general idea which is behind the conception of teaching in which the student must first be engaged in some problem which they are motivated to solve. The teacher is then able to provide the student with a “psychological tool” with which they can solve the problem. Creating these problems which will provide the opportunity for the teacher to offer culturally-valued means of solution is central to how a teacher can “orchestrate” the students’ learning process without berating the student with seemingly useless information.

Charles Sanders Peirce once said that an individual is a concentrated group. To quote:

... the man’s circle of society (however widely or narrowly this phrase may be understood), is a sort of loosely compacted person, in some respects of higher rank than the person of an individual organism.

(cited in Colapietro, 1989)

Thus, we can gain insight into how the mind works by looking at how groups make and implement appropriate decisions. The more common, converse, direction of implication is also valid, but group activity, unlike the inner workings of the mind, is observable.

Peirce’s aphorism can be used to diagnose developmental problems in the training of young professionals. This method was used by researchers (King et al, 1989) in San Diego to diagnose reading difficulties among school children who were of normal intelligence but were proving unable to “read the world” with the use of a text. By dividing up the task of reading a text for real-world meaning by a division of labour amongst a group of young subjects and their teachers, it was possible to identify the location of specific difficulties, and in a manner which all the learners could witness and appreciate.


The history of the development of signs, however, leads us to the general law that controls behaviour. ... in the process of development, the child begins to apply the same forms of behaviour to himself that others initially applied to him. The child himself assimilates the social forms of behaviour and transfers them to himself.

... everything that is internal in higher mental functions was formerly external. If it is true that the sign is initially a means of socializing and only later becomes a means of behaviour of the individual, then it is absolutely clear that cultural development is based on the use of signs and that including them in the whole system of behaviour occurred initially in a social, external form.

(Vygotsky 1997a/1931, pp. 102-3)

Any organisation or decision-making body such as a jury or judging panel requires a set of rules laid down in public texts, which are going to avoid prejudicing the outcome based on some simple reflex, such as for example: “The white man always wins” or whatever. If selection of the right option is easy, then “selection depended mainly on externals and all activity of the child was reduced to isolating these external traits and to picking up the objective relation between them” (Vygotsky, op. cit.). But in the more complex case, a number of stimuli must be combined in a unique way to determine the selection of the correct course of action. For this, the decision process requires the use of previously acquired artefacts which effect the appropriate combination of stimuli to make the decision and initiate closure.


Now, it can be understood why Vygotsky calls this a “neutral” decision process. The process must be neutral so that many stimuli are combined to produce the right decision, not just the first one that strikes the eye. This is the problem of mastering behaviour, combining different stimuli and fixing them in much the same way a court develops a set of rules and precedents to ensure fairness in its proceedings.

According to Vygotsky (1994/1929), these new reflexes are introduced into the nervous system which is the substrate of consciousness by appropriating them from the perception and handling of artefacts presented to them in appropriate context from the surrounding culture. This is how a person becomes not just an intelligent and competent actor, but a person who thinks and acts in a culturally appropriate way, in a way expected in the culture in which they are educated.

Accordingly, what Vygotsky’s researchers did was to give the child a dice to throw to make a selection in a complicated situation. Now no judge or jury would ever contemplate making a decision about the guilt or innocence of an accused by throwing a dice. It was not the intention of Vygotsky to suggest that children learnt to make random decisions. But every culture has characteristic ways of making decisions in difficult situations as best they can and these are built into the culture (Cole, 1996, pp. 142-3). That culture may be a national culture, the culture or a certain profession or even the prevailing culture of a single school. An “idioculture,” certain words, signs, procedures, tests, perceptions, rules of conduct, meanings and norms are developed which do the best a culture can to make good decisions. It is how a culture does things, and the artefacts they use in the process (material things which can be perceived with the naked eye or ear, and are generally preserved for future generations) which mark the culture or the specific subculture or activity that it is. A culture is not distinguished by its collective behaviour so much as by how it makes its decisions and the reasons it gives for what it does.

When a child or inexperienced adult is trained and educated in some institution, then it is the responsibility of this institution to help the student appropriate (internalise) its cultural tools in line with the motivation, or object, which the institution serves. This is what we call instruction. Medical students are exposed to hours of lectures, reams of text, videos and diagrams and simulations; trainee teachers are lectured in learning theory and class management; engineers analyse structures and mechanisms presented in diagrams using mathematical formulae, and so on. Insofar as this is carried out in the classroom, as opposed to “on the job,” in the context of work, this is formal (or “abstract”) knowledge. What is required to be an effective professional is concrete knowledge. The actual knowledge of any such professional, whether a newcomer or an old hand, is the merging of concrete knowledge acquired in everyday practice of the profession and the formal knowledge acquired in formal instruction in a relevant institution (Vygotsky 1987/1934, p. 177; Blunden 2012, p. 264-3).

It is essential that established professionals, even those formally subordinate to a newly qualified professional, be given instruction in how to assist new graduates and how to collaborate with them so as to give them the chance of developing their skills in the real working environment. In particular, senior professionals must be able to analyse their own experience and show more junior colleagues how to analyse their own experiences in turn. As the adult educator, Myles Horton, put it:

it’s our job to help them understand that they can analyse their experiences and build on those experiences and maybe transform those experiences.

(Horton, 2003, p. 120)

Or as Mattick et al (2023) posed it:

The goal of medical education is to develop clinicians who have sufficient agency (capacity to act) to practise effectively in clinical workplaces and to learn from work throughout their careers. Little research has focused on experiences of organisational structures and the role of these in constraining or affording agency.

“Transferable” Skills

The idea that formal knowledge acquired in the classroom imparts “transferable skills” which can be transferred from schoolroom to workplace is the underlying principle upon which modern professional education is based (RMIT 2023). And as the decades go by, more and more education has this formal character. Students are frequently encouraged to gain formal qualifications in lieu of accumulating more experiences in workplaces, and this formal training is often provided by commercial interests. (Griffith University, n.d.; Hayes, n.d.) I believe that the idea behind this trend is mistaken.

It is, so to speak, the exception which proves the rule that a certain kind of knowledge does indeed constitute “transferable skills,” namely numeracy and literacy.

Numeracy generally begins with learning to count, and this skill generally entails acquiring the capacity to select countable entities from their background, Having learnt to count, and going on to add, subtract, multiply, divide and solve algebraic problems, and so on, the teacher generally moves form purely formal procedures to “counting apples and oranges” and back again, and otherwise trying to teach children to relate their numeracy to the world around them. Nonetheless, this all generally remains in a formal context. The “numberishness” of the real world is by no means as obvious as was to Pythagoras and in the pages of the text book. Nonetheless, the raw skills of numeracy are known to generally be transferable from one culture to another, from one professional activity to another. Mathematics, and games (whether chess or hide-and-seek) with a finite set of well-known rules are the domain in which young people can first form “pre-concepts” (Vygotsky 1987/1934, p. 230; Blunden 2012, , p. 245-7), the predecessors of the concrete concepts required in the wide world of work, politics and the struggle for a living.

Likewise, children learn to read, but don’t necessarily learn how to “read the world.” That is, it is one thing to decode text into spoken words in one’s home language, but this is not sufficient for becoming a citizen who is literate in the culture of her own community, able to autonomously make good decisions using written information about activities with which they are not personally acquainted, which are not part of their everyday experience (Blunden 2012, , p. 241).

Formal and Concrete knowledge

The three Rs - reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic - do indeed seem to be “transferable skills,” at least insofar as they are understood as formal knowledge. The junior doctor who passed her exams at medical school has a vast body of formal knowledge of anatomy, pharmacology, pathology and physiology, but it is one thing to recognise the portal vein in a diagram, quite another to grasp it in your hand; it is one thing to have a thorough knowledge of diagnosis, but another to cope with a frantic patient in agony and demanding help.

The activation of the formal knowledge, which the successful and normally-developing graduate has acquired, is dependent upon “activation” of those concepts through stimuli which are derived from the work situation itself, rather than from a text. Likewise, the acquisition of these stimuli is an active process which requires specific instruction which can only be accomplished in the workplace, however sophisticated are the formal schemas which are to be activated.

Much of the above may be old news for educators and professionals themselves. But commercial interests from outside education and the professions militates against greater emphasis on at-work education and the need to recognise and reward the work of more senior practitioners in providing the necessary “apprenticeship.” The more competent peer has to direct the neophyte’s attention to the stimuli provided by the patient and the entire situation itself, and other staff need to assist the newcomer in finding their way around in a new and strange environment. Granted, most trainee teachers, most junior doctors, do go on to become teachers and doctors. But very often this entails trauma, failures, humiliation and ultimately performance below their own expectations (Dornan 2023; Mattick et al, 2023; Dornan et al 2023).

In this context, it is worth reflecting on aphorisms such as the “knowledge is between people not inside them.” This is certainly true of learning and development, but patently it is not simply true of professional knowledge as a whole. Having been educated in a culture, a person carries with them this formal and practical knowledge into new cultural situations. Faced with a new situation, a new institution, a new cultural environment, not just a perfectly good body of formal knowledge, but even concrete, practical knowledge may prove inadequate because of the strangeness of social interactions and expectations. This is what Hegel meant by a concrete concept. Vygotsky (1934) describes the developmental process of such a “concrete concept” to be a true concept acquired through instruction, but then concretised by its use in many different contexts, in this way merging with the kind of concepts which sustain us in everyday life, and thus gaining the universal applicability which is characteristic of a developed, mature concept - a merging of top-down and bottom-up paths of development.

The study of collaborative work, and especially interprofessional collaboration is a topic of great interest these days (Frank et al, 2010). A common means by which trainee medicos learn to deal with emergency situations is the use of an mnemonic representing a standard sequence of actions. Prominent among these scripts are checklists which stimulate a practitioner through series of actions, usually captured by a mnemonic (for example, First Aiders learn drsab for applying cpr: Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway check, Breathing). Checklists are intended to provide stimuli which move a novice practitioner through a series of actions which ought to be appropriate to a category of situation. But even these scripts can distract a junior doctor from stimuli emanating from the situation itself. Such well-known check lists can facilitate team work where the stimuli are called out by different members of the team while others may be focussed on the task at hand. However, when a young doctor is acting alone, these check-lists can actually hinder the development of responses provided by the situation itself; the young practitioner is thinking about the check-list and not the situation itself. Eventually, the check list is internalised and disappears into the mind below the level of even silent speech, at which point we can say that the practitioner has become a professional,

In short, even though a junior doctor or a trainee teacher is an adult in every sense of the word ? they are not children ? nonetheless, Vygotsky’s (1987/1934, pp. 208-214; 1934a, p. 201-205) idea of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), devised as an integral part of his study of child development, is relevant to this stage of human development - from being a student to “becoming a doctor” or “becoming a teacher.” The ZPD exists where a child is not able to do a task which is normally associated with a more mature level of development, but they are able to complete the task given assistance or in play. This is taken to indicate that the child is ready to make a qualitative leap in their development and move to that next phase of development. In the context we are discussing here, this means to make the leap from being a trainee teacher to becoming a teacher, from being a medical student or junior doctor, to becoming a doctor. Vygotsky established in detail the conditions required for this, and it invariably involves the assistance of more a competent other. Human development passes through qualitative stages. These stages are most explicit in child development. However, in our world, becoming a professional, and other life passages, also constitute crises which are every bit as critical as those of childhood.

That is, this crucial period of crisis in development when the subject has to change their relationship to their social environment and successfully enact a new concept of themselves, resembles the crucial periods of child development outlined by Vygotsky (1934a; Blunden 2002, pp. 143-155). The subject requires the assistance of a more competent peer to carry out operations for which they are qualified, but are not as yet able to do because of the strangeness of the social situation and environment. A normally developing adult trainee, given support, will be able to make this transition, but if they do not, then special intervention would be required.

I will presently deal with several ideas that Activity Theorists have developed for dealing with the problems that arise in integrating trainees into the sometimes dangerous work of professionals. In the meantime, it should be pointed out that these issues are not restricted to professional training.

Education for citizenship

Secondary school teachers aim not just to equip students for the best possible career opportunities, but to equip students to become good citizens and in particular to bring to their adult life a better understanding than their parents’ generation of the climate crisis and environmental degradation. There is no doubt that the teaching of environmental studies in schools has added strength to protests by young people in favour of green causes. However, I question whether such consciousness of the environmental questions leads to significantly different activity when the young people enter the adult world. The world is run by adults, adults managing large and ancient institutions.

I had come to see that it was wrong of adults to always say: “The younger generation is going to change society,” and then for them to go ahead and fix it so that it would be impossible for the young to do just that. I decided if you're going to do anything about changing society - through education - it has to be with adults. And I still believe that that’s the only way educators can make a contribution, if at all, to changing society.

(Horton, 2011, p. 11)

All talk about the students being “the adults of the future,” etc. is vain. When they leave the classroom and enter these institutions young people will act just as their parents did, more or less, aside from changes arising from the ever-changing Zeitgeist. But the Zeitgeist is not generally shaped in the classroom, but in the labour process in the adult world as a whole, beyond the school gates.

Schools face formidable barriers in trying to initiate pupils into the struggle to change destructive activities in the community. Parents and governments (Victorian Education Department, n.d.) expect schools to keep children safe and off the streets during school time. Additional staff is required for excursions. The result is that environmental education often relies on “experiments” in the school lab or on school grounds. This is good so far as it goes, but changing the economic and governmental practices that are bringing catastrophe down upon us means above all training students in how to transform the institutional structures in which they live - something challenging for the teacher who is at the same time supposedly representing authority for the students. In the words of Dornan et al (2023a): “hallowed institutions need to change if the scholarship of medical education is to achieve its full potential.”

But as Myles Horton said in reference to training a new generation of leaders for the union movement (1990, p. 57):

It also became clear that there had to be a place where people could learn how to make decisions by actually making real decisions. That’s how you learn anything - by actually doing it. I believed then and still believe that you learn from your experience of doing something and from your analysis of that experience.

The question needs to be asked: in what way can schools equip pupils for active citizenship, and in particular for carrying the burden of reversing humanity’s self-destructive relationship to its own conditions of existence in the natural world? I think it is well established that schools can foster an aesthetic disposition to love science and Nature by guided exposure of pupils to relevant practices and by teachers modelling environmentally responsible and scientifically-informed attitudes. Schools are also rightly expected to provide a conceptual underpinning for active citizenship. The problem comes with ethics, with the problem of acting rightly in the context of an existing community with its laws, institutions, practices, authority structures and so on. I contend that greater emphasis must be placed in post-school and post-university institutions on fostering the development of young professionals and citizens. A commitment to protection of environment cannot rest on an unmediated relationship with Nature, but on the contrary must be mediated by a conscious and effective practice within and in respect to the existing institutions of our society. Schools, for their part, need to prepare students for the task of engaging with the social structures which shape our relationships to each other and the natural world.

Safe Fail

Requiring students to acquire skills in realistic workplace situations and be able to fluently use their education to solve work problems poses the employer with difficult problems. Students are not yet ready to, for example, prescribe medication to hospital patients. And yet, how can they learn other than by doing it and learning from their mistakes?

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

(Marx, 1845)

The solution usually adopted is to require students to stand passively on the side and observe a more experienced practitioner at work. It is extremely hard for the student to learn from this passive, bystander position. Concepts are forms of action, and can only be realised in activity which presupposes the stimuli which generate the motivation for action. But at first this conceptual knowledge is unavailable, being tied to formal situations. It seems that the student can only be given tasks which are fail-safe, tasks which they simply cannot get wrong. Obviously, such an approach leaves little room for learning what they did not already know.

Thought has its origins in the motivating sphere of consciousness, a sphere that includes our inclinations and needs, our interests and impulses, and our affect and emotion. The affective and volitional tendency stands behind thought. Only here do we find the answer to the final “why” in the analysis of thinking.

(Vygotsky, 1987/1934, p. 282)

In Horton’s oft repeated words:

People will only learn to make decisions by making them.

(Horton, 2003, p. 229)

One has to be able to try and fail.

The art of on-site professional education then is to devise tasks which are a really parts of the professional’s duties and which the student can get wrong, but do it such a way that if the student fails, no harm is done. In a personal exchange, Michael Hoover told me that when a newly qualified surgeon appears in the Emergency Department at Toronto General Hospital, an experienced nurse is assigned to follow them around and simply override their instructions every time they give staff a mistaken direction. That is one hospital’s solution.

An example of the safe-fail approach is giving students the right to prescribe medication for hospital patients, but using a purple pen rather than the doctor’s blue pen (Gillespie et al, 2021). The nurses know that they should not administer scripts written in the purple pen, until the doctor has counter-signed it in blue. It is down to the student to chase down a doctor for verification of their action, saving nurses the unwanted duty and helping the doctor keep on top of the needs of a large number of patients.

Another example (Engeström et al, 2012) is the use of the sit-to-stand exercise for frail old people in which the patient stands up from their chair, with as little help from their arms as they can manage. If they do not feel stable, they simply sit down again, in safety. Only when this exercise is completed satisfactorily, do patients move to riskier tasks which entail moving away from their chair.

Dang’s (2013; 2017) advocacy of coteaching is another fruitful approach to create a zone of safe-fail. Researchers of professional education would be well employed in devising new scenarios for safe-fail activities in their profession, situations where students can be trusted to carry out their professional activity because things have been so arranged that no harm is done if they fail.


Numerous challenges face educators in equipping their students for the world of work and politics students are about to enter. Many of these challenges cannot be solved by the teacher alone, and some of them cannot be solved even by the transformation of the education system itself. In particular, much of the responsibility for professional education must be accepted by the profession itself. Educators need to collaborate with professional organisations to promote and assist in this continuing education, rather than providing “transferable skills” to institutions within an educational setting.

One of the central problems lies in the importance of context in both thinking and acting. Some things simply cannot be learnt other than in the very context of doing them. By examining the physiological basis of conceptual knowledge, it has been shown that while a formal education can effectively impart such knowledge to students within the school situation, the “activation” of concepts in professional practice and active citizenship requires that subjects develop a sensitivity to stimuli provided by real life situations. This can be summed up by saying that actual, concrete concepts result from the merging of concepts acquired by formal instructions with everyday knowledge acquired by active participation in real-world settings. Such apprenticeships require managers and staff to provide for specific measures which we have referred to as safe-fail situations.


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* A proposal for ‘Methodological Approaches to STEM Education Research’, Volume 5.