Further meetings with Adrienne Bird

I met Adrienne Bird at a Board meeting in 1994.

She surprised me one day a month or so later by setting up a meeting with me. It was at a time when there was considerable animosity between employers, employer bodies and trade unions.

When she arrived at our training centre she didn’t want to go inside – it would look like the union official was consorting with the employer body which ran the training centre. So, we walked up and down the street between the factory units in Eastleigh, Edenvale where our training centre was situated.

She told me that the National Training Strategy Initiative document had generated substantial interest. Various stakeholders were beginning to look at how the National Qualifications Framework could be implemented. Representatives from the previous process had formed what was being called Working Group 9. She was pulling in additional people to participate in this work.

So I discovered early on she had this significant gift of mobilizing people from a range of stakeholders in pursuit of her vision.

One of the elements that they were exploring was what eventually became the Critical Crossfield Outcomes. The model which triggered this concept was Australian. There they were known as the Mayer Key Competencies. 

The other element was career pathing. She was looking for a way to run a career pathing project across a number of sectors and industries. She was interested in the way that the plastics industry had structured their career path.

It was the first time I heard the expression “from sweeper to engineer.” From that concept flowed two further elements in our discussions

A third element in our discussions was on the nature and structure of qualifications for the workplace.

A final element was that of training programme design.  Key to this element was to assist the thousands of illiterate workers to become literate and so enable them to progress beyond the low-level positions the lack of literacy trapped them in.

I’ll deal with each element in other blog posts.

Why was I drawn to skills development?

I don’t know why I was drawn to skills development as a subject or practice but I know that from early on I was fascinated by the ability of the body/brain to learn. Some of my early experiences were based on what I did every day.

One was cycling to school. The Pietermaritzburg Corporation changed the joining of Morcom Road to Zwartkops Road. They got rid of the stop street and build a cambered curve that ran down to next intersection.  I chose to cycle down that road to school. It was safer than my usual route.

I was entranced by the easy way in which I directed the bicycle around this new curve at a fairly high speed for the first time. I wondered about where this ability came from.

Source: Paolo Bettini – Giro d’Italia 2008. Miko Macari, Source: Wiki Commons,

I noticed the same thing in other activities such as playing tennis. I would be at the net during a doubles game. The return of serve would come at me and I would direct a volley across court. The bounce and direction of the ball was such that the player there couldn’t return it. The shot was carried out without conscious thought.

I eventually wove the cycling experience into a poem – part two of a sequence called Who am I? What fascinated me was the mind-body relationship. My conscious mind wasn’t directing the bicycle. So who was making those decisions?

Later when I started teaching and had to coach athletics and other sports I read Timothy Gallwey’s books on the Inner Game I started understand more.

Skill arises as an internal impulse, not from deliberate instruction.

Tectonic shifts

Deep thinking

The discussion at the PITB board meeting triggered a deep thinking phase. I could feel the tectonic plates of my received understanding of education and training,  and a new world of learning, grinding over each other.

Teaching people

Changes in the training environment such as Objectives-based Training, Criterion Referenced Instruction and Learner-directed Training were already impacting on the nature and style of training in industry: there was a shift from teaching stuff to teaching people.

Exit requirements

On top of this now came the notion of exit requirements or what the learner must demonstrate. What were the implications? The idea of dispensing with entry requirements – what were the implications?

Who is the referee?

The concept was so radical that I could see that the whole approach to education and training would have to follow a different path: one in which results were more important than how you got there.

Suddenly the primacy of education and training providers as the key drivers of learning was undercut and put into question. Providers were players in the education and training field.

But providers weren’t the referees of who judged the application of their teaching in the real world. That was the role of:
a) the learners themselves, and
b) the customers – those who would evaluate the performance such as the supervisor and the client.

Now 25 years later and this tectonic shift is still occurring. Some have moved with it. But some still have to be moved. So many teachers, educators, trainers and professors still imagine that “they” are the standard.

Nothing new or was it

And it wasn’t as if this concept was all that foreign to me. I had encountered it before. But not in the world of formal education and training: I had found it in the world of sporting performance.

In the early 1980s I had learned something about the art and science of motorcycle racing from a book called “Twist of the Wrist: The Motorcycle Road Racers Handbook.”

Products – the result of performances

The book contained some revolutionary thinking in terms of learning for performance improvement. Chapter 3 dealt with products. The definition the book provided was:

“A product is something that is produced; it is the end result when all the work is done. A product is what you can hold in your hand – or in your mind. You can turn it over to see if it can be reproduced better or differently., corrected or left alone.”

Twist of the Wrist, p 15

Shifting perspectives

Shifting to the perspective of the rider, the learner – Twist of the Wrist p 15

The first part of the definition is typical of what I termed canned knowledge. It has no context and can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

But the second sentence puts the product or output into personal context.

The third sentence puts it into the realm of application (contemplative analysis), something that can be examined and reflected on and very clearly opens the mind to continuous improvement.

This explanation moves away from the fixed (canned) knowledge approach of most text books. The product becomes the subject of scrutiny. It shifts it away from the simplistic standard of conformance-to-teaching to dealing with the complex world of practice.

Identifying perspectives

In a previous lifetime I had studied and taught language. One of the interpretative tools I personally developed was identifying the perspectives or changing perspectives in a text.

In this text we have shifted from the prosaic third person expressing canned knowledge in the passive voice. That is the language of text books. There is no agency, just a thing that materialises out of nowhere.

The text shifts into the second person (you). Then the into the first person “I” and back to the second person.

These shifts in perspective are crucial to the understanding of work-related learning or work experience as we later preferred to call it.

The shifts also reflect what we were starting to term as “life-long learning”. In the context of work, life long-learning  is based on continuous improvement –  a state in which there is a constant reflection, “How can I improve the my product, the working process and my life?”


Seen in this light a qualification then becomes the point at which the practitioners themselves feel, declare or signify themselves as having achieved something .

Of course, there is room for refinement and improvement – but they have reached the stage where they feel that they a capable (qualified) to do what they are doing. In terms of the Dreyfus & Dreyfus “Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition” this is what constitutes being “proficient”.

The major shift  in thinking about outcomes is that it was not some outside person or body which makes the declaration of “qualified” but rather the protagonists themselves. The learners being proficient now become practitioners.

Preparation for other processes

The result of this thinking process was helpful the National Training Strategy Initiative document which was published in March (?) 1994.

We will return to Twist of the Wrist in other posts for  further useful insights.
Code, Keith. 1993. Twist of the Wrist – The Motorcycle Road Racers Handbook. Los Angeles: Acrobat

Meeting Adrienne Bird

I remember the scene quite clearly – the morning sun was shining in through the windows a restaurant in the new industrial suburb of Meadowdale on 3 February 1994. It was an important meeting of the Plastics Industry Training Board.

The meeting was fraught with tension not related to what I was doing. The unions were attending for the first time. They had arrived at the meeting with the objective of closing down the Board and re-starting the establishment process. The PITB had initially been established without proper union participation. So the Board had invited several of the major unions to this Board meeting to try and thrash out a way forward. We knew who was coming and Adrienne’s reputation as a feisty opponent preceded her.

I had been seconded to the PITB in late 1992 to develop a National Training Plan. I was keyed up. I had been asked to do a presentation on the work done to date. I had constructed a career path framework. The framework showed a  progression from operator to engineer (technical pathway) or general manager (management pathway). I had also constructed a curriculum model on which these progressions would be based.

Plastics then were still a relatively new material and there were few formal  qualifications. So the model was, in part, based on a dual qualification model, i.e. formal qualification + plus a plastics qualification, e.g. BSc Engineering + plastics component.

Plastics, despite its current reputation as an ecological threat, is not just about material for single use packaging. Many of the materials are used in products essential to our way of life, cell phones, computers, water pipes, electrical insulation, contact lenses, medical products and devices, automotive and aircraft components, space ships and so on.

My presentation (on an Over Head Projector in those days) was slotted in before the formal start of the Board meeting. I did the presentation and then I took questions.

Adrienne leapt into the fray immediately. She didn’t tackle the big picture as I had feared but the details. The one that still sticks in my mind was the little note at each step in the  career path: Entry requirements. She challenged this and suggested we should rather have a label at the top of each block stating Exit requirements. This led to a quite a spirited debate between us.

The chairman, Ralph Oxenham, cut it short. He was concerned, as he told me later, that our argument would jeopardise the good will the presentation seemed to have achieved.

We broke for tea and during tea Adrienne and I engaged in a further discussion about the career path and the curriculum model I was proposing. She then went off to caucus with her comrades from the unions.

When the Board meeting proper started Adrienne told the board, that they had come there to demand that the board go through the establishment process all over again and this time involve the unions as  a legitimate partner. But because of the “interesting” ideas that had been tabled the unions were happy to allow the work of the Board to continue while they negotiated an equitable participation for the unions in the Board.

It was a seminal moment for the work we had done to date and for the Board. In a strange way it set the tone for all future discussions. Employer and union representatives could engage in a productive discussions even when the initial participants were replaced by new comers. This conversation continued until the Boards were merged into SETAs in early 2000.

For me, personally, it was also a seminal moment. Tectonic plates in my mind were poised to shift. \And this tiny little trigger from entry to exit set them in motion. It also set in motion a partnership and a friendship which endured until just before her death in 2019. Litle did I now it at the time but it also changed the trajectory of my career.

Pedagogy of Silence

I stood there waiting for him to tell me what to do. The assistant foreman had taken me to him and briefly introduced me. Jumbo had nodded and then resumed work. It was my first day in a low-level worker position at the blacksmith and springsmith workshop in Mayors Walk, Pietermaritzburg (South Africa). He just continued undoing the nuts at the end of long bolts threaded through a series of leaf springs, one on top and one at the bottom probably the sheaves of carriage or wagon leaf springs. And I was waiting for him to tell me what to do.

Carriage springs – They were slightly different from this but we were undoing the nuts and bolts from the ends

He flicked a glance up at me a couple of times while he was working. While watching him I noticed one unusual feature. He had a thin gold earring in his left ear. After a few minutes I suddenly clicked. I reached down and took the spanner from his hands and completed undoing the nut that he had been working on. He moved off and started to sort the sheaves in various sizes.

I had learned my lesson. I continued the work of undoing the nuts but kept an eagle eye on what he was doing. When I completed undoing all the springs there I moved to assist him with the next operation. I had just learned one of the greatest lessons of my life. I only realised this, in retrospect, a few decades later. I had shifted into a traditional apprentice role in the space of about 15 to 20 minutes.

I never completed a formal apprenticeship but I had been informally inducted into the school. That tradition has largely disappeared of course.

Years later when talking to Jeanne Gamble about her thesis on the last cabinet makers in Knysna she had used the term “silent pedagogy.”
Jumbo had been teaching me. I learned two things immediately. The first was that I had to keep my eyes open. By watching I learned what was expected. The second was that I was not a student being taught but an active participant in a productive process. I immediately become part of the team.

I recall another time I had a similar lesson. I had been shifted around to perform tasks for several others after that first job. Then I returned to Jumbo. He was forging engine stays. Forging in this context is shaping steel not printing bank notes??. He took 50mm bars of steel, heated them up in the furnace and then put them through a progressive set of dies to reshape the ends of the rods.

Hot metal being shaped – Source

My job was to grind off the flash that resulted from the forming process. Flash is the tiny bit of steel that forms in the gaps of the die during the final shaping process. The flash has to be ground off flush with the surface of the part.

I was busy grinding off the flash from the engine stays when the boiler room attendant passed by in the walkway next to my machine. Because of the noise and the ear protection we engaged in a bit of non-verbal banter and trading ritual insults with our hands. This meant I took one hand off the stay that I was grinding. As a result it twisted in my hand and the end got gouged by the grindstone.

I received a thunderous “klap” on my shoulder and then staggered and fell across the walkway. I got up and returned to the grinder. Jumbo had returned the stay to the work pile to be redone and then picked up the next stay and was grinding off the flash in the way he had originally shown me. He repeated it with a few more stays and then looked at me, nodded and handed over the next stay to me. He watched me do a few on my own and the returned to forging machine,.

I had been re-taught. The teaching was non-verbal. But I understood the lesson very clearly.

When I got back to university later that year I underwent a totally different teaching process. It set up a dichotomy in my mind which only got resolved 20 years later.