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Knowing Practice

Project Leader(s): 
Karen Vaughan

"For days and days, you make out only the fragments of what to do. And then one day you’ve got the thing whole. Conscious learning becomes unconscious knowledge, and you cannot say precisely how". (Atul Gawande in Complications, 2002, p. 21)

Knowing Practice was a study of practice-based learning (apprenticeship or vocational immersion). It involved 41 GP registrars, carpentry apprentices, and engineering technician cadets, and their workplace-based mentors, advisors, and teachers. 

Participants told us about their most significant learning experiences while working in their field. Stories almost always revealed the “big picture” of practice, with all its aspects interconnected. There was a memorable, “no going back” quality. The challenges were personal as well as professional. Sometimes they involved painful realisations. 

To better understand these experiences, we generated the idea of vocational thresholds: transformational learning experiences that develop not just knowledge and ability to do things but a way to be as a practitioner.

For example, GPs learn to reposition their clinical knowledge in a relationship-centred, community setting. Carpenters learn to integrate values and judgement with their technical skill. Engineer technicians learn to contend with the social impact of their work. Competence is not simply an individual, technical matter. It is an identity demand connected to a community. 

There are probably sets of vocational thresholds for practice in any field. Workplace mentors and teachers play an important part in supporting learner-practitioners to recognise and cross these thresholds. There are implications for the kinds of experiences learner-practitioners are exposed to, and when, as well as the deliberate practice opportunities provided.


We thank our key stakeholder groups for their support:

  1. the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (RNZCGP)
  2. the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO)
  3. the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ).

Knowing Practice was funded by NZCER through its purchase agreement with the Ministry of Education, and by Ako Aotearoa: the Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.