The debate about academic versus vocational education has been rumbling on for decades and continues to be a source of discussion amongst the eduBloggerati. Tristram Hunt has spoken about it recently.
Vocational education is a success. Many students get to University and secure employment as a consequence of it. Unfortunately it’s success is not celebrated as it should be. Addressing that issue is not what this BLOG is about albeit perhaps it should be. This BLOG is about what I describe as the vocational mind set. That is to say a way of looking at, rather than a discussion about, what’s in the school curriculum.
I would define a vocation as a way of doing purposeful stuff in the world: teacher, historian, nurse, academic, construction and caring whatever. A vocational mind set is the view that education is about cohering the world so that someone can go into it and do something purposeful. History is the cohering of a specific field but could also be about contemporary media stories. How much history do you have to know to understand why young people want to kill cartoonists in Paris? Quite a lot and some sociology, human geography etc etc.
This BLOG offers the view that not only does a vocational mind set warrant a place in schools it should be at the forefront of thinking when developing a curriculum. Education has to have some notion of what it is “about” and also has to have some meaning in the world. It doesn’t have to be measurable just meaningful.
Framing the problem: education as a “thing in itself” and OFSTEDagogy
I teach a lot of school leavers and they do seem conform to a popular stereotype. Five years in secondary schools spent rote learning facts they haven’t remembered with a few weeks of exam cramming at the end. It’s true each educational sector has something to say about the one before, even so it doesn’t feel as though students have had the time and space to really develop conceptual ideas and extended pieces of written work. Natasha Porter writes about the issue of assessment driven curriculum here.
They show all the symptoms of what could be described as OFSTEDagogy. OFSTED has been instrumental in creating a world of confusing pedagogic paradigms over the years. It has also engaged in the quantification of education to the extent of awarding grades to complex institutions of 1,2,3 or 4. The problem is that the grade awarded, and much other data in education, is relative; to a point in time and to a specific framework. It is quite possible that actually the whole education system is getting worse but within the “worseness” some bits are relatively better than other bits.
Something Sam Freedman blogged recently struck a chord. Evidence from Durham University has shown that in education behaviour has improved but little else. You can’t accept evidence on complex issues as a given but still it makes you wonder. Most teachers I know admit that the grade inflation of the last twenty something years did not match cognitive improvement. Or did it? Who knows?
Will Michael Gove’s return to traditional education fare any better? Does an introspective knowledge based curriculum move education forward? Is it in danger of becoming a “thing in itself” peddling OFSTEDagogy?. By that I mean a socially constructed instrumentalist system, of grades, exam results and watch dogs that bears little relation to the world outside of education?
It seems like the education system has little idea of what, if anything, is getting better or worse. Like any system that resists any reference to the external world the temptation is to find justification through watchdogs like OFSTED or international self referencing tests like PISA .
Background of vocational education and the era of democratic deficit
Once upon a time a vocational education was seen as inferior to an academic education. It was enshrined in the education system. Institutionally in the form of Grammar schools and Secondary moderns. Pedagogically; CSE’s and GCE’s. Let us call this the era of democratic deficit. British sociologist Basil
Bernstein was studying the issue of the working classes and language. Bernstein equated “vocationalism” with manual based education and objected to the democratic deficiency in the system. Bernstein concluded that many students suffered as a consequence of their background. Rather than take a deficit view of Bernstein and suggest that everyone should have the knowledge and language of the middle classes. Why not simply accept that replicating culture, as it stands, is not the purpose of education?
The world simply does not revolve around a narrow discourse of Dickens and Chaucer but rather more purposeful new discourses related to technology, social media, professional knowledge and the ancient historical feuds that are played out to dramatic effect on our TV’s and those across the globe.
If we return to an insular education system of facts from the past then it will return to a two tier system; that was undoubtedly Michael Gove’s intention.
Five arguments for adopting the vocational mind set in schools
The Social argument for a vocational mind set aims to bring social stakeholders into schools and to integrate schools into wider society. Rather than render students as passive observers of 19th century discourse schools need to be fully integrated into the social and professional life of the community. Unless schools engage with new ideas they cannot benefit from changing paradigms, new opportunities for learning, new discourses and new ways of knowing.
The economic argument is unavoidable. The pragmatist asks the question of what is required in the world, as it is; to improve it. Ignoring “what is” and “what works” completely may prepare students for a life on the moon, or Dickensian England but not necessarily a modern society.
There is a counter argument that we are simply educating young people into a capitalist system. It is a concern but disengaging activities of human progress from the capitalist system, that exploits them, is inevitably a problem faced by all sides of any argument. Misguided governance is an issue.
The critical argument asks the questions of what we are doing and why? Advocates of traditional subjects rarely include a critical aspect to the to the curriculum. When not challenged they select: medieval poetry, Shakespeare or Dickens etc but what about the history of feminism, black history or LBGT history? Traditionalists rarely advocate those subjects because they aren’t traditional subjects. I hardly need to elaborate on the point. Many were excluded in the past.
The argument of choice suggests that human society encompasses many skills and personality types. Schools need to offer a choice. Why would schools not offer games development if students prefer it? It gets you to a University, a job – what’s the problem? Some students are not suited to academic studies. Cheryl Kidd gave an impassioned description of the importance of circumstance. For those students the very best that we can do is prepare them for a life outside of school.
The pedagogical argument offers the view that vocational qualifications have fewer exams. They give students more space and time to think and develop work. This is crucial to counter OFSTEDagogy. Admittedly external verification and exams will have to be more forensic but it will also help to counter problem of the system becoming more closed and self referencing.
A final word of caution
Education is always, and will always, have to adapt to change. In the past the purpose of education was to educate people into a social class. Knowledge had intrinsic purpose. The knowing of it marked out your social status. Education has come a long way since then but it seems constantly incapable of agreeing a fundamental purpose that guides it.
There are no easy solutions arguably it has to be something more than a “thing in itself” unrelated to the world. Thanks to social media the teaching profession has established a voice. The question is whether education want to be an insular profession regulated by watchdogs that have little pedagogical knowledge and who strive towards self referencing tests constructed by faceless European bureaucracies? Or does it want to be a profession that makes a difference?
My view is that not only does the vocational mind set matter but it is an important tool to use when constructing curriculum. Perhaps if the sector engages more, it will be appreciated more. On the other hand there is always medieval history.