Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.
Since the 1990’s and the advent of our current failed student testing, our focus on vocational education (VocEd) has diminished to that of an “enrichment program” that is placed on the chopping block with art and music programs when budgets get tight. The reality is that this false assumption by school districts has diminished greatly our domestic capabilities in essential professions and driven the price of many essential services exponentially higher.
“…the percentage of small businesses saying that they get no or few qualified applicants for available jobs has hit a 17-year high.” (Malanga, 2017)
It is not just the tech focus on VocEd that needs rekindling–it is also the traditional VocEd areas, like industrial arts (wood, metal, auto shop, etc.), home economics, and so forth. Regardless of one’s feelings about labor unions–pro or con–the reality is that these organizations have been screaming for nearly two decades that they do not have enough people coming out of secondary education with the foundational skills to enable them to go into apprenticeships and succeed in a “blue collar” career. It is *not* about being one of the “lower performing students;” rather, schools must understand that there are people who have neither the aptitude nor the attitude to be academics, but have true talent for the professional craftsman, tradesman, and other essential industries.
Much of this is validated by the works of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose theories laid the foundation for vocational education in America (Forkner, 2013). His student-centered methods considered the diverse cultural and developmental differences between students, which enabled them to learn at opportune times in their development and cognitive readiness. This allowed them to progress through the stages of additional cognitive skills—from knowledge, through comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation—at individualized paces that fostered greater learning success (Bloom, 1956). Additionally, Pestalozzi’s model relied heavily on experiential learning—which was a key focus of vocational education for the last 125 years—not just theory, but hands-on application of lessons learned in the classroom to bridge the gap between knowing & understanding and being able to do the tasks studied. Many important programs follow Pestalozzi’s experiential means, including science laboratory work, fine arts, sports, vocational education, and learning abroad.
Much of the problem is that American schools have not evolved, while the world around them has evolved at an increasingly rapid pace because of technology advances. In fact, our K-12 school system still follows a post-Industrial Revolution model that is more than 125 years old; even worse, our baccalaureate system is still following a 13th Century model! Sure, technology tools have been introduced at virtually all levels of education—but they mostly amount to nothing more than buying new tools to do the same old task. Even then, education has not substantively evolved or innovated to meet the challenges of new professional needs that have become more sophisticated and demanding (Malanga, 2017).
I once had a high school student in what was then called a “Educable Mentally Handicapped (EMH)” program. He was a personable young man—but only once you got to know him well enough to understand that what appeared to be defiance or a lack of caring enough to do school work was actually his frustration at being grouped into classes and requirements that he had neither the aptitude nor the attitude in which to excel. The point is that he wanted to excel, but had a difficult time focusing on things that were not in line with what he had already envisioned as his future aspirations.
Now, this same student lived in an area of town that was on the outskirts, approaching being in the rural area (and would have then attended a different school and I would have missed the opportunity to have known him). Fortunately, I got to understand him and learned that his passion was working on cars—not just things like body work or oil changes, but *real* work on cars. The discussion that changed how I approached him in the classroom was one where he described to me—in great detail—the inner workings of the internal combustion engine, how the parts worked together, how to diagnose problems, and how to fix them. WAIT A MINUTE–this young man, in one conversation, went from appearing like a less intelligent, disinterested student to sounding like an automobile doctor!
And, thus, a new approach was born that you won’t find in a textbook anywhere, but is what educators and trainers need to do—tailor the way we teach to the way students understand. In this student’s case, I designed a civics lesson on our federal government in such a way that I related the interaction of the branches of government and their functions to how a car’s engine works—one runs the country, the other runs a vehicle. Not surprisingly, when he was able to picture in his mind the analogies, he became more interested in learning and his performance—and, consequently, his grades, his satisfaction, and his parents’ satisfaction and perspective—all improved. This is what education was meant to be…
As an educator or trainer, one must consider the aspirations of students when presenting subjects. Even today, when most of my students are adults, the same philosophy applies. I have students in the same classroom who come from a variety of professional positions—managers, administrative assistants, technicians, project managers, IT professionals—and each of them learn with different points of reference and perspectives. That is why a key part of my training methodology is to ask students how the material being covered in each lesson applies to their professional positions or personal pursuits. In this way, not only may examples be made that coincide with the student’s frame of reference, but other students may also come to understand the varied applications of the material. This not only enhances learning but also communication and collaboration between students in the class—and, ultimately, the learning experience.
The real question is how to re-energize VocEd in an era when secondary education in the United States has become focused primarily on training students to take state exams that influence school standings and, potentially, funding levels. It will take concerted efforts from multiple vectors to turn this demise around, from students and parents, to teachers, to administrators in the schools. From trade and craft unions, to contractors and builders, to technology companies. From Chambers of Commerce, to business associations. From local governments, to state government, to the floors of Congress in Washington, DC, and the desk of the President.
Pestalozzi’s influence on vocational education endures in modern education at the secondary and higher education levels. Students were encouraged to accomplish hands-on activities as a part of visual learning, a methodology far more effective than lecture or reading. Secondary schools taught focused vocational education as early as the 1940’s with classes designed to prepare girls for secretarial and administrative jobs. In the 1960’s industrial education became widespread to provide an alternate education track for boys not planning to continue on to a university. Vocational schools and technical institutes began to grow in popularity in the 1970’s, providing opportunities for academic and experiential learning beyond the secondary level, focused on providing skilled apprentices in a variety of vocational areas. (Forkner, 2013)
The reality is that allowing misguided school managers to cut back—or cut altogether—VocEd in secondary schools costs each of us more money, every time we need a plumber, electrician, automotive repairman, handyman, caterer, a tailor or seamstress, and so forth. As those professionals will tell you, the cost of services is tied to the balance or imbalance in supply and demand. If there are limited trained and certified professionals available to provide needed services at a high demand, the customers’ costs will be high. If there are more certified professionals available to service the demand, the cost of services will necessarily decrease.
In the end, it is up to each of us to effect change in our own way, from our own profession, from our own perspective. We, at the grassroots level, are where change will need to start. We cannot leave it up to others to effect positive change in education or in our lives—we must take the reins ourselves to make it happen. First one person, and then two, and then four and more will be able to drive change through a unified voice to end the demise of American public education and restore it to the variety of opportunity and excellence that it once was before numbers and quantitative statistics became the only metric that mattered. After all, the real education is life—what you do to prepare for each new stage and what you do to continue growing once you get there—and the effectiveness of each step of lifelong learning can affect every one of us.
Bloom, B. (1956). Major categories in the cognitive domain of the taxonomy of educational objectives. As quoted in George Mason University resources web site: Retrieved from http://classweb.gmu.edu/ndabbagh.resources.IDKB/bloomstax.htm.
Forkner, C. (2013). Influence without fanfare: Pestalozzi’s enduring contributions to education. Insights to a Changing World, 2013(3), 33-42.
Malanga, S. (2017). Will the rebirth of vocational education bring back “good jobs?”. Investor’s Business Daily. Retrieved from http://www.investors.com/politics/commentary/will-the-rebirth-of-vocational-education-bring-back-good-jobs/
Featured in Global Education: Critical Thinking, Sep 2017 (3).