BERA Vocational Education and Training: Policy, Pedagogy and Research
It’s been a busy few days bunched up. Last Monday, Sai Loo and Bronwen Maxwell, Co-convenors for BERA’s Post-Compulsory Lifelong Learning Special Interest Group (SIG) arranged a somewhat intense day of intellectual input to celebrate BERA (British Educational Research Association)‘s 40th Anniversary.
Professor Ken Spours launched the day contending the necessity of a realignment between education and new developments, directions and challenges in the economy and the state. He argued for a comprehensive economic, social and education strategy which moves away from a broad educational focus on low level skills development in further education and more innovation and employer integration. He suggested that periods of educational reform have led to one initiative after another being withdrawn often just as they were starting to function; and an absence of creativity and deep learning. He noted a persistent societal problem with ‘difficult’ subjects being studied to level three and beyond.
Technology is driving flatter social societal structures including flatter hierarchies in companies; where innovation in learning consists of recognising the centrality of the relationship between thinking and doing (which was revisited by Peter Jarvis later in the day). There is an aim for workplaces and colleges to become hubs of entrepreneurism and progression via a more balanced and problem-solving oriented system. This has been engaged with and promoted by the 157 Group of colleges, for example. Ken refuted the suggestion that academic disciplinary knowledge acted as thought policing and outlined the benefits of dynamics of opposites in expanding theoretical development. In turn, politicians have the unfortunate task of reducing the damage of extreme polarity in the implementation of societal structures. People build understanding around knowledge frameworks, where contemporary academia encourages critical analysis and which has led to wide-ranging cross-disciplinary studies. Equally, it is suggested that a triple professionalism is developed in teachers: the expertise of pedagogy, of their specialism, and of working across boundaries which is implicit in education.
To address these developments, Ken advocated democratic modernisation and a new policy style. He outlined an ecosystemic reform strategy linking education, a relational economy and a democratic state where devolved social partnerships linked national, regional and local activity. He advocated deliberation, rather than politicisation, and broad dialogue across the regions. Ken also emphasised developing ‘little r’ research as well as ‘big R’ from primary up, developing children’s capacity for observation and structured interaction in problem solving approaches.
Professor Ann Hodgson then detailed the last three decades’ educational reform paths, highlighting our progress from an 80’s focus on inputs to educational outputs and a 90’s post-sixteen vocational education provision outside the school system; to a turn of the millenium bringing us a parity of esteem between the vocational and the academic in the primary, secondary and workplace sectors, and development of keys skills to level three and Advanced Vocational Certificates in Education (AVCEs) which in the event were found too challenging to implement successfully on a large scale. The last decade saw in increase in divisions and distractions as people grappled with quality, the application of technical skills, and general versus academic curriculum as subjects became modular, multi-level and with increased time flexibility. Ann drew attention to ongoing tensions between inclusivity and high-skilled, high-status employment as well as gender issues in opportunities for women. She noted increases in overlap between higher and further education, increasing youth unemployment with the extended transitions into employment, and general divergence.
After lunch, Emeritus Professor Peter Jarvis privileged us with his first presentation since overcoming a significant health challenge post-retirement. The broad philosophical underpinning to the presentation Learning Expertise in Practice: Implications for Learning Theories led us on an exploration of theories of two types of knowledge which mirror implicit and explicit learning, ie focal awareness and the subsumed subsidiary learning, which processes the rest of the environment outside of one’s immediate focus. Peter usefully illustrated this with the example of learning how to hammer effectively: all our direct focus is on the nail; the subsumed subsidiary learning of how to hammer occurs implicitly in the rest of the brain. He linked this to theories of ‘intuition’ and metis: tacit knowledge based in social practice; an expertise beyond knowledge and language gained via repetition situated in its context. Peter drew attention to happiness (of four basic human emotions) being hardwired into the brain and the concept of ‘flow’ before referencing Phillipe Baumard’s model of learning assimilation to implementation, taking issue with Dreyfus’ five stage model of skill acquisition. He also gave an anecdote closer to home for most people: the experience of finding oneself lost in an unknown place and for whatever reason, unable to communicate. We usually find that eventually a part of the brain kicks in and bits connect as we wander back and forth and stand and look around: and we realise our way back. It would be interesting to read the Special Edition of the Journal of Comparative Education issued last year which compared East with West.
Peter suggested a need to redefine learning theories to account for the subconscious: to draw it out, make it conscious and be able to verbalise it and create knowledge frameworks from it. This enables codification of high value vocational and professional expertise.