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Editorial - Even teaching DIY needs solid foundations

Contrary to popular, well-meaning belief, there is such a thing as a bad student. I know this because I am one. This was demonstrated perfectly when I smashed a sledgehammer through a live cable and plunged our suburban home into darkness. The baby screamed. My wife swore. And Darius, my friend and builder who had patiently explained the process of making our two rooms into one, sighed the sigh of disappointed teachers everywhere.

I mention this to highlight the fact that knocking down a wall - just like quadratic equations, Shakespeare and tectonic plates - is teachable. And just as with academic subjects, people can teach vocational topics in various ways and each technique will be received better by some students than others. My wife can tile as well as a Roman thanks to Darius' teaching (for her, his brutal attention to detail works) but I am frustratingly impervious to his pedagogical abilities.

So what if Darius was teaching in a further education college and I was his student? Well, he'd have to find a way of making me learn. In a school, this would be simple enough: discussions about pedagogy are standard fare and a solution for how to tackle a problem like me would swiftly be found.

Unfortunately, the same apparently cannot be said for the vocational sector. There, as Sarah Simons explains in our Classroom Practice feature this week (see pages 38-39), discussions about pedagogy are thin on the ground.

This is, she says, in part because many in the sector feel that "a theory of vocational pedagogy is not appropriate to a system that deals predominantly in practical learning". Opposition also comes from those in FE not trained to teach, who fear that a discussion about pedagogy would expose them as being somehow unfit for the job.

Both concerns result from a misinterpretation of the purpose of pedagogical discussions and theories. Their function is to produce strategies and techniques, not restrictions and controls. Pedagogy is concerned with sharing best practice so that teachers can improve, find ways of reaching the unteachable and discover general strategies that can be tailored to suit individual subject areas.

Sure, some vocational teachers may be getting on fine already. They may well have fantastic results. But what if I wander in with my ability to become learning kryptonite and render their super skills redundant? Would they not want somewhere to turn?

And even if they never encounter someone like me, would they not want to improve anyway? If they don't, then perhaps they should reconsider why they want to be in the profession. Striving to give your students the very best experience possible is the basis of teaching, and constant self-improvement as a teacher is central to achieving that.

There is a wider issue here, too. Vocational training suffers from being seen as in some way inferior to academic training. It's not, but refusing to discuss pedagogy gives an easy win to critics and fuels doubt in others.

Whichever way you look at it, pedagogical discussion in vocational teaching would bring multiple benefits. Like the ban on personal DIY projects imposed upon me by my wife, getting behind it should really be a no-brainer.

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