In almost 500 years of formal vocational education, it seems as though the conversation about vocational pedagogy has never really happened.
Admittedly, there have been pockets of research - Germany and Switzerland are routinely held up as exemplars of apprenticeship success, and academic work exploring the Australian vocational education and training system has recently emerged - but these are exceptions rather than the rule.
It is an oversight that is increasingly being highlighted by high-profile figures. In her Review of Vocational Education, published in 2011, Professor Alison Wolf asserted that many young people in England were on courses that provided little realistic chance of progression towards work or higher study. She added that the vocational education on offer to 14- to 19-year-olds was "not good enough".
This sentiment was shared by James Calleja, director of Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training. He told TESS's sister magazine TES that adult education was failing because "too often it is assumed that if (teachers) have got the skills from doing the job themselves they can step up and teach others... but everyone benefits from proper, structured teaching and learning" ("EU chief complains that those who can't, teach adults", 17 January).
But is anyone listening? Will anything come of these warnings? To answer that question, we must first ask why the concept of vocational pedagogy has so rarely been discussed.
A controversial term
The key issue here is whether we can use the term pedagogy in relation to vocational teaching at all. The summary report of the 2013 Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning asked that very question. It turned out to be a controversial query. The report explains that the commission had "gone round the country visiting sites of vocational teaching and learning and in our seminars, of all the terms we have discussed, the one that gets people most agitated is 'pedagogy'".
Agitation does not, of course, automatically mean negativity or a push against the term. People can be agitated because they are insecure about their perceived professionalism or are wary of change, or perhaps because there is still some nervousness about whether the debate is even "allowed".
Yet some do wish to push back. They argue that a theory of vocational pedagogy is not appropriate to a system that deals predominantly in practical learning. This is a notion that harks back to the college days of yore, when anyone with a practical skill and a spare evening could have a crack at being a teacher. It presupposes that pedagogy is exclusive to academia, and that vocational teaching is somehow divorced from that world.
But these arguments are outdated and inaccurate. Vocational teaching is a blend of academic theory and practical skills leading towards real-world expertise. This was supported by a groundbreaking report published in 2012. How to Teach Vocational Education, written by Bill Lucas, Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton and published by the City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development, examines the concept and presents a "dashboard by which a vocational pedagogy could be designed".
This model suggests that clarity of desired goals and understanding of subject learning methods, plus contextual factors surrounding learners, teacher and settings, must all be established before any teaching choices are made. It then sets out a series of "dimensions of decision-making", which are essentially prompts to get teachers to ask themselves questions regarding pedagogical choices. Their answers position them on a spectrum between two extremes of approach. For example: "Is the nature of activities authentic or contrived?"; "Is the attitude to knowledge questioning or certain?"; "Is the role of the learner self-managing or directed?"
This is a helpful framework on which teachers can build their own theories, and it should not be dismissed, in this climate of uncertainty, as some form of passing trend or fad. The model represents the pursuit of a solid theory of vocational pedagogy through extensive and collaborative enquiry.
The importance of this work should not be underestimated. Not only does it enhance the reputation of the vocational learning system as equal in value to that of further or higher academic study but it also invites those at the front of the classroom (or workshop, or studio, or salon) to lead the charge.
And that opportunity should be grasped with both hands. The creation of generic vocational pedagogies opens the door for teachers to work towards pedagogies tailored to specific occupations. The development of vocationally distinct pedagogies would enable practitioners to take ownership of their work, and evolve their own theories and models for delivery based on the iterative process of daily experience.
The attack has to be two-pronged, however. Yes, practitioners must be excited and curious about what they do, how they do it and why, but they need help. This way of thinking requires a cultural shift, and that shift will happen only if colleges and institutions buy into the effort and support their staff at every stage. Structures for proactively supporting the discourse should be put in place, and these are outlined below.
- Engaging in reflective practice is an ideal starting point for teachers to dissect their own pedagogical methods. Forced self-reflection is sometimes seen as an irritating box-ticking exercise by time-poor teachers. The first step in moving reflection from the periphery to a central position is to explore what method of collecting information about practice suits teachers best. Recording on to a mobile phone after a session, writing a blog or jotting down thoughts on Post-its can all act as effective stimuli for deeper analysis and self-assessment.
- Asking for feedback from learners may fill even the most confident teacher with nerves, but no one improves by hearing only about the elements at which they excel. Collecting feedback is better done anonymously for a more accurate return.
- Peer observations are useful in a number of ways - for example, for sharing good practice between practitioners and for allowing teachers to get used to accommodating colleagues in their rooms in advance of (ahem) more "formal" visitors. Again, prepare to have difficult conversations: peer observations should generate suggestions for development.
- Sharing good practice within departments is carried out informally by most practitioners. However, a whole-team or departmental discussion can widen the reach, ignite enthusiasm and help to make the new learning stick.
- A teacher exchange or cross-departmental team-teach initiative energises staff. What teaching methods does a lecturer in brickwork use that may be helpful to a graphic design or childcare lecturer?
- Regional subject groups, whether practitioner meetings organised by college networks or enthusiastic subject specialists who meet in a pub, can be great ways of sharing expertise.
- Twitter vastly expands opportunities to share good practice, theory and resources, both nationally and globally. There are subject-specific online gatherings and chats grouped by sector or role, but the network offers more than that: it's an audience, a critic and, when necessary, a support group.
- College research and development communities are where the benefits of whole-college promotion of reflective practice, investigation, collaboration and continuing professional development are formalised, and where pedagogical theories are developed in an academic context. Creating platforms where work can be published online promotes autonomy and empowers teachers to communicate their findings with a wider audience.
Start the conversation
When teachers are stretched to the limit within their roles, stimulating enthusiasm is a challenge. But putting structures in place to enable learning collaborations and developing frameworks for pedagogical analysis serve only to improve the quality of teaching and learning, with an obvious positive impact for students. The conversation has been 500 years coming. It is time for vocational education to speak up.
Sarah Simons works in further education colleges in Nottinghamshire, England
Why a vocational education can set you on the path to wealth.
Social mobility charity the Sutton Trust believes England needs an "apprenticeship revolution".