The search for meaning

17th July 2015 at 01:00

"We come in here, we do maths all afternoon and it means fuck all," was how one student passionately and eloquently put his ideas to me. I hadn't even started rewriting the science component of the electrical installation Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ). But I knew I would have those words ringing in my ears for the length of the project.

When I started talking this over with people, the word "relevant" kept coming up. I spent a long time reading and thinking about relevance in education.

I was wrong. Time-wastingly wrong. That student's cry had nothing to do with relevance - he already knew that the science was relevant. He wasn't saying that the maths or science should be abandoned, but the pedagogy was such that the science had no meaning for him. It wasn't relevance that this student craved, but meaning.

In Etienne Wenger's seminal work Communities of Practice: learning, meaning and identity, meaning is the process of negotiating, and inherent in that is the concept of "reification". This is a complex term in Wenger's philosophy, but in this context it can be understood as turning a concept into practice.

My student was an adult returner with a number of years of site experience. He was making a living out of working in the contracting industry. But he was in the crisis of transformation, wrestling with how to make use of the scientific concepts and their mathematical representations in his everyday working life.

So it was with a real sense of disappointment that I read in Sir Ian Wood's report on developing the young workforce - published last year for the Scottish government - that science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects should only be covered "where appropriate".

Why is that important? Because for vocational students it will be all too easy to argue that it isn't appropriate. Does an electrician really need to know about magnetic flux density? Does a plumber need to understand the laws of thermodynamics? Or do both of them just need to get on with fixing the light and the water pipe? Haven't these students already signalled that they don't want to know and just want to do?

I can understand why some people might say that, but vocational education is not the same thing as vocational training, and where the latter is formative, the former must surely aim to transform.

To think that vocational students won't want to know the science behind the way things work is to revert to the snobbery about vocational education that it's taken years to break away from.

We need to recognise the applied context of vocational education studies and not simply see it, and its students, as utilitarian means to improving meaningless targets.

Graeme Arnott is a training officer who works with electrical apprentices

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