Wider knowledge and understanding

16th December 1994 at 00:00
John Sparkes suggests a modified structure for Advanced GNVQs that might help create a world-class workforce.

The Government's support for the Advanced GNVQ, as a more flexible way of helping 16 to 18-year-olds move from school to university or employment, was an important step forward; but the way GNVQs are being implemented still leaves a good deal to be desired. So the willingness of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to allow GNVQs to evolve in a manner that will enable them to overcome their deficiencies is also important.

The problems that the Royal Academy of Engineering has identified can be summarised as follows:

* the 14 vocational GNVQ "lines", some of which overlap, complicate rather than simplify the situation for 18-year-olds, and call for career choices earlier than is necessary;

* they supersede BTEC qualifications without preserving a number of desirable features which these at present contain, such as a sensible balance between direct teaching and problem-based learning, and between different forms of assessment;

* the A-levels that GNVQs can include are also by no means satisfactory; * GNVQs rely too much on outcome-based assessment and therefore have difficulty with "understanding", for which deeper forms of assessment are needed;

* GNVQs do not address the process of teaching "understanding", though process is more important than outcomes.

GNVQs are intended to provide a wider range of "knowledge and understanding" than is needed to underpin the "competences" specified for NVQs, but the value of this greater breadth is undermined by the NCVQ's confusion over the meaning of "understanding".

According to the NCVQ: "Knowledge and understanding is (sic) about knowing what should be done, how (and perhaps where and when) it should be done, why it should be done and what should be done if circumstances change."

In other words, "understanding" is absorbed into the compound noun "knowledge and understanding", which then only refers to different items of knowledge.

The practical importance of "understanding" can be appreciated as follows. The task of diagnosing and correcting errors or faults is one of the more demanding tasks that practical people have to tackle, whether they are teachers, doctors or engineers. There are several ways of making progress. If the fault is a well-known one, a "knowledge" of previous solutions, and the "skill" to implement them, is enough. If the fault is a new one but bears some resemblance to previously experienced failures, the "know-how" derived from experience is helpful, although it can be misleading. But if the fault goes beyond experience, so that "knowledge" and "know-how" cannot help, it is necessary either to analyse the problem and think out a solution to it, or revert to "trial-and-error" methods. Thinking out a solution clearly demands an "understanding" of the problem and of the processes by which the faults can be corrected.

Similarly, "innovation" beyond current practice requires understanding if trial-and-error methods are to be avoided. The British have always been creative, but for many years now other countries have outstripped Britain in innovation and have been able to produce wealth out of their own and others' creative ideas. Innovation is possible by trial-and-error, but it is always better to "feed forward" the lessons of previous experience or understanding in order to achieve "trial-and-success", than to rely simply on feedback about ill-informed innovations.

The concept of understanding is best defined as "the capacity to use explanatory concepts in problem-solving". It is essential for the responsible solution of new problems. It is to be contrasted with know-how which is "the capacity to apply experience to problem-solving", which is very valuable for the solution of fairly familiar problems. The "competence" and "achievements", on which NVQs and GNVQs concentrate, refer only to "the ability to perform specified tasks to well-defined standards".

In a nutshell, competency and recorded achievements only reveal people's ability to deal with yesterday's problems, and perhaps some of today's, but leave people helpless when faced with tomorrow's.

Note, however, that these comments on GNVQs should not be taken to imply that the existing A-levels in vocationally-oriented fields are satisfactory; quite the contrary. They concentrate too much on theoretical analyses without developing the integrative thinking and core skills that the ability to apply these theories to practical problems requires.

GNVQs rely mostly on the motivation that problem-based learning usually produces. Discovery learning can be effective for the teaching of knowledge and know-how but leaves little opportunity to practise skills. Most significantly, however, it does not on its own develop understanding in conceptually-rich subjects like science, as explained presently. Similarly, although a student's knowledge, skills and know-how can relatively easily be tested, the teaching and assessment of understanding requires much more care.

Understanding, as defined above, consists of two parts:

* grasping the concepts upon which understanding depends, and

* seeing how to apply them in new situations.

So teaching understanding involves, first, motivating the students to want to understand, second, introducing the underlying concepts, analysing them and putting them in context, and third, helping students to internalise them by insisting that they read about them, discuss them, write about them, ask questions about them, apply them in problem-solving exercises and projects, explain them to fellow students, etc. Activities which force students to think and use these new concepts are essential.

Similarly, assessing understanding is complicated by the fact that although understanding does lead to observable outcomes, these outcomes can always be achieved in other ways once they have been specified. By the exercise of a good memory or well-practised skills or know-how, specified outcomes can usually be achieved without much understanding. So tests of understanding have to be left open-ended to some extent. In addition attention has to be paid to the learning processes that students have been through.

The teaching of science and technology presents special problems because of the "unnatural nature of science", as Lewis Wolpert explains in his book of that title. He makes the important point that the key concepts of science almost always conflict with common sense. Everyone knows, for example, that a force is needed to keep an object moving, or that a suitcase gets heavier the longer you carry it, or that time goes slowly when you're bored, and so on; yet this knowledge is in direct conflict with the teachings of science. This means that conceptual development in science cannot be left solely to problem-based learning. The key concepts simply do not emerge. Before Galileo, although armies had had many hundreds of years' experience of projecting military missiles at each other, the concepts of "inertia" and "forces", never emerged. It takes geniuses to discover these concepts, so it is not surprising that students have difficulty with them. Indeed, it may well be that the much-publicised popularity of GNVQs, with both teachers and students, is due simply to the omission of this difficult business of developing understanding.

So problem-based learning is valuable not, as some will claim, as a method for teaching understanding, but as a way of letting students discover that what they thought they understood isn't quite right. When well-designed, these experiences can motivate students to try to understand, but they will not, on their own, teach students the key concepts they need.

So to deal with all the criticisms listed at the beginning of this article, it is important that the structure of level-3 GNVQs evolves into a somewhat different form(see table below).

In the first year, students would be required to work in a broad range of subjects. The six "taught" units would be concerned with the further development of students' basic knowledge and skills. There might, for example, be an emphasis on discovery learning in science; on creative writing in English; on exploring local records in history; on innovative (not just creative) design in technology, etc. In each area the aim would be to provide activities and a knowledge-base appropriate to the students involved. The aim of the "project" unit in the first year, and of the projects in the second year, is to preserve the integrative thinking and core skills which are the main strengths of existing GNVQs.

In the second year the five taught units would provide for progressively deeper studies in selected lines, involving an increasing use of the teaching techniques appropriate for the development of understanding.

There would be opportunities for other units to be added - extending a mathematics line, for example - for entry into some kinds of degree courses. Each student's qualification, once obtained,would be accompanied by a profile of the units studied.

Thus the structure would offer breadth in the first year, allowing a postponement of career choice for at least a further year. In the second year students could choose either to continue with breadth, or to focus in increasing depth on one or more lines all of which would be more or less vocationally-oriented.

Despite the change in GNVQ structure proposed in this article, it is clear that a good deal of the work already done in the development of GNVQs remains relevant. Furthermore the replacement of the present numerous GNVQs by a single qualification should ease its introduction into schools and colleges. But the main gain will be the better chance of fulfilling the NCVQ's aim of creating a world-class workforce.

John Sparkes is an Emeritus Professor of the Open University, where he was Dean of Technology for 10 years. This is a shortened version of a paper written for the Royal Academy of Engineering on The Education of Young People aged 14-18 years.

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