Why theory must come before practical lessons in FE

If vocational education is to prepare students for a shifting world, 'know that' must come before 'know-how', says Sam Jones

Sam Jones

FE and skills: Why theory must come first in vocational education

It’s time to open up conversation and ignite discussion around the sequencing and transfer of knowledge in the vocational curriculum. We shouldn’t underestimate how important sequencing of knowledge is in developing a thoughtful workforce, which, in turn, will allow the sector to meet the requirements of government agendas for world-class skills and produce FE staff who are able to make judgements in new and challenging situations.

Professor Chris Winch, who specialises in educational philosophy and policy at King's College London, has explored the use and misuse of “know-how” and vocational knowledge. He argues for a vocational curriculum to create workers ready for a shifting world – “know that” (underpinning theoretical and procedural knowledge) has to come before “know-how” (practical knowledge), he says.  

While an individual’s experience and theorisation are important aspects of expertise, they are insufficient on their own. Any theory developed by one individual is likely to have been created from a narrow band of experience, especially as occupations in the UK have become increasingly limited by increased reporting and accountability. When perceiving situations and drawing conclusions, the individual’s perspective may not be sufficient for making judgements on conditions they have not yet encountered. They simply don’t have enough knowledge to draw on.


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Winch compares this to a situation where, instead of standing alone, personal theory builds on bodies of knowledge which include inbuilt standards of excellences, ways of thinking and problem-solving. 

Theory first in vocational education

When an individual who has this kind of knowledge begins to build their personal “know-how” and theorisation, they do so building on a rich, broad, historic tradition. They have decades of experience to draw upon, as well as a better capacity for making judgements about new situations. Moreover, the thinking procedures embedded into the knowledge and practice help to lighten the cognitive load of deciding what would be an appropriate course of action. 

This suggests theoretical knowledge will become embodied into an individual’s practice if it has been learned prior to starting the practice itself. Therefore delivering theory in a workshop could be beneficial – however, this doesn’t always fit traditional vocational courses, where theory is often taught in classrooms away from workshop spaces.

However, this doesn’t cover the full range of knowledge required for excellence in vocational thinking. Winch argues that one of the distinctions between an experienced and an expert practitioner is the breadth and depth of their practical knowledge, developed through exposure to new experiences, tasks and processes. 

This suggests practice should not only follow theory but take place across a range of settings and contexts that bring an individual into contact with a wide range of fellow practitioners.

This can only be achieved by ensuring that students are introduced to a variety of applications of the practices in their field, accompanied by experienced practitioners.  

This is the opportunity that the T levels, apprenticeships and WorldSkills can bring our vocational students; the opportunity to learn to apply the right knowledge and procedures to the right situations. It is this knowledge that will furnish our future workforce with the ability to think and react in new and unfamiliar situations.

The new generation of vocational courses, focused on the inclusion of industrial experience, may indeed have the potential to produce a “world-class” workforce, but that work needs to be done at the level of curriculum and resourced to do so.  

Crucially, the curriculum will need to consider how to structure and scaffold the students’ developing understanding to ensure that knowledge moves between contexts. 

Sam Jones is the chair of the steering committee at the Research College Group and founder of FEResearchmeet

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