What if words like 'can't' or 'money' were banned?

Alice Eardley and Alex Warner consider what a curriculum free from limitations would look like

How do you get students ready for the future?

How would you train people to become vertical farmers, narrowcasters, nanomedics, space pilots, or to enter the weather modification police? What would a vocational curriculum look like if all the usual limitations, including money, time, and qualification frameworks disappeared?

How would you work with employers, where would your students be based, what resources would they have and how would their time be managed?

These are the questions were posed to our effective employer engagement working group at this year’s #ReimagineFE19 conference during which we sought to establish a set of fundamental principles to guide collaboration between education providers and employers.


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Returning to the essentials

Using Nancy Kline’s approach in Time to Think, we sought to remove the conventional barriers to thinking about curriculum design and to return to the essentials: what would world-class partnerships between employers and educators look like if there really were no limitations on what we could do? 

Against an FE backdrop of apprenticeship standards, T levels, institutes of technology and other policy innovations, educators and employers are being asked to create new curricula while hemmed in by a whole host of limitations. Our working group was asked to come up with their own set of curriculum “swear words”, which included “money”, “can’t”, “regulation” (including Ofqual, Ofsted and Health and Safety), “time” and “brand”.

Any individuals caught saying – or catching themselves thinking – any of these terms were fined hard cash in the form of monopoly money. The aim was to free up the group’s thinking so they might undertake curriculum design work with a view to its possibilities as opposed to its constraints. While the approach was light-hearted, we were deadly serious in our intent to think deeply about what effective partnerships between educators and employers might look like and what they should and could achieve. 

Once the thinking environment had been established the working group members were challenged to be as creative as they could in their approach to designing their ideal training courses for what Kirschner and Stoyanov have called “nonexistent/not yet existing professions” and the results were truly inspiring.

Free from limitations

If we really did live in an educational environment free from limitations we might look forward to training to be vertical farmers as part of a learning cooperative based on a fully-sustainable working farm. Students would learn from their peers using augmented reality to allow them to quickly understand the implications of their decisions and interventions; no need to wait for a crop to go through a full lifecycle. Training would be endless with opportunities to develop breadth and depth of knowledge about the industry, with a focus on subjects ranging from big data and forecasting to engineering and manufacturing. 

We might also enjoy qualifying as narrowcasters, experts in marketing to specific elements of the public. Drawing on a global network of employers, students would train across a range of disciplines from marketing to ethics, seeking opportunities across the planet (and beyond – we’ll have industry in space by then!), accessed in person or online, organised around a fluid and personalised curriculum.

Alumni and current students would feed back into the curriculum, allowing it to regenerate as a self-sustaining, cutting-edge repository for knowledge and skills development in a rapidly changing industry. A notable element of both of these courses is that they suggest that the curriculum-design ecosystems of the future will need to rely more and more on human connectivity. The courses won’t reside in books and on paper, in classroom and buildings, or in awarding bodies and institutions, but in cyborgian hybrids of humans and technology within which transmitted knowledge can be endlessly updated and refined.  

Principles for employers and educators

Working from their own prior experience and from the ideal courses they had created, the working group was then asked to work individually and then in sub-groups to generate a set of principles that could, in today’s environment, support curriculum-design partnerships between employers and educators that might take us some way towards the ideal. The principles generated by the group are:

  • Reciprocity

Curriculum design between employers and education providers must yield clear benefits for all parties.

  • Mutuality

All parties must be willing to cooperate and to make equal contributions according to their capacity.

  • Authenticity

All work must be undertaken in good faith and with honesty and respect on both sides.

  • Sustainability

Work to be undertaken with the intent that it be an investment in long term partnerships designed to meet long-term goals.

Succeeding in working together

Again, the focus here is on networked relationships – and these principles might apply both to organisations and to the individuals working within them. To make a system in which employers and educators work together really succeed it will need to be grounded in a set of humanist values founded in mutual engagement, mutual need, mutual respect, whole-hearted engagement and a long-term commitment to a shared endeavour.

The implication here is that as we sit down to consider the intent, implementation and impact of our curriculum work, we would do well to think about how our courses and curricula foster and support meaningful interactions between multiple generations of employers, educators and students. These are the lifeblood of the kinds of interactive, nimble, and meaningful educational experiences that are needed in a rapidly-changing employment environment.

Not only would this teach our students what to know and what to do, it would also show them how to be, with a focus on meaningful relationships that would add richness not just to their working lives but to their lives in general.

Alice Eardley is a teacher of English, and Alex Warner is director of career pathways at Activate Learning

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