Opinion: Time to train the spotlight on vocational teaching

The Commission on Vocational Pedagogy provides the opportunity to showcase the excellent practice of vocational teachers and trainers.

Vocational teachers and trainers face continual challenges because the context for their practice is the dynamic and multi-faceted world of work. They have dual identities - as teachers and as professionals rooted in specific areas of expertise (e.g. hairdressing, engineering, carpentry, accountancy, horticulture, graphic design). The boundary between teacher and learner tends to be more fluid in vocational settings with greater use of team work and collective problem solving. Teachers and learners have to adapt to the demands of context, materials, and, increasingly, customers/clients, who, in turn, might be part of the learning process (e.g. in the creation of products such as software, or in the health sector). At its best, vocational learning immerses an individual in the riches of a community of practice so that, over time, they ‘become’ an expert member of that community, able to both sustain and transform its practices. At the same time, vocational teachers and trainers need to maintain their own status as experts and, hence, engage in a parallel learning process to that of their learners.

Developing occupational expertise challenges educational norms because it disrupts the standard transmission model of learning. To do it well, teachers and trainers have to be highly reflexive. They have to constantly negotiate a tricky paradox: on the one hand, they want their learners to work at the cutting edge of their occupational area, but on the other hand, they are constrained by the resources and types of work placements available. Above all, they are constrained by the limited amount of time and opportunity they have as professionals to develop their own expertise in vocational pedagogy. Some will ask: is there such a thing as vocational pedagogy? Don’t all good teachers share the same type of expertise? I think this is a red herring. The pedagogical expertise of vocational teachers and trainers needs to be developed within the cultural and economic contexts in which they practice. It should be recognised and afforded status.

All teachers need time to nurture their subject expertise. Professional associations such as the Association of Hairdressers and Therapists and the British Association of Construction Heads provide valuable forums for vocational specialists, running workshops and conferences. A key difference between vocational and general education teachers, however, is that for the former, time spent back in the work setting is vital. Some teachers have to use their holiday periods for this, whilst others combine part-time teaching with their professional role in industry. Much more could be done to support the dual identity of vocational teachers and whilst calling for work-based sabbaticals might seem far fetched in these times of economic constraint, seeking practical and innovative ways to sustain and enhance professional expertise should be a priority.

The new Commission on Adult Vocational Pedagogy provides an exciting opportunity to debate these issues and to showcase the excellent practice of vocational teachers and trainers. We urgently need this debate because the purpose of vocational education is being abused. It has become a playground for experimentation and for solving the problems that general education wishes to ignore. Our best practice is fragmented across a sea of inconsistency, and the work of our vocational teachers and trainers is grossly undervalued. It’s time to put vocational pedagogy centre stage.

Lorna Unwin holds the Chair in Vocational Education and is Deputy Director of the LLAKES Research Centre at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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