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Technically speaking

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.31, 21 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The 100th monkey notion has long appealed to me. It is based on a story about monkeys who would eat sweet potatoes after digging them out of the ground. They would eat them dirt and all. One day, a monkey washed the potato in a stream prior to eating it and over a period of time others monkeys picked up this habit. Then a remarkable thing happened – monkeys on another island started to do the same thing, then on another island, and another until washing sweet potatoes before eating them was established as the natural way of working.

This was an early version of what Malcolm Gladwell called “the tipping point” I have been up in the Pacific with a trade delegation and I observed the approach of another tipping point in education.

Countries are starting to realise that the removal of the hard skills of industrial arts from the curriculum has not turned out to be such a good thing. While it seems logical to give all students a smattering of understandings about technology it has had the unintended consequence of triggering the demise of industrial arts, the workshop subjects, as a pathway for some students. Typically this lead to an early exit from school into employment and a continuation of training through apprenticeships and night school and such other opportunities as were available.

In Tonga, consideration is being given to a project that will see the tertiary technical institute introduce industrial arts subjects into the secondary schools. In American Samoa the community college is developing a similar programme. In Samoa there is also discussion of this. While in New Zealand the trades academies will see a significant thrust in the reintroduction of technical subjects.

None of this is exactly a return to what once was the technical stream or track in a secondary school. Common to all the approaches being considered is the involvement of tertiary education providers working alongside and inside the secondary school systems. And common to all the approaches is the desire to start young people on the vocational tracks developed in such subjects at an earlier age.

A recent book Education for All: The Future of Education and Training for 14-19 year olds (2009, Pring et al, Routledge) raises the issue of the language of education. It questions the language of business and performance management that has crept into the discourse (levers, drivers, delivery, audits, targets and so on), the changing of metaphors from those of engagement to those of delivery and the persistence of “false dualisms”.

Dewey in 1916 had raised the dangers of the false dualism of “academic” (the transmission of knowledge) and “vocational” (narrowly conceived as training to hit a target). Education has over the past half century blurred the distinction between these two terms. Academic study in the university setting is clearly marketed as vocational and indeed world-wide, universities have expanded their repertoire by adding narrowly focused qualifications. While on the other hand technical training has become increasingly sophisticated requiring considerable academic engagement.

It could be that “academic” now applies to both education and training while “vocational” is a description better applied to the motivation of students – let’s get rid of the mutually exclusive descriptions of different kinds of programmes.

Education systems are therefore starting to consider the role of secondary schools in pre-vocational education. This is made more complex by the collapse of the youth labour market which happened in good times and becomes a major issue in poor times. The focus keeps coming back to the 14 to 19 year age group.

Policy and programme development has increasingly settled on the 14 to 19 year age group as the area that should receive attention. It is the absolutely most vital age when decisions are made that determine much that will happen in the rest of their lives. Good decisions will bring steady rewards while poor decisions will bring misery and despair. And yet it is at the start of this age span where pathways have been destroyed and withdrawn. Countries around the world are now seeking new ways of bringing some of these back.

A New Zealand historian said that nostalgia is history without the pain so it is not a case of simply turning back the clock. There is no going back because what used to prevail in terms of employment and training opportunities is just not there. But the principles can still be expressed in new and different ways.

Allowing some students to engage in pathways that take them into the industrial arts from about the age of 14 might well give to them the same opportunities to be motivated and focussed as those enjoyed by students from professional homes where parents have had tertiary experience. We could dramatically enlarge the number of first generation students in our system if this turned out to be the case. The impact would be huge.

The 14 to 19 year age group is also a critical time when a young person can so easily change from being a potential contributor to their families and communities into one who takes and destroys. The pathway back from some of the places that our 16 to 19 year olds get to is difficult and hard. One of the commentators in the USA says that the only thing we know about second chance education is that the first chance would have been better.

This is not to demean second chance education, it plays a valuable role in our community and while it is a difficult pathway the successes can be spectacular. Night classes, small PTE programmes, foundation and bridging programmes, community education courses all provide potential second chance starting points. But this track should be there for those who need it and not as an alternative for young people. And the return to mainstream education should be hard-wired into these offerings.

Paying attention to the quality of the first chance at education is paramount. So too is getting young people through the 14 – 19 year age.

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