20 January 2011
There is a lot of talk these days about technology and its impact on our lives, the role that it plays in an information economy and, of course, the compelling reasons for its central place in a school and post-school programme. There is also a growing concern that VET is not occupying the central role that it should have in post-secondary education.
Amid the mad rush to get more and more students into degree programmes while ignoring the importance of middle level sub-degree qualifications, we might do well to stand back a little and wonder what is happening and whether it really is in our best interests.
It is not that long ago, twenty years and a little less, when secondary school industrial arts programmes introduced students to the basic skills of using tools, of understanding materials and of making things. I recall being Principal and one of the many highlights of the year was the display of work undertaken by the students in those programmes. We would be absolutely stunned by the quality of that work, produced by 15 and 16 year olds in the workshops of the school under the guidance of the “technical teachers”.
Furniture would have top quality marquetry work, elegant turned features and be quite outstandingly designed. I am not talking about the wobbly coffee table that I once made. This was furniture that reproduced the kind of stuff you can see on The Antiques Roadshow. In the metal area this quality school student work was paralleled by intricate machines and devices. These students were proud and excited by their achievements. Some of them, but certainly not all of them, perhaps found comparable achievement in other areas not yet forthcoming and certainly a few of them were gaining high level results while working in the new language environment of their new country. It was exciting; it was what I thought schools were invented to do. And it led to employment and apprenticeships and trade qualifications.
But that all changed and a focus on “Technology” in part led to an emasculation of the secondary schools in terms of its capability to do this kind of work. A new subject squeezed the old out of the way.
But have we caused permanent damage to the capability of schools in the name of a passing fad? One commentator, writing of Project Technology, a subject introduced into British schools, related a little story he had heard from the teacher in change of a project on which three schools had collaborated.
“The aim of the project was to build a boat that would clear weeds from a nearby stretch of canal. The public school had organised the project, the grammar school had made the cutting gear that was mounted on the boat, and the secondary modern school had built the boat. ‘How did it work out?’ we asked. ”The boat sank,’ he replied, ‘just like “Project Technology”.’
Meanwhile our countries are developing a shortage of just the sort of people that once made the furniture and the models at school – those who populate the middle ranks of engineering, construction, design, and all those technological occupations that require middle level know-how rather than only degree level know-why, that require middle level qualifications rather than degree level qualifications, that require the practical and the skilled ready to work and get the results.
Many of the processes that result in the mismatch between what educational institutions produce and what the community and the economy needs, result from curriculum processes and the relative lack of attention we pay to the downstream effects of them. What is taught in those institutions actually defines the usefulness of them and the role the institutions will play in the community.
So we really need to have a clear view of what kinds of educated people and workers we need and then see that curriculum at all levels will result in those desired proportions of skills and knowledge and aspirations and dispositions. Once we have decided what those curriculum spaces should look like, we need to change them only when the reasons for change are compelling and not in response to a passing fashion such as might have happened in the case of industrial arts.
That doughty old English warrior, Harold Rosen, knew this when long ago and speaking then of English as a curriculum study he warned that we “….. must not behave as though the contested space [in the curriculum] was solely a matter of persuasion, the sheer force of better ideas….. Spaces do not simply exist in the system, they have to be won, defended and extended.” In short, we need to defend the things that are important.
In the area of trades training and preparation for them in schools, this is something that we have not done.