Talk-ED: When academic becomes vocational or is that when vocational is academic?

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
18 April 2011

We used to live in a world of binary distinctions – right and wrong, protestant and catholic, rich and poor, black and white – and so it went on simplifying the world so that we could know where we stood and what was what and who was who. But while it was comfortable to see the world in these terms it was also misleading and led us to be simplistic in our understanding of the complexities of it all.

So too were we very simplistic in education with the old binary distinction between “academic” and “vocational”. When you reached a certain point in your schooling, the end of primary schooling, you had choices to make. Did you enrol in a secondary course that was academic, or general or vocational and if it was vocational was it technical, commercial or home science? The last choice was easily determined on gender lines. And sometimes the choice meant that school or this school until, that is, they abolished technical high schools.

There was an element of the arbitrary about the point when you made these decisions – it once was when you had gained Proficiency which was the qualification at the end of Standard 6. (Who said standards were a new idea?) But over the years it simply became social progression, you had done your time in primary and now you went to secondary.

But there was logic about making decisions of the kind we were asked to make at about that age. Most systems asked students at about the age of 13 to start to identify a track through secondary education and onto future qualifications and employment.

The distinction between academic and vocational has little status attached to it in the community generally for we had not yet learned to look down on the trades.

The early years of heading towards the trades involved continued learning in the key skill areas of English and Maths and in Social Studies. In fact under the old AAVA system all technical students undertook instruction in “Communications English”. I recall teaching an evening class back I think in the 1970s in Communications English and that the class included a huge range of skills from the raw youngster starting off on an apprenticeship through to a university graduate now undertaking a NZ Certificate in Science and everything in between. They learnt to write a report on the rip snorter saw!

Education systems in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany and many others have never turned away from the offering of options at about age 13 for students to continue. But a difference is that the courses are both academic and vocational. The applied learning in technical areas is alongside the academic learning in language, mathematics and civics, perhaps even languages. That is how those systems maintain a flexibility that allows students to shift from one track to another if they so wish later on.

To characterise one area of study as academic rather than vocational defies the facts. Even the most theoretical discipline is headed towards a vocation, sometimes directly and sometimes after a post-graduate course. And what is more vocational than preparing to be a medical doctor? The process of becoming a lawyer or an engineer is the process of entering a particular vocation.

It is also a great mistake to then think of technical / vocational study as non-academic when it quite clearly involves a considerable degree of academic study. In fact we would do well to value the academic nature of all study and to put far greater emphasis on the development of literacy and numeracy in the primary school so as to give all young people some choice when they enter secondary level work.

What chance do students have at anything when their academic preparation is poor? They have no choice. Academic preparation is necessary for all children and they simply must be brought to an adequate standard by about that critical age of 12 or 13 years. Failure in the secondary school is very significantly the result of this not having been done with too many students.

Seeing technical and vocational subjects as an “easy” or “soft” option is foolhardy if it leads us to believe that students can undertake courses in those areas without academic preparation.

The old world is gone; all students must have those academic foundations so as to ensure sound vocational pathways, albeit at a university, or in a polytechnic, perhaps with a private provider and sometimes it will be on the job. Multiple pathways are required to see that those vocational options are there and can articulate seamlessly with a wide range of students.

I think we will return to seeing the shift from primary to secondary school as a significant shift in the purpose of education – the first academic and the second vocational. But that would be a big shift and a long way from the simple worlds of the past.

 

 

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