What does good vocational teaching and learning look like?
Making the most of the workplace:
Hilary Read< is the author and publisher of ‘The best … ‘ series of guides aimed at vocational teachers, assessors and quality assurers and is a champion of work-based trainers, assessors and I/EQAs. She runs CPD and trainer training nationally within the lifelong learning sector. Her latest publication ‘The best initial assessment guide’ shows providers how to build a robust initial assessment system to retain and motivate learners.
There have been several reports published recently that are critical of the current system of vocational training and its emphasis on qualifications’ delivery. With the introduction of reformed qualifications in Education and Training this September and the scrapping of regulation for FE teachers to have any qualification at all, this article takes a timely look at some of the basic requirements for teaching and supporting learners on vocational programmes, and gives help with what this looks like in practice.
What the research tells us
Current vocational programmes often emphasise summative assessment of outcomes to achieve qualifications, with little or no curriculum planning or teaching linked to the workplace. Research carried out by CAVTL (2013) into the strengths of adult vocational learning recommends reversing this emphasis:
“We need to turn the current way of doing things on its head and return qualifications to being the kite-mark of a learning programme, rather than the definition of a curriculum. This means putting the focus back on curriculum and programme design, and the development and updating of occupational and pedagogical expertise …
Together with a funding regime based on qualifications, this [emphasis on qualifications as the curriculum] has exacerbated a focus on ‘assessment as learning’ and qualifications.”
The Cavendish Review (2013) is critical of the ‘tick-box’ approach to vocational training and assessment of healthcare assistants and care workers within the NHS. It describes how funding is used to ‘deliver’ qualifications and gives the following example of poor practice under the heading ‘Qualifications and tick sheets do not denote performance on the job’:
“ … the way the market is funded can create incentives for trainers to sign off as many people as possible as quickly as possible. The Review has heard of small care homes being offered free training from providers which are supposed to ask the employers to co-fund, but which simply take government money and shorten the courses. It is a mystery why governments should have paid up for so long, with so few questions asked.”
Similar criticisms can be leveled at other sectors, including the training of vocational teachers and assessors, respective ‘guardians’ of the curricula and standards within the vocational sectors for which they are responsible. The Cavendish Review found that this results in employers placing low value on vocational qualifications and recommends focusing on staff performance:
“Given what the Review has heard about the low value of some vocational qualifications, it is correct to place the emphasis on staff performance, rather than qualifications.”
The Richard Review of Apprenticeships (2013) is also critical of qualifications-driven approaches and describes the purpose of an apprenticeship in terms of ‘doing the job’:
"Not the intricate detail of today's occupational standards or the micro-level prescription of today's vocational qualifications which drive a focus on continuous bureaucratic box-ticking and assessment and obscure the real task of an apprenticeship - to teach new knowledge and skills and demonstrate to future employers that an apprentice can do their job."
Towards effective vocational pedagogy
The City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development’s (CSD) report How to teach vocational education (2012) argues that vocational education has ‘an overall goal of the development of working competence’. The report specifies six outcomes to this end, all of which require learners to apply what they learn both within both the real-life working context, and a specific vocational area:
1. Routine expertise: mastery of everyday working procedures in the domain.
2. Resourcefulness: having the knowledge and aptitude to stop and think effectively when required.
3. Functional literacies: adequate mastery of literacy, numeracy and digital literacy.
4. Craftsmanship: an attitude of pride and thoughtfulness towards the job.
5. Business-like attitudes: understanding the economic and social sides of work.
6. Wider skills for growth: having an inquisitive and resilient attitude towards constant improvement – the ‘independent learner’ (Page 9).
The report underlines the need to take account of both the complexity of the workplace and the relevant learning domain when planning the curriculum:
“ … as the working world grows more complex, the worker’s expertise must not only be relevant, but also current. Vocational learners must acquire skills that help them self-learn and develop outside the context of the classroom or workshop. This means a successful vocational pedagogy must include scope for flexibility and updates. Successful outcomes manifest differently across the various types of vocational careers, so a learner who works with physical materials might be faced with slightly different requirements than one with a people-focused vocation.”
The CAVTL report recommends a ‘clear line of sight to work’ for all vocational courses:
“A clear line of sight to work is critical because vocational learners must be able to see why they are learning what they are learning, understand what the development of occupational expertise is all about, and experience the job in its context. The real work context should inform the practice of vocational teaching and learning for learners, teachers and trainers.”
This is important in retaining and maintaining learner motivation: most learners choose the workplace as their main place of learning to enhance their skills or to gain paid employment via real-life experience.
Planning and managing learning linked to the workplace setting is not the same as the classroom or the workshop: by its very nature, the workplace means that the teacher is not in control of the context, making it about planning for, and assessing the impossible. In addition, dual professionalism (occupational and pedagogical expertise) is necessary on the part of those responsible for planning, teaching and assessing.
Here are some practical ways of planning and supporting vocational teaching and learning linked to the workplace:
1. Plan the curriculum around the main tasks that the learner carries out on a day-to-day basis in the work place
The qualification is not the curriculum – what happens in the workplace is. This means planning and managing learning around what the learner does, or hopes to do, in the job.
2. Plan your QA systems at the same time as you plan the curriculum
This means planning the processes by which you will monitor and assure the quality of learning and assessment at the same time as planning the curriculum, otherwise you will end up fire-fighting at the end of the vocational programme – particularly if you follow the tick-box approach to ‘delivery’ and find that learners aren’t performing to the standards in question or – worse – have left, because their learning has not been actively reviewed and managed as they go.
3. Start with the practical, work activity and link this to underpinning knowledge (at lower levels) and/or theories (at higher levels)
This is a further factor in maintaining learners’ motivation because most workplace learners have chosen this setting to get away from classroombased learning. Nevertheless, the need to understand the relevance of theory to what they do or hope to do by way of employment remains:
“it is not a question of whether learning should be practical or theoretical, rather it is a more precise understanding of when, in predominantly hands-on, experiential approaches, theoretical constructs should be introduced. (CAVTL, Page 110.)”
4. Actively manage the learning programme
This is about being an advocate for learners and ensuring they get access to both the knowledge and experience they need including:
- engaging actively with employers to ensure the right experiences are provided
- going back to the training provider to ensure that teaching is given in areas that have been identified through formative assessment, particularly if the work place setting doesn’t allow for this.
- making skills visible to learners as they acquire them; teaching underpinning technical knowledge linked to the work tasks as they occur naturally
- knowing how to apply employment legislation and appeals processes that underpin the workplace, and training and assessment respectively, so that appropriate action can be taken if all else fails.
5. Adopt one-to-one approaches
On-the-job and near-the -job contexts mean adopting individualised approaches if learners are to improve and go beyond what’s required to meet minimum evidence requirements stipulated in the assessment strategies associated with qualifications. One-to-one coaching, combined with reflecting on performance is one way to improve learners’ mastery of skills once they have acquired the basics.
6. Involve the learner and learn from them
The CAVTL report calls this a ‘two-way street’ but it basically means being open to learning from your learner and what they do at work; as well as you introducing new or alternative ways of doing things from your own professional practice – both of which make a necessity of the next point.
7. Teach reflection on performance
Teaching skills of reflection to learners and asking them to be self-critical is a good way of encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning and performance whilst encouraging a culture of continual professional development (CPD). Similarly, asking learners for feedback on your performance as a trainer, coach or assessor allows you to model the skills involved.
8. Challenge learners to continually improve – and allow time for this to happen
The trouble with seeing qualifications as end points is that learners are not encouraged to go further. Deep knowledge and skills’ mastery mean continual challenge on the part of the teacher/trainer and the setting of further, specific objectives to encourage learners to improve and hone skills. Practice and experience of different contexts over time often go by the wayside if the programme stops with the qualification.
9. Embed or contextualise generic skills: teach them by linking them to work tasks and practices
Deepening knowledge and enhancing skills’ mastery and transfer means teaching associated generic skills. Examples are functional skills and Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) within apprenticeships – often treated as bolt-ons or ‘mapped’ to the qualification without the learner (or employer) being aware of them. Communication and problem-solving on the job are valued by employers.
High-order or ‘meta’ skills - such as those of meta-cognition - also need to be taught: practical projects requiring learners to evaluate approaches used within the workplace and to make appropriate links out to theory is one way.
© Hilary Read, 2013.
Cavendish, C., et al (2013), The Cavendish Review: An Independent Review into Healthcare Assistants and Support Workers in the NHS and social care settings.
LSIS (2013) It’s about work … Excellent adult vocational teaching and learning: The Summary Report of the Commission on Adult Vocational Training and Learning (CAVTL).
Lucas, B., et al, (2012) How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy. City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (CSD).
Read, H. (2012), The best quality assurer’s guide. Read On Publications Ltd.
Richards, D., (2013), The Richard Review of Apprenticeships.
You can download the research reports above at http://www.readonpublications.co.uk/ under ‘Resources’.