Desperately Seeking the Current Sustainable Philosophy Driving VET


copyright-symbols-and-rules-you-need-to-know-04 2015

Intellectual Property of Dr. Bruce D. Watson, DEd Melbourne and attributed authors as noted.

For Private individual use. All rights reserved.


Guided Readings

You’re doing it wrong. In my view, in order to meet the ‘true’ intentions of vocational education and training and the future, VET beaurocrats, policy makers, compliance organisations and practitioners must be aware of the philosophies that promote both technical-vocational needs, community development and personal development. Way beyond the privatisation, for-profit business model that policy makers have tried, unsuccessfully, to overlay on vocational education and training.

Section One

This section: Full attribution to James Wallace Gray. Collated and Adapted from:Philosophy is important, James Wallace Gray,

In order to meet the intentions of vocational education and training and the future, VET beaurocrats, policy makers and practitioners must be aware of the philosophies that promote both technical-vocational needs and personal development.

What is philosophy? It is the attempt to reason well about certain traditional domains of study: logic (the study of good reasoning), epistemology (the study of knowledge), metaphysics (the study of reality), and ethics (the study of morality).

There are many people who question the importance of philosophy and I suspect that the main reason that they are unconvinced is because they don’t think philosophy can make progress or provide us with knowledge.

Just like science, some philosophy is better than others, and a lot of philosophy done by amateurs misses the mark so badly that it is often better described as something else entirely.

When science is done very badly, it’s often appropriately called “pseudoscience;” and

When philosophy is done very badly, it’s often appropriately called “sophistry.”

Sophistry is generally thought to be deliberately manipulative rather than a sincere attempt to be reasonable.

Most fields of study, such as physics, history, and economics, are mainly about providing us with knowledge of some sort. However, some fields of study are more practical, such as computer engineering, and they are mainly about providing us with skills. Practical fields are supposed to help improve our abilities, so that we can do something using them. Philosophy is not necessarily a primarily skill-oriented field of study, but it is the specialized field of study for critical thinking, and it can help us improve our critical thinking skills.

Although philosophy can be used to improve critical thinking and most people want to reason properly, it’s a hard sell because people who know the least about logic think they know just as much as those who know quite a bit about it thanks to a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (PDF). How many people think they reason properly and understand logic? Very few seem to realize that they need to improve their understanding of these things and one relevant study showed that people who were tested in their competence in logic “overestimated their logical reasoning ability relative to their peers. On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile among students from their class, which was significantly higher than the actual [average score] …it was participants in the bottom quartile… who overestimated their logical reasoning ability and test performance to the greatest extent.”3

You might think, “Okay, some people know less about logic than they think, but maybe people know all they need to know about logic anyway.” If you are optimistic, you might think people are automatically logical for the most part and don’t need to learn more about it. However, Tim Van Gelder has discussed some startling facts about critical thinking, such as the fact that “[a] majority of people cannot, even when prompted, reliably exhibit basic skills of general reasoning and argumentation.”4

One important question is what type of knowledge philosophy can offer us. For example, is it like the knowledge natural scientists can give us or is it mainly knowledge of concepts and logical implications? Or both? Let’s consider both of these options:

(a) Factual knowledge

Factual knowledge is the type of knowledge good natural science seems to give us: Knowledge about laws of nature, causal relations, and things that exist in the world. These are the kinds of things physicists, chemists, and biologists are interested in. However, it’s not entirely clear what entities science gives us factual knowledge about. There’s a debate over which scientific entities really exist (such as electrons), and philosophers debate over how we should answer this question. Those who think invisible theoretical entities, such as electrons, exist are “scientific realists” and those who don’t think so are “anti-realists.”

Moreover, some philosophers think that there’s also moral facts, facts about logic, or facts about mathematics. Philosophers are then thought to be able to help us decide if we should believe such facts exist (and therefore be realists of those things), and if so, what we should believe about them. These are not the type of facts scientists study, but philosophers might still help us attain factual knowledge about these things.

The view that there’s facts about logic and mathematics is especially promising because scientists often have to presuppose that there are certain logical and mathematical facts—that we can discover these facts and that scientific observation is mistaken when it contradicts these facts. For example, logicians almost unanimously agree with the principle of noncontradiction, which states that a statement can’t be true and false at the same time. If one statement is true, then all statements that contradict it are false. Sometimes we have an observation that contradicts a scientific theory we believe to be proven. At one point Mercury didn’t revolve around the Sun as Newton’s theory of physics predicted. We could say that our understanding of the observation is wrong or that the theory is wrong. There is a problem if someone says that both the observation and the theory is true, and there’s a problem if a scientist says that contradictory observations prove the principle of non-contradiction to be false.

Some people argue that philosophy is not meant to give us factual knowledge. It is often thought that philosophy is inherently unresolvable—that philosophers debate endlessly without ever expecting to give us a final answer. Sometimes it’s said that “there’s no right answer” (perhaps in the sense that there are multiple different answers that could be rationally defended). Of course, we might wonder if the same is really true of science. Perhaps science also will continue to make progress endlessly and the answers it provides will continue to be refined without ever giving us a “final answer.”

Although I am sympathetic to the view that philosophy can provide factual knowledge, I don’t think philosophy has to give us a final answer to make progress or be informative. A great deal of the factual knowledge philosophy seems to provide is knowledge about what’s not the case. We can sometimes eliminate a belief or philosophical theory similar to how scientists can often eliminate a failed hypothesis. For example, we can eliminate the belief that “all conclusions are true.”

(b) Conceptual knowledge

Some people who don’t think philosophy is meant to give us factual knowledge still agree that philosophy can be informative and that philosophers have a type of expertise, and they often say that philosophy is really about clarifying concepts and finding logical implications. For example, some philosophers are compatibilists who think we could have free will, even if the world is deterministic (which is the view that everything that happens has to happen exactly one way). They don’t think there’s a logical implication that would make a world with both of these things impossible based on their conceptions of free will and determinism. Compatibilism doesn’t state that we actually have free will or that the world is actually deterministic. It is a view about what could be the case in the world rather than what’s actually the case.

One important question is if conceptual knowledge is really so different from factual knowledge. Some people think philosophers can’t tell us anything about the world, but that they could help provide conceptual knowledge of the type described above.10 They don’t think conceptual knowledge is factual, and some people will hesitate to even call it “conceptual knowledge” because they don’t think philosophy is about generating knowledge. Even so, I think it is clear that even conceptual discussions can involve progress and they can be very informative, such as when we developed the concept of argument form. If it’s not knowledge, then calling it “conceptual understanding” might be more appropriate.

However, some people do think conceptual knowledge can be factual. For example, perhaps understanding certain moral concepts is enough to know that causing pain just for fun is wrong. (We can analyze what it means for actions to be morally wrong, the concept of pain, the concept of doing something just for fun, etc.)

One purpose of conceptual knowledge is to make clarifications and avoid sloppy thinking, but another purpose could be to help us know what beliefs should be rejected, which is quite similar to how I suggested philosophy could provide us with factual knowledge. For example, if compatibilism is true, then we should reject incompatibilism (the view that free will can never exist in a deterministic world).

Specific philosophical issues

Even if philosophy can be informative and give us some type of knowledge, we might wonder if philosophy is important in any sense. Some people criticize philosophers for doing research in an armchair or being in an “ivory tower” (with everyday life far from their mind’s eye). One possible answer is simply thatknowledge has value—that it’s always better to be knowledgeable. Even if philosophy isn’t useful, it might still be worth doing. Mathematicians don’t always tell us what we can do with their results, but most of us seem to accept that it has some sort of a value anyway. However, there are many other answers as to why philosophy has value and I think philosophy can be of the utmost importance to making our lives better. The reason I think this is the case is because various philosophical issues have unique ways of helping people.

One philosophical domain in particular that I think we should all agree has practical importance for everyday life is critical thinking (and logic by extension). For example, consider the research that shows that people tend to lack in critical thinking skills, and the link between logic-oriented critical thinking education and critical thinking skills. Of course, someone might say they see no reason to think reasoning well is important. My reply would be that reasoning well helps us avoid deception (such as the deception used by advertisers, political pundits, quacks, etc.), make better decisions in general, and to increase the odds of persuading others to believe things that they should agree with.

Finally, the reasons that logic education is important can also be refined based on all the specific things it can teach us, such as logical form, logical validity, and informal fallacies. Each of these things have unique lessons to teach us, as was discussed in Why Logic is Important.

Although many people are unconvinced that that philosophy is important, I think there are good reasons to think it is important. Philosophy can not only help improve critical thinking skills, but it can help provide us with knowledge of logic that can greatly help improve critical thinking. Moreover, I do not find the view that philosophy makes no progress and provides us with no knowledge to be plausible based on the fact that it seems clear that everyone knows something about at least one philosophical domain (logic), and some people know more about that domain than others.

Section Two

Reference: Wheelahan-

Australian VET System designers knowingly or unknowingly adopted and manipulated two distinct philosophical – theoretical – approaches being constructivism and instrumentalism.

Instrumentalists typically call into question whether it even makes sense to think of theories as corresponding to external reality and Constructivism says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world. Both are positions that lock VET trainees out of access to disciplinary knowledge, and belie advances in understanding vocational education and training. It is well known, that educationists were explicitly excluded from the development process (unless, perhaps, they adopted the philosophical positions above)

Therefore, it appears this was a way to largely bypass the irrevocable interrelationship of theory and practice in a skewed world view of ‘anti-academia’ and a constructed ‘authentic’, atomised, work place practice model.

As Wheelahan says, “CBT translates knowledge from being general and principled knowledge to particularised knowledge, because its selection and usefulness is determined by the extent to which it is relevant in a particular context. Students thus have access to knowledge in its particularised form, but are not provided with the means to relate it to its general and principled structure and system of meaning.”

Hence, the Australian VET System moved from a desired vocationalism to controlled vocationalism – despite the rhetoric of empowerment of trainees and trainers. For example, in their high level review of training packages, Schofield and McDonald (2004b: 27) found that there was an “unacceptably high level of confusion amongst educators in particular about the relationship between Training Packages and teaching, learning and assessment.”

“The policy discourse of competence borrowed concepts and language from theories that were originally developed within academic disciplines, and then reassembled within the framework of “an approach appropriate to the particular objectives of the agency assembling it” ” (Jones and Moore 1995: 83). The introduction of CBT in England (and in Australia) incorporated “ ‘the world of work’ according to its own particular principles and rules ….The ‘solution’ to every perceived deficiency was to add required and optional components to the [definition and] model and tight specifications for their inclusion.” (Jones and Moore 1995: 84, in Wheelahan).

As Wheelahan says, “The result is policy that uses as its justification and source of legitimation a pastiche of theories and approaches that draw from sometimes opposing theoretical premises, then blended through processes of re-contextualisation so that constructivist theories of learning are mobilised to support human capital objectives, even though human capital theory is based on the self-maximising rational economic individual.

Individualistic theories of learning styles (that ascribe learning styles as relatively fixed attributes of individuals) are unproblematically blended with theories that emphasise learning as a participative process (in which the construction of meaning is a shared process). This process of selection, augmentation, blending and incorporation is achieved through the principles derived from the broader human capital policy context.”

Section Three


In the end, the current VET System is a mish mash of philosophy and theoretical constructs – i.e, for-profit business oriented.

In the end, in my view, we have been conned into a business model of vocational education and training.

Dare to express a single doubt over the supreme rationale of having the business community running the whole show, and you’re derided as an economic nincompoop, unfit for office. We can launch inquiries into the police, the war and the press, but it’s the stuff of fantasy to imagine we’d ever launch a full-blown investigation into why our business community lives under permanent impunity. That’s because this belief that, fundamentally, we should all be like businesses, has expanded exponentially. It is political life itself. There’s nothing left. It’s taken on the status of an unshatterable truth: if we are to have any credibility, business is what we must do.

There’s no phrase more guaranteed to get a politician jumpy and defensive than: “This is bad for business.” If someone from a boardroom says it, Whitehall snaps into action to do something about it, Oppositions scurry to explain what they mean. Policies are swiftly adopted or modified, depending on exactly how “Bad For Business” the accusation implies.

It doesn’t happen when bishops say: “This is bad for poor people,” or health experts say: “This is bad for the mentally ill,” or tenants say: “This is bad for me and my family.” But somehow to be Bad for Business is an unquestionable wrong that must be righted before anyone has time to work out whether by Bad for Business they just mean Bad for their own Business, or even just Bad for their Shareholders.

We mustn’t forget that the raison d’être of a business is to provide profit. People do not start up or buy a business for the sole purpose of serving the public, that sort of behaviour is more likely to be found in a monastery The basic profiteering function of business is primary in capitalist society, and we often see that rather than being customer or human centric, the businesses that make it to the big time cut corners when it comes to ethics and the treatment of their employees and customers.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the same profit hungry managers and owners the evangelists of privatisation refer to may have no second thoughts about implementing practices that make service unaffordable to large segments of the citizenry. Profit seeking organisations may decide that spending on the disabled or the poor is money wasted, and those affected may find it far more difficult to seek accountability than they would were the services government owned.


In my view, in order to meet the ‘true’ intentions of vocational education and training and the future, VET beaurocrats, policy makers, compliance organisations and practitioners must be aware of the philosophies that promote both technical-vocational needs, community development and personal development, way beyond the for-profit business model.

For example, in his book Principles and a Philosophy for Vocational Education – Melvin D.Miller, is directed toward inferring a philosophy for vocational education. The issues and concerns that surrounded the early development and expansion of vocational education are first discussed. The preferred practices–the principles–are then developed in three categories. “Principles and People” includes the topics of guidance, lifelong learning, needs, open to all, placement, sex bias/stereotyping, special needs, student organizations, teachers, and work ethic. “Principles and Programs” presents these principles: career education, comprehensive education, curriculum, families of occupations, innovation, job entry, safety, and supervised occupational experience. “Principles and Processes” includes the topics of advice seeking, articulation and coordination, evaluation, followup, legislation, planning, and research. Basic philosophic concepts in education are reviewed and summarized–the essentialist, the pragmatist, and the existentialist viewpoints.

Each philosophy provides a generalized response to four fundamental questions regarding the nature of the learner, teacher’s role, curriculum, and role of schooling. The same questions are used to derive a philosophic position for vocational education. The principles of vocational education are used to provide a response to these issues, and the responses are compared. A philosophic position derived through inductive processes results. Public access to full text:


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