Managing a vocational education organisation: Part Two – Product push disguised as vocational education

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

For Private individual use. All rights reserved.


Guided reading extracts:

Education is a process not a consumer product – we have to ask whether a metaphor of consumerism is giving people a helpful idea of what to expect from their educational experience and I don’t think it is. Students engage in the process of education; they themselves contribute significantly to its ‘outcomes’; they share responsibility for what they ‘get’ at the end of it.  Eliza Anyangwe

Terry Heick says… countless forces shape what, how, and why [we] learn. Each of those contributing forces is a living, breathing person, or has living, breathing people behind it. Each of these living, breathing people possess a unique set of experiences and biases, insights and failings, and so when these people encounter one another, there is natural resistance, friction, or some other product of their differences.

Of course, that is not to say these products have to be negative. Difference has been a force behind social progress through history, and so after identifying these “cogs” of the “machine” that educates ……., and then admitting each cog possesses a belief system, we’re at least beginning to see a fundamental pattern of cause and effect—of affectors [to act on; produce an effect or change in] and effected (the state of being operative or functional – learners).

And this leads us to another flaw in our perspective: learners are not products, educators don’t produce, education isn’t a possession, nor a product or service. It’s all a matter of membership. And we have to guard against seeing it as one–a machine with cogs that produces learners like little widgets—that wheezes and chuffs and spits out educated things. Rather, we have to try to see the entire machine itself as society itself, where the learner has a role that is interdependent with the teacher, the teacher with curriculum vendors, and so on.

If that happens, we might be able to get our bearings again–find out which way is up, what we are, and where all of this is headed. Until this is the perspective we take, rather than the aforementioned “widget-view” where students are “products” of some non-descript and nebulous, failing system, change will only be serendipitous; keep changing things and monitoring results, and we’ll eventually get something right. The thinking here is that the machine is broken because the widgets are broken, but it’s our thinking that’s broken.

1. Product approaches to education

Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith contend that product approaches to education are derived from ways of thinking that are common in industry and commerce. When using product approaches we start out by trying to define closely what sort of output or product we want to make. If we were manufacturing a car, for example, we would do some market research (identify needs); make plans (of the car, its production and marketing); implement the plans; and then check whether what we have produced matches our original objectives. It seems so sensible and is a very common way of going about things. We can see the sense in it if we are trying to make something concrete like a car. We need a plan that people can have access to, so that they can go off and make their particular part so it will fit with other parts.

We can find this product approach in the way that many people talk about curriculum in schooling. A curriculum is just one way of organizing the work of educators. It is a proposal for action – something we build before the educational encounter. The figure below shows a fairly common approach to planning a product curriculum.

Planning the product curriculum

Step 1: Diagnosis of need

Step 2: Formulation of objectives

Step 3: Selection of content

Step 4: Organization of content

Step 5: Selection of learning experiences

Step 6: Organization of learning experiences

Step 7: Determination of what to evaluate + of the ways + means of doing it.

From Hilda Taba (1962) Curriculum Development: Theory and practice, New York: Harcourt Brace, page 12.

Product-based approaches tend to involve working on, not with, people. The focus is on changing individuals in ways set out by others. It entails teaching them the skills and attributes which employers, politicians and opinion leaders hold to be desirable. Sadly, this orientation has spread beyond settings such as schools and colleges.

Many of the activities that play, youth and community education workers are responsible for are now product-oriented. Programmes such as the Youth Achievement Awards, and targeted efforts to tackle crime, truancy, drug usage, under-achievement, unemployment and social exclusion are examples. They may well employ some of the techniques of informal education. They can even appear to be informal education. However, they are not. They are not driven by dialogue. Anti-conversational and anti-democratic tendencies mean that product approaches are incompatible with informal education.

Add in legislative initiatives, like that recently passed in Ohio, which allow public dollars to flow to for-profit schools, and you have the final ingredient of the end game. We might as well admit that education is no more important than any other product in our consumer culture.

Metaphorically, if a Doritos education is cost-effective and profitable, let the market forces work their magic with lots of slick marketing and lots of computer-based learning (it’s cost-effective!). Personnel costs go down, profits go up.

Eventually schools will sort themselves out just like fast food franchises and they will be just about as good. It all reminds me of the privatization of the prison industry. For-profit prisons reap compound benefits from perverse incentives. Having fewer employees with lower pay increases profits. Fewer employees and lower pay perpetuate prison dysfunction, reduce rehabilitation and increase recidivism. That’s good for profits too. It’s a grand win-win — except for the prisoners and our society.  

2. Process approaches to education

1. We’ve seen what can happen when we entrust a basic human right to market forces. While innovation and discovery have emerged from private enterprise, the distribution of the benefits of progress has been immorally inequitable. Steve Nelson 

2. “Education is not a product: mark, diploma, job, money in that order; it is a process, a never-ending one.”  Bella Kaufman

3. Is Learning a Product or a Process?

Nina Smith observes:

The answer defines not only your personal teaching philosophy, but also the daily practices in your classroom. When learning is viewed as a product, and the same performance measure applies to all students, learning facilitation can be reduced to cookie-cutter teaching: same pieces of information and instruction are seen sufficient for all students.

This is also visible in classroom practices: providing students with a template and asking them to copy that – whether it is an “art” project, notes, homework, an essay or anything else. There is not much room for individualization or differentiation, because the products [or assessments] are seen as the measure of learning – which of course is not reality, but may satisfy administrators and policy makers….What about viewing learning as a process?

Many things will change from the previously described situations: the first premise is that because students begin their daily/weekly/yearly learning from different levels of knowledge and understanding, they also will end up in different competency levels. And that is okay, honestly. We are not clones. Students shouldn’t be treated like ones.

When learning is understood primarily as a process differentiation and individualization are natural consequences. Assessment becomes comparing your achievement to your previous level of individual proficiency or competency, not against the achievements of your peers.

Student evaluations are extremely non-punitive by nature: mistakes and second attempts are not only allowed but treasured, because they show the growth of understanding and the height of the learning curve. Isn’t this the recipe for providing the experiences of success for each and every student? And from educational research we already know how important that genuine thrill of achievement is for intrinsic motivation to learn.

3. Vocational education

To conclude, Gavin Moodie says, most agree that vocational certificates and diplomas should be related to work more closely than the bachelors and masters degrees that prepare graduates for an occupation. But the specifications for vocational qualifications can require them to cover anything from 20 to 200 job skills. They are specified too narrowly and tied too specifically to immediate job tasks.

The focus is on preparing graduates for specific jobs, but this doesn’t prepare them for the future. Vocational education should provide graduates with the knowledge and skills they need for a career and for further education, as is required by the Australian Qualifications Framework.

Another major cause of poor quality….. is governments’ construction of vocational education markets, which encourage profit-driven providers to cut costs and hence quality and standards. Currently, some 5,000 organisations are registered to offer vocational education. Many of these are also approved by state governments to receive subsidies and by the Australian government to offer fee loans to their students.

While governments have started increasing registration conditions, there are still too many providers that are too small, under-resourced or too little committed to vocational education rather than to their profits.

There is no product, only a collective “we”


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