How to teach vocational education – avoid too much ‘telling’


Guided reading and extracts from: How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy, Bill Lucas, Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton, City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (CSD), December 2012. Complete report:

Vocational EDUCATION and Training: Evidence-based approach

The City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (CSD) is a not-for-profit research and development body for vocational education and training. They work to influence and improve skills policy and practice worldwide through an evidence-based approach.

We define a ‘vocation’ as a form of work and our primary focus is on vocational expertise which is remunerated. We explicitly declare our beliefs, supported by the evidence we have reviewed, that practical and vocational learning can be immensely fulfilling; often, as has been compellingly argued (Crawford, 2010) more so than much so called ‘brain-work’.

Vocational education concerns the development of practical competence within, or for, a defined work ‘domain’. We believe that two other elements suggested by Chris Winch are important too – the element of personal development and the enabling of young people to see how their work and their place in the economy has a wider impact on society, (Winch, quoted in Lucas et al., 2010: 4).

It is more common to find debates about what vocational education is rather than how it should be taught. It would appear that until we take a clear view about the desired purposes and outcomes of vocational education, that there will be no solid ground on which to build a pedagogy (theory and practice of teaching).

The core of our work has been a review of the literature and an Appreciative Inquiry approach (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). with expert practitioners working in the field of vocational education.

There are a huge range of different designed learning environments in VE but, unless we are focusing on a specific space, we will use the word ‘classroom’ throughout the rest of this report for ease of understanding. Similarly, in FE, the role of teaching is carried out by a number of people: lecturers, trainers, coaches, and tutors. Unless referring to one of these specific roles, we use the term ‘teacher.

When we use the term ‘subject’ we are referring to the teaching content and material to be covered in preparing learners for a specific occupational sector or vocation. There will be many ‘subjects’ covered in preparation for a given vocation.

The methods and practice of teaching/training

The effectiveness of all education systems depends critically on the quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms, workshops, laboratories and other spaces in which the education takes place.

While outstanding teachers (including lecturers, trainers, tutors, and coaches), engaged students, well-designed courses, facilities which are fit for purpose, and a good level of resources are necessary if any kind of educational provision is to be excellent, they alone are not sufficient.

The real answers to improving outcomes from vocational education lie in the ‘classroom’, in understanding the many decisions ‘teachers’ take as they interact with students.

The dual professional identity of vocational practitioners as teachers

There is an unhelpful perception long held by many VE teachers and managers that vocational expertise is in itself an adequate basis for teaching (Lucas and Unwin, 2009).

As well as this, many FE teachers complete their Initial Teacher Training on the job. They thus have the dual-professional identity associated with being both a teacher, and a trainee themselves (Orr, 2009). Just finding a language and common understanding that can engage both teachers and workers is a challenge.

Complexity brought about by the dual professional identify of vocational practitioners as both workers skilled in a particular occupation and as vocational teachers.

City & Guilds’ report on effective vocational teaching and learning (Faraday et al., 2011) picked up on a number of publications concerned that the narrow range of teaching methods used in vocational education reflected a void in vocational pedagogy. In summarising this line of thought, they cited Lucas et al., (2009): ‘The most important gaps relate to the naive, incomplete and sometimes doctrinaire models of learning that underpin practical and vocational education.’ (Lucas, Claxton & Webster, 2009, cited in Faraday et al., 2011, p. 5).

In Australia, Paul Hager suggests that research about workplace learning pedagogy is shaped heavily by each author’s understandings of formal educational pedagogy and that ‘such assumptions distort attempts to understand learning at work’ (2004, p. 3).

In short, we have inadequate models of vocational education from which to derive vocational pedagogy and where such attempts are made, they often derive from over-simplistic approaches to general education.

The reluctance of vocational education teachers to use theory

In Effective Teaching and Learning in Vocational Education (Faraday et al., 2011) City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development found that teachers do not tend to make use of teaching models when deciding which teaching strategies to use to respond to particular learning objectives.

They concluded that ‘teaching models are not yet established in vocational learning in either the language or as concepts’. In so far as teachers drew on theory, they cited two as significant approaches – learning styles and experiential learning. A final reason for the absence of pedagogy analysis and documentation in vocational education may relate to the simple fact that people who are interested in, and value vocational education, may not instinctively see a theoretical activity as a contributor to improving quality. They would much rather try things out in practice, and share experiences with other practitioners via informal networks than design their pedagogy from first principles.

One of the long-term goals of our research is to be able to provide vocational educators with a theoretical framework that they see as practical, accessible and fruitful.

Contrasting approaches to competence

Competence aligns with notions of ‘self-managed learning’, ‘authentic learning’ and ‘knowledge construction’ and is similarly concerned with the meaningful objectives and content of learning that will engender the personal development of students and position them within the domain of knowledge that can best prepare them to function effectively in society (Mulder, Weigel & Collins 2007, p. 68).

There are three contrasting approaches to competence: the ‘behaviourist’ (determining which observable behavioural characteristics separate out successful job performers from their less successful counterparts); ‘the ‘generic’ (identifying common abilities that explain variation in performance irrespective of profession); and the ‘cognitive’ (identifying mental resources used to master tasks, gain knowledge, and perform successfully).

In summarising the major critiques of the competence approach in England, Mulder et al. (2007) suggest that the competence concept is too often used to reduce what is valued down to an assessable ability to demonstrate skills and abilities successfully. They claim that emphasis on competence ‘frustrates learning and development more than supports it’ (ibid., p. 77). In addition, the relationships between competence and other concepts such as performance, knowledge, the curriculum, instruction, assessment, and organisation, are not straightforward.

Hyland (2006) talks of the ‘damage wreaked’ by competence-based education. He makes a case for competence-based approaches overly determining behaviours, deskilling individuals, downgrading the value of vocational studies, and reducing vocational education to a utilitarian experience.

VE tends to be seen as the ‘poorer cousin’ of academic education. In Bodies of Knowledge (Claxton et al., 2010) we set out to discredit eight ‘myths’ about practical and vocational education. These eight myths, recognised as such, give the lie to any notion that vocational learning is not a complex, intelligent activity in which more than just the brain is engaged:

Myth 1: Practical learning is cognitively simple.

Myth 2: Clever people ‘grow out’ of practical learning.

Myth 3: You have to understand something before you can (learn how) to do it. Myth 4: Clever people don’t get their hands dirty.

Myth 5: Clever people don’t ‘need’ to work with their hands.

Myth 6: Practical education is only forthe less ‘able’.

Myth 7: Practical learning involves only lower order thinking.

Myth 8: Practical teaching is a second-rate activity

John Hattie (2009) showed that the key (in this case, to attainment) is what happens at the ‘learner end’, through the day-by-day reflective, pedagogic decisions teachers make that develop learners into their own coaches and teachers.

Learning and teaching methods that work

The following list is indicative of methods which are relatively well-understood in some contexts. The majority are broadly ‘learning by doing’ or ‘experiential’, though many combine reflection, feedback and theory. For each one there is significant research to suggest that it might be effective in vocational education:

  1. Learning by watching
  2. Learning by imitating
  3. Learning by practising (‘trial and error’)
  4. Learning through feedback
  5. Learning through conversation
  6. Learning by teaching and helping
  7. Learning by real-world problem-solving
  8. Learning through enquiry
  9. Learning by thinking critically and producing knowledge
  10. Learning by listening, transcribing and remembering
  11. Learning by drafting and sketching Learning by reflecting
  12. Learning on the fly
  13. Learning by being coached Learning by competing
  14. Learning through virtual environments
  15. Learning through simulation and role play Learning through games.
  16. Vocational education outcomes and learning methods

Too much ‘telling’

We think there is a good deal of untapped potential for synergy between the vocational education sector and other kinds of practical learning, including sports coaching and sports science, music learning, and business coaching. Recent developments in sports coaching, for example, have led to many of the same conclusions that we have offered here.

The role of the coach (tutor, mentor etc) in empowering learners to take more control of their own learning, and the development of coaching models that use questioning more than ‘telling’ and encourage learners to design, check and improve their own learning experiences, has much to offer the vocational sector.

The inclination of tutors to take too much control and to do too much ‘telling’, to the detriment of the development of deeper attitudes of creativity and self determination, has been well documented in the sports coaching arena, and the parallels with the world of vocational education are well worth exploring.


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