Toward a New Vocational and Career Education

by Edward C. Kisailus

Education during the 1980s was reform­driven by the report entitled "A Nation At Risk." That report called upon university faculty and school teachers to work together to enhance and update teachers' knowledge, especially in science, math, and technology. Since then other reports and national programs have provided frameworks for curriculum reform, student assessment, and most recently national goals for education. These have become the standards for excellence in education in the 1990s. Today these partnerships have taken the lead to address and change education to become more learner­ centered.

A new challenge faces American education and a new partner has entered the university­school partnership. The new partner is American business. The challenge is that the workplace is changing, and these changes are gradually rendering education, as traditionally delivered, more and more unconnected to what its graduates need to know and how they need to perform at work.

This newly forged partnership to include business raises some questions: 1) What role should university­school partnerships play in preparing students for the world of work?, 2) How can business join, or forge, partnerships with universities and schools to assist in this effort?, and 3) How in this context should we define vocational and career education?

Schools and universities must continue to work together to design education paradigms. The new direction for education retains the option of post­secondary education for all students while they are at ease with the demands of real­world tasks, and equipped to continue learning. The present conflict between workplace preparation and preparation for university education is being eliminated. What then should the role of the university­school partnership be in this context? Several recommendations can be made: 1) Subject area content is a critical mass of knowledge to be mastered and learned. Pedagogic issues must be opened to debate to make the classroom more interactive and student­learner centered. 2) Student outcomes standards must indicate their skill and knowledge levels. Thus, teachers' curriculum and pedagogic skills and approaches need to be appropriate to the standards. 3) Teachers are expected to learn and to be able to use the current concepts and methods of the new curriculum and technologies. Innovative approaches, long­term commitments, and sharing of resources are critical to attain this goal.

What then is business' role in the partnership, and how might partnerships be joined or forged? What brings business into the partnership is the near elimination of low­ skilled jobs and the upgrading of middle­level jobs. The rate of change due to the globalization of business and technological advances limit the value of current knowledge or skills. Competition, consumer demand, and accelerated pace of change in combination with the availability of technology are pushing business to rethink their workplace. They are restructuring to reflect the team concept­ modular organization, and worker concerns for quality and pace of work. At the same time, more advanced equipment or modern procedures call for increased technical skill, workers able to perform a greater number of ever changing tasks, and supervisors with a fuller understanding of the whole product, and how to meet customers' needs. Business enters the partnership with an interest to work to develop competencies from the shop floor to the executive suite. The competencies include resource management, interpersonal skills, information management, systems interrelationships, and technology literacy. The basic foundations for these competencies in education begin with the basic skills related to content in mathematics, science, technology, reading, writing, listening, and speaking; thinking skills related to creativity, problem solving, decision making, reasoning, and knowledge how to learn; and, personal skills developing responsibility, self­esteem, sociability, self­management, integrity, and honesty.

Business brings to the partnership its needs in terms of learner outcomes or skills required. Skill requirements change through time and the demands of the global information economy raise standards significantly for workers. American businesses need to reach a consensus on such standards and how to adapt to an ever changing environment. They must bring this consensus to the partnership.

How then in the context of the university­school initiatives and the consensus needs of business is vocational education and career education defined? There are models of instruction being explored in education that are currently practiced in industry. These are apprenticeship­like learning experiences with students engaged in hands­on, real investigations, where they use a variety of means and materials to solve problems, engage in individual and group activity, and rate students based on intellectual strengths, subject interest, and learning styles. These new directions in education have changed the structure of the classroom to a more learner­centered, group interactive environment. Thus, conventional education is changing to mirror the aspects of the workplace changes driven by competitiveness and technological revolution. One may argue that this is the vocational education of old that recognizes that learning by doing is more effective in connecting graduates' knowledge and what they need to know to perform at work. The definitions of vocational education and career education then are becoming blurred with this new paradigm of education. Narrow training or task learning soon becomes obsolete in the changing world. Today properly taught technical education has considerable academic content and will have even more in the future as higher theoretical and conceptual skills require. In the past, participation in vocational education precluded college attendance. Today attending college is not a one­time only decision. The university­school­business partners' objective should be to stimulate academic achievement and career readiness among all students. Unlike the division of the past between vocational education and career education, a major objective of the partnership should be to foster lifelong learning for all.

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