A ’21st Century FE College’

This blog post is in response to a TES FE article that has been promoted widely this week – How FE can transform the workforce of tomorrow

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On the face of it, the points made in the post might sound like grand ideas, but with all due respect, I disagree with some of the points made and am concerned that there is no evidence to support an argument being made by a senior leader in the sector. For this reason, I want to break the article down to highlight the problems.
Firstly, there are many assumptions and no evidence to back up some of the statements. For example:

‘It falls to the FE sector to provide the core of the nations workforce of the future. And I would hazard a guess that these workers will need to be natural collaborators, problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers.’

and;

‘In the future, chefs will probably need to work hand-in-hand with software developers to create apps to promote their restaurant…’

Making radical changes to a college based on assumptions is dangerous.

 

The article includes a series of sub-headings followed by a rationale for each. Let’s examine each one:

NO PLACE FOR CHALK AND TALK

The author wants to ‘move away from classrooms that have not progressed since the days of chalk and talk – with a desk at the front, where teaching remains in the hands of teachers and students are passive recipients of information, rather than active learners.’

Seriously? Teaching in the hands of teachers is a bad thing? Let’s not have experts in the room then. Let’s just hire someone with no experience, knowledge or skills in the subject and pass the control to learners to find out for themselves. In fact, why even have a college building at all? The above comment undermines the fantastic knowledge, skills and experiences of the FE workforce and would put learners at a complete disadvantage (cue evidence to support sweeping statement): Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) inform us that:

‘based on our current knowledge of human cognitive architecture, minimally guided instruction is likely to be ineffective. The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.’

There’s no disputing that learners should engage in ‘active learning’, but I do wonder whether my understanding of active learning differs to what the authors is, particularly if they’re suggesting the complete removal of guided instruction. A wealth of well researched learning strategies can be found here to support learners in becoming ‘active learners’, fortunately for us teachers, there is still a large role to play.

 

A DIFFERENT TYPE OF TEACHING

Apparently, ‘to get students ready to compete in the global market and thrive in the sharing economy, we need to move towards self-directed learning’. Teachers as facilitators to develop independent learners of the future. To achieve this, the author advocates ‘skills-based learning’, which I am broadly in favour of, that is, if we are talking about domain specific skills. However, it isn’t clear whether the author is only talking about these skills, as littered throughout the article is reference to generic/soft, transferable skills. Despite how lovely it would be to be able to teach a learner generic skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity (out-of-the-box thinking), I’m yet to see a framework for the effective teaching of these ‘generic’ skills. Whilst there’s no disputing how important these skills are, current research shows that these skills are tied to a domain and that it is very difficult to explicitly teach them. A recent blog from Carl Hendrick articulates this far better than I ever could.

 

As a side note, why all of a sudden are these skills more important than they’ve been previously? We are quite good at being creative and problem solving… you only have to look at advancements in the last 100 years. Have we all of a sudden lost creativity, problem solving and communication skills?

COLLABORATION IS KEY

I can’t argue with this. Collaboration is a key characteristic that we should find in any learning environment. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain (2003) have demonstrated that cooperative learning has the potential to be highly effective, particularly if two conditions are met – firstly that learners work as a team, not just in a team and secondly, all individuals should be accountable for the learning.

 

Project based learning is suggested by the author as a pedagogical approach to bridge different domains. Sure. But not at first and not for all learning activities. Perhaps once students have acquired sufficient knowledge to participate as a group and be accountable for one another’s learning. Perhaps when they are on their way to mastering a topic. Research has demonstrated that experts benefit from less guidance (expertise reversal effect), whereby guided methods of instruction become less effective as learners become more experienced and knowledgeable. However, those that begin a vocational course at 16 have arguably got little experience/knowledge/skills in that domain and are therefore novices, thus a guided approach to instruction is a necessity.

With the above in mind, if we adopt ‘facilitator’ roles in a vocational education and training with novice learners, are we at risk of widening the skills gap, not narrowing it?

 

NEW LEARNING SPACES

I’m a technology advocate, I sure am, but rather than adopting an alternative paradigm, why don’t we align it to current paradigm? (Blog to follow). The whole changing spaces idea can still work with current ‘effective’ instructional approaches, so if we must, let’s go for it.

 

Whilst I agree that colleges need to evolve, fundamentally, the instruction isn’t the problem, it is doing things without a sufficient evidence base that is. Influential leaders in the sector need to be careful what they wish for.

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