Bill Lucas was a keynote speaker at an international conference in Sweden on vocational education and training recently. Here he shares his arguments and reflects on some broader themes for FE globally.

Before we can even begin to think about pedagogy in FE and the wider skills sectors we need to stop and think much more deeply about the wider goals of vocational education. What are these? How are they impacted by the nature of the particular subject or vocational pathway or shaped by the particular needs of learners?

Delegates liked a model we have developed which looks at different kinds of vocational education by emphasising the medium through which the work is expressed. For example, three categories distinguish vocational education that focuses on working with. Firstly, physical materials — bricklaying, plumbing, hairdressing, professional make-up. Secondly, people — financial advice, nursing, hospitality, retail, and care industries. And thirdly, symbols (words, numbers and images) — accountancy, journalism, software development, graphic design.

Names of subjects and occupations vary across the world, but I hope that the principle is clear.

Such groupings are, inevitably, somewhat arbitrary and in most vocational learning there will be a blend of all three. But FE teachers tell us that the model helps them to make sense of the kinds of pedagogies that can be appropriate in different vocational domains — their signature pedagogies.

Thinking like this is just the beginning of a longer process of pedagogical exploration. With my colleagues at the Centre for Real-World Learning I have argued that there are six important outcomes of vocational education which have to be considered before we can start to think about the methods of learning and teaching which we choose to select for students.

Firstly, routine expertise. This is at the core of working competence. It involves skilled routines and the ability to carry out skilful activities to a satisfactory standard.

It’s about time that we focused on learning as we seek to dramatically to expand apprenticeships

Secondly, resourcefulness. Beyond the familiar and routine, expert practitioners are able to bring to mind knowledge that is applicable to new and unfamiliar contexts.

Thirdly, is craftsmanship, which is about the pleasure, pride and patience involved in doing a ’good job’.

Functional literacies, fourthly, make up a slightly broader category than the functional skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT. There are live debates today about how best to teach these kinds of functional literacies.

Fifthly, business-like attitude. This might manifest itself in behaviours such as punctuality, orderliness, willingness to put in necessary time and effort, and displays of customer service that exceed client expectation.

Finally, wider skills. The sorts of ‘wider skills’ deemed important are many and varied, and are described variously as ‘broader skills’, ‘competencies’, ‘dispositions’, ‘capabilities’, and ‘habits of mind’. Employers regularly call for employees with wider skills such as problem-solving, team-working, resilience, entrepreneurialism etc in addition to high-level basic skills.

Once this broader set of desired outcomes is agreed it becomes much easier to think about the range of learning and teaching methods required. It’s a long list which includes, among others, these methods: by watching, through deliberate practice and seamlessly by blending virtual with face-to-face. Doubtless FE Week readers will be add their own, too.

When it comes to apprenticeships, there is something else to bear in mind. For with such explicitly work-based learning pathways there are always going to be three key features: the fact that they require both on and off-the-job learning; their social context — that they require learning from and with others within a community of practice; and the requirement for visibility of learning processes — as an integral aspect of the first two and as an increasingly acknowledged feature of effective learning wherever it takes place.

As I started by saying, it’s about time that we focused on learning as we seek to dramatically to expand apprenticeships across the world. Meetings like the one in Stockholm reaffirm the importance of researchers, practitioners and policy-makers spending time thinking hard about pedagogy for all aspects of vocational education, especially the one on which I am explicitly focusing here — apprenticeship.