21st Century Vocational Education

Recently I joined parents and students in our high school auditorium to view the documentary Beyond Measure. The film profiles several school districts, their teachers, administrators and students, spotlighting the tired side of a standardized educational system driven by assessments and testing.  Then the filmmakers give us a taste of what could be by introducing those who dared the system — teachers who refused to give state mandated tests; teachers who tossed a cardboard box, wires, and a few robotics manuals at their students and said, “Build.” Administrators who asked their staff, “How can you be an effective teacher and how can I support you in that endeavor?”

The film focuses on a concept called project-based learning.  Although the nuances of such an educational model are complex and require more time than I have to type and you have to read, the gist is this:  Give students a project, any project and let them fail. Let them try again. Let them learn how to learn and let them teach each other.  Finally, let them succeed.  Instead of compartmentalizing subject matter, challenge them to link science to Shakespeare to trigonometry.  In the process, students develop and discover skills they will use twenty or thirty years in the future.  Life skills.

As I watched the film and observed students building, experimenting and embracing education, I was equally enthused and amused.  The film’s subjects talked about project-based learning as if the idea were new.

Ahem.  Vocational education anyone?  For years, students in our schools were learning by doing in home economics, agriculture and industrial arts classrooms.  As time marched by those classrooms were seen as dumping grounds for students tagged for associates degrees, trade schools or nothing at all.  The misfits.  Learning how to cook, sew, change the oil in the car, wire a light switch, hammer a nail, manage a budget . . . these skills didn’t count on a scale of one’s success in life.

Yet, there we sat in small town USA discussing 21st Century learning in the form of yester-year’s vocational education.

It is unfortunate so many do not value this what is now referred to as agriculture education, career and technical education, consumer and family sciences, etc. Past generations could count on learning the basics at home. But the ever evolving dynamic of home and family has transferred that task to schools. With only so many school hours in a day, teachers are asked to cram reading, math, science, art, physical education, healthy relations, current events and civics into their classroom.

Just this week, our ag teacher walked a group of FFA alumni through the ag shop and pointed out a catapult sitting in the corner.  “The physics class is behind,” she chuckled.  Her building trades students were applying their physics lessons to the construction of this catapult.

Interdisciplinary or cross-curricular instruction makes sense.  Project-based learning makes sense. AND it exists in many schools, often hidden down the back hall in an ag classroom.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, school boards and administrators should look to the talent and resources within their own buildings.  Now is the time to maximize its potential and support our teachers in their endeavors to prepare students for their life, not just their next chapter.

Here’s 21st century vocational education.

5 responses to “21st Century Vocational Education

  1. I agree completely with you. I feel that in today’s society learning life skills is just as important as in the past. Too bad many school administrators had not seen the value sooner. Beth, former Home Ec. teacher

  2. Love that you are blogging about this topic. Arlington Heights, IL school district just cut the FACS programs from their curriculum much to the dismay of parents, teachers and students. We HAVE to keep fighting for these skills. One of my students interviewed me Friday for our school newspaper because he heard of the cuts of these programs in the Chicagoland area. Thanks for blogging! Monica FACS teacher Naperville 203 School District – where FACS is alive and THRIVING!.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. Yes, I agree. As parents we have to support our teachers in these areas and be vocal with school leadership. Glad to know that you are in a program that is thriving.

  3. Great article, Katie. Thanks for sharing documentary and such great insight.

  4. Pingback: #Amplify YOU! FFA Week 2016 | Rural Route 2

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