What is a technical education?
Even before the announcement of the General Election, Prime Minister, Theresa May, had been advocating the need for what she calls a ‘technical education’; an idea that focuses on 21st Century skills for the modern-day workplace. But what exactly are the skills that are needed for the future, and how does this translate to schools, colleges, and the curriculum?
There have been fierce debates around this issue, which have only been compounded further by the acceleration of technology in education, which in itself, led to the introduction of computing to the curriculum in 2014. Indeed, many jobs in the future are likely to require the use of technology, so an understanding of how computers work can only be beneficial.
However, despite the initial drive for this subject as part of a technical education strategy, recent figures have shown that computing has already shown a decrease in A-Level applications. Others have suggested that there has been too much of a push for computing skills in education, and there are other more important elements to consider. However, the use of technology in education, providing it is done well and appropriately, can have a significant impact on our use of technology as individuals, as Aled Williams, deputy headteacher of All Saints Church in Wales Primary School explains: “Technology has become part of a pupil’s 21st Century pencil case. By combining teaching and learning with a digital platform, you’re developing responsible digital citizens who know how to use technology appropriately and safely, and when not to use technology at all.”
Looking more broadly at the goals of the technical education agenda, we often hear about the term “soft skills” in teaching and learning, which encompasses all the nebulous attributes that are essential for students’ success, but can’t necessarily be taught; things like confidence, communication, teamworking, and problem-solving. These skills are often taught through the medium of the lesson, rather than the lesson itself. For example, you might have students working in groups to develop a product as an answer to a problem and present their findings to the rest of the class. The technical education strategy seeks to boost these skills as a priority alongside vocational and career-based learning, rather than focusing on curriculum learning and qualifications.
However, there is another school of thought on this in that you cannot simply teach students skills on their own, there must be a form of foundational knowledge that backs this up, which has to develop through traditional learning, as Dr Jacobus Liebenberg from ITSI states: “Trying to teach students to think critically and creatively without a sound base knowledge is asking them to do the cognitively impossible. Their working memory will simply be so engaged in trying to cope with all the new knowledge they need that they will be incapable of critical thinking”.
The main thing to remember about education is that it changes frequently – and the need to innovate is perfectly encapsulated in this quote from Ken Robinson, speaking with HundrED: “Education is a dynamic system, not a static one. It’s not an impersonal, inert engineering system, it’s constantly in flux and changing. It exists in the actions and activities of people every day. So the system is living and constantly changing, and is subject to all kinds of conflicting forces and fluctuations.”
The focus of a technical education should be around the needs of the student, and how we can best prepare them for a future where we have no idea what will happen. The modern-day workplace may have changed a number of times before the students of today’s classrooms even reach university or training. In order to truly prepare them for the world ahead, we need to nurture their passions, interests and talents, giving them the opportunity to create the future for themselves. The question is: will a ‘technical education’ support this?