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Researching the relationship between vocational and general education

Invited Address for
Queensland Institute for Educational Research
Research Forum

John Stevenson
Griffith University
In this paper, it is argued that more research needs to be directed at understanding the relationship between vocational and general education, against the context of the gap between these kinds of education, that has widened considerably over the last five years. It is posited that these increases have not been accidental, but related to governmental policies about education, training and work, various reactions to these policies and the normative assumptions and ideologies underlying and impelling those reactions. This paper canvasses some of the reasons for this gap, argues that the gap is unsustainable and undesirable, and suggests areas where research could contribute to reconciling vocational and general education.

The context of the gap

One important aspect of the contemporary context is the Competency-based Training (CBT) movement in Western English-speaking nations. This movement has been directed at pressing educators into conceiving education more from an industrial perspective - manifested most prominently in the form of the competency-based training movement and its pervasive physical and legislative infrastructure. Consider elements of the Australian infrastructure: Of course, a similar list of elements in an infrastructure supporting the institutionalisation of existing practices in general education could also be identified. What is interesting here, however, is the emergence of an almost antagonistic infrastructure - one impelled by qualitatively different conceptions of education.

In many ways, this movement appears to be a public (or at least governmental) reaction to general education. Some interrelated reasons which could be advanced for this reactivity are as follows:

These kind of criticisms of education are not new. Indeed, in the past, they have led to taxonomies of orientations to curriculum summarised in numerous writings about education in general (e.g. see McNeill, 1981; March and Stafford, 1984; Print, 1987), about adult education (e.g. see Boud, 1987; Brookfield, 1987; Millar, 1981) and vocational education (Blachford, 1986). Critical theorists have neatly summarised these orientations tracing their origins back to Habermas and eventually to Aristotle (see Grundy, 1987). However, what is new is the acceptance of the polarisation of these different conceptions of education and the development of a view that essentially singular conceptions are appropriate in different fields of education. Earlier struggles this century (Dewey, 1916; Rogers, 1969; Tyler, 1949) between the goals of relevance and individual development have always been characterised by a community reaction that we should achieve a consensus about balance (see Stevenson, 1993b). Yet, this time, we seem to have a growing acceptance of the appropriateness of a polarisation, as described below. The acceptance of this polarisation even seems to be along lines which resemble those of class distinctions in earlier centuries.

In some ways, the government reactions to general education (and reactions within general and vocational education to such government policies) are indicative of different constructions of knowledge, reflecting 'values, assumptions, perspectives and ideological positions' (Banks, 1993:5). For instance, one compelling target in the government-orchestrated creation of the current gap between general and vocational education, it seems to me, was the attempt in vocational education, in the late 1970s and early 1980s (e.g. see Stevenson, 1985), to place increasing value on personal development in vocational education:

The moves by government, over the last five years, have quelled altogether that trend to focus on the general development of individuals as part of their vocational preparation. That is, we have seen the application of 'transformative' (Banks, 1993:7) perspectives to vocational education, and we have witnessed a fervent reaction to them.

Community reactions to the gap

I have indicated above that it seems to be reactions in both general and vocational education to contemporary government policies and actions that are serving to widen the gap between vocational and general education. Why do I suggest that the gap is growing?

The development of the competency-based training movement has involved its imposition almost without debate in vocational education and training. Some educators, industries and professions have grasped it with enthusiasm; others with more a sense of disempowerment. Some have tried to rationalise its tenets by focusing on the aspects which they accept, and denying or ignoring other aspects (e.g. see Gonczi, Hager and Oliver, 1990; Hager, 1992; Hall and Hayton, 1988). Other educators have moved from a position of disbelief to one of resistance. But, overall, there has been no space for disagreement or resistance - protagonists confidently believe that criticism from universities will be overtaken by events (e.g. VEETAC Working Party on Staffing Issues, 1993). There is no choice, no room for debate, no legitimate discourse in which one can advance alternative views (see Stevenson, 1992, 1993b). Indeed, even its extremes seem to be gaining momentum - the dep rofessionalisation of vocational teaching, the denial of professional judgment in assessment, the nationalisation of curriculum design, and the attacks on the TAFE system (e.g. Hyland, 1993; Jones, 1992; VEETAC Working Party on Staffing Issues, 1993). Thus, the imposition continues and the forces are at least as strong as they have ever been.

It could be argued that one way in which universities have managed to ensure that they remain relatively untouched and untarnished has been to agree that the movement is fine in some areas of education (viz TAFE and training), as long as it is not accepted in universities (Pennington, 1992); or that it is fine for professions to set competencies as long as educators can decide what is to be taught and assessed (Bowden and Masters, 1992). Promotion of such a qualitative difference between vocational education and higher education is contrary to views in the late 1980s that there was a growing convergence between TAFE and other sectors of education (e.g. see Stevenson, 1985, 1988).

Similarly, it could be argued that one way in which schools have been able to resist the movement has been to accept the key competencies (Mayer 1992) as long as their role is simply an adjunct to normal practice - that is an additional reporting requirement. Accordingly, there would be no real intersection between the imposed key competencies and the business of general education. That is, one interpretation might be that, as long as it is business as usual, the schools are prepared to play ball, just so long as there is no diminution of attention to the real goals of schooling - the general development of the whole person for diverse life pursuits (CURASS, 1992; Mayer, 1992). This time, from the point of view of those outside general education, it would seem that there is no space for disagreement - no legitimate discourse in which one can advance alternative views about the role of general education.

Other examples, a little closer to home, where the institutionalisation of discourse serves to exclude contrary views are the growing impediments to registration, as teachers, of vocational educators, by the Board of Teacher Registration; and the dominant focus of the Australian Teaching Council on school teaching. In the latter case, if one is not a teacher in a school, one needs to seek membership of the Council under "other", and there is no provision for representation on the Council for vocational educators.

The effect of such reactions to government policies could be interpreted as an abandonment of vocational educators by general educators, in this debate, mainly for their own survival. Whatever the reason, the effect is a deepening division between vocational and general education. We have an entrenchment of personal and cultural knowledge (Banks, 1993) in each sector, with no discourse to connect the two. We have the equivalent of two ethnocentrist positions with little language in common. Drawing on Tetreault (1993), Anzaldua (1990) and Ellsworth (1989), Banks (1993) refers to this as positionality. Accordingly, he argues the need for researchers and scholars to identify their ideological positions and normative assumptions.

My view is that we should make these ideological positions and normative assumptions explicit in government policy and in reactions to those policies. We need to examine the discourse in these interactions and how it works to institutionalise antagonistic views and seek ways to achieve engagement among differing values. Then we may be able to question whether this growing gap between vocational and general education is desirable for:

That is, we need to evaluate this construction of the relative roles of educational sectors, and examine the philosophical, social, educational and personal implications of allowing vocational and general education to be constructed as essentially different from each other. Inter-related questions which need examination include:

The research challenges

Clearly then, that this growing gap between general and vocational education is an important area for future research. Some research perspectives which would illuminate the gap and its implications would relate to examinations of: As a first example, consider the research challenges concerned with learning outcomes and learning processes. Research is needed which applies cognitive theory to the question of the desirable relationship between learning outcomes and processes in general and vocational education. It is ironic that the recent gains in understanding general education have been derived from studies of vocational education - studies of apprenticeship and situated learning (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989; Gott, 1989); studies of dairy workers; studies of the workplace (e.g. see Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Scribner, 1984). And there is growing recognition that situating learning in a concrete context or community of practice leads to a deepening of understanding and the capacity to adapt. At the same time, there is growing recognition that these are the very attributes needed in vocational education in a changing society. Yet we have a growing gap between these forms of education.

As a second example, let's examine briefly the economic goals that are contributing to the current situation. The economic forces emanate from the transformation of economies from Fordist principles of production to a flexible accumulation mode, requiring individual/team attributes geared to such ends as innovative and value added production, quality improvement, flatter management structures, teamwork, etc. - relying on individual technical expertise (see Harvey, 1990).

It can be argued that the development of this new economic order is accompanied by a conflict between the lifeworlds of private citizens and the economic system (Soucek, 1993). This has resulted in a conflict between attempts 'by the corporate sector to promote system-maintenance skills' on the one hand and pursuits of 'self-actualisation and intellectual autonomy' on the other (Soucek, 1993:166). This conflict reminds one of the conflict identified by Barry Jones (1982) in Sleepers Awake, between education for inner life and education for outer life.

Soucek argues that an over-emphasis on system-maintenance at the expense of the lifeworld will lead to a loss of collective capacity to evaluate social practices in socially meaningful terms. He argues for a concurrent emphasis on the cognitive, the normative, the expressive and the affective.

He argues that the impact of these economic forces on education has been to create a polarisation between those who value the syst em-maintenance goals and those who value the lifeworld goals. While Soucek is correct to point out that there is a danger of system maintenance goals subsuming or colonising lifeworld goals, my view is that there is also a danger in separating them and treating them as antagonistic.

I subscribe to Soucek's view that there should be no hierarchy in technical, practical and emancipatory knowledge (Carr & Kemmis, 1983) or any false dichotomy between the technical and the practical/emancipatory; and that we should pursue a unified whole. We need a reconciliation between system-maintenance goals and lifeworld goals - and, by analogy, between comparable conceptions of general and vocational education. We need to accord parity of esteem to each and to recognise the inter-relationships between them, even the artificiality of the conceptual difference.

For these claims to be evaluated, more research is needed. More research is needed about the exact nature of such goals, their relationships to the individual and society as a whole, the kinds of educational experiences implicit in their attainment and the success of different approaches in securing immediate and long term goals. More than that, the effects of positionality on traditional and contemporary views about such goals needs to be analysed.

As a third example, we could consider the ideologies represented in the current forces which are polarising vocational and general education. For instance, research is needed to evaluate claims that the Competency-Based Training movement is ideological. Drawing on the work of Foucault (1979, 1981, 1982) and Ball (1990, 1992), Stevenson (1992, 1993a) has described the movement as ideological, re-defining the very concepts in which it is legitimate for educators to transact. Drawing on Foucault (1981) and Smith (1990), Jackson (1993a, 1993b) has described the ideological aspects of the movement as a technology of power or ideological currency through which a regime of governance takes place. Jackson (1993) conceptualises the competency-based training movement as one whose purpose is more concerned with achieving arms-length accountability within systems and between systems and government, that one concerned with the improvement of learning. Thus, a related force is that which emanates from managerial accounting concerns. Similarly, one could analyse the ideologies represented in the discourse which is legitimate in general education, its relationship with existing power relationships in society, the values afforded abstracted and embedded technical knowledge and so on. What is needed is more research directed at identifying ideological forces which are impelling the creation of a larger gulf between general and vocational education.

As indicated already, related questions of values and philosophy also need attention. Is the development of skills of less value than the development of dis-embedded concepts? Is abstracted knowledge more important than knowledge of the tangible world? On the other hand, are these kinds of knowing complementary and indivisible? Do adherents of critical theory really accept that there is no hierarchy among technical, practical and emancipatory knowledge or knowledge or does this depend on their ideological positions and normative assumptions? And what are the implications for a separate of so-called general education and vocational education? What are the implications of goal-value systems aimed at integrating vocational and general education, such as that derived by Campbell, McMeniman and Baikaloff (1992a, 1992b)?


In conclusion, I have argued that there is a gap between vocational education and general education, this gap is widening, and the causes are related not only to government policy, but the ways in which we are managing to cope with these policies. However, these methods of coping are leading to a polarisation that is untenable and undesirable. Underneath these polarising forces there seem to be ideological positions and normative assumptions. Unless these are researched, made explicit and incorporated in discourse across the sectors, the polarisation is likely to continue.

Accordingly, I have suggested that one way to 'chart a way towards greater reconciliation of general and vocational education is research directed at informing public policy. The areas of research that I have discussed in a preliminary way are those concerned with cognition; those concerned with economic, political and ideological goals; and those concerned with values and philosophy. I have also indicated the need for research from historical and sociological perspectives. From research such as this, it will be easier to identify the assumptions implicit in various positions and argue the benefits and limitations of current and alternative approaches to education; and challenge the widening gap between general and vocational education in the interests of learners and their future contributions to the community.


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Please cite as: Stevenson, J. (1993). Researching the relationship between vocational and general education. Queensland Researcher, 9(2), 1-12. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr9/stevenson.html

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