JVER v26n3 - A New, Old Vision of Learning, Working, and Living: Vocational Education in the 21st Century

Volume 26, Number 3

A New, Old Vision of Learning, Working, and Living: Vocational Education in the 21 st Century

Robert Shumer

University of Minnesota

As we enter the 21st century, we must ask: what is the future of vocational education? Perusing an old volume on the history of American education, I was reminded of some of the debates about vocational training at the end of the nineteenth century:

Manufacturers demanded that schools teach basic industrial skills and sponsored machine training and industrial art. Technical educators sought to improve the practical training of engineers and future industrial leaders. Pedagogical reformers saw hand learning as part of a broader movement to invigorate classroom teaching. Those concerned about cultural standards hope that drawing and craft instruction would restore the ideal of the skilled artisan, while social reformers turned to manual education to teach traditional moral values and bring together a disrupted industrializing society (Lazerson & Grubb, 1974 , p.3).

Barely changing a few of the ideas in this quote, it seems like entering the 21st century might not be too different from entering the last century. Business and industry are still concerned about how schools are preparing students for work. Technical educators are concerned about how to prepare engineers and other professionals for practice (Schon, 1983 ). Experiential educators are trying to invigorate classrooms with real-world experiences. Politicians and society are looking to enforce "standards" to restore the ideal of the educated person. Moral and character education are on the rise, hoping to infuse service and values as important elements to recreate community and a sense of belonging in a democratic society. Yes, the more we change, the more we stay the same.

Fortunately, we have learned a lot in the last one hundred years about all these issues. Most important, we know more about how learning occurs-which is essential to the development of any educational program or system.

I first digress to some recent understandings about learning, especially learning in work environments. After that brief discussion, I will explain the implications for vocational education in the future.

Learning in Work Environments

Perhaps the greatest change in learning for work, community, and family will occur in the way technology affects our lives. There is evidence that the impact of technology and computers is uncertain. Some believe that the current impact is mixed-computers have not always been instrumental in improving learning in school-based settings (Healy, 1998 ). What needs to be learned about computers can be learned in a relatively short period of time-we don't need to spend a lot of time in the new century teaching and training students to use computers in preparation for work (Cuban, 2000 ).

On the other hand, computer usage can profoundly change the very way we learn. In a powerful article about the impact of the web and Internet on learning, Brown ( 2000 ) suggests that the great transformation will take place in the way technology helps to promote "learning parks" composed of networks of learning ecologies. He suggests that computers and the web will allow us to study and learn in new ways-being able to connect experience and stories among and between learning peers, so that new understandings and applications can be generated.

Based on research done in the workplace at Xerox, Brown ( 2000 ) describes a change in the way we generate knowledge. Replacing the world of science and logical, empirical studies will consist of teams of practitioners who will share their knowledge through collective means. Describing the way "tech reps" learn to repair copiers and printers, Brown says: "Abstract, logical reasoning wasn't the way they went about it; stories were (p.16)." Learning occurs "in situ", where individuals collectively compare their prior knowledge with problems and potential solutions discovered in current problems. No one individual assumes an expert role in the new learning community; rather the "community" is the expert system. Individuals will be able to collect and connect their individual learning with an entire system, or ecology, which will, in turn, produce documents and artifacts that solidify and codify the knowledge. This new knowledge will be constantly upgraded, as other members of the community share their new stories, complete with new problems and new solutions. Learning will no longer be based on simple individual effort; it will be produced through joint means through collaborating communities.

Brown ( 2000 ) suggests that learning this way not only occurs in the workplace, it also happens through similar patterns in the classroom. Through student analysis of videotaped lectures (instead of being there), studies at Stanford and Hewlett Packard demonstrated that when learners are able to examine educational presentations in small study groups, using reflective practices, they actually out produce students who participate in live classroom lectures. He suggests the superior performance results when:

forming study groups and letting them socially construct their own understanding around a naturally occurring knowledge asset - - the lecture, turns out to be an amazingly powerful tool for learning (p.18).

Learning becomes enhanced when learning situations are placed at the center of groups who are required to engage the problem to generate knowledge and solutions. In this environment, the role of student becomes transformed from the traditional passive position, to that of an active participant generating information and knowledge.

Brown's ( 2000 ) discoveries reinforce the notions of learning described by Lave and Wenger ( 1991 ), who focus on "situated learning." Most learning occurs either alone or in social groups-the tension between the two types of learning, the "zone of proximal development", creates the modern dilemma of how we prepare students for future learning in all situations. Since most learning is social in nature (Dewey, 1938 ; Lave & Wenger, 1991 ) our challenge is to determine how to constitute social learning environments so individuals develop the skills, abilities, and attitudes to propel them to learn throughout their lifetime. Lave and Wenger argue:

The most important accounts of learning have ignored its quintessentially social character. To make the crucial step away from a solely epistemological account of the person, [they] propose that learning is a process of participation in communities of practice, participation that is at first legitimately peripheral, but that increases gradually in engagement and complexity (Lave & Wenger, 1991 , p. iii).

This description of social co-participation parallels Brown's ( 2000 ) explanations of learning in the workplace. They all suggest that people do troubleshooting/problem solving as a form of narrative construction, then together produce an insight, and eventually learn through shared stories and new dialogues. Through creation of these learning and communication networks, individuals are able to share understanding and produce new knowledge systems. They move from peripheral understanding, learning from the work of others, to central understanding, where they, themselves become the generators of knowledge.

Thinking as Problem Solving

In addition to this knowledge about socially constructed learning, we have additional studies that suggest that thinking is essentially problem solving (Resnick, 1987a ; Rogoff, 1990 ). Students need to be placed in environments that present dilemmas that can be addressed in a variety of ways. It is through struggling with issues and solutions to problems that cognitive, affective, and moral growth occurs (Kohlberg, 1979 ; Piaget, 1963 ; Resnick, 1987b ). By engaging in challenging environments, students participate in "cognitive apprenticeships" where they have opportunities to learn by doing in a particular context. Thus cognitive and affective change occurs as a result of situational challenge, coupled with support from adults or peers in the community. Challenge is one of the key components of optimal learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 ).

Learning in the 19th century was more in line with this approach because young people often learned skills and learned about life from working on family enterprises. Through work, such as farming, their effort had value to the family and to the community. They were not extraneous to society, as they are often described in today's culture. They produced work of real value and they learned by connecting work with life. It was through these living "internships" that learning took place-that thinking became connected to action.

In some ways we need to return to thinking embedded within doing-of eliminating the artificial separation between thought and action. Thinking and doing are inseparable. To construct learning situations that don't have meaning becomes impossible simply because learning by doing, through real experience, has the potential to constantly engage students in thinking as a product of practice.

A Vision of Vocational Education for the Next Century

What are the implications for vocational education based on these understandings of how learning occurs? Since good learning happens in places where young people have opportunities to interact with their environments, experience challenge, obtain feedback on their actions, receive guidance from more knowledgeable individuals, and participate in the creation of new knowledge, it is important to describe some of the essential settings where learning of vocation and life occur.


The first place that children usually encounter rich learning opportunities is in the family. It is here that they learn language, social skills, value systems, and general modes of social behavior. All of these skills and knowledge have later application in work and other social settings.

While early learning has traditionally taken place in home/family environments, the 21st century portends more of the experiences of the 1990s, where children spend time out of the home very early in life at day care centers and other child care facilities. These extensions into non-parental environments necessitate earlier learning in situations away from parents and other family members-so learning in social environments out of the home will continue in the next century. In some ways this portends well for vocational education, because it means that children and youth will have more experience socializing and learning in situations outside of the home. So children should be more experienced and more comfortable interacting with non-parental adults.

The danger is that children may also not have sufficient bonding with parents and family, as well as "time" for simply being children. Since some research (Csikszentmahilyi, 1990 ; Elkind, 1984 ) suggests that a happy childhood is one of the best predictors of success in the adult world, rushing and separating children from parents early in life may create some long-term potential problems for adults in the 21st century. There needs to be balance between exposure to non-parental environments and experience within family or family-like structures. We must acknowledge that family and family interactions play an important part of vocational preparation and success by providing a stable and positive home environment.

One of the greatest needs in the 21st century is affordable child-care. Vocational programs can assist families and communities by providing programs that meet these needs. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to actually have schools operate child development programs where students learn about infants and young children by actually interacting with them in supervised settings. Operating day care programs at either junior or senior high schools, as part of a comprehensive program to prepare all students to be parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, would serve all segments of our society well. It would ensure that all students, no matter what their home situation, have opportunities to study the development and behavior of young children. It would also ensure that our communities could expand the capabilities for meeting the affordable child-care crisis.

All educators need to remember that families influence success throughout the entire school experience. Research suggests that students who have families involved in their education do better in school academically than those who do not. Vocational education programs need to work to keep families connected to school programs. They can do this by not only providing excellent child care programs, but also by having family members serve as community sponsors for learning, having parents work with students as mentors, coaches, and community-site sponsors of learning. In this way young people remain connected to adults in their family, and other youth learn to connect and respect parents and adult friends of their peers.

Twenty-first century educational programs need to serve and honor families. Families (in all their configurations) appear to be part of the foundation of learning and successful human development-educators need to capitalize on developing and expanding the learning that can and does occur through family settings.


The next common learning environment is that of school. Besides family, schooling takes up a significant portion of a child's time as he/she grows from childhood to adulthood. Children learn many things in schools-perhaps the most important is attitude toward learning and education (Dewey, 1938 ).

With attitude comes a whole set of learning environments and outcomes-all of which are tied to some context and some set of problems or issues. The role/goal of education is to engage youth in everyday dilemmas in order to learn how to get along in life and to perform major adult functions: employment, family/parent, citizen, scholar, friend, intimate partner, financial manager and planner, and member of society. All of the subjects taught in school are designed to help young people prepare for adult life. They contain content knowledge that must be mastered, along with learning how to process knowledge and how to conduct interpersonal skills.

Integration of academic learning with practical skills and knowledge has been one of the major emphases in vocational education for decades. In fact, John Dewey describes vocational education as a life-long process that helps individuals find direction and meaning in their lives:

A vocation means nothing but such a direction in life activities as renders them perceptibly significant to a person, because of the consequences they accomplish., and also useful to his associates…. Occupation is a concrete term for continuity. It includes the development of artistic capacity of any kind, of special scientific ability, of effective citizenship, as well as professional and business occupations, to say nothing of mechanical labor or engagement in gainful pursuits (Dewey, 1916 , p.307).

Vocational education is about helping young people find direction, purpose, and abilities in their lives. In some ways it is simply about educating the whole person: mind and spirit, head and hand. The old mental-manual controversy that has plagued vocational education throughout history will be replaced by this renewed understanding that learning theory (mental processes) can never be separated from doing and practice. Similarly, learning in school can never be separated from learning in life situations. And workplaces are important settings that help individuals learn about career, job skills, personal development, and application of life skills.

Besides a continuation of the commonly utilized programs that attempt to connect school-based academic learning with work-related skills, abilities, and settings (such as cooperative education, tech-prep, career academies, and work experience), we find a new ally in the 21st century in the school/work preparation field: service-learning. Several states, including South Carolina and Minnesota, include service-learning as one of their accepted programs in the state school-to-work plan. Unpaid work, tied to service and learning of academic and related subjects, can produce some of the very outcomes found in more traditional work-based programs. Clearly, service experiences in the community, tied to educational programs, provide valuable career knowledge found in some of the more effective work-based programs (Billig, 2000 ; Shumer, 1994 ; Shumer & Rentel, 1998 ). They also include some of the important SCANS skills, including ability to work in groups, improved attitudes toward learning, and ability to solve problems (SCANS, 1991 ).

Through service-learning, youth also gain important citizen skills, such as applying problem solving abilities to real problems. Since vocation is about learning to work in a society, learning to contribute skills and talents, paying taxes, and supporting important societal infrastructures, school programs that integrate these skills to help students function as engaged citizens will grow in popularity and importance. The next century will realize what many in the 20th century understood: vocational education is one of the important ways to democratize learning and society. Including all students in the study of career, critical thinking, application of theory through practice, and personal development-all done in a community context-will make the school and workplace vital settings for significant learning to occur.

A potential challenge to the experiential nature of service and vocational education programs in the 21st century is the potentially narrow usage of computers in schools. From Oregon to Florida, school districts are experimenting with entire high school curricula available to students through online formats. Every conceivable course is potentially available through electronic means. It will not take long before school districts realize that much potential revenue is available through on-line courses, with little increase in cost. So for some students in a few years going to school may mean staying at home!

The challenge to vocational/experiential educators is to ensure that using computers and the Internet have experiential components or that the computer/internet features of the courses are designed to enhance community-connected activities. Several examples illustrate what these courses can/should look like. In Small Town, Oregon, high school students rebuild and repair computers and then donate them to elementary schools and to senior citizens. In Hawaii, an elementary school program has 5th and 6th graders providing computer and Internet education to senior citizens and to schools (National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, 2000 ). In both these programs computers serve many purposes. They are the source of technical learning-students learn how to actually put computers together. They are also the source of service to others-they provide the opportunity to teach others how to acquire and use knowledge in the age of the internet. Rather than stifling experiential learning, these two programs demonstrate how computers can enhance experiential programs that have vocational emphases.


In addition to school, young people spend a significant amount of time in the community. Through community organizations, such as scouts and 4-H, they learn to engage in applications of knowledge through organized games, tasks, and other activities. Community settings, like workplaces and family environments, provide individuals with opportunities and challenges to master over the course of a lifetime.

Community settings, like work settings, provide young people with unique opportunities to connect with and learn from adults, especially adults outside the home. One of the major problems at the end of the 20th century is the isolation of youth from adult cultures and the inability of young people to engage in constructive discussion with older individuals.

By connecting young people with older members of society, they both can learn to appreciate the lives of others, and learn how to participate in programs that join young and old around common problems.

By working in the community, young people can also learn to appreciate societal problems and learn to develop their ability to address social issues (Kahne & Westheimer, 1996 ; Melchior, 1998 ; Putnam, 1995 ). As with service-learning and other community-connected programs, youth learn to identify with adults and community programs as resources to help understand life and work in a local context. It also allows them to ingratiate themselves with others, both adults and peers, and to demonstrate their capacity to produce genuine goods and services. Just as youth contributed to society in powerful ways in the 19th century through agriculture, so too can they contribute through community problem solving by interacting with communities as part of their educational experience.

Community experiences produce many of the same outcomes as paid work (Alt & Medrich, 1994 ; Billig, 2000 ). Working in 4-H clubs, Boys and Girls clubs, and Boy's/Girl Scouts, youth learn to develop social skills, learn to work in groups, and learn the connection between learning and having fun. They also learn to problem solve, to care, and to plan (Noddings, 1988 ; McLoughlin, Irby, and Langman, 1994 ; Melchior, 1998 ). All of these skills are required for successful work as adults.


What is the role of vocational education in the 21st century? If you believe that vocational education is about lifelong planning, learning to work and interact with others, and learning to make a productive life, then vocational education will be a central force for all American children and youth.

Vocational education will focus on the whole child/youth, acknowledging that what begins at home in the family affects what happens at school, which ultimately influences what happens in the world beyond the family and school, namely the community (including the work community). An education that makes personal and cognitive development central to the nature of the situations provided is what vocational programs are intended to provide. Learning in the home, in the school, and in the community will be intimately connected so that each builds upon the other. Acknowledging that the work can be both remunerated and voluntary, vocational programs in the 21st century will strive to continue the connections between practical and academic learning. Vocational educators know that such learning can never be separated because each builds upon the other. One cannot learn theory without practice, nor can one effectively learn practice without broad, theoretical understandings.

Vocational programs in the 21st century will recognize that the world is changing in the United States; that computers and the Internet will greatly influence how and where we educate our youth and our society. Again, recognizing that situations dictate the kind and quality of learning, settings will be provided that maximize the potential of the Internet without sacrificing our understanding that electronic learning should never replace real-world environments. The 21st century will wrestle with instructional design issues that attempt to take advantage of the power of computers, without sacrificing the power of experiential learning. This will mean that vocational educators will need to weigh in with their colleagues as curriculum is developed, to ensure that young people have ample opportunity to do real things in the world. They also need to engage adults and subject matter through purposeful relationships focused on personal development, caring, cognitive growth in order to create environments that engage the entire community (family, school, workplace, community organizations) as partners in lifelong learning.


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ROBERT SHUMER is the former Director of the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55108. [E-mail: drrdsminn@aol.com ]. His research interests include service-learning, community-based learning, experiential learning, and qualitative research.