The Most Dangerous Question in Education


Josh Williams is the Chief Executive Officer of the Industry Training Federation in New Zealand. Josh has worked in the Education Sector for 20 years, focussing on skills, qualifications, and quality assurance issues in the schooling and tertiary sectors. He is a keynote presenter at the 2019 CDAA National Conference in Canberra this September. 

I’m very much looking forward to visiting Canberra next month for the 2019 CDAA National Conference, and swapping notes with delegates on what are interesting times for both Australia and New Zealand’s careers and vocational education sectors.

I thought I’d use the opportunity of this blog to dig a little deeper into one area I’m planning on covering in my session - New Zealand’s system of Vocational Pathways, or VPs as we tend to call them. What we were trying to do, why we think they are useful, and what we would avoid if we were to start again. 

I noticed on page 96 of the Joyce review of Australia’s VET sector he suggests Australia might develop a similar framework of vocational pathways to underpin VET in Schools programmes.  Far be it for me to say whether that’s right or would work in Australia’s States or Federation, but I do plan to tell you why we think it was a good idea here in NZ, and some of the pitfalls and challenges we’ve experienced with implementing them.  I do claim that the development process in-and-of itself was useful developing a common language and forging better connection between industry representatives and secondary school educators. 

In my conference presentation I’ll go into the use of the VP's (both accidental and deliberate), and the ways the VPs can aid in navigation and decision-making.  But I just want to start with one learner-centred way they can be applied. 

NZ’s educational researchers tell us it’s about Year 7 or 8 when young brains start cognitively switching on to the idea that there’s a great big world out there and that one day they are going to be in it.  

What they know about that big wide world - the breadth and depth of their imagining and horizons and hopes - is a function of their background.  And it’s at that point that the following question starts popping up for them - I like to call it ‘the most dangerous question in education’:

“Why are we learning this?”

By the time students reach the senior phase, with all of the pressure of exams and “high stakes” qualifications, the inevitable uncertainties at the end of schooling, that big wide world is looming large, and parents and caregivers naturally worrying, its critical that we give young people good answers to “Why are we learning this?”, because their sense of purpose and relevance for learning relies on it.  Because when young people don’t get compelling answers to that question, the next step is disruption, followed by disengagement, followed by dropping out. 

And with respect to the extraordinary work of our teachers, sometimes the person at the front of the classroom and on the end of the most dangerous question (and variants such as ‘how are these credits going to help me?’ and 'when am I ever going to use this in the real world?) are not necessarily well-equipped to authentically and convincingly provide the myriad of possible answers.  

So one thing the VPs do is show young people (and their teachers) which industries care about the learning outcome in question. It’s a high level map, but the VPs tell the learner (and their teacher) which broad sectors of the workforce value an educational outcome, and/or which industry sectors the outcome relates to. They can then shape their educational choices if looking to go in a particular direction, or understand the relationship between their educational strengths and possibilities in further study and employment. Underpinning assessment resources also allow for contextualisation of core curriculum offerings to the VPs.

We began the VP development in 2010, and they were launched in 2013. “We” equals the Industry Training Federation and the Ministry of Education.  The idea came from our Industry Training Organisations, off the back of a collective conversation about schools and the need to think more broadly about foundation skills for young people into industries, and the lack of clarity for young people whose destination was anything other than university. We took the idea to the then government, who agreed to develop and implement five (and then six) Vocational Pathways as part of its flagship “Youth Guarantee” policy.

And that’s what we’d do different. I think if we could go back, we’d resist the idea that VPs be developed and implemented as part of a collection of schemes to support alternative learning settings and secondary-tertiary interface programmes. It bought into all the mistaken defaults: That “vocational” is the opposite of “academic”. That the VPs were only for the students that school was struggling to convert into a scholar, and therefore something the Principal should forward to the Careers Advisor.  

We had convinced our government to co-develop the VPs with us because seven out of 10 of our school leavers were not going to university and deserved equal clarity about the pathways they could take to employment and study possibilities more broadly, particularly as that relates to the world of work. This is all true, it remains true, and I maintain they have been a huge step forward.  

But ultimately it’s 10 out of 10 school leavers that benefit from understanding the relationship between their learning and their potential futures as part of the workforce, including the three whose next step is university. The workforce has big plans for them too.

So, big trans-Tasman sibling, if you do create VPs or something like it, make sure its a mainstream product. At the core of programme design in schools (and especially when partnering with further education providers and workplaces), there ought to be a clear and easy framework for all young people to help relate themselves to their potential future selves. The parity of esteem, stigma, and cultural valuing of ‘vocational' is a tough nut to crack here, or anywhere, and I reckon you could probably implement all the tools and strengths of VPs without tripping over the “V”.

See you in Canberra!

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