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Vocational and Technical Education

International Context

Education and training have often been considered polar extremes, the first being the development of the mind and the latter the mastery of strictly practical endeavors. But the two worlds of practical and conceptual endeavors are less distant than they may seem, and these simplistic views of education and training are misguided.

Indeed, there are definitional problems concerning education and training, leading to misguided policies. There is a need for a clear understanding of the overlaps and contrasts between the two concepts.

There is a long and old controversy in the literature opposing education and training. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian claimed that oratory was more useful than philosophy, thereby stating the superiority of training over education. But for many centuries education was closer to philosophy than to applied endeavors.

Some educators use the word training in a derogatory way, as if to suggest that the learning is intellectually shallow or that it goes with attempts to educate the poor. In contrast, some trainers refer to education as vacuous, fuzzy, and rambling learning that is good only for wasting the time of students.

What Vocational Training Offers

Both views, however, are too narrow and misleading. When dealing with less-schooled students, vocational subjects can be used to motivate and to create an environment that is familiar to them. Good training may function as a conduit for the best possible education for students less ready for abstraction. By using practical situations as start and end points, abstract concepts can be introduced and mastered by students who otherwise would be very low achievers in academic schools.

The environment created by good vocational schools can give students a sense of getting closer to a concrete job. This can in turn generate a degree of motivation and sense of self-efficacy that is conducive to the mastery of abstract concepts that would leave students cold and aloof when taught at academic schools that have difficulties in recreating environments that motivate low-achieving students.

Good vocational training makes use of the context of the practical subjects to teach mathematics, writing, reading, and science. Students are asked to read the instructions of what they are doing and write down the procedures they will execute. Concrete workshop situations are conceived, for instance, to have students convert inches to centimeters, Fahrenheit to Celsius, and so on. In other words, proportion is learned as a by-product of solving shop problems. Mathematics is smuggled into the practicalities of shop work. In fact, good training institutions have different versions of mathematics, one for machinists, another for electricians, and so on.

As research in the psychology of learning suggests, the mastery of subjects increases when the contexts in which phenomena are examined are fully familiar to the students. Experiments have shown that a physical principle is better understood when the students are given the broad context in which it applies. For instance, it has been shown that students acquired a better grasp of the concept of density when they were shown a clip from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the hero, Indiana Jones, has to replace a golden skull sitting on a platform with his bag filled with rocks, both which weighed the same. Students were asked to estimate the weight of the golden skull by measuring the approximate volume of a human skull and multiplying it by the relative density of gold. What good training does is to present inside the workshop such concrete problems based on concrete needs arising in the practical tasks to be performed.

Nevertheless, what training offers is merely the possibility to tap into this potential. There is nothing automatic about it. Training can fail to use these opportunities. Training that is only training is bad training or merely too shallow to go beyond the transmission of some dexterity. How to put out a fire or how to unclog a pipe are useful pieces of knowledge in their own right and need to be taught. But they are essentially different from longer training programs that contain more conceptual and theoretical structures.

The "basic skills" movement consists of improving the knowledge of the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills of workers who are learning a trade or have already mastered the more practical and manual aspects of their occupations. The essence of the successful strategies, however, is to use the same workplace operations as a scaffold on which to build the conceptual or cognitive skills that are missing. Workers learn how to read by reading the same manual that they need to read to perform their job correctly.

Vocational contents can be an ideal context in which to plant cognitive development of a higher order. Thinking skills and good reading and writing habits can be developed while doing practical tasks that lead to marketable skills.

By the same token, academic education may also resort to practical endeavors in order to carry the more general message. Laboratory classes try to do this, and the Indiana Jones example illustrates more deliberate attempts to bring context to learning. Theory, after all, involves the generalization and conceptualization of real-world observations. Formulas written on the blackboard merely display packaged and sanitized versions of the intense intellectual effort that was required to arrive at them. The idea of having students "rediscover" physical principles goes in the same direction.

Developments in Technology and Work Organization

This reasoning implies that the differences between education and training have always been exaggerated and that most reputable training programs are education as much as training. Recent developments in technology and work organization, however, seem to be blurring even further the distinction between education and training. In industrialized countries, a very significant share of manufacturing activities have changed considerably and incorporate new technologies, particularly those based on microprocessors and the variety of automation techniques that result from them. Some successful industrializing countries are definitely moving in the same direction.

New production technologies require more reading, more writing, more applied mathematics, and more science. In the past, these cognitive skills were, at best, a means to master a trade (e.g., one needs to know how to read to take the machinist course because some of the instruction is written in books or handouts). But these cognitive skills are becoming part and parcel of the occupational profile. For example, reading is directly useful for the performance of the core tasks of the occupation. Could it then be said that reading and mathematics are now vocational subjects? For that reason, most training programs could benefit from a little more emphasis on language, mathematics, and science, as occurs in the best courses and apprenticeships. This is increasingly happening in Germany, in the American techprep programs, and in the new generation of SENAI courses in Brazil.

While learning an occupation, the trainee may have an ideal opportunity to develop the same general skills that are taught in academic schools, that is, a general education. But this will not happen spontaneously. The integration of theory and practice, of shop activities with general principles of science, can be the result only of deliberate and well-informed efforts. Training programs should not underestimate the potential offered by such integration or the difficulties of achieving it. But there are good examples of these ideas. For instance, the new versions of the traditional Latin American "methodical series," as well as new methods developed in countries such as the United States (tech prep, School to Work) and Germany (key qualifications), have good track records.

In short, vocational subjects can be used to motivate and to create an environment that is familiar to the students. Good training may function as a conduit for the best possible education for students less ready for abstraction. By the same token, academic education may also resort to practical endeavors in order to carry the more general message.

Differences and Similarities between Training and Education

There are conceptual differences between the roles of vocational training and education. Yet, as mentioned, the borderline between training and education is quite blurred. In its purest version, education is knowledge removed from practical applications (e.g., learning astronomy is pure education, except for those who plan to become professional astronomers). At the other extreme, pure training is a version of skill preparation that does not explore the theoretical implications of the tasks being learned (e.g., learning how to use a saw and a jack plane without learning drafting and the requisite mathematics). In most cases, however, the two are combined.

Good training and a good education are equally good–and actually very similar in nature–when they promote the broad conceptual and analytical development of the trainee. By the same token, a good education is often linked to applied endeavors that turn theoretical knowledge into a practical skill. The difference is mostly one of intention. Education uses the practical or occupational content to obtain a deeper mastery of theory, being somewhat unconcerned with the application of the knowledge in the marketplace. Training starts with the clear goal of preparing for an existing occupation, the theory being a necessary component to prepare a better worker for that position.

Yet, despite all the merits of training, it is not a cost-efficient substitute for good schools for all. By contrast, a solid basic education is the best preparation for a wide range of jobs. In addition, a good basic education shortens the length of training required. In other words, the need to develop a good training system does not replace the (perhaps) stronger imperative to develop a good general education system.

Workers with a good mix of practical skills and conceptual understanding of technology can adjust more easily to new and different occupations, grow in their careers, and adjust to technological changes. The real issue is not general versus superspecialized training but the solidity and depth of the basic skills that go together with specialized training.

A first element to understanding the differences and similarities between training and education is to consider that the presence of training contents that may be applicable at the workplace does not vary inversely with the presence of fundamental concepts and abstraction. Both poetry and solid-state physics are rich in abstraction. The first has scarce direct applicability at the workplace. The second has ample utilization. Basket weaving has hardly any abstraction or conceptualization and finds little demand in modern societies. Cutting hair offers little in abstract thinking but there are ample economic applications for this skill.

It is necessary to stress that theory and practice are not the extremes of a single continuum but independent concepts that admit all possible combinations of highs and lows, as exemplified above. Fortunately, to have the high theoretical and conceptual content that educates and sharpens the mind, one does not have to forego learning the practicalities of life and work. Both what is called vocational training and what is called education of all sorts have both the theory and the practice. The main point here is that occupational training that fetches a good market is as good or better than any other environment to educate the mind in the fundamental concepts that are usually found in good education.

Training should not be understood as something poor in theory and conceptualization. It can be rich or poor. Education should not be understood as something helplessly unpractical. In fact, it may be removed from immediate applications or it may be very close to them. There are no good reasons to be concerned with the differences between education and training instead of offering learning opportunities that have both.


Abstract subjects that are removed from the everyday life of students offer a more arid ground for learning. Such subjects as Latin declensions, French irregular verbs, underground geological layers, the successions of kings of France, and the capitals of African states are not topics that fascinate the average student. Hence, they are not the ideal place to graft the broad basic skills that constitute an education for a modern society. Vocational schools can avoid these motivational difficulties by bringing in the world of the factory, with its practicalities and the inherent motivation of learning some skills that have immediate market value. Nevertheless, not everything that happens in the factory is ideal for the process of learning. In particular, the factory routines teach mostly how to deal with repetitive activities. This is a worthy objective of short training courses and for the preparation of workers who lack the prerequisites for further development. This may be justified in many cases, but it is not what is considered the optimal environment for broad learning. But equally important to understand is that many interesting, motivating, or even fascinating practical applications of the concepts and theories taught in academic schools may fail to have immediate demand in the marketplace–even though, indirectly, all good education ends up being valuable in the world of work. Learning statistics by dealing with Formula 1 auto racing data is as good as any other method of motivating students and leading them to complex concepts. However, newspapers rarely include advertisements for jobs involving the analysis of Formula 1 data.


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