Congratulations to the publishers of Education Central – I hope it turns out to be a great new way to have some important conversations in education.
So let me have a crack at starting one. The other day, not for the first time, I was talking to a group of secondary educators, about vocational pathways. And one of the principals there said to me afterwards, “Schools are about producing good citizens, not producing cogs in the machine.”
I think, and I hope, we were talking past each other. What I mean by ‘vocational pathway’ is the journey each and every learner is taking into and through the world of work. A lifelong journey of working and learning, highs and lows, achievements and disappointments, roles and responsibilities, and lots of change.
If we define good citizens as those young people who demonstrate the principles, attitudes, values, and key competencies in The New Zealand Curriculum, then educators and employers might use different words, but we are definitely on the same page. Employers are asking for good citizens too.
But when I say ‘vocational pathways’ sometimes, people hear ‘trades’, or ‘non-academic’, or ‘alternative’. Or a booklet in the careers advisor’s office for kids to look at when it has become clear that they are not university-bound.
But all our young people, including the most academically able, and future holders of master’s degrees, will one day look for work. They may work for themselves or for others. But from the best student to the worst, all will one day think to themselves, “I need an income”.
If having an income makes one a cog in the machine, then I’m encouraged by what young apprentices have told me, and what many have written – that people find meaning, dignity and engagement in their work when what one does for a living aligns with their values and interests. It’s a long way of saying “find your passion”, and it can be a lifelong search. In my view it points to a critical role for education to provide young people with purposeful, relevant and meaningful opportunities to try things out, explore options, and find the pathways that feel most right to them.
There are tools, curriculum options, schemes, and experiential learning that schools (often in partnership with tertiary providers and employers) can provide to support young people to help find their paths and match their strengths and interests to something they might like to do next after school. Not forever, just next.
At a different workshop, someone said, “What we need to do is take the kids out for an afternoon for three hours so they can hear from real employers and find out what the real world is like.” I agree, we should do that. But I would also like to turn the three hours into three years – years 11, 12, and 13. And I would take them out not just to employers, but also to universities, polytechs and community organisations. Spending time in the place they might go next. Not forever, just next.