Melanie Williams from William Angliss Institute was awarded a fellowship from the International Specialised Skills Institute.

Melanie used it to “investigate international approaches to developing 21st century skills in vocational education and training (VET) learners.” She also looked at how to build the capacity of VET teachers to develop and assess these skills. Her findings featured as part of the highly successful VDC Thought Leadership Seminar Series in 2019.

21st Century skills

Twenty first century skills have been covered a few times in the past in VDC News, most recently in relation to digital skills. 21st Century skills are more broadly based, though, and are “the skills and competencies young people will be required to have in order to be effective workers and citizens in the knowledge society of the 21st century. They typically include skills related to communication, collaboration, digital literacy, creativity and problem solving.” Industry 4.0 is also a relevant ‘buzz concept’. All of these talk about a broader concept of developing personal capabilities.

Is all this a bit “Back to the future’?

In 1974 the Kangan Review talked about the aim of vocational education as being both work focused and learning through life to enable “the betterment and development of individual people and their contribution to the good of the community.” Sage like, the Kangan Review suggested that:

“it is important that general education be seen as relevant to vocational purposes and that vocational education in turn becomes more general in its content and methods so that people can be better prepared to adapt themselves to changing conditions and to re-training, as necessary, at any time of their working lives.”

Thus, what is in VET programs is really influenced by the “combined influences of technological, demographic and social changes.” Have we really forgotten these insights towards a broader and more holistic development of skills and capabilities, and what does Williams suggest as our ways forward?

Developing the skills

She has looked hard at a number of approaches to learning and skills development, but in particular at the ETHAZI approach being adopted in Spain’s Basque region. In essence, it is a system of ‘collaborative learning based on challenges’. Another more familiar description might be problem-based learning (PBL) using a collaborative approach. It is focused on learning how to learn and develop what might be described as the 21st Century skills – although these have gone by other names too: key competencies, core skills for work and generic or foundational skills. PBL is a more authentic and comprehensive approach to learning rather than the atomised approaches that can be a feature of many VET programs. Nothing about this approach to learning is new, however – but it has not been used much in VET. Training Packages, regulatory regimes and inertia in the VET system all work to affect the extent to which more innovative pedagogies are used.

What do VET’s teachers need to enable this?

The first thing is that it turns the way students have often learnt with success before on its head, so students need to be helped to work and learn in this new way. Learning to implement the ETHAZI approach also involves a program of specialist professional development for teachers undertaken in their own time.

Teachers also need to work in teams to design holistic challenges that will develop technical skills and 21st Century competencies and participate collaboratively in their effective assessment. They become a team of facilitators of learning – the ‘guides on the side’ – and working together to empower their students to ‘learn to learn’. To support this, learning spaces may also need to be redesigned to make them more flexible, and teachers have to lose their ‘sage on the stage’ mentality, she suggests.

And what else could be done?

She proposes developing and piloting such a program and evaluating its outcomes.  She also proposes that:

“A pilot professional development program inducting VET teachers into challenge-based learning be designed, developed, implemented and evaluated in one or more Australian VET providers”

Programs in the challenge-based learning model, and others associated with the use of professional practice learning (PPL) and associated RPL learning pathways, might also be developed by universities and other providers offering higher level VET teaching qualifications.

Finally, she suggests and Community of Practice be formed and that the outcomes of trials be disseminated within and outside the sector.