As education theories evolved, so did vocational training

Nathan E. Harris of Local 162 in Fresno, Calif., installs a fire damper. Photo by John Boykin of Commercial Imaging Services. Courtesy of the International Training Institute.

The following is an excerpt from sheet metal instructor Donald C. Perry's dissertation on apprenticeship training programs. Another excerpt, focusing on the history of such programs, ran in January's issue.

In the years following the Great Depression, organized labor experienced tremendous growth. U.S. membership peaked in the mid-1950s.

However, there were already signs of trouble.

The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955, in part to stem what was seen as declines in the U.S. union movement. But by 1995, 40 years after the merger, only about 16 percent of American workers were still unionized.

An unidentified HVAC competition contestant performs field measurements. Photo by John Boykin of Commercial Imaging Services. Courtesy of the International Training Institute.
This downward trend continues today. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12.5 percent of American workers were union members in 2004. Many people believe unions have done their job by improving education, wages, health care, pensions, safety and security for all working people, and have now become redundant.

Traditionally, much of the adult education for working people during this period was associated with organized labor. Today, many no longer view organized labor as the last, best hope to earn a decent living.

With the decline of many well-paying American industrial jobs due to cheaper overseas labor, the 1970s oil embargo and the subsequent recession making millions of blue-collar workers unemployed for extended periods, Americans turned away from vocational training. Vocational high schools were being closed. Technical schools and community colleges were clamoring for students, and labor unions' apprenticeship training programs, other than those for the construction trades, were virtually nonexistent.

Government involvement

The U.S. government recognized the need for new vocational programs to help young people and unskilled adults enter into the labor force. The government's goal was to give job training to those economically disadvantaged individuals, as well as others facing serious barriers to employment and others in special need of such training.

The Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 resulted. In 1992, the law was amended to also deal with job-training reform. The six titles under the law addressed education coordination and grants among states, adult training, youth programs, older individual programs, and displaced workers.

However, a short open letter to the American people by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, titled "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," was a deathblow for vocational, technical, and occupational education for much of the 1980s. The commission focused on college-bound students and disregarded the majority of the students, who, for whatever reason, were not expected to attend a university.

By the late 1980s, evidence was mounting that the American education system was failing to meet the needs of non-college-bound students. Young people with only high school diplomas were moving in and out of low-wage, low-skill jobs and the earnings gap widened between them and workers who were better educated.

Testing, adjusting and balancing contestant Cynthia L. Chan of Local 16 in Portland, Ore., takes a measurement for a transverse fitting. Photo by John Boykin of Commercial Imaging Services. Courtesy of the International Training Institute.

New laws

A flurry of legislation ensued. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 was the first of a series designed to increase the occupational skills of the "forgotten half" of America's non-college-bound young people.

Passed soon after, the "Goals 2000" legislation of 1994 targeted primary and secondary education.

A similar bill, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, also passed in 1994, was equally important.

The foundation of these laws is the so-called youth apprenticeship model. This model is inspired by the apprenticeship systems of the construction trades in the United States and Europe. The programs link school and work by integrating academic instruction with work-based learning and work experience. In addition to teaching skills for specific jobs and general employability, youth apprenticeship aims to affirm academic learning and to demonstrate its connection with the workplace.

Adult mentors guide students' experience on the job, just as journeymen do for the regular apprentices in the trades. Students often rotate jobs to obtain a broad view of related occupations and skills - just as is done by trade apprentices. Many provide a certificate of skills mastery or a "journeyman's card." Generally, the student receives wages paid by the employer, much in the same way the apprentices in the trades are paid by their employers.

Labor unions played a major role in guiding this legislation. They did have some concerns, however. Unions were committed to preserving the integrity of traditional registered apprenticeship programs and preferred their expansion to the creation of a separate apprenticeship system. Unions were also concerned about the risk of substituting younger apprentices for current workers, lowering labor standards, duplicating current apprenticeship programs and losing control of the supply of workers to potential employers, which could lower wages.

Learning theories

Literature is full of various learning theories, which can be divided into two categories: pedagogy - the teaching of children - and androgogy - the teaching of adults. The literature suggests that adults are taught like children because adult teaching methods are based on child learning theories.

The late Malcolm Knowles, on the other hand, as one of the nation's leading authorities on adult education and training, and considered by many to be the "father" of adult education, contended teaching adults was different from teaching children. Knowles believed that adults bring different perceptions, motivations, goals, expectations and experiences to the learning situation that are totally different from those of a child.

In adults, perception is highly selective. A person does not see all there is to see or hear, nor is he or she equally aware of everything. Perception tends to be organized. People perceive things in patterns that are meaningful to them. In adult education, the interpretation of what is perceived by the student is clearly influenced by the needs, motivations, goals, expectations, life experiences and disposition students bring to the classroom.

Teachers are faced with the dilemma of not knowing what pupils actually see or hear.

Greg P. Sholdt, Shuqiang Zhang and Catherine P. Fulford investigated learner perceptions about messages. They concluded that student satisfaction and perceived learning could be seriously affected by student and teacher interaction. Another study, conducted by Elizabeth Aaronsohn, Judy E. Holmes, Treva Foley and Jeffrey Wallowitz concluded that even at the adult level, if students perceive the teacher in a dominant role, they feel obliged to become "performers" rather than "learners, discoverers and constructors" of their own meaning. The students' intellectual task becomes that of figuring out what the teacher wants, rather than how the material makes sense in their own knowledge.

Thirty-fourth annual International Apprentice Contest participant Damien Salassi of Sheet Metal Workers union Local 21 in Baton Rouge, La., works on an elbow at the March 27-29 event in Las Vegas. Photo by John Boykin of Commercial Imaging Services. Courtesy of the International Training Institute.

Apprenticeship content, structure

The content of apprenticeships varies from trade to trade. Many skills, however, overlap. For example, an electrician apprenticeship might incorporate pipe bending in its curriculum, while a pipe fitter apprenticeship would incorporate pipe welding - two very different skills to master. However, reading blueprints, manual and computer-aided drafting, and trade-related mathematics could be in each apprenticeship.

The structure of each apprenticeship program varies from trade to trade and from geographical area to geographical area. The craft apprenticeships that do not require the level of skill of a mechanical-trade apprenticeship might meet once a week for two years while most mechanical trade apprenticeships could meet for four years. The more densely populated metropolitan areas might have day-school programs, while less densely populated or rural areas might have evening or Saturday programs.

Curriculum theory

Curriculum theory has evolved over the last century through the work of John Dewey, Franklin Bobbit, Ralph W. Tyler and others. However, Hilda Taba, a visionary educator of the 1950s and 1960s, is responsible for the theory that any enterprise as complex as curriculum requires some kind of conceptual framework of thinking to guide it. Today, more than ever before, curriculum experts need to re-examine Taba's views and build on her work.

Though many current theories on curriculum exist in the literature today, most curriculum experts do seem to agree on two points. First, curriculum is of fundamental importance to teachers and students, and to the nature of teaching and learning. Second, curriculum development is greatly influenced by the values we bring to the process.

According to Allan C. Ornstein and Francis P. Hunkins, though many theories exist, curriculum experts divide theory either into scientific or humanistic categories. Scientific theory is comprised of general facts, laws, or hypotheses related to each other. The most widely accepted definition of scientific theory is proposed by Herbert Feigl, "a set of assumptions from which can be derived by purely logico-mathmatical procedures, a larger set of empirical laws." The theory furnishes an explanation of these empirical laws and unifies the subject matter.

Humanistic theory, on the other hand, is largely based on values. Humanistic theory emphasizes the melding of the emotional and physical with the intellectual. It addresses coherence and a way of knowing, that is, the meshing of ideas and actions together. Much of the theory that relates to education, and specifically to curriculum, stems from the humanistic orientation.

An apprentice contestant prepares to weld ductwork. Photo by John Boykin of Commercial Imaging Services. Courtesy of the International Training Institute.


When constructing a curriculum, goals, content, learning experiences, materials and evaluation must be considered. In adult vocational, technical, and occupational education, it would be ideal for all those who are to be affected by a curriculum to be involved in the development process.

A proven curriculum model should be chosen. Although there are many models to choose from, most can be classified as either "technical-scientific" or "non-technical-nonscientific."

The underlying assumption is that the technical-scientific approach would be best suited for adult vocational, technical, and occupational subjects. Ralph Tyler is credited with developing the Tyler Model, which has four basic principles. It's one of the best-known technical-scientific models. Tyler believed that those involved in curriculum inquiry must try to define:
  • Purpose of the school.
  • Educational experiences related to the purposes.
  • Organization of these experiences.
  • Evaluation of the purposes.

When he wrote "purposes," Tyler was referring to objectives. He indicated that curriculum planners should identify general objectives by gathering data from the subject matter, the students and the society.

In the case of sheet metal apprenticeships, the term "society" would refer to sheet metal contractors and sheet metal workers.

After identifying general objectives, the curriculum planners were to refine them by filtering them through the philosophy of the school and the psychology of learning. What resulted from such screening were specific instructional objectives.

Development and design

Instructional systems development is a process for determining what to teach and how to teach it. The assumption is that there is a target population, such as sheet metal apprentices, that should learn something about a trade.

Many experts say determining "what to teach and how to teach it" is a three-phase process:
  1. The designer analyzes a goal statement to identify subordinate skills, and formulates specific objectives and associated criterion-referenced assessments.
  2. How the information or skills will be taught is spelled out in an instructional strategy, which is the blueprint for the development of the instruction.
  3. The instruction is evaluated with the appropriate students until the desired performance level is met.

Instructional design, on the other hand, is less broad in scope. Jeroen Van Merrienboer points out the instructional design models focus on two of the three phases of instructional-system models. Instructional-design models concentrate on the analysis of a to-be-trained skill in a process of job and task analysis and the conversion into a training strategy.

Van Merrienboer believes the instructional-design model is best suited for technical training programs that require complex cognitive skills in industrial and vocational settings.

Designing training programs for complex technical skills is, at best, a difficult task. Powerful training, regardless of which model is employed, must be effective, efficient and engaging. Michael Milano proposes, regardless of the content of the training, to create powerful training, designers need to follow these guidelines.

He says "powerful training" is driven by objectives, focuses on application, fits the characteristics of the adult learner, balances the diverse realities of multiple learners, places minimum reliance on the lecture-process approach, avoids having to correct for the "right" response and includes appropriate evaluation points.