CBT is a bad model of curriculum
Leesa Wheelahan – Professor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education – University of Toronto
Competency-based training (CBT) has been the model of curriculum in vocational education in Australia since the 1980s. The current model, called training packages, was introduced in 1997. CBT was introduced to align vocational education with the needs of the labour market, to increase the links between jobs and qualifications, and to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access vocational education by focusing on what they can do, rather than what they say they know.
Unfortunately, it does none of these things.
Training packages were then and still are a bad model of curriculum that restrict students’ access to the knowledge and skills they need to live productive lives and to support their families and communities. It leads to the fragmentation of work, results in graduates who are supervised workers, and makes students’ access to higher levels of education more difficult.
Training packages comprise units of competency that specify the standards of performance required in the workplace. Units of competency include elements of competency that break down the unit into ‘essential outcomes’; performance criteria to demonstrate achievement of the element; foundation skills (language, literacy, numeracy and employment skills); and, assessment requirements that include ‘performance evidence’, knowledge evidence, and assessment conditions (Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council, 2015a).
The focus is on work as it is now and not as it will be in the future.
This results in ‘[a] rigid backward mapping approach, in which the state of the art on the shop floor is the untouchable starting point for the definition of occupational competencies, leading to routinised job descriptions, in which the proactive and reflective worker is left out’ (Biemans et al. cited in Brockmann, Clarke, Méhaut, & Winch, 2008: 237).
Moreover, CBT contributes to the fragmentation of work and occupations. Rather than start with the notion of the person in the occupation, training packages start with discrete workplace requirements and qualifications are made up of discrete units of competency that are aggregated in this or that way for this or that occupation.
In 2016, only 33% of government funded vocational education graduates worked in the occupation associated with their qualification (NCVER 2017: Table 13). Only 18% of graduates who had a job before undertaking their vocational education qualification were employed in a higher skilled job after their graduation in 2016, and only 44% of those who were unemployed before their training had a job after training (down from 55% in 2007) (NCVER 2017: Table 5).
It is difficult to argue that CBT results in efficiencies by training people for specific workplace tasks or roles when most people will not be employed in those jobs. It is difficult to sustain an argument that VET qualifications directly increase access to higher skilled occupations if this is measured by transition from a lower to a higher skill level, and it is difficult to argue that VET provides access to the labour market for disadvantaged students. Yet these are the narrow purposes of VET qualifications as defined in policy, and these are how they should be measured.
But there is more.
In response to critiques of training packages over the years, there have been efforts to improve the definition of competency, particularly to include theoretical knowledge as a core part of units of competency. However, the theoretical knowledge to be included is defined by the requirements of the specific task, and not by the theoretical system of meaning. For example, the Knowledge Guide for CHC Community Services Training Package states that:
Knowledge evidence specifies what the individual must know in order to safely and effectively perform the work task described in the unit of competency. It is intrinsically linked to performance and like all evidence must be current.” (Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council, 2015b: 6)
By tying knowledge to specific tasks students are only provided with access to contextually specific applications of theoretical knowledge, and not the relationships between concepts that are the definition of theoretical knowledge. And, rather than providing students with access to the applied disciplinary knowledge that underpins occupational practice (as in the professions), they are only provided with contextually specific applications of knowledge. This is because knowledge is delocated from the applied disciplines and tied to specific workplace requirements. Students may be able to associate a contextually specific application of knowledge with a specific context, but it does not help them if they need to select a different application of knowledge, understand why they need to do this and not that, and creatively apply knowledge in new contexts.
Students’ lack of access to theoretical knowledge in vocational education is unjust. It makes it difficult for students to progress to higher skilled jobs and to higher level studies. It also makes it difficult for them to contribute to debates and controversies in their occupation, and in debates in society about what we, as a society, should be like.
It is patronising and simply untrue to assert that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not able to engage in
abstract theoretical knowledge, or to use this knowledge to think about their lives and their communities.
Teachers who are appropriately qualified and supported by their institutions are able to support the most disadvantaged students through supportive pedagogic practices to engage in high quality learning.
In the mid 1990s I was teaching in community development and justice courses in TAFE, from certificate III to diploma. Many students in the community development course were refugees, and a majority were from non-English speaking backgrounds. In one subject, students were required to write an essay about which theory of community development they most supported and why. One student, a Vietnamese refugee who has spent years in refugee camps, wrote an essay in which she explained that in her heart she was a Marxist, but in her head, she was a liberal, because of her experiences as a refugee. I have never forgotten this essay. I also remember teaching students about feminism and the impact that this had on the lives of younger and older women in the course. Access to knowledge matters, and CBT denies students this access.
Brockmann, Michaela, Clarke, Linda, Méhaut, Philippe, & Winch, Christopher. (2008). Competence-Based Vocational Education and Training (VET): the Cases of England and France in a European Perspective. Vocations and Learning, 1(3), 227-244.
Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council. (2015a). Assessment Strategies Guide for CHC Community Services Training Package. Retrieved from Sydney: < http://companion_volumes.vetnet.education.gov.au/CVDocuments/CHC_Assessment_Strategies_Guide_2015_R3.pdf > viewed 15 June 2016
Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council. (2015b). Knowledge Guide for CHC Community Services Training Package. Retrieved from Sydney: < http://companion_volumes.vetnet.education.gov.au/CVDocuments/CHC_Knowledge_Guide_August_2015_R3.pdf > viewed 15 June 2016
National Centre for Vocational Education Research. (2017). Government-funded student outcomes 2016. Retrieved from Adelaide: < https://www.ncver.edu.au/publications/publications/all-publications/government-funded-student-outcomes-2016 > viewed 1 September 2017
Where to for lifelong learning?
Sally Thompson – Deputy Director,
Sector Engagement & Capability Development – Future Social Service Institute
Before we decide ‘where to’ for lifelong learning. It is perhaps useful to reflect on ‘where from’. The dominant philosophy that has underpinned public policy in relation to lifelong learning in Australia, since at least the early 1990s is human capital theory. Human capital theory views learning as a rational investment in the self, resulting in a ‘return on investment’ in the form of higher wages for individuals and productivity increases for the economy. It finds its philosophical home in neoliberal economics and its products are outcomes-based funding and competency-based assessment.
The limitations of human capital theory are obvious to all who work in adult education and its adjacent fields. It relies on levels of measurability that are imprecise at best, ‘othering’ at worst. It reduces the complexity of working people’s knowledge, judgements and artistry to the most narrow, obvious and observable skills. It privileges work in the formal labour market and ignores the many other human experiences that require us to keep learning.
By ignoring the ‘life’ part of ‘lifelong learning’, it renders invisible the contributions of those (predominantly women) who labour outside the formal labour market – raising kids, caring for our frail aged, running sporting clubs and attending to neighbours. As my colleague Barry Golding would often say: ‘it is a sick, sad and sorry society that only cares about what we do for and with our money’.
Yet government interest in human capital theory since the early 1990s has resulted in significant investment in adult education, and therein lies the rub. Those of us old enough to remember a kinder, gentler period of adult education, before the era of competency-based assessment and outcomes-based funding, often forget how much of it was funded through bake sales and unpaid feminised labour. The not for profit Learn Local sector in my home state of Victoria, for example, has attracted record funding during a recent period of radical neoliberal policy experimentation. In neighbourhood houses, libraries and learning centres, adult education continues to transform lives, despite the attendant challenges.
Little wonder that governments sometimes look at the sector, scratch their heads and ask: what on earth are you people complaining about?
Lifelong learning in neoliberal times is an exhausting dance. Practitioners complain in private about Kafkaesque compliance, dehumanising measurement and ever-increasing workloads, while publicly thanking government for the funding that allows people to learn and achieve nonetheless. Those who manage to carve out spaces for innovation at the margins, urge the rest to keep quiet about the narrowness of funding frameworks. Teachers struggle every day to turn a system in which learning is often a reward or sanction in increasingly cruel ‘mutual obligation’ regimes into a meaningful learning experience for the most marginalised people.
ALA’s members have long advocated for a Northern European style lifelong learning policy, in which investment from cradle to grave in lifelong and lifewide learning allows all of us to pursue meaningful work and contribute outside the workplace, including into old age. I don’t believe such a thing is possible within the current neoliberal policy frameworks of both major political parties – which doesn’t mean I don’t think such a thing is possible at all!
The struggle for lifelong and lifewide learning for all must continue at the margins of Australian public policy for the time being. In the longer term, it needs to be one part of a bigger struggle for public policy that puts people and their needs first, and draws its information from the bottom of social hierarchies instead of the top.
We live in a world where neoliberalism and its attendant theories are running out of puff. There are emerging signs that people, and the governments who respond to them are looking for new approaches to learning in a way that was unfathomable only a short time ago. The challenge for us is to make space for new ways of thinking about learning while respecting the work of those who struggle every day within the parameters afforded by government policy today.
Sue McKerracher – CEO – Australian Library and Information Association
There is a public library in most communities across Australia – more than 1600 in total – and each one demonstrates that there is not only a need for lifelong learning, there is also a keen appetite for it. Libraries run more than 250,000 programs each year, ranging from rhyme-time for toddlers to Tech Savvy Seniors classes for older Australians, with lots in between. You can build your own computer, learn coding and robotics, find out about keeping chickens in your backyard or how to research your family history, use a 3D printer, build new worlds with Minecraft – and much more. There are bi-lingual story-times for families whose first language isn’t English; there are Deadly Digital sessions for Indigenous communities and there are English conversation classes for new arrivals. These courses are free at the point of delivery, putting them within the reach of everyone; unlike formal education, where increased costs have priced out of the market those who most need the support.
Library programs attract all ages and participation is driven by a number of factors. Literacy is at the core, whether it is introducing children to the joy of books, or helping adults pick up the reading ability they missed out on at school. For some, it’s about updating or developing new skills, which will help them find employment or improve their career prospects. For others, it’s about keeping their brain active post-retirement. Many turn to the library to help them stay on top of the new technologies, which are changing the world around them.
It’s this latter point, which is of greatest interest to the federal government and gives the lifelong learning lobby perhaps its strongest lever. There are undoubted merits to improved literacy and work-readiness, but people’s ability to operate effectively online goes to the heart of the Australian Government’s agenda.
It is cheaper to offer government services electronically and there are exciting opportunities from the data generated. We have seen the move to digital-by-default for the Australian Tax Office, the Census, the National Digital Health Strategy, and from the Digital Transformation Agency’s 8 May 2018-2019 Budget statement:
$92.4 million will be invested in the next phase of work to build Govpass, our digital identity system. Govpass will provide a simple, safe and secure choice for people to verify who they are and access government services online, reducing the need to visit a shopfront. Over the next financial year, up to 8 high-volume government services will be piloted using a digital identity, giving more than 500,000 people the opportunity to test the system.
Digital-by-default government services will only work if the overwhelming majority of the population is able to engage in online transactions. Connectivity and affordability are part of the story, but if people don’t have the confidence and the skills, they will simply not be able to participate.
When we talk to the federal government about the need to invest in lifelong learning, digital literacy may well be our Trojan horse. As well as illustrating the necessity for lifelong learning, it responds directly to a government imperative.
As digital literacy is where the lifelong learning lobby and government interests coincide, perhaps this is where we should focus our initial energies. Whether it’s in TAFE, through a Neighbourhood House, or at the library, we are supporting current and future generations to develop the skills they need to be confident digital citizens – and that’s good for everyone.
Transforming the workplace
Michael Taylor – National Policy & Projects Manager – Australian Industry Group
With technological changes across nearly all industries, regardless of current competencies, increasingly workers will need to reskill throughout their working lives. It has been estimated that some skills need refreshing every two years while others become redundant in a rapidly changing workplace under the influence of the expanding digital economy. In addition, technological change will demand higher levels of literacy and numeracy so there needs to be a significant focus on workplace literacy and numeracy within the framework of lifelong learning.
Lifelong learning applies to all forms of learning whether formal or informal, accredited or non-accredited. Companies need strategies that include a cycle of re-skilling for all categories of workers according to newly introduced technology and processes. This includes learning that applies existing capabilities in new contexts, including different ways to use higher-level soft skills.
Access to lifelong learning does not necessarily mean access to full qualifications, especially to the existing workforce. Rather, the acquisition of new skills and the refreshing of existing skills can be achieved through access to bite size training. The introduction of micro-credentials by education institutions to meet on-demand learning is increasing.
The growing emphasis by education and training sectors now on skills in enquiry, agility, adaptability, creativity and problem solving means we are better able to adapt to new situations and be lifelong learners.
A variety of learning experiences are required and not just those that are campus-based. Work Integrated Learning in the higher education sector and work-based learning in the vocational education and training sector are at the heart of these experiences.
The linkage of lifelong learning to workforce productivity is now essential. A 2014 UNESCO statement makes the direct link between lifelong learning and economic growth and prosperity. Without efforts by government, education and training sectors and companies to normalise cultures of continuous learning in the workplace the Australian economy will not prosper to the extent that is necessary for our future.
A vision for lifelong learning
John Field– Emeritus Professor / Gastprofessor – University of Stirling / University of Cologne
Professor John Field marks the 20th anniversary of the UK’s visionary policy for a learning society.
The central argument and language of The Learning Age have become staples of today’s educational policy debate.
In his preface, David Blunkett set out a familiar agenda:
‘To achieve stable and sustainable growth, we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force’.
Nothing unusual about that; similar phrases abound in policy texts from national governments and international organisations across the globe.
What marked The Learning Age as distinctive, and also provides a yardstick by which to judge its results, was its more visionary and humane perspective. Of course, this was a product of its time, following a long period of Conservative rule. There was a sense that things were possible.
With hindsight, there were probably too many initiatives – spread around like confetti – for all to survive the hard years of austerity and recession. And there might have been even more: with the comfort of hindsight, it is clear that The Learning Age underestimated the potential of digitisation and mobile devices, and focussed excessively on increasing provision rather than tackling the serious demand-side deficits of the UK skills mix.
Some key achievements remain, while the remarkable research programme on the wider benefits of learning has had international impact. But the question of adult learning and skills remains a live one. The challenges of inclusive and sustainable economic growth are as pressing as ever, and if anything the potential for adult learning in civic democracy is greater than it has been for some time. For those of us who enjoyed the vibrant discussions at Wolverhampton, the conversation has only just begun.
The Learning Age – 20 Years On
Sir Alan Tuckett OBE – Professor of Education – University of Wolverhampton
If governments in England had consciously set out to decimate opportunities for adult learning they would have been hard pressed to do better than the apparently accidental consequences of policy here over the last fifteen years.
In that time, almost 2 million adults have been lost as public funding of further education [Australia’s equivalent of TAFE and adult community education] swung to ever more narrowly focussed provision for the under 19s. In higher education meanwhile, 60 per cent of mature students have gone since student fees were tripled in 2012–13, and four in five of them were at sub degree level.
This was the background context for a conference organised at the University of Wolverhampton, to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Learning Age, the 1997 Labour Government Green Paper that led to a cornucopia of new initiatives to promote lifelong learning. The paper opened with an inspiring foreword from David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
In it he argued:
As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.
It is just such a vision that is lacking from contemporary policy – so the event hoped to kick start discussion by reviewing critically the successes and failures of initiatives like the university for Industry, individual learning accounts, unionlearn and the Skills for Life literacy and numeracy strategy, asking what could be taken on board for a future lifelong learning policy perspective. The day was exhilarating – but will it make a difference? Watch this space!’