New ways to think about vocational learning


Sally Faraday and Carole Overton consider new research  into effective teaching/training and learning which strongly suggeststhat differences between ways of promoting academic and vocational learning are exaggerated and that the same good practice characteristics are to be found in both.

The changing nature of skills required for the 21st century, the need to improve the skills of the UK workforce and the current economic crisis mean that vocational education is more important now than ever. Yet despite recent improvements in provision, there can be no doubt that there is room for improvement of vocational teaching/training and learning. The 2010 Ofsted report raises issues of mediocrity and variability, which are supported by findings from others such as by Statz et al. (2004).[1] Vocational teaching/training is also often seen as narrow, with uninspiring and passive methods (Skills Commission 2009). So how to ensure that improvement happens? Should there be a change of direction? To quote the old adage – ‘if we always do what we have always done then we will get what we have always had’.

New research into teaching models, Effective vocational education and training: final report (Faraday et al. 2011) could provide a new way of thinking about vocational teaching and learning. We know that teachers use teaching models but often only part of them and in an unsystematic way. A systematic, holistic approach to the use of teaching/training models may be one way through the improvement maze and well worth a try.

An interesting finding from the study challenges common assumptions about the historic academic–vocational divide and found far more in common in the characteristics of good teaching and learning than might be supposed. At its heart, good teaching/training and learning is just that – nothing more or less, wherever it takes place.

The only significant area of difference that emerged was the context in which the learning took place. In the vocational context, applied learning is the order of the day: that is, learning involving real life, practical, hands-on experiences. Clearly, learning an emergency evacuation procedure for an aircraft or plastering a wall is more effective in a simulated or real environment. The learner’s experience is directly related to the effectiveness of their learning and the context is central to their experiences. In recent years, applied learning has spread beyond its vocational roots and become more widely used in programmes considered to be academic, such as A-levels.

These similarities in good practice suggested that there might be merit in looking more closely at the teaching models approach developed primarily in the academic schools sector and relating it to post-school vocational learning.

Across the sector it is generally accepted that quality of teaching is the key to enabling the best learner achievement. Barber and Mourshed’s (2008) review of 20 of the world’s top education systems concluded that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. So what is to be done to enable better vocational teaching/training and learning? Perhaps consider a different approach to its improvement – one that puts pedagogy at the forefront.

Work by Hopkins (2007)[2] illustrates the connections between teaching strategies, relationships, reflection and models of learning. In the Faraday et al. research, the addition of context means the framework can be used for vocational teaching/training and learning. The figure below shows the five inter-related and overlapping components that need to work in synergy. The central red diamond represents the choices that teachers/trainers make in planning and delivering any particular session.


One of the issues in any improvement is the way in which language is used to describe processes and actions. Teachers/trainers have very different understanding of words like ‘model’, for instance. The research therefore defines the main terms used so that teachers/trainers using the framework can interact with each other as well as use the intended meaning from the text. ‘Teaching models’ are defined in the research as structured sequences designed to elicit a particular type of thinking or response and achieve specific learning objectives and outcomes. We can see how the five main components are defined below.

teacher reflection

There are several teaching models that practitioners could use to examine, compare and look at improving their practice. Geoff Petty, for instance, describes two models of direct teaching in his Direct Instruction document. Many teachers use ‘enquiry’ as a teaching model concerned with finding specific information and remembering it. It has five distinct phases – engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation. Teachers/trainers know from experience that if they simply tell the learners statistics they find it boring and are unlikely to remember the information but if they use the ‘enquiry’ teaching model, learners become actively engaged in researching the information and are more likely to remember it. The impact is increased if the learners present their findings to the rest of the group.

The study found that although teachers/trainers did not generally realise that they were using teaching models in their sessions it was evident from observation that they were – at least in part. Sometimes the teaching/training and learning could have been improved by use of all the phases of the particular model.

The research concluded that the ‘Framework for Developing Effective Vocational Teaching and Learning,’ with its five inter-related components offers a clear basis for thinking about vocational teaching and learning and a vehicle for sharing and promoting effective practice. Evidence from research in the schools sector shows that learners’ attainments can be improved by using a teaching models approach but teaching models are not yet established in vocational learning. Preliminary findings are promising; what we need now is to conduct further substantial research into testing this in the vocational context.

The framework and teaching models approach may not be the ‘holy grail’ of/for vocational teaching and learning, but it does offer great potential for development. In the long term widespread adoption of the approach could lead to better learning, better teaching/training and, ultimately, better initial teacher training and continuing professional development for vocational teachers. There could also be an impact on teaching qualification specifications and course design and delivery. However, from where we are standing today, this seems a long way off. The challenge to vocational teachers/trainers, managers and staff and curriculum developers is: ‘How can you be among the first to benefit from the approach?’ Why not have a go and see what this new framework can do for you?

Sally Faraday and Carole Overton January 2012



These are the details of the full Faraday et al. report:

Faraday S, Overton C and Cooper S (2011) Effective teaching and learning in vocational education. London: Learning and Skills Network/City and Guilds. Available from the Policy Consortium website at:

There is also a step-by-step guide for practitioners:

Faraday S, Overton C and Cooper S (2011) Developing effective vocational teaching and learning through teaching models: a guide. London: Learning and Skills Network/City and Guilds. This is also available on the Policy Consortium’s website at

1 Statz C, Hayward G, Oh S and Wright S (2004). Outcomes and processes of vocational learning: a review of the literature. London: Learning and Skills Development Agency.

Hopkins D (2007). Every school a great school. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill/OpenUniversity Press.


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