Curriculum, Pathways, Promising Practices

Vocational Education in Canadian Schools

Toward expansive experiential learning

“A rich and deep vocational education involves helping students explore linkages and possibilities as they crisscross the boundaries between school and work. To better help students find their way in our complex world, such a vision of expansive experiential learning holds much promise.”

Vocational education in Canadian schools has a checkered history. On one hand, it was given a boost in the 1960s with the Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act when federal government resources were provided to build new schools and facilities across the country. On the other hand, vocational education has long been seen as a second-best choice for less able students, gaining attention mainly in times of labour shortage in key industries. 

The under-valuation of vocational education reflects historical struggles. Recall the well-known debate in the early 20th century between social efficiency proponent David Sneddon and progressive educator John Dewey, who held very different visions for vocational education. Dewey opposed the separation between general education and trade education: he believed that vocational education should be liberal and liberal education should be vocational. Sneddon, in contrast, believed vocational education was largely about training working-class kids to meet industry needs. The distinction between education seen as “academic” and education seen as “vocational,” which persists to this day, supports the hierarchy that values academic knowledge and the professional occupations associated with it over practical vocational knowledge.

Currently, however, experiential learning, and especially work-integrated learning (WIL), is a hot topic in higher education policy discussions. Universities in Canada and elsewhere are encouraging all students to get a taste of the work world through internship, practicum, and cooperative education opportunities. The WIL movement is driven by a number of factors, including the concerns of employers about the “employability skills”1 of graduates, and the predominance of human capital discourse.2 In response, a burgeoning literature about how to foster effective experiential learning in higher education has emerged. 

Another tendency in North American higher education is growing concern about students’ civic engagement as well as employability skills. As writers from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement in the U.S. argue in their 2012 report “A Crucible Moment,” higher education should be an incubator for fostering democratic voice, thought, and action rather than simply an engine of economic development.3 This report, coupled with the rapid growth of community service-learning in higher education, challenges the seemingly contradictory aims of educating for employability and educating for citizenship.

What does all this mean for education systems across Canada? This article argues that K-12 educators can learn from higher education approaches that: 

  • break down the binary between vocational and professional education
  • consider how experiential learning can be structured most effectively, and 
  • see education as more than simply training for work.

In what follows, I elaborate on these points using examples.

Breaking down vocational-academic binaries

Although the historical legacy of devaluing vocational education still haunts current descriptions of course streams and attitudes of educators and career counselors, steps have been taken in Canada and elsewhere to better integrate “vocational” and “general” qualifications, and to increase student access to higher education programs. In Europe, the term “hybrid qualifications” has been used to describe qualifications resulting from education and training pathways that provide access to both employment and higher education. For instance, in countries like Germany, with its highly institutionalized dual system of apprenticeship training, there is greater policy interest in encouraging young people to extend their technical training into university studies. In the Canadian context, university aspirants are also considering technical training. Toward this end, dual credit and joint degree programs are becoming more common.

Dual credit programs are being used in B.C., for example, to “enable high achieving, career oriented, and at-risk students to gain credit towards post-secondary credentials.”4 The description suggests that these programs are mainly targeting students who need encouragement to pursue education beyond high school. Dual credit courses, which involve a college credit course team-taught by a secondary school teacher and a college teacher or certified journeyperson, can be used toward a college certificate, diploma program, or apprenticeship as well as towards a high school diploma. Exposing students to the college environment is seen as a good way to expand their educational and career horizons and better prepare them to succeed in higher education. While this initiative requires greater collaboration between secondary and post-secondary systems, it is a promising way of expanding access to higher education.

Joint degree programs between colleges/technical institutes and universities represent another partnership that erodes the vocational-academic binary within the post-secondary education system. I’ve found it striking that a desire for “hands on” learning has been expressed by very different groups of students – by those participating in my earlier research into high school apprenticeship and by participants in my more recent research on university community service-learning programs (programs where students work, often in non-profit organizations, as part of an academic course). The “massification” of higher education and increasing labour market uncertainty has meant greater diversity in the student population, and an increased proportion of students who value practice-based learning. 

Dual credit programs require secondary schools to collaborate with post-secondary institutions in their municipalities on partnerships that will benefit students – ideally, partnerships in areas of student interest where institutional supports can be provided. Sustainable provincial funding is a prerequisite for these initiatives. Joint degree programs encourage high schools to think differently about how they advise and stream students. We know that there is a great deal of mobility within the post-secondary system, with students taking transfer programs as well as moving back and forth between technical and academic programs and institutions to acquire additional qualifications. The idea of a “linear pathway” has not been the norm for some time. Therefore, high school course streams said to destine students for the Workplace or College or University/College (U/C) or University make less and less sense.5 Students need flexible systems that respond to their non-linear development and shifting identities, but there is much institutional work to do, starting in the K-12 system. There is also room for more dialogue across different kinds of research on experiential learning.

Learning from research on Professional Vocational Work Learning

As a university faculty member, I have observed a growing interest in WIL across campus. Not only are university students encouraged to enroll in the wide range of cooperative education programs that are available, but they are also encouraged to seek part-time jobs at the university related to their studies (e.g. Work Learn program at UBC) or take on internships to gain experience. While high schools can learn a great deal from research on vocational education and training, the literature on Professional Vocational Work Learning (PVWL) also yields important insights.6 For example, the literature finds that the effectiveness of WIL depends on how those experiences are organized and integrated with other student learning. 

WIL tends to rely on the ideal of the student as a learner who is able to engage independently and direct and manage their own learning; however, to support them, attention must be given to how experiential learning is integrated with formal classroom learning before, during, and after such experiences.7 Planning effective WIL involves: preparing students for what they will be expected to do; providing opportunities to engage with both peers and experts to extend their learning; helping students develop the capacity to think, question and critically reflect on workplace practices; and helping them develop “work process knowledge” and recognize the social relations they’re participating in and creating through their work.8 Since it’s infeasible that high schools or universities can provide WIL for every student, educators might consider drawing on students’ part-time work experiences in classroom discussions about working life in general as well as specific kinds of issues at work. Voluntary as well as paid work can provide excellent opportunities for students to develop boundary-crossing skills. This observation leads to my final point about expanding the discourse of “learning for earning.”

Expansive experiential learning

In higher education today, there is considerable emphasis on graduates’ employability. However, as noted, another trend in higher education (that complicates this economic focus) calls on higher education to develop ethical and engaged citizens through programs like community service-learning. It seems to me that the aims of employability and citizenship are more easily reconciled when service-learning programs, like cooperative education, is valued as a way of helping students make transitions after graduation. My research on the impact of service learning on university graduates’ pathways found that such learning opportunities were often instrumental in helping them find their vocation, and more broadly, their place in the world. Unlike some other WIL, service learning encouraged creative, multi-disciplinary approaches to thinking about societal problems while developing substantial work process knowledge. In fact, because of its relative lack of formal expectations, coupled with a deep commitment to fostering reflective practice, service learning has great potential to foster socially critical vocationalism.9

Based on my research and experiences as an instructor, I am arguing for experiential learning as a way of preparing ethical, socially aware, and capable graduates. This vision for education draws inspiration from Dewey and his followers in the U.S., who envision a collaborative, and I would add, seamless system of K-12 and higher education engaged in real world community problem-solving. Founded in the tradition of community schools, these educational institutions work collectively across age levels and function as a hub for broadly based community partnerships that create knowledge “made in the world and for the world.”10 

The suggestions I’ve made here are not “pie in the sky,” so to speak. Rather, volunteer work has been encouraged, even mandated, as part of most high school programs. Nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity already have programs for youth aimed at providing them with trade and life skills while strengthening communities.11 What is lacking is more collaboration across K-12 and higher education systems in coordinating opportunities for students and in recognizing their role in achieving aims related to democratic citizenship as well as employability. 

Further, many committed educators in K-12 and higher education systems are seeking ways to help students combine workplace and formal learning in ways that help them integrate their understanding. What is needed, in my opinion, is more dialogue across vocational education and training and professional education research literatures about promising practices. Despite the legacy of devaluing vocational education in Canadian schools,12 initiatives like dual credit and joint programs encourage access to higher education for more students and erode the distinctions between academic and vocational knowledge. 

A variety of forms of experiential learning in K-12 and in higher education can be combined to create meaningful and pedagogically appropriate experiences for students – experiences that build on one another and that encourage exploration and learning from mistakes. A rich and deep vocational education involves helping students explore linkages and possibilities as they crisscross the boundaries between school and work. To better help students find their way in our complex world, such a vision of expansive experiential learning holds much promise.

1. For many policy makers and employers, the term “employability skills” refers to individuals’ credentialed knowledge; a more nuanced understanding attends to the interactions between individuals’ knowledge and circumstances and labour market policies and conditions (supply and demand).

2. Regarding human capital discourse, see Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human capital and the making of millenials (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2017).

3. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College learning and democracy’s future (Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012).

4. British Columbia Council on Admissions and Transfers, Dual Credit Forum. www.bccat.ca/about/dual

5. For example, see Toronto District School board description of Ontario course streams in grade 11 and 12: www.tdsb.on.ca/High-School/Guidance/Course-Types

6. For a discussion of Professional Vocational Work Learning, see David Guile, The Learning Challenge of the Knowledge Economy (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2010).

7. Stephen Billett, “Key Findings About Integrating Experiences,” in Practice-Based Learning in Higher Education: Jostling cultures, Eds. by Monica Kennedy et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015).

8. Nicholas Boreham, “Work Process Knowledge in Technological and Organizational Development,” in Work Process Knowledge, Eds. Nicholas Boreham et al., (London: Routledge, 2002).

9. Sam Peach, “A Curriculum Philosophy for Higher Education: Socially critical vocationalism,” Teaching in Higher Education 15, no. 4 (2010): 449–460.

10. Lee Benson, Ira Richard Harkavy, and John L. Puckett. Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform: Civil society, public schools, and democratic citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007), 99.

11. For example, see information about Habitat for Humanity’s Every Youth Initiative: https://habitat.ca/en/ways-to-partner/partner-with-us/every-youth-initiative

12. Alison Taylor, Vocational Education in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Photo: courtesy of Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Alison Taylor

Professor, Faculty of Education, The University of British Columbia

Alison Taylor is a Professor in Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research has focused on experiential education and student transitions from school to work.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network