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Since the inception of vocational education in the early 1900's, technological innovation has functioned as a societal and economic change agent, fostering workplace improvements that determine the direction of education and training. In the early industrial age, steam and electrically powered factory tools, ships, and trains utilized simple mechanics that required little training and only an eighth grade education. In the late industrial age, transistor and vacuum tube technologies (radio, telephone, television, simple mainframes) changed the needs of the workforce to support both competency-based, semi-skilled training and a generalized, high school education (Harkins, 2002). Today, innovation is again transforming the workplace, this time from local/industrialized to global/information-based. As such, the workforce of the 21st century requires new entrants to have both basic skill competency and specific skill training to quickly adapt to change and to solve complex, societal problems. Students, then, must learn to actively construct knowledge and meaning from experiences; become self-regulatory; apply learning in a contextual environment; and demonstrate deep understanding and problem-solving for the unpredictable, changing world (Doolittle & Camp, 1999).
Yet, since 1983, a call for higher academic standards has permeated educational reform legislation. Beginning with the government report, A Nation at Risk, and the latest legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), high school graduation requirements have been increasing (Daggett, 2003). As a result of increased achievement standards and benchmarks, many states have adopted a back-to-basics strategy of requiring more mathematics, science, and language arts courses, and have implemented high-stakes standardized testing to weigh the performance of schools in meeting these benchmarks (Hull, 2003). As a result, schools have cut vocational (now called Career and Workforce Education) programs to allow for academic requirements (O'Brien, 2003). Consequently, fewer Career and Workforce Education (CWE) electives are available to students, the same programs that American businesses say are crucial to competing in a global workforce (Hull).
Technological innovation, the global workforce, and standards-based education are critical issues impacting CWE today. These issues have shaped the writer's progressivist and postmodernist educational beliefs. That is, the writer supports a holistic philosophy to learning, which intends to make schools more effective agencies of our democratic society. As such, learners are recognized for their abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity in the development of social intelligence (Cohen & Gelbrich, 1999). John Dewey, the leading proponent of progressivism, opposed a growing national movement that sought to separate academic education for the few and narrow vocational/workforce training for the masses. Through his efforts, Dewey helped to build the experiential education programs which are the foundation of CWE today (University of Vermont, 2003). According to Dewey, "to learn from experience is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction--discovery of the connection of things" (Dewey, 1916, p. 164). Furthermore, the writer believes strongly in a postmodernist vision developed "with an understanding of the world where knowledge is invented or constructed in the minds of learners, not because the knowledge is true or correct, but because it is useful to society" (Lee, 2006). The non-authoritarian philosophies of progressivism and postmodernism, then, highlight social experience for the advancement of society, where all learning is contextual in terms of place, time, and circumstance and multi-cultural groups learn to work cooperatively in a global world (Lee). As such, the writer champions CWE learning that is experiential in nature; that is grounded in both cultural and social frameworks; that develops students as high-performance problem-solvers and thinkers; and that is both rigorous and relevant.
Education Today: Benchmarks, Standards, and Accountability
Since the back-to-basics movement began in the early 1980's, student achievement on high stakes tests has become a national, state, and local priority for education. The Florida A++ Plan/House Bill 7087 and the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) all emphasize programmatic ties to high stakes testing. Yet, despite the call for higher standards, academic achievement has remained almost flat for the last three decades. Merely increasing the number of academic courses required to graduate does not significantly improve student achievement (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). And, in the face of these marginal academic gains, many states have adopted teach-to-the-test strategies to meet accountability measures, such as academic remedial education for students scoring below grade level (Jennings & Rentner, 2006). However, "not one positive effect on learning and retention was found in 144 studies that evaluated remedial education efforts" (Elliot & Deimler, 2007). Moreover, the writer supports the notion that back-to-basics in the current K-12 educational system has fostered an environment where "students rarely learn how one class is related to another class or how to solve real-world, complex problems that cross disciplines" (Daggett, 2003).
Education for the Future: Social, Contextual, Student-Centered, and Technological
The innovation continuum and resulting information-age require active participation by all citizens in social, political, and economic decisions that will affect their lives. To achieve this common good, learning must be purposely social, relevant, and thought-provoking so learners can improve on ideas and foster innovation for the advancement of society (Tan, Hung, & Scardamalia, 2006). Schools, then, must exist to meet societal needs and to prepare students for change with an emphasis on how to think, rather than what to think. To this end, the 21st century learner must master not only competency-based skills, but also improved literacy (reading and writing), mathematics, interpersonal, problem-solving and technology skills in a multi-disciplinary environment. In short, the writer believes that a standardized high school curriculum, one that traditionally separates technical-vocational education from general-liberal education, is outdated. Moreover, prepared curricula, with pre-determined outcomes, must change to experiential, just-in-time performances supported by technology (Harkins).
A Constructivist Framework
Constructivism employs elements of both progressivist and postmodernist educational philosophies as a theoretical framework for 21st century education. Learners in a constructivist environment actively assemble their own knowledge and meaning from experiences in order to apply new learning to relevant, real-world issues (Gray, n.d.). Jerome Bruner, an American Psychologist and contributor to social constructivist theory, states that "to instruct someone is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. Knowing is a process not a product" (Smith, 2002). Constructivism, then, calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum and promotes using the learner's prior knowledge to customize content. This student-centered theory emphasizes a learning process that lends itself to experiential and cooperative learning in a multi-sensory environment. Under the theory of constructivism, educators concentrate on making relevant connections and fostering new understanding in learners through project and problem-based curricula (Tan, Hung, & Scardamalia). Ultimately for students and our children, education must provide the dimension of experience, relevancy, and critical thinking necessary for the information-age.
Industrial age, competency-based curriculum, where learning outcomes are clearly defined and students are assessed by whether they can demonstrate those outcomes, as well as the recall of disconnected facts, do not provide the curricular environment in which students can learn to solve complex problems for the innovation society (Doolittle & Camp). That is, the high school structure in its current form is unable to meet economic and societal needs of the 21st century workplace due to its lack of innovation about learning and environments (Blomenkamp, 2009).
Tomorrow's workers, our students and children, will live, learn, and work in a knowledge society driven by technological innovation for an ever-changing global economy. Therefore, education in the 21st century demands performance-based learning in which students actively create knowledge and meaning from experiences and apply that learning in new and innovative ways. To that end, the writer believes the future of education requires transformational change from a mass production model to individualized constructivist teaching and learning in a multidisciplinary environment.