Qualifications: Are these outdated for 21st Century learning?

Certainly food for thought and my initial response was ‘Clearly not’, however, maybe there is more to this question than meets the eye. We hear a lot about jobs for the future, or the impact of technology (especially artificial intelligence) on the jobs market, the apparent lack of a range of skills of younger people when entering the jobs market, and qualifications (well, not all by a significant number) being unfit for purpose.

Are we then perpetuating an outdated approach to ensuring employees are appropriately qualified, learners being prepared for work, or helping for young people develop their potential skill set? The disruptiveness of, especially digital, technology on employment and industry is considerable, does this mean a new approach to ensuring workers and learners can more readily adapt to the speed of continuous change, without committing to more traditional long term qualifications, which may have had their day?

One approach currently being deployed is that of some of the Government’s relatively new apprenticeship standards, as highlighted by the Institute for Apprenticeship blog, 8th February 2018. This approach doesn’t preclude the use of a qualification, in fact many standards don’t mandate these, it just means that a learner can adapt their learning journey to suit their needs in achieving the desired standard. They can focus on areas they need to develop further, and can refresh their understanding and skills in areas they are already strong at; all with the aim of focusing on the purpose of this route – that of achieving occupational competence; rather than a qualification which may or may not be loosely aligned to what is actually needed for occupational competence.

This approach of focusing on a standard can better meet the needs not just of a learner, but also employers, although it will be more challenging for some training organisations who may need to raise their own standards and expertise in meeting the needs of learners and employers. I can see this being unpopular in some quarters as it particularly challenges many current pedagogical approaches, yet it is the learner and employer who are the customer.

Whether someone is working towards an apprenticeship standard or continuing to develop within their workplace a change of focus is needed from what educators think should be taught to that of “what and how the learner wants to learn” (Stewart Hase & Chris Kenyon (2015) ‘Self-determined learning. Heutagogy in Action‘, Bloomsbury, p7). This is arguably a disruptive approach to currently embedded and traditional approaches to learning, but surely we need to be a lot more flexible and adaptive to learning to better enthuse learners to be more actively involved in their learning. This will also help us to better evolve with the ever changing jobs market.

A self-determined approach to learning can complement existing teaching methods, it won’t replace them, only the extent and priority of them: It would, however, be wise to ensure safety aspects of any subject matter are taught in established ways as we wouldn’t want a learner to operate equipment unsafely and learn through dangerous trial and error by choosing their learning route in such situations!

The self-determined route to learning should be seen as becoming the core method supported by other methods rather than with the current approach. Only by effectively giving back control to the learner (although in many cases they never had this in the first place) will we as educators be able to better encourage new and old learners to build a sustainable future.

Learning to keep pace with technological change may mean the end of qualifications as we know it, being replaced by a system of continuous learning as the ‘qualification’ of the future. This would fluidly change in a responsive way (unlike most current qualifications which are primarily cumbersome to administer and to make changes to) so as to meet the needs of the jobs and technology market of the time, not to be behind the curve which is a typical complaint in the media.

We are probably not ready for such a change, but starting a discussion should not be delayed, especially with current changes yet again being made to the educational system, for example, the new ‘T’ level qualifications. Unfortunately this will end up as yet another well intentioned initiative to improve standards but fails to deliver.

Chris Gray, 22nd July 2018