Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Towards an Epistemically Neutral Curriculum Model for Vocational Education: From Competencies to Threshold Concepts and Practices

Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Towards an Epistemically Neutral Curriculum Model for Vocational Education: From Competencies to Threshold Concepts and Practices

Article excerpt

Introduction

The pervasiveness of competency-based training (CBT) in vocational education globally may be understood in terms of demand for cross-occupational curriculum models. This call for a model that can apply to a range of different occupations is a relatively recent phenomenon that coincides with the framing of vocational education within economic policy and accountability regimes. For example, CBT was implemented for multiple occupations covered by UK and Australian vocational education systems in the 1990s (Harris, Guthrie, Hobart, & Lundberg, 1995), and since the 2000s, the international aviation industry has been implementing a competency-based model for constituent occupations in the interests of regulation (Kearns, Mavin, & Hodge, 2016). But the very idea of a cross-occupational curriculum model presents peculiar challenges. Curriculum as we have known it is fundamentally concerned with the inherent knowledge and practical structures of those subjects, disciplines and occupations that are the focus of curriculum construction. To create curriculum is to be open and attuned to the subject matter itself and to be guided by what is there. Yet cross-occupational curriculum of the kind demanded by policymakers and regulators cannot follow this logic. Rather, a standardised model is required that can not only guide teaching and assessment in diverse occupations, but is intelligible to and can be systematised by policymakers, regulators and others who do not know these occupations. In a sense, any model of cross-occupational curriculum must abrogate or amend the goal of remaining open to particular occupational subject matter to maintain enough flexibility to apply meaningfully to diverse subject matters.

It could be objected that CBT is not curriculum or a curriculum model and thus the goal of curriculum to be open to particular subject matter is not applicable. For some, the term 'cross-occupational curriculum'' would be meaningless. This objection appears to be borne out by discussions such as we find in Harris et al. (1995) where 'units of competency' - templated documents that contain descriptions of competent work - are distinguished from curriculum proper, which is the programme of study based on one or more units. This way of looking at curriculum and CBT is common among vocational education and training (VET) practitioners and stakeholders (Hodge, 2016). However, if 'curriculum' is about what is worthwhile to teach and learn (Eisner, 1982), then the practice of CBT indicates that it is indeed a curriculum model. Units of competency seek to represent occupational tasks and roles and the practice of CBT includes assessment of learning against what is inscribed in the units. From this perspective, units of competency are clearly about what should be taught and learnt. Although teaching and learning might in principle address other material, the resource constraints of vocational education systems tend to keep teaching and assessment close to what is set out in the units. In the discussion to follow, then, CBT is regarded as curriculum, that is, concerned to identify what, of all that could be taught and learnt about an occupation, is important to teach and learn.

The widespread adoption of CBT and at least some criticism of it can be understood in terms of the demand for cross-occupational curriculum. We argue that as a crossoccupational model, CBT has an overly strong influence on what can be known and represented about occupations for teaching and learning. Such an epistemic impact may undermine the goal of vocational education if inherent structures of occupational knowledge and practice are neglected. We suggest that the goal for cross-occupational curriculum should therefore be epistemic neutrality, a framework that allows structures of concepts, techniques and values specific to occupations to determine curriculum. In an effort to promote conceptualisation of an epistemically neutral curriculum model, the idea of 'threshold concepts' is introduced and explored. …

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