The Importance of Context

Context – Associated surroundings and settings
               – The circumstances relevant to something under consideration
               – Its true meaning
Functionality –The capacity to be practical and functional
                        – Specific application
The current focus on the vocational curriculum has resulted in the development and possible introduction of the so-called vocational diplomas, a revised programme for apprenticeships and the concept of functionality in such subjects in mathematics and literacy. In addition the proposed raising of the school leaving age has rekindled the age-old debates on how to make such programmes attractive and relevant to learners.
A number of real challenges exist when addressing the development of a vocational focus into curricula particularly the content of the material and the critical aspects of ‘how’ and ‘why’ it is taught and learnt. The most critical element in these debates is the context in which subjects are taught and learnt. It is essential that the teaching, learning methods and the environments in which vocational and practical topics are set are appropriate and seen by the learners as being relevant to their course of study and future employment intentions and aspirations.
Previous attempts to introduce and recognise the importance of vocational programmes have largely failed and the current flurry of activity seems yet again to ignore the lessons that should have been learnt from these earlier initiatives. A great deal of effort, money and time has been expended over the past few decades attempting to create a parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. Various initiatives such as General National vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), the Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI), basic skills programmes e.g. application of number, along with numerous initiatives were introduced by the MSC, DfEE and DfES (see the history of technical education for more details of these initiatives). All failed because of a complex mix of factors such as the negative perception, of both learners and society, of the value of technical education and training resulting in the subsequent second class status of employment in trade, craft and technician occupations. The so-called academic route i.e. GCE and GCSE has always been perceived as superior and attempts to establish parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes have successively failed. Government interference and ignorance have not helped in these endeavours.
One long standing factor associated with these developments is the damaging and sterile arguments by many of the specifications writers, who are usually pure mathematicians, who have stated that ‘the context makes no difference to the learning and teaching process and that it can be distracting from the real mathematics’. So does this mean that mathematics taught in a practical environment is non-real? How can appropriate teaching and learning environments be created for locating mathematical subjects in the relevant vocational context? Two distinct but related aspects need to be recognised and carefully configured, comprising the basic topics and the application of those topics into a particular vocational setting.   Firstly all learners need to be competent and confident in the basic elements of number and certain key mathematical topics and operations such as arithmetic, algebra etc that form the fundamental building blocks. The second aspect is the application of these basic elements as required in particular employment areas. The first challenge is to make the connection between these two essential aspects particularly the relevance for the learner namely the value and relevance of the basic operations and their subsequent application in an employment context/setting.
The next complication is the wide diversity of the mathematical requirements across the multitude of employment areas. The limited research of mathematics in the work place has identified and highlights this challenge. Essential topics identified include conversions involving %/ fractions/imperial and SI units, transpositions, estimation, the need to understand the importance of tolerances/errors etc. Many teachers and tutors in FE have for decades succeeded in getting students to understand and adapt mathematical operations to their work environments. Many of these teachers have worked in those employment areas or are part-time tutors still active in the relevant industry or service and as a result fully appreciate what is required. Having taught a wide range of CGLI, ONC/OND and HNC/HND programmes in such courses as hairdressing, construction studies, institute of meat, medical laboratory technician’s one quickly understands the challenges. Imagine the challenge of explaining the importance of ph values to hairdressing students! These challenges can be addressed but only if the teacher/tutor fully understands and appreciates how the basic mathematics is to be applied. They have to have direct experience of the applications and teach those elements in the appropriate environment/setting. Much can be achieved through simulation or more effectively in a real work environment (RWE). This approach immediately presents problems for the institution and the teacher, particularly resources e.g. financial, human and physical. Teachers must be qualified and experienced; institutions must possess the appropriate teaching and learning environments and adequate funding must be available to resource the work. In other words the resources and infrastructure most be fit for purpose.
Some of the best current work in Britain is in the armed forces, particularly in the basic skills of information technology, numeracy and literacy. The entry level of many recruits is very low and the army in particular is achieving excellent results. The need for the modern army to be proficient in application of number and IT requires personnel to understand complex mathematical concepts in such areas as navigation, weapon techniques and logistics. They also need to be able to communicate, with people in countries where they are active, in English and elements of foreign languages when posted abroad. The Services most certainly exploit real working environments and the results are remarkable. Obviously the situations are not so demanding or extreme for other professions but the armed forces highlight the advantages of teaching and learning in real contexts.
Space only allows one example of how tutors have attempted to create the correct teaching and learning environment. For example in a painting and decorating class the students were introduced to the need to estimate the amount of material to be used to decorate a room. The tutor – a practicing professional – stressed the importance of getting the estimations right as their employer would not appreciate an under or over estimation which would alienate the customer, damage his/her reputation and the profit margin. Under careful guidance in a real working environment the students very quickly understood the importance of estimating quantities of the materials to be used i.e. wall paper, paints, the correct sizes of brushes etc. They began to easily and confidently quantify areas, paint volumes and tolerations/errors, conversion of imperial/SI units and costings. Yet before the course they would openly deny that they understood mathematics and that they hated the subject.
In order for the current development of vocational programmes and functional mathematics to be successful a great more attention needs to be given to context.
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