Vocademia: an exploration and a construction


Researching Academic and Vocational Perceptions at the School Level

This page is where I begin to consider a way beyond the academic and vocational divide others have identified and logged in my HISTORY and CURRENCY pages. It begins with a description of how this divide works at the operational level of teaching, in the classroom, but in order to understand it I would have to consider carefully how I would gather data at this level.

There are several ways of gathering social data in a school environment, each with considerable advantages and disadvantages, but always frought with difficulty. The methodology I decided to adopt was one of participant action research. The reasons for this are:-

1) Having practitioners within such a close proximity to myself afforded me a local and real insight into the nature of academic and vocational learning.

2) As a practising Media teacher, and lead practitioner of the Creative and Media diploma at my school, I couldn't very well step outside of myself and look at the way things were as though I was a neutral observer, involved in an ethnographic research project. Therefore, I made my involvement central to the two methods I adopted; the first being a straightforward internet survey to the Heads of Departments at my school; and the second was to conduct a Blog interaction with two colleagues starting to teach the new diploma.

Research Methods and Methodologies Considered

Below is a sample of methods I researched and reflected on as possible ways in which to proceed taking the categories from Denscombe's The Good Research Guide.

Due to a request for feedback for an earlier study on the nature  of creativity, I became quickly aware that the survey experience can be seen as time consuming by the participants, and therefore, likely to not get done; and also can be seen as a dull and laborious chore. These participants showed on the whole little patience nor enthusiasm for general, abstract questions, such as the ones I posed them on the website www.surveymonkey.com. I think that a survey can come across as a bit too impersonal and therefore, easily avoidable, or "tossed off" without any real reflection.

Furthermore, the survey method is a format that mirrors a restrictive educational approach, and even if multiple choice is offered in the responses, they are still too restrictive. Surveys lack the nuance and malleability of other forms of communication, that in the end I feel is an essential part of getting to grips with qualifying something, over quantifying it. The quantitative essence of surveys necessarily hinders a "human" understanding of the quality of enthusiasm and engagement that informs my research area. To be straightforward a collection of data via a survey would become a deadening, cold exercise; from the writing of the questions, which need to be constructed and reworked during the communication process, to the responding, which really needs a greater deal of flexibility and freedom, due to the hazy nature of learning, than that which a survey can provide.

In comparison, phenomenology is a strategy very much in line with dealing with human beings. As Denscome states, this methodology is concerned with "describing authentic experiences" (p80) but in order to get at these essential parts of human experience, the method must be significantly more detailed than say a survey. This detail will only come from one source, and that is from the researcher. The researcher needs to delve deeply into the project, using all his past experiences, assumptions and ideas about common sense to try to provide a detailed description of experiences. I felt that my blog approach would allow me to delve that bit deeper.

However, a major criticism of phenomenology is, whether a phenomenological researcher can in fact "stand back" (Denscombe, p81) enough from these "detail-tools" to actually not overly influence his/her own research? Schutz believed that by adopting the "stance of the stranger" in which the researcher attempts to somehow fake a naive approach. One in which the clutter of everyday thoughts and assumptions are discarded, if only momentarily, for the time of the research project. Ignoring for now, whether this temporary amnesia is in fact possible, as a teacher, and colleague, I feel this stranger stance is particularly plagued with difficulties. The two colleagues I chose are obviously not strangers, and to act in an artificially more distant manner would affect the blogger's responses adversely.

Grounded Theory
As Denscombe states (p88) this theory is popular with "those engaged in small-scale projects using qualitative data for the study of human interaction." Quite clearly there is much human interaction with teachers, ones in which the relationship is not always an equal one, as I am the Head of the department. This I highlighted as an issue with phenomenological methdology.
Data collection associated with Grounded Theory is as Strauss states (p1) "very diverse" but lends itself well to interviews, diaries (ie blogs).

Turner stated that Grounded Theory is novel not in its modes of investigation, "but in the manner in
which the information collected is analysed (p335) Denscombe points out that methods ought to allow for the "raw" state of data, such as "a preference for unstructured interviews" (p93) and for the use of methods that produce qualitative data that are relatively unstructured. This I find particularly appealing, as it is easy to put colleagues overly on their guard when using formal and contrived situations.

The major criticism of Grounded Theory is that it is bad science, in that it actively ignores the "accumulated knowledge of the past" (Denscombe, p94) This is certainly an issue, but if one is engaged in research which ultimately aims to make a difference, then an over preponderance on the past can only hinder a free and authentic attempt to look at the present and formulate a new future.

What I like about it chiefly, however, is its concentration on the moment, on the empirical truth of things, not on theories that this theory views with some suspicion, or "considered provisional." (Strauss and Corbin, p180) It is also a theory that is acutely aware that the event or moments it is engaged in, is filled with other extraneous aspects, that though contiguous, are still influential on the project.

Action Research
In accordance with what Cohen and Manion state is the reason for adopting an Action research project, namely, when "specific knowledge is required for a specific problem in a specific situation, or when a new approach is to be grafted on to an existing system," (p194) As  I am trying to gain local knowledge on how academic learning is perceived as opposed to vocational, for the purposes of building a stronger, more distinct identity for the new Diploma, then Action Research seems a perfect fit.

Lomax (p124) provides a useful question that I will answer here as a way of arguing for the Action research approach for my study in building a better profile for the new Diplomas, concentrating on their ability to bring together academic and vocational learning. Can I improve my practice so that it is more effective? I believe I can. The Diplomas have arrived, admittedly on a small, fairly ad hoc way as has been argued in the CURRENCY page,  and their impact directly following the 2013 review could be major. Even if they do not radically alter the qualification journey that students embark on from 14 - 19, I feel that an exploration of the academic and vocational split in education, thrown up by the Diplomas, is invaluable at providing some useful insights into our teaching.

As Hopkins states that when action research is undertaken, "a personal attempt is made to understand, improve and reform practice" (p32). I am trying to understand what the new Diploma is, how it differs from the traditional routes; I want to improve the unhelpful perceptions that academic learning is superior to vocational learning; and I think that using a method to initially capture the practitioner ideas of my colleagues will be a valuable step in achieving these aims.

Education is going through some major changes, particularly with the advent of the new Diplomas, with their greater concentration on the wider world. As a consequence, research that helps to understand this change and can enable this refocusing is highly desirable, as opposed to one that merely registers and records, but does not urgently push for change.

Email Data Analysis

The first part of my local research aimed to get data from Heads of Departments about their attitudes and working practises. I asked them three questions, via email, and being aware that I was asking busy practitioners fairly weighty questions, during a busy time (the new accelerated academic year had just begun at the beginning of June, 2009) I tried to phrase the email in a friendly, less demanding way. This probably lead to a few no replies, though these no repliers did speak to me face to face to assure me they would. But they didn't.

What was interesting was that it was the traditional academic subject Heads that failed to respond. This might well be because they are the ones running the largest departments, but it did make me wonder whether this apparent disregard for reflection about academic and vocational knowledge, could be interpreted as part of the superior perception of academic over vocational learning.

The construction of the questions was based on a desire to obtain, as opposed to a dry dictionary definition,  a practitioner's definition of academic knowledge, and of vocational knowledge. This was necessitated by the fact that I wanted to use this data in an active way, not just as a record of their responses. The third question was motivated by getting the respondents to develop further what they meant in question 1 and 2, and also to help me develop my thinking along the lines of shrinking the gap between the two apparent different ways of learning.

Apart from the D& T response, all the respondents see a difference between academic and vocational. This difference they attribute to the classroom based nature of academic teaching, and to a sense of a vocabulary that must be given to students prior to its vocational application. Even the D & T response highlighted the a priori nature of knowledge being needed before its application.

Obviously the range of time and reflection given was not considerable, but as a snapshot of how many different Heads of Department view academic and vocational learning within our school, I think it gave me much to mull over. I think  as one method of capturing data then it can be viewed more favourably as a companion piece to the blog data capturing I did over a period of time, which can be viewed on the BLOG page, and is analysed below.

Email Data

Below is the email data taken from the Heads of Departments that did respond, with my email plus questions incorporated into the first ICT response:-

Can I have 5 mins of your time for my MA in Creative + Media (unit on what is pedagogic knowledge)? If so, please can you just respond to the 3 questions below for me:-

1)    What is academic learning to you?
-    Is theoretical learning taking place in a class room (or the like) with limited or no practical experience.
2)    What is vocational learning to you?
-    Is much more hands on (on the job)  and a practical learning experience (Much like my GTP)
3)    Are there any times when you combine the two in ICT?
-    We try to combine the two often by putting the academic learning into a vocational context so pupils can understand how this relates to the wider world. We also set up independent & group projects, which again combine the two by  having a theme / concept that is often vocational . However, to improve this element we would like to involve more IT professionals and provide more opportunities for them to learn outside of the classroom by allowing them to experience and put the theory into practice.
-    This is also highly relevant with our KS5 Applied ICT course, which is much more hands on and designed to be taught in a vocational context

Thanks muchly

1)    Academic learning is focussed and based around the curriculum, often linked closely with the exam syllabus.
2)    Vocational learning is the practical application of some academic learning but is also much wider and can be much more relevant and often related to “real life “ experiences
3)    An example when R.S. combines the two would be in our GCSE module- “Religion and community cohesion” We analyse racism. Pupils look at the academic discussion of racism using key terms like multi- faith and multi- race and discrimination. However pupils are also encouraged to examine how racism has personally affected them or people they know.

Hope this is of use Andre.

1) Academic learning for D&T: where pupils learn the theoretical side of D&T. This may be materials, processes & the design process
2) Vocational learning for D&T: where pupils use (learnt) practical skill which will help them design, make and evaluate. Knowledge of an academic nature will support this.
3) All the time. One is inexorably link with the other. You cannot make anything without a knowledge of how the material you are using will react.

1, What is academic learning?

To me academic learning is within a classroom environment. Learning information, skills and facts appropriate to subject.

2, What is vocational learning?

Vocational learning is much more task based and is gearing up to a specific job or career in a certain area.

3, Do the two combine in Art?

I feel that the two combine very well in Art, as although learning often takes place in a classroom environment, there is a hands on approach to learning with a focus on design and industry.

Hi Andre,

I hope this is ok.
1.Academic learning is subject knowledge and application of this knowledge to familiar, unfamiliar and abstract situations. In Science, this also includes the ability to manipulate practical equipment and design investigations in a structured/logical manner.  We are moving towards a more practical application of the Science as well, termed Scientific literacy.  Students should therefore have built up the skills where by they can read a story in the media and then interpret it and respond appropriately, without always reacting to significant headlines. I see this as a route for those who are unsure about what to do career wise.

2.Vocational learning is the practice of a particular job/career through which scientific knowledge is learnt and applied.  Pupils would come up with an area in work involving science and through this direction then learn about the use of science that underpins what they are doing. I see this as a route for pupils who know what they want to do career wise.

3.Yes, but on a very limited basis and the vast majority of our work is academic.  The best examples include our enterprise work with BP, Carillion and Glaxo smith kline where students are put in a work environment and a situation that arises in one of these and then have to apply their science knowledge or learn new science to solve the problem.  Our CSI day in October was a good example of this also, e.g. working a crime scene having been taught how to do it and then interpreting the results whilst learning about the scientific techniques to do this.


Andre – you might want to print this!

I would say most of the MFL curriculum in its current state fosters academic learning. We develop skills such as: reading and listening for gist and for specific details; using your understanding of patterns in languages to understand unseen texts; constructing new sentences from known linguistic structures (i.e learn how to construct a sentence in the past tense and take the same structure but use different verbs). Because of the curriculum for the GCSE course we are very much pushed in this direction and our aim is for students to be good linguists in terms of producing new language of their own and understanding what they read and hear.

Another whole aspect or our T & L is cultural. We try to forge comparisons between the UK and the target language culture (e.g. France) and also try to encourage them to take an interest by researching famous people etc but it’s a battle in our school because, in our experience, the pupils do not tend to be hugely interested in Europe.

In terms of vocational learning, I would take that to mean use of language in the workplace or in practical situations, i.e. explaining lost luggage dilemmas etc. We sadly do very little of this because we don’t have the opportunity to put students in real-life situations. They don’t like going on foreign exchanges and trips are (according to them) too expensive. And the work experience opportunities are few.

In terms of combining the two, we are really trying to develop this.

For Yr 9 we are starting a Business Language NVQ for the lower sets. They will learn a bit about how business works in English – what a logo and a brand is etc -  and then do some simple comprehension like understanding names on a delegate list and being able to spell them out, taking voice mails etc. This starts in September.

For KS4, we have tried to re-establish our Business Language Champions project. Two years ago I took about 30 Yr 10s to Heathrow T4 armed with clipboards and worked with BAA. They asked passengers about which languages they spoke and as another project translated the signs at Heathrow into French, German and Punjabi. They also spent half a day on the Information Desk watching the staff at work. Those same staff then came into school and gave talks to Yr 9 about languages in the workplace.

This project has been really hard to set up again. Lots of the businesses in the scheme dropped out due to the notorious ‘crunch’ and then the staff I worked with at BAA quit and the new ones weren’t interested. So I need to try and resurrect it. Fabienne Gaillard will be responsible for it when she returns in September so we’ll see what she comes up with.

I hope this helps. Feel free to come over and chat about it any time.



1.    Academic learning as far as I’m concerned seems to focus far more on the theory and themes, ideas and so on.  An example is a play, academically you may well look at the grammar, use of language, plot etc
2.    Vocational to me is focused far more on linking with the work place or career.  A group would look far more at the practical applications of putting on a play the rehearsal schedule, the admin, the technical aspects of the production
3.    Yes, although it’s a question of balance.  The diploma pupils will have a much more hands on approach where as the GCSE will do practical, but won’t look so much at the practical implications of putting on a play

I realise this is limited, but I will expand more fully face to face, beer in hand tomorrow.


Blog Data Analysis

As mentioned, the comments for this approach can be found on the BLOG page.

The profiles of my bloggers are that they are one male and one female, in their mid-twenties and so fairly new to teaching. One comes from a Drama and the other an Art and Media background. They were offered and accepted to teach the new Creative  Media diploma and started this June. I chose them as bloggers because they were very new to the diploma and might offer interesting comparisons with their traditional subject teaching, but without a closed mind about the Diploma.

What are my findings?

1) I think the level of interactivity it afforded was invaluable, and because it involved informal conversations alongside, it promoted healthy discussions and insights into the questions.
2) Time for reflection and re-commenting was also helpful for the bloggers to think about the questions I was posing, but the last two questions were not completed as it ran into the start of the Summer holidays. This was a bit frustrating as these were questions I was leading up to all along, as I really wanted some kind of confirmation  that  my explorations and strategy, that of proposing the Vocademic word and idea, had any credence in their eyes. However, as the research cycle will not truly end until the Exhibition on November 24th, I am hopeful of having further data by then.
3) It is striking that two diploma teachers concur with the Heads of Departments, seeing academic and vocational learning as two separate entities
4) This I think leads to an understanding of how the traditional GCSE and A-level requirements and hence, ways of teaching, demand this perception; and now it is deep rooted and entrenched, even in younger teachers, such as my bloggers.
5) As with the emailers the bloggers' responses were not always of sufficient detail and depth to be truly useful. This is perhaps an indicator of the teaching profession as a whole, whereupon teachers much prefer to get on and teach, and spare little time for reflection on their own practice beyond their teacher training years.