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Life long learning in vocational education

Visiting Professor Christopher Zirkle from Ohio State University discusses topic with Sini Bask, a Senior Lecturer in Haaga-Helia’s vocational teacher education.


Sini Bask

lehtori, pedagogiikka
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 18.11.2021

Visiting Fulbright Professor Christopher Zirkle from Ohio State University discusses topic with Sini Bask, a Senior Lecturer in vocational teacher education. The themes of soft skills needed in the working life in the future and the similarities and differences in vocational teacher qualification in terms of life long learning for teachers in VET arise.

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Sini Bask: Today we are going to talk about continuous or lifelong learning in vocational education. I’m Sini Bask, and I work here at Haaga-Helia in vocational teacher education. And here with me I have Christopher Sergel from the Ohio State University. Welcome, Chris.

Christopher Zirkle: Thank you very much.

Sini Bask: It would be nice to start by knowing something about you. Where do you come from?

Christopher Zirkle: Okay. Well, I’m from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a major university with about seventy thousand students. I oversee a teacher education program in vocational education and this is my 21st year overseeing the program. So, previously I’ve been a middle school and high school vocational teacher and principal.

Sini Bask: Okay. Well, today’s topic is continuous or lifelong learning in vocational education. In Finland, the objectives of the vocational qualifications and of the vocational education and training are, amongst others, to increase and maintain vocational competencies of the population, and to develop working life and businesses and respond to their skills needs, to help the students to grow into decent and educated human beings and make it possible for them to participate fully on all the aspects of the society, and of course, continuous or lifelong learning and the skills that they need to do that. How about in the United States?

Christopher Zirkle: Oh, I think it’s very similar. However, historically, vocational education in the US was preparation for one job. Students went to a vocational school, because they wanted to enter the workplace right after education. Today we’ve seen some significant reforms, and the preparation is still for those students, who want that first job, but also preparation for further education, whether that be in a community college or a technical school, a university, maybe an apprenticeship program, or even in the military. So, our programs have changed quite a bit, I would say in the last 30 years, primarily because the needs of the workplace have changed.

Sini Bask: Alright. I think in Finland as well we have had quite big reforms in all the levels of education in recent years, but nobody knows, what the future holds. And of course, sometimes it seems that change is the only constant in the world, but also of course in the field of education. So, if you would need to predict the future, what kind of skills do you think the vocational students, or people working, will need in the future?

Christopher Zirkle: Well, in addition to the technical skills that the workplace needs, I foresee a continual need for upgraded academic skills, more mathematical skills, more computer skills, better writing and reading skills. And then, one thing that we’re also focusing on, are some of those, what we call employability or soft skills, that the workplace needs. And those are things like interpersonal communication skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I think those are really going to be important in the future, because there are jobs, that don’t exist today, that we need to prepare our students for, now.

Sini Bask: Yeah. I would add to the list the skills to learn. Here in Finland, we talk a lot about learning how to learn, the skills to have an open mind toward the changes that are definitely happening in the society, and the skills to learn new skills and new competencies all the time. My personal favourite would be existential skills, skills to be able to find meaning and significance in a world, where there are many different kinds of cultures and world views, religions and values, that are sometimes contradicting themselves. I think these are some of the key competences or core skills, that we all will need in the future.

But if we talk about vocational teacher education, where we both work, what do you think a vocational teacher will need in the future? And how is it in the United States, how do you teach teachers to prepare for the future?

Christopher Zirkle: Well, this idea of lifelong learning is something, that we have tried to instil in our teachers. That you can’t stand still with the teaching and technical skills you have today because changes are constant, and so one of the things we are doing, in most of the states, is that we require our teachers to continually go to training for whether it be pedagogical skills, or technical skills. This training is tied to their teaching licenses. In general, licenses are valid for four to five years, and within that period, teachers have to go back to school in some way, to get further training, if they want to renew that license. When I first started many, many years ago, there were permanent licenses, and you didn’t really have to do much once you got that first license. And now, the system has completely changed, and there is an expectation of lifelong learning, continuous professional development, if one wants to keep that license. It’s somewhat mandatory, if you want to stay in teaching, that you continually educate yourself and undergo continuous professional development.

Sini Bask: I think, well, the system in Finland is a bit different. So, once a vocational teacher gets their qualifications, they have a license to teach for their professional career. However, of course it’s embedded in the system, that every teacher needs to develop their professional and teaching skills all the time. But since we don’t have licenses that we need to renew, sometimes it seems, that the school administrators carry the responsibility for the teachers’ further education. And of course, Haaga-Helia is one of the universities that provide these additional, continuous opportunities for the teachers to learn new things and actual things, that we need now and in the future.

Christopher Zirkle: I guess I would say that perhaps one difference as well is, you mentioned it’s the administrators’ responsibility. In the US, the responsibility falls on the teacher to make sure that their own individual teaching license is up to date, and they’re doing what they need to do to keep it that way.

Sini Bask: Well, of course we all want to think that a good teacher wants to develop and wants to keep up with the world, but sometimes it’s not that easy. But how would you encourage the Finnish teachers, or the vocational teachers of the world, to keep up with the world and develop their skills?

Christopher Zirkle: Well, I just feel, that to be the best teacher that they can be, they need to continuously grow. The world changes on a daily basis and they cannot rely on the things they know today. Because as I mentioned, you can’t stand still for many years and expect to still be effective. So, it’s a professional responsibility that we try to instil in our teachers.

Sini Bask: Okay. Well, thank you, Chris, for the talk. It’s been a pleasure having you here.

Christopher Zirkle: Thanks very much for the opportunity.