Dutch vocational education as the education of the future?

Cinop beroepsonderwijs
Cinop beroepsonderwijs

08 February 2019

At the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January, the experts agreed: we are currently training students the wrong way. With education systems that have hardly changed in the last hundred years. So what does work? Turning the system around for the most part: education that starts with specific skills (‘on the job’) in order to abstract general knowledge from it. What is striking is that this modern, desirable 21st-century education shows surprisingly many similarities with our Dutch vocational education.

Every year, top scientists, politicians and business meet in Davos during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Education always plays an important role in the many sessions and speeches that are held there. This year, however, there was a lot of attention for this important theme. And in particular: how can we prepare people for tomorrow’s labour market?

The setting is now clear: the labour market is changing rapidly. Driven by technology, jobs are disappearing and new ones are being created. Almost all jobs will change drastically in terms of content. The big question is therefore: how do we get the people who have the skills to carry out all these new tasks?

The experts on the forum were almost unanimous: we are currently training people the wrong way. They are being trained for jobs that will soon no longer be available or that will be filled completely differently, so that the knowledge and skills they have learned are no longer useful.

We use educational systems that in essence have hardly changed in the last hundred years. We need to ask ourselves what we really need. Does it still make sense to memorise tables at a time when everyone has a powerful calculator in their pocket? Or topography? For example, there are many things in our education system that we assume that everyone has to learn but that can also very well be entrusted to machines. We should teach people much more about how to deal with that knowledge. How they can judge and use it.

Of course, a foundation will certainly continue to be needed. Although technology seems to be changing everything, our brains will continue to work the same way for the time being. Reading, writing – and I think arithmetic – remain important as a foundation for the new ways of learning. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep questioning and investigating these things: what is really needed and important? In what form should we learn this? Shouldn’t we stop and do something else? These kinds of questions are very important to keep asking and should prevent us from taking both the form and content of (parts of) our education for granted. We have to stay sharp.

Take, for example, the classical testing of students; this was also the subject of heated discussion at the Forum. What is the point of this? No one will ask you later to solve a problem but without using a book or the Internet and without talking to anyone. In addition, the study programmes mainly teach people how to pass the tests. The courses are also rewarded for this. Instead of traditional forms of education, we should be moving towards a situation where students can be much more creative; solving real problems, preferably on the shop floor. Instead of an old-fashioned test, we should much more often use other methods to assess the skills and capacities that have been learned.

What is certain is that the education system will have to be turned around to a large extent. The current courses mainly teach general knowledge, from which, at the end – often when you go to work – you have to distil special skills. What we need much more is education that starts from specific skills (‘on the job’) to abstract general knowledge from it. A successful example of this is the Swiss master-apprentice system in which students are apprenticed to an existing company or organisation where, coupled with a mentor, they quickly learn the specific knowledge and skills that are needed there.

What is striking is that this modern, desirable 21st-century education actually has surprisingly many similarities with our Dutch vocational education. Here, too, practice is leading, and students are trained ‘on the job’ as much as possible. Of course, there are still many classic elements in our vocational education. But given the direction in which this type of education is moving, these elements will continue to decline in the future. Vocational education is in the process of transforming itself. Vocational training is becoming increasingly flexible in order to be able to meet the demands of the labour market and the task of training people throughout their lives more quickly. In this way, they are in a better position to offer tailor-made education and to better fit in with the professional lives of students who are learning in addition to their jobs.

Flexible education, and the associated professionalisation of teachers and the rest of the educational organisation, must be able to address the important questions that we must continue to ask education (What do we do? Why do we do it? Does this fit the job market of today and tomorrow? etc.) not only to answer, but also to implement these answers quickly. I believe that the Netherlands can become number 1 in learning. How? By making a combination of practice-oriented education in the Netherlands, from a basis that, in connection with the practice of society, continues to question itself continuously and is able to implement changes quickly and efficiently. Without this being at the expense of quality. This sounds complicated, perhaps impossible for some, but it does not have to be.

If you really want to change an educational organisation, you have to start with the teacher. With him/her, you can investigate how best to prepare the student for the future. By facilitating and implementing the associated conditions and possibilities within the organisation, you can create a learning organisation, provided it is properly implemented. A learning organisation that is agile. Able to react proactively to rapid changes and then adapt to them. There are already good and inspiring examples of such organisations. Often these are still small or only cover part of a larger organisation. But they show that it is possible.

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