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Understanding and conceptualizing knowledge in professional and vocationally-oriented higher education: Beyond time management and interpersonal skills

Thursday, 16 May 2019

This seminar focuses on how we conceptualise knowledge in professional and vocationally oriented higher education. It challenges the increasingly predominant emphasis on generic and employability skills, and engages instead with the sorts of specific conceptual and theoretical knowledge that are crucial to vocational and professional subjects as well as to more general higher education. The speakers address these issues from different perspectives, offering insights into ways of thinking about and researching questions of ‘knowledge’, as well as reporting on their empirical and theoretical work in this field.


How students in built environment professions understand design and knowledge creation

Shannon M. Chance

What is ‘knowing’ in architecture and civil engineering? How do architecture and civil engineering students interpret the act of creating something entirely new? The first half of this presentation will introduce existing theories on how students develop new epistemological cognition skills and conceptualizations. The second half will discuss a phenomenographic research project underway by education researchers at UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education who aim to identify qualitatively different ways engineering and architecture students conceptualize design creation. Overall, the study is designed to extend existing research and theories generated by William Perry (1970) and others (Baxter Magolda, 1992; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Hofer & Pintrich, 2002; King & Kitchener, 1994) about the ways students develop increasingly sophisticated ways of: understanding and conceptualizing knowledge; sources of truth; how to evaluate various opinions and points-of-view; and ways to assess truthfulness and validity of new ideas. Our research team suggests this process manifests itself somewhat differently in fields that deal with physical sciences than in those grounded in the social sciences—the realm where these theories were established and defined. Specifically, King and Kitchener (1994) have shown that conceptualizations of knowledge vary from one field to the next, yet little if any work has been done to assess and compare patterns of conceptualizations in the fields of architecture and engineering. Thus, this work is unique in: (1) spanning multiple professions; (2) identifying the various concepts that architecture and civil engineering students hold about the generation of new designs; (3) describing how these conceptualizations compare within and between fields; and (4) questioning if and how students’ conceptualizations of design creation relate to their conceptualizations of knowledge generation.


Employability skills and generic skills are no better than competency-based training, and deny students access to knowledge

Leesa Wheelahan

Employability skills and generic skills have generated a new urgency in post-secondary education policy, particularly in higher vocational education in Anglophone systems. Charitably, this shift can be seen to be due in part to the incontrovertible evidence of the weak links between qualifications and occupations in unregulated labour markets and the need to prepare students for wider fields of practice. Less charitably, this shift is in part a response to the policy hype about the rise of Artificial Intelligence and other harbingers of doom who argue that knowledge doesn’t matter anymore; what matters are generic skills and employability skills so individuals can turn to where-ever there are jobs, with the skills they need to fill different positions. Individuals need, as explained by Brown and Souto-Otero (2018), to be ‘market ready’ and enable to enact a ‘market performance’ in a move that further shifts the responsibility from the employer to the individual to invest in their skills. However, employability skills and generic skills are just a variation of competency-based training, and like CBT, they deny students access to the theoretical knowledge they need to participate in debates and controversies in society and in their occupational field of practice. This presentation will draw on the sociology of Basil Bernstein to show how CBT and employability and generic skills result in an impoverished curriculum offered mainly to disadvantaged students and that they reinforce social inequality. The presentation will use the sociology of Basil Bernstein to undertake this analysis, and use his conceptual framework that includes concepts of singulars and regions to describe academic and applied academic disciplines respectively, and classification and framing to describe the way in which knowledge is structured in curriculum in higher vocational education.



Leesa Wheelahan is Professor and William G. Davis Chair in Community College Leadership in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, at the Ontario Institute of Studies for Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, Canada. Leesa moved to the University of Toronto at the beginning of 2014 from the University of Melbourne, Australia where she was an associate professor in adult and vocational education. Her research focuses on the role of theoretical knowledge in curriculum and qualifications; pathways between the sectors of tertiary education and between tertiary education and the labour market; relations between colleges and universities; and, tertiary education policy. Leesa’s current research includes educational and labour market pathways; bachelor degrees in colleges; and, the marketisation and privatisation in vocational education and the college sector. She is leading a project for Education International, which is the international federation of teacher education unions, on the extent to which the ‘capabilities approach’ can support social justice in vocational education. One of the outcomes of this project is an English case study (Moodie, Wheelahan, Lavigne, & Coppens, 2018)

Leesa is also an associate editor of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training.

Shannon Chance, formerly Professor of Architecture at Hampton University in the USA, is now Visiting Professor and Marie Curie Research Fellow at University College London’s Centre for Engineering Education. Currently on a career break from her permanent lecturing post in Dublin, Shannon has joined UCL for two years to undertake the EU-funded project “Designing Engineers: Harnessing the Power of Design Projects to Spur Cognitive and Epistemological Development of STEM Students”. An overarching objective is to develop and promote better ways to teach and support STEM students, and to attract and retain diverse students in engineering. Shannon brings valuable experience to this interdisciplinary study: she is a chartered architect and with 18 years of experience teaching architecture, education, humanities, and engineering at third-level institutions in the US, Ireland, and Switzerland. Alongside teaching, she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education (2006-2010), developed a focus on engineering education research through a Fulbright Fellowship at Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin, 2012-2013) and developed new skills in phenomenological research as a Marie Curie Research Fellow (also at TU Dublin, 2014-2016). She is currently an Associate Editor for IEEE Transactions on Education and hosts a research blog



Network: Technical, Professional and Vocational Higher Education
Date(s): Thursday, 16 May 2019
Times: 11:30 - 15:30
Location: SRHE, 73 Collier St, London N1 9BE
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