4. Promoting innovative pedagogical approaches in vocational education and training

Digital skills have become a fundamental part of the workplace today, increasing the need for VET systems to develop those skills alongside more occupation-specific ones (see Box 4.2 for a definition of digital skills). The use of advanced technology in the workplace has increased in recent years for workers in all sectors and occupations, including elementary occupations that generally require lower levels of cognitive skills. Today, craft and trade workers – who often have a VET qualification – make more intensive use of their digital skills, as their workplaces adopt electronic devices, complex machinery or robots. For example, professionals in the logistics sector make frequent use of tablet computers and specialised software to report on, administer and control cargo; automotive mechanics use sophisticated digital devices to test the correct functioning of engines; welders in some manufacturing companies use software to manage soldering robots; and employees in high-risk environments such as power plants use simulation tools or virtual reality (VR) to assess physical risks. In the health sector, which also employs many VET graduates, dentistry, medical and optical assistants make use of sophisticated digital imaging technologies, while medical laboratory technicians make use of digital laboratory testing equipment.

Digitalisation in the workplace has also increased the need for strong basic skills (e.g. literacy, numeracy and digital skills) and soft skills (e.g. critical thinking, communication, collaboration and team work) in all industries. As robotics and automation will become more widespread, this will affect the skills needed to succeed in the workplace in all industries. In OECD countries, skills traditionally linked to trade occupations, such as control and monitoring of industrial operations or maintenance of equipment, are already experiencing surpluses (Figure 4.1). At the same time, cognitive and soft skills, such as reading, writing, critical thinking and active learning, are increasingly in short supply.

Strong soft and digital skills allow workers to be more flexible in meeting labour-market demands. In a dynamic labour market, workers are unlikely to remain in the same profession during their entire careers. As existing occupations change and new ones are created, workers will need to be flexible enough to adapt to regular job changes. Cross-cutting skills facilitate those job transitions and allow individuals to be more employable in the long term.

Digitalisation and automation have fundamentally changed the skills needed from VET graduates, and further changes are expected (ILO, 2020[5]). For example, sectors such as the automotive industry (Box 4.1), the energy and utilities industry, and the consumer products industry, are likely to increasingly implement smart factories or other forms of automation in their manufacturing processes (Capgemini Research Institute, 2020[3]). Given that occupations involving routine tasks are being transformed, restructured or disappearing due to increasing levels of automation1 (see Figure 1.3 in Chapter 1), VET will need to focus more on those tasks and occupations that demand higher levels of autonomy, planning, team work, communication and customer service skills and are less likely to be automated (OECD, 2019[6]). This growing need for digital and soft skills in the labour market will induce a pedagogical shift in VET, which has traditionally focused largely on developing technical occupation-specific skills.

VET systems will need to provide the stronger digital skills their graduates will need to succeed in future occupations. In many occupations VET graduates will need more than basic digital skills to succeed in highly automated work environments (for information on digital skills levels see Box 4.2).

According to the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC),2 a large proportion of professionals in medium-skilled and low-skilled occupations already needed more than basic digital skills during the period 2011-2017 (Figure 4.2). For example, across OECD countries with data available, just under 20% of craft and related trades workers and sales and services workers reported moderate or complex computer use. In manufacturing, it has become common for plant and machine operators to programme machines or robots to do the tasks that they need to perform. This increasingly complex computer use implies that VET graduates will need to be able to learn how to use new machinery and digital devices, setting them up to a desired specification while working in highly digitalised work environments.

Despite the increasing need for digital skills in different occupations, during the time period 2011-2017 most OECD countries had a large proportion of workers who did not have the basic digital skills needed to solve simple problems making use of ICT. According to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (OECD, 2019[14]), more than one-third of adults did not achieve Level 1 proficiency level in problem-solving skills making use of ICT, and the proportion of adults with high proficiency in these skills was fairly low in many countries. This is confirmed by other research, such as the research carried out by Ipsos MORI (2018[15]) in the United Kingdom, which estimates that over 10% of its employed population lacked basic digital skills. The OECD Skills Outlook (OECD, 2019[6]), shows that workers of all ages, and especially those from older generations, will need to upskill or reskill to be able to master these digital technologies in the workplace. The problem is less pressing among young adults, but while a large proportion of young adults today can operate a computer or use a smartphone or a tablet, in some countries a significant share still has weak digital problem-solving skills (Vandeweyer and Verhagen, 2020[16]). According to the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), on average across OECD countries around 80% of young VET graduates are able to at least solve basic problems making use of ICT (PIAAC Level 2 and above, see Figure 4.3). This is lower than the share of young adults with a general educational qualification (at the same level) and those with a tertiary education. Interestingly, in the Unites States and Japan VET graduates perform significantly better than graduates from general education programmes in PIAAC problem solving tasks using ICT. In Chile, Poland and Lithuania, only around 60% of young VET graduates reached PIAAC Level 2.

Among the most fundamental changes in workplaces are the implementation of smart factories (Box 4.1) and the Internet of Things (IoT), which suggest a greater need for higher-level digital skills among workers. A recent survey shows that IoT and other hyper-connectivity solutions are likely to have a strong impact on occupations not only in the manufacturing and automotive sectors, but also in the agriculture, health, consumer, financial and engineering sectors (World Economic Forum, 2020[17]). In the short term VET teachers will have to prepare their students to use these technologies in the workplace. Initiatives like the Learning Factory 4.0 in the State of Baden-Württemberg in Germany (Box 4.3) could prove a good strategy for training both teachers and students on the practical implications of Industry 4.0 and the use of new technology in industry.

To overcome digital skill shortages in the workforce, VET teachers should be developing these skills among their students, ideally making use of the new digital technologies available in the workplace. This implies that teachers themselves will need to have strong digital skills and be able to integrate new technologies into their teaching.

Since soft skills complement the use of digital technologies (OECD, 2019[19]), they have also become key skills for VET graduates (ILO, 2020[5]). For instance, a recent survey in the United States showed that employers consider soft skills such as problem solving, team work, verbal communication, leadership and interpersonal relations to be among the most valuable skills for workers joining industry (NACE, 2019[20]). In 2014, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) Employer Survey showed that problem-solving skills, team-working skills and communication skills were the most important transversal skills in the workplace in European countries (Figure 4.4), with over three-quarters of employees reporting these skills as very important for doing their job. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 Report the top skills and skill groups which employers see as increasing in importance in the next five years include critical thinking and analysis, problem solving, and self-management skills such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility (World Economic Forum, 2020[17]).

The increasing need for soft skills in the workplace represents an important challenge for VET teachers. Although these skills have always been considered a valuable asset for VET graduates in the workplace, the introduction of new technology and the automation of many tasks in the workplace will change the nature of many typical VET occupations (see Box 4.5 for an example from the logistics sector). As soft skills become more prominent, VET teachers should gain deeper knowledge about how to develop them among their students, and how they can be effectively developed in practical settings. Teachers will increasingly have to teach their students how to think creatively, solve complex problems making use of technology and collaborate with colleagues in highly technological environments, while developing good relationships with their peers.

One might argue that the development of soft skills is inherent to VET, as they would be produced as a natural consequence of vocational practice. Some practitioners believe that the practical nature of VET programmes, and work experience in industry is enough to develop the soft skills needed to successfully adapt to the workplace. However, this ignores the complexity and diversity of soft skills, many of which are not automatically developed on the job. Among soft skills, socio-emotional skills play a fundamental role in the workplace. According to the OECD’s Study on Social and Emotional Skills (OECD, 2017[22]), skills –such as persistence, empathy and optimism – are just as important as basic skills. These skills do not only help students succeed in the workplace, they also allow them to perform better academically and to play more positive roles in their communities (see Box 4.4 for more information about socio-emotional skills).

The importance of digital skills in VET teaching has undeniably increased in recent years. In the OECD countries and regions with available data from the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), 74% of upper secondary VET teachers worked with digital technology with their students, compared to 66% of general education teachers (Figure 4.5). Data from the European Commission’s SELFIE tool also confirms that VET teachers are slightly more likely than teachers in general education to use digital tools for teaching (see Box 4.6). In Denmark, 83% of VET teachers reported that they regularly let their students use ICT for projects and classwork. Research from the Netherlands also shows a widespread use of a range of technology among VET teachers, including virtual reality and robotics (Box 4.7). However, some countries lag behind in the incorporation of digital technology into VET. As digitalisation takes place in industry, and digital technologies in education improve, the use of digital resources for learning in VET is expected to become widespread in the coming years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many teachers to swiftly adopt online learning strategies, and this is likely to accelerate the adoption of technology in the education sector. Future VET teaching and learning are likely to comprise a mixture of face-to-face interactions making use of physical equipment and digital devices, and online interactions making use of digital technology.

For most industries and occupations today, face-to-face VET delivery incorporates lectures, practical workshops, apprenticeships or other forms of work-based learning that allow for high-quality training. However, VR, AR and simulators are becoming more common in VET for many industries, and will be more prevalent in the coming years (see Box 4.8 for examples of VET teaching with new technology). In some cases, these technologies are safer, they can be cheaper to implement when sophisticated physical equipment is needed, and they allow occupational skills to be developed remotely or as a complement to on-site training. As many students learn in different ways, resources such as such as VR, simulators, explanatory videos and animations can complement traditional teaching based on lectures and presentations. For instance, a visual learner is more likely to understand applied physics by seeing objects in motion in an animation than by attending a lecture on the topic.

As simulators and VR and AR solutions are developed, they will often be implemented in VET using online tools where possible. Given the benefits that online education poses in terms of flexibility, distance-learning activities are expected to be much more common in VET in the near future. Recent developments during the COVID-19 crisis have shown that digital tools and technologies such as online teaching platforms, simulators and other ad-hoc educational software for different occupations can help teachers develop their students’ vocational and practical skills effectively. For instance in the United Kingdom, the availability of online software and simulators in automotive mechanics enabled VET teachers in some further education colleges to deliver training on line, allowing students to continue their studies, and complementing their on-site training. These tools and technologies represent valuable learning resources for VET, and have the potential to improve VET teachers’ teaching practice.

In recent years, schools and local governments have established partnerships with education technology (EdTech) companies to produce teaching materials that can be used in VET learning environments. Many companies have started producing applications tailored to teachers’ needs in different fields, such as simulators and VR (Box 4.8). VET teachers and industry experts are usually involved in the design of new applications, as they can make a big contribution towards developing materials that are relevant, insightful and easy to use in the classroom. Although there are already a vast number of applications for AR, VR and simulators, a large number of occupations could still benefit from additional resources. For instance, there have been important advances in developing these resources for occupations in the medical sector, but VR applications still do not cover most routine tasks performed by radiology or medical laboratory assistants. The development of digital resources for a wide range of vocational subjects will enable online learning in many fields and also improve the quality of face-to-face teaching in VET. While VR, AR and simulators are mostly used for the development of technical or occupation-specific skills, there are also applications that aim to develop soft skills, like communication skills (Box 4.9).

To help VET systems adopt new technology for teaching, policy makers can establish partnerships with the private sector, or stimulate the production of new learning resources through innovation funds for specific industries. For instance, the US Department for Education established the Small Business Innovation Research programme, to give small enterprises access to funding to produce EdTech applications that could be later commercialised. The fund promotes the use of education technology to improve teaching practices and student learning outcomes (Small Business Innovation Research, 2020[40]). In England, an EdTech Innovation Fund was established by the Nesta Foundation and the Department for Education. The Fund supports EdTech organisations in England aiming to improve their products, carry out research about the impact that the use of their tools have, and grow their reach to more schools and colleges in England (Nesta, 2019[41]). A first round of funding has already benefitted more than a dozen EdTech companies.

Moving from VET teaching using traditional equipment to teaching using newer more complex equipment and advanced digital technologies requires VET teachers to update their teaching skills and knowledge so they can effectively teach in digital learning environments.

Despite the importance of digital skills in VET teaching, the evidence suggests that a large proportion of VET teachers are not well prepared to teach using advanced technology in digital environments (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]). According to TALIS 2018 data, 26% of VET teachers in six OECD countries/regions still do not feel well prepared to support their students’ learning through the use of digital technologies (Figure 4.8). For example, in Sweden and Slovenia more than one in three VET teachers reported only being able to provide such support to a limited extent or not at all. In contrast, in Portugal only 9% of VET teachers reported having limited ability to support their students’ learning through digital technology use.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the extent to which teachers in upper secondary VET struggled to teach vocational subjects online. This was not only due to the lack of online teaching resources, or the difficulty of teaching some practical skills online, but also because of their lack of experience using online teaching methods (UNEVOC, 2020[44]). Many teachers faced difficulties adopting digital platforms for their teaching. However, some VET teachers and institutions had already incorporated a number of innovative strategies for VET delivery before the pandemic. For instance, those VET institutions that participated in the Blend4VET project, funded by the European Commission, had already implemented online teaching platforms and integrated blended learning delivery as part of their curricula, at least in some of their teaching modules (Blend4VET, 2018[45]). Well-prepared VET teachers and institutions, which had already transformed their systems and pedagogical approaches for more innovative delivery, had a smoother transition to the new teaching environment during the pandemic.

The use of new digital technologies in teaching requires teachers to have at least basic digital skills. Yet, according to TALIS 2018, 30-60% of upper secondary VET teachers in the six OECD countries and regions with available data reported a moderate or high need for training in ICT skills3 for teaching (Figure 4.9). While innovative teaching methods making use of digital technology are available for many subjects and occupations, many VET teachers, particularly those who lack ICT skills, are not aware of them (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]).

Data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (OECD, 2019[14]) confirm that there is room for improvement in VET teachers’ digital problem-solving skills (Figure 4.10). Across the OECD countries participating in the survey, 16% of VET teachers lack basic computer skills or have poor digital problem-solving skills. This is slightly higher than among general education teachers and all tertiary-educated workers (13%). Only 51% of VET teachers have digital problem-solving proficiency at Levels 2 or 3 (see OECD (2019[14]) for more details on PIAAC skill levels).

Given the important benefits of digital learning tools for VET, those VET teachers who do not regularly update their digital skills, or their pedagogical knowledge and practice to make effective use of digital tools, may lack the knowledge and competences needed to foster the development of the skills their students will need. Evidence collected through the SELFIE tool suggest that many VET teachers have relatively low confidence in the use of digital technologies for varies aspects of the teaching job (see Box 4.10). Moreover, those VET teachers who are rarely in contact with industry may find it more difficult to identify changing digital skill needs. When VET teachers limit their teaching to traditional approaches and do not make use of the variety of new digital teaching and learning resources and workplace technologies available, this may have implications on the quality of VET provision, as well as on the preparedness of VET students to enter the labour market. Hence, updating teachers’ knowledge on new pedagogies as well as in the use of ICT and new technology in industry is crucial. However, as discussed in Chapter 3, a significant share of VET teachers lack access to professional development opportunities to update their pedagogical and industry knowledge.

In order to integrate new technologies into their teaching, VET teachers need to receive continuous support to further develop their digital skills, and update their pedagogical and industry knowledge. It is therefore crucial that governments have robust professional development (PD) programmes for VET teachers in place, particularly in this area. Ideally these programmes should give VET teachers access to industry internships, high-quality online courses and face-to-face training, teacher mentoring and other learning resources, so they can develop their teaching skills and improve their practice in the use of ICT. Governments should roll out these training courses on a large scale, with the goal of ensuring all VET teachers are well-prepared and confident in making use of digital platforms and other advanced teaching technology. Other support measures can complement PD opportunities, including peer-learning networks and strategic guidance from institutions’ leaders on how to integrate new technology into teaching.

When acquiring new technology for teaching, schools need to ensure that teachers have access to training on how to use or operate it. It might not always be easy for teachers to see how they can effectively integrate new technology into their lessons, and they may need additional support or training to do so. As discussed in Chapter 3, digital skills is one of the areas where VET teachers report the highest need for further professional development. Ensuring that relevant and flexible formal and non-formal training opportunities are available to develop and update their digital skills is therefore crucial. This could be done, for instance, through micro-credential programmes or digital badges4 certifying their proficiency in the use of specific technologies. A framework for assessing digital skill gaps and training needs can be helpful in this respect, as the Digital Teaching Professional Framework in England (United Kingdom) (Box 4.11).

Learning by doing is an important aspect of the use of digital technology. Early access to new technology such as digital devices or high-tech industry equipment allows teachers to experiment and reflect on their own practice. By making use of such technology teachers can prepare lessons and pilot them with a small group of students following a trial-and-error method. Students’ feedback and classroom observations enable teachers to systematically improve their lessons. Teachers can also learn from each other’s experience with digital technology. Interaction, mentoring, collaboration and frequent communication with colleagues can also help them acquire the skills they need to incorporate new technology into their own practice.

Policy makers must ensure that both equipment and technical support are available to teachers, so they can master the use of new technology before it is adopted in the classroom. This support should include access to adequate technological infrastructure and professional development opportunities, and being given time to plan and design lessons that make use of new technologies. Moreover, VET teachers should also have the opportunity to share their experience using digital technologies in the classroom with their colleagues, for example trough peer-learning activities that promote best practices in the use of technology in VET teaching. Initiatives such as the Knowledge Centres for Automation and Robot Technology in Denmark (see Box 4.12) show how external institutions can support teachers in the use of new technology such as VR or AR in the VET sector.

As new technologies continue to be adopted in the workplace, teachers will need access to continuous in-service professional development to keep their knowledge and skills up to date with the realities of the workplace. As VET teachers need to be aware of the latest technological advancements in industry, they should have access to workplaces and/or the new equipment being used by employers. VET teachers can acquire hands-on experience of the use of new technologies either directly through work-based learning opportunities, or by participating in training delivered by technology providers and/or research institutions.5

Work-based learning activities allow teachers to learn about the latest technological developments in real contexts, facing real practical and technical issues (Stephens, 2011[51]). This can inform their daily practice, in VET schools. For instance, teachers and trainers in the welding sector will be better able to teach robotic welding techniques making use of new equipment if they have had the opportunity to use it in a real manufacturing environment, learning about its advantages and limitations. This means it is fundamental that schools have strong ties with industry. Initiatives such as Entr’Apprendre in the French Community of Belgium (Box 4.13) seek to create work-based learning opportunities for VET teachers in industry.

In some countries, government-funded centres that have been established to strengthen the quality of teaching in VET also provide high-quality PD to VET teachers on the latest technology in industry. These types of centres have strong ties with local companies and make equipment available to VET schools when it would be otherwise too expensive or technically difficult to operate. They foster formal collaboration among VET institutions, but also informal networking opportunities for VET teachers working in similar fields. They host the technical expertise needed to master new technologies, which is usually equivalent to that used by the companies with the highest technological standards in industry. One key aspect of these centres is their technical expertise, and the availability of cutting-edge equipment for professional training. In order to acquire this equipment, they usually need support from local governments and industry. Initiatives such as the Knowledge Centres for Automation and Robot Technology in Denmark (Box 4.12), and the Centre for Innovation in VET in Aragon in Spain (Box 4.14) show that public-private partnerships can be beneficial to both VET institutions and employers.

Teacher networks for professional support are an increasingly important way to foster information sharing and informal learning in VET. They are an important asset for all teachers, but they are especially valuable to those looking to acquire pedagogical knowledge and skills making use of digital technology. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic many VET teachers relied heavily on professional online networks to strengthen and support their use of online teaching technology (ILO, 2021[54]). Virtual and non-virtual networks also provide support for troubleshooting the technical aspects of using new technologies in VET, such as VR and AR. These networks usually provide teachers with free content and teaching materials on a wide diversity of topics, best practice examples and advice from experts in different technologies and subjects mainly through web forums. Online and live activities in these networks also motivate teachers to support innovation in their own teaching communities. Where necessary, policy makers should support these networks, for instance by promoting their use, providing free resources to their users or contributing to the improvement of their digital platforms.

Wider collaboration between VET institutions and industry is also crucial. Industry plays an important role in supporting VET provision, innovation and teaching practice. As changes are continually taking place in industry, collaboration between VET schools and industry should not just be about providing work-based learning opportunities for teachers and students, but a wider set of activities through which industry can support the quality of VET provision, and schools can adjust their practice to meet employers’ needs. For instance, when designing and setting up new VET facilities, it is helpful if employers engage with VET teachers and leaders over decisions about what type of equipment will be needed, and how students and teachers could have access to it. Industry experts can also bring their experience to workshops and classrooms, running live demonstrations of technological innovations, or talking about the latest developments in industry and how the world of work is changing. Industry experts play a crucial role building bridges between schools and the labour market, while also providing crucial information about skills needs for VET graduates. Some examples of collaboration between industry and VET institutions can be found in Chapter 3, Box 3.5.

Similarly, collaborations between VET schools and universities and other research centres can be beneficial to VET teachers. When a particular emerging technology has not yet been adopted by local businesses, research institutions can provide VET teachers with relevant information about the latest developments. Research institutions have access to cutting-edge equipment, which can be used for demonstrations to teach students about new technologies or encourage them to study different subjects. On-site training of students in research institutions or VET schools can also be facilitated by researchers from academia, research institutes or R&D companies. Researchers’ expertise has also been intensively used to build educational resources such as AR and VR applications for VET. As researchers usually have a thorough understanding of the theoretical and technical issues related to specific technologies, they are well placed to provide technical advice on the software production process.

Given the opportunities that newly available technologies offer for effective innovative pedagogy, VET teachers should be given support and incentives to integrate them into their teaching. Pedagogical innovations usually need systemic efforts from school providers, and particularly VET leaders, to foster their use in classrooms. Data from the European Commission’s SELFIE tool show that VET teachers do not always get the support they need for using digital technologies in the classroom (Hippe, Pokropek and Costa, 2021[30]). For example, across OECD countries, only 52% of VET teachers using the SELFIE tool agree that they receive support from school leaders in trying out new ways of teaching with digital technologies, and 45% say that school leaders discuss with teachers their professional development needs for teaching with digital technologies. Moreover, only 31% of VET teachers agree that they have time to explore how to improve their teaching with digital technologies, and 51% say that school leaders support them in sharing experiences within their school about teaching with digital technologies.

Those VET schools that are able to set up a consistent plan, in a collaborative and participatory way, are more likely to see pedagogical innovation. A survey among staff in Dutch VET schools showed that the most important enabling factors for the successful adoption of digital technology in teaching and learning were having a vision and goals that integrated digital technology adoption (ECBO, 2019[31]). A digital transformation plan should have concrete short- and long-term goals for the implementation of new technology. Currently, many VET schools do not carry out a systematic review of progress made on the use of digital technologies, with only 37% of VET teachers in OECD countries using the SELFIE tool agreeing that progress in teaching and learning with digital technologies is reviewed in their school.

To sustain those collective efforts, VET teachers should have the opportunity for continuous high-quality PD in these topics, as well as on-site technical support in the use of technology to facilitate their practice. Most importantly, teachers must be given the time to experiment, reflect, learn and implement new technology in their teaching. A well-designed strategy for the digital transformation of VET institutions starts with an assessment of the current use of technology, the support measures available and any identified challenges, as the examples of the SELFIE tool and Digi-Check in Switzerland show (Box 4.15).

In a world where routine task are automated, soft skills become increasingly important and VET teaching needs to address this broader set of skills. In this context, teaching must deliberately be designed to foster these skills (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]).

High-quality VET often implies a blend of teaching methods. In contrast to general education, VET students need to be taught in practical settings. Vocational subjects are different from academic ones, and this has implications for the way they are organised, planned, taught and assessed. Effective VET teaching involves a clear identification of the desired learning goals and outcomes for vocational subjects. Those goals and outcomes must be made explicit and pedagogical approaches should be carefully chosen based on them (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton, 2012[59]).

Until recently, teaching practices in VET mainly involved traditional face-to face lectures and tutorials, with a strong emphasis on vocational practice. Today, there is a need for pedagogical approaches to be learner centred, workplace oriented and inquiry based (see Box 4.16 for examples of some of these approaches). To foster soft skills, pedagogy should emphasise active and experiential learning and collaborative learning, often using ICT as a key facilitator (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2010[60]; Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]; Järvelä, 2006[61]). For instance, experiential and collaborative learning can be easily implemented through the use of digital technology (Järvelä, 2006[61]).

To apply these pedagogical approaches effectively, teachers need to be familiar with the theoretical foundations underpinning them, as well as proficient in the use of ICT and specific teaching techniques. In-service formal training can provide the fundamental concepts, as well as ways to incorporate them into teaching practice. For instance, one common practice in teacher training to develop such pedagogical skills is to present groups of teachers with a complex technical problem, making available to them elements that can be used to solve it (tools, components, digital devices, access to the Internet, etc.). By experiencing problem solving themselves, teachers are able to understand how elements of collaborative learning and experiential learning can be used to teach vocational skills. By reflecting on their own practice and sharing their views with others, teachers see how they can make use of new technology to teach vocational subjects while developing students’ soft skills.

The applied nature of VET facilitates the use of practical real-life situations for learning, which implies a greater use of learner-centred pedagogies than in general education programmes. Nonetheless many VET teachers do not make use of these pedagogies as part of their practice (Figure 4.12). For instance, only 36% of VET teachers in the six OECD countries and regions with available TALIS data report presenting students with tasks with no obvious solutions, and only just over half let their students solve complex problems making use of their own approaches.

One of the main issues that VET teachers face is the fact that in many countries their pedagogical preparation is more limited than for teachers in general education (Serafini, 2018[67]; Smith, 2020[68]). As discussed in Chapter 3, their initial training usually includes fewer elements of general pedagogy, subject-specific pedagogy and cross-curricular skills development (see Figure 3.5 in Chapter 3). This implies that VET teachers often have insufficient pedagogical knowledge to be able to effectively adapt their teaching strategies according to the desired learning outcomes (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]). An additional problem in this regard is the mistaken perception in some countries that teachers’ vocational expertise is in itself an adequate basis for teaching (Lucas and Unwin, 2009[69]). VET programmes usually provide a mix of theoretical and practical knowledge, and VET teachers must be able to master different pedagogical approaches (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton, 2012[59]).

Mastering the teaching methods needed to meet the current demand for vocational, digital and soft skills represents an important challenge for VET teachers. In several countries, classrooms are being redesigned to foster learner-centred pedagogies, and technology is usually regarded as an important tool to facilitate teaching and learning (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]). There are a number of examples of how VET teachers can choose effective teaching methods to foster vocational skills and soft skills among their students, as well as resources to support VET teachers in adapting their practice to changing learning environments.

To effectively foster soft skills, digital and vocational skills, VET teachers must choose the correct pedagogical approaches (see Box 4.16 for a list of emerging approaches). For instance, inquiry-based learning (Box 4.16), embodied learning and experiential learning approaches have been shown to foster the development of soft skills (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2010[60]; Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]; Celio, Durlak and Dymnicki, 2011[64]). Collaborative learning models, such as inquiry-based or problem-based approaches, foster productive task-related interactions and enhance student motivation in general (Järvelä, 2006[61]). Collaborative learning initiatives such as Japan’s school competitions allow students to develop soft skills in VET environments (see Box 4.18 for details of this initiative and another example from Spain). In other circumstances, vocational skills might be better developed using experiential learning. For digital skills, pedagogical approaches such as gamification and computational thinking have been shown to be effective (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]; Abdul Jabbar and Felicia, 2015[70]; Bower et al., 2017[71]).

In practice, teachers combine different pedagogical approaches in their teaching. For instance, gamification, embodied learning and computational thinking can easily be used together and programming languages can be used to design videogames which students can then use to play and learn at the same time. This creates a powerful artefact with creativity and designing skills at its core, while making use of computational thinking (programming skills) and gamification (gaming) (Paniagua and Istance, 2018[43]).

As in general education, learning outcomes and competences in VET subjects may have different degrees of complexity and sophistication. Vocational subjects vary in the balance needed between subject content knowledge and workplace procedural knowledge (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton, 2012[59]). For instance, web designers usually perform creative tasks while working in an office. They learn how to design digital platforms using a mix of programming theory and software-based practice. On the other hand, automotive mechanics must have some theoretical knowledge about mechanical engineering and electronics, but also strong procedural knowledge. These students are likely to learn through trial and error, by working in teams, or while they are being coached by an experienced colleague. Some vocational subjects have a well-established body of content and procedural knowledge, whereas other more recent subjects have fewer sources of expertise. Vocational subjects also vary in the extent to which a competence or an outcomes approach is appropriate for assessing both vocational skills and knowledge. Subjects also vary according to the relative value assigned to generic pedagogical skills, and the ease with which they can be transferred into a formal curriculum. They also vary according to the balance between general pedagogy and specific vocational pedagogy in training programmes (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton, 2012[59]).

Differences exist not only between subjects, but also within subjects as students advance through the stages of learning. For instance, students in some occupational fields could benefit from an expert demonstration, or learning by trial and error, but only after they have some prior theoretical knowledge of key concepts in their field. Alternatively, they could learn a specific skill through coaching or their own inquiry, but only after they have had substantive practical hands-on experience (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton, 2012[59]). For instance, aircraft mechanics work intensively in practical settings but they also need to know about the theoretical elements that explain the functioning of an aircraft engine. Before students are given hands-on experience trying to fix a mechanical failure (inquiry-based learning), they need to know about the different components of an aircraft engine, and how they relate to each other to make it work.

In order to choose the best type of pedagogy to be used in a specific context, teachers must be very clear about the specific learning goals they want to achieve. Once those goals have been defined, a series of activities using a specific pedagogical approach can then be planned, depending on the subject. Box 4.19 describes the Three Media Framework of Lucas et al. (2012[59]). This framework provides examples of how different expected learning outcomes in vocational subjects match different pedagogical approaches. When assessing possible teaching methods, teachers must also take into account their students’ learning skills, attitudes and beliefs, while also bearing in mind the resources that are available to them in the environments and settings in which teaching is taking place (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton, 2012[59]; Vaughan, 2017[75]).

VET teachers need access to professional development opportunities to develop their skills in new pedagogies. This will allow them to make informed choices about which teaching strategies to choose and what technology and tools to use in their teaching. These training opportunities are particularly important, since, as previously discussed, VET teachers often lack pedagogical preparedness to adapt their teaching to new requirements. This might be especially the case for industry professionals entering the teaching profession with limited training. Moreover, as pedagogical strategies evolve, teachers need to remain up to date with these new methods. The new technology currently available for VET teaching increases the variety of teaching approaches that can be used in VET to develop students’ soft skills, and professional development opportunities should therefore also support VET teachers in the use of technology, while strengthening their digital skills.

For instance, initiatives such as Passport to Success in the United States (Box 4.20) or the Enhance Digital Teaching Platform in the United Kingdom (Box 4.21), show that online learning modules can effectively support the professional development of those VET teachers looking to innovate in their practice making use of new technologies both on line and in workshops and classrooms.

One of the key barriers to the systemic development of a more innovative approach to VET teaching is the lack of an agenda for policy change in this area in many countries. Changes in policy will only be implemented if there is a shared belief among VET stakeholders (especially teachers) about the importance of developing soft skills and digital skills and adopting new technology in VET, in response to digitalisation and automation in the workplace. Even in general programmes, soft skills still have a secondary place on the skills agenda: according to a survey in five countries6 (World Economic Forum, 2016[78]), parents and teachers in the general education sector do not assign the same priority to soft skills as to other skills, such as foundational skills. This has had implications on curricula and teachers’ practice. A similar situation is found in the VET sector.

In order for reform to take place, policy makers, VET teachers, industry, researchers and education technology providers need to make a co-ordinated effort to further expand the use of technology and innovative pedagogical approaches in VET. Only if all stakeholders work together will it be possible to produce systematic reform in VET, changing perceptions and behaviour around these skills. This will be crucial in the current context, as most countries urgently need systematic policies to fully incorporate soft skills and digital skills into VET students’ education and development.

The need for VET graduates to have strong digital and soft skills is increasing, as automation and digitalisation become more widespread in the workplace. However, VET teachers do not always have the skill to teach in digital environments, and their pedagogical preparation is quite limited in many countries. As digital technologies become more prevalent, it is crucial that VET teachers gain the skills needed to update their practice to meet the new requirements set by employers and make the most of innovative technologies and pedagogical strategies in the classroom.

A number of emerging pedagogical approaches and technologies are available for VET teachers, which facilitate developing their students’ digital and soft skills while teaching vocational skills. To use those teaching tools and methods, VET teachers need access to high quality professional development opportunities, as well as peer learning opportunities, so they can update their practice and increase their confidence in the use of technology. Moreover, strong ties between VET institutions and employers allows teachers to learn about new technology developments as well as labour market demands.

Furthermore, the adoption of new technology and innovative pedagogical approaches in VET is more likely to take place when there is a shared belief among VET stakeholders about the importance of developing soft skills and digital skills and adopting new technology in VET. Close cooperation between VET institutions and employers can foster innovation. At the same time, governments also play a crucial role as facilitators of innovation in teaching practice, for example by investing in infrastructure and technical support.


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← 1. As discussed in Chapter 1, in many countries a large proportion of VET graduates have jobs at high risk of automation.

← 2. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a worldwide study by the OECD measuring cognitive and workplace skills in the adult population.

← 3. In this context ICT skills may be broadly defined as “the interest, attitude, and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital technology and communication tools” (OECD, 2012[80]).

← 4. A micro-credential is a proof of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a short, transparently-assessed learning experience. They are awarded upon the completion of short stand-alone courses (or modules) done on-site or online (or in a blended format) (European Commission, 2020[79])digital badge is an indicator of accomplishment or skill that can be displayed, accessed, and verified online.

← 5. Research institutions in this context refers to private or public research centres, universities, companies and specialised training centres that provide advanced training in VET subjects using the latest technologies in industry.

← 6. The People’s Republic of China, Kenya, Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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