The debate over the value of college is heating up. The value of degrees from non-top-tier colleges is negligible.  The future job market does not require a four-year college degree. And now Time magazine is advocating vocational school for most kids.

I have thought for a while that homeschool should be like vocational school. For example, when my son goes to horseback riding lessons, he doesn’t just ride. He learns to do the work of the people who run the horse barn. Sometimes I worry that my mind has been clouded from fifteen years of giving career advice and now I’m too vocationally focused. But now I’m thinking that vocational school is the education that kids need to be successful adults. Here are three reasons why:

1. Kids learn liberal arts topics better in the context of a vocation.
The best part from that article in Time magazine about vocational school is that among high school kids taking standardized tests in math, the vocational school kids scored higher. In vocational school you don’t have math class but rather you learn math in the context of a vocation. The kids scored higher because they were more engaged in what they were learning.

This makes sense to me because I was in special ed math in high school, but as an founder of three startups I have been able to learn all the math I needed for running business models and making financial projections. In fact, I have come to love using Excel in my personal life because it was so useful to me in my work life.

2. Financially stable kids learn better than kids stressed about finances.
The idea that a starving artist can make art is pretty much false. Because the starving artist makes art about their crazy life as a starving artist. Think Basquiat, painting about squalor and drugs, or Raymond Carver writing over and over again about a man who has no money.

The point here is that it’s difficult to concentrate on anything besides money when you don’t have enough money for the basics. Kids understand that they will end up taking out loans for college tuition and then they’ll enter a workforce and earn a salary that doesn’t cover their loan payments. Kids start thinking about this conundrum in high school. They hear their parents worry about college tuition and they hear their friends talking about the loans.

Conversely, if parents could help kids develop a vocational school plan early on, then kids would know they are able to enter the workforce without going to an expensive, liberal arts college. If kids understand early on that they are developing skills to get themselves through the financial transition to adulthood then the kids will have more confidence learning and growing during those teen years leading up to the transition.

But the only way to give kids confidence that they can work and earn money is to show them things they can do. Different jobs. The more jobs a kid tries out before they need to earn money the more likely they will know how to earn money when they need money.

3. Kids learn better with real-world feedback.
Most people do a better job with their work if someone is directly benefitting from the work. For example, if you do a word problem about how many milligrams a polio shot should be you care a lot less than if you a going to actually give the polio shot to the kid sitting in front of you.

Stanford conducted a study about how this idea applies to writing: Students did much better writing when they were writing for the Internet, where there’s a large audience, than when they were writing for one, single classroom teacher. Kids do their best work when they feel they are part of the world and they have context for what they are doing.

We also know this is true from workplace studies: If you tell someone how the work they are doing fits into the company’s big-piture plans, then the employee will do better work. Context matters, and when kids learn specialized subjects in the context of “you need this for the test” or “you need this to get into college,” the kids will not do their best work.

4. Vocational school is more intuitive than curriculum.
Parents spend so much time on the useless topic of which workbooks to use. The reason the discussion is so time consuming is because no workbook is appropriate—they are all bad so the parent always feels like they are missing something. What they are missing, of course, is context. Science 2.0 reports that students do not learn well outside of the context of doing. And research from the University of Kansas shows that in a curriculum of telling instead of doing, kids retain very little of the information they were told.

If you teach a kid by doing, the kid will learn fast and the lessons will feel right because they are the steps the kid needs to take to get where she is going. Ask the kids what they want to do, or leave them alone until they figure out what they want to do and the kid will find their vocation.

Learning by doing is a vocational education, and kids would do it intuitively if we didn’t redirect them to useless, unengaged learning.



16 replies
    • Kimberly
      Kimberly says:

      Thanks Penelope! I want vocation to be at the crux of my educational homeschooling. It’s no surprise that sitting in a classroom all day making up ideas on how you will possibly “use this stuff” in the “real world” dissatisfies children.

      Why stifle them by separating them from what they’ll have to deal with the rest of their lives. Vocation.

      It’s not so much about math and science because I know plenty people who have degrees in those areas that can’t land a job. It’s more about teaching kids to do any job and do it will, with confidence and creatively if they need to create their own.

  1. CJ
    CJ says:

    The link to a Scientific approach to Science Edu is fascinating: more novice like perception on physics AFTER taking an intro course. Even worse results for intro to Chemistry. Einstein would be cheering the dissemination of this information indeed! The classes actually damage our knowledge and ideas, rather than making them more advantaged and/or professional. Wowzers

  2. Darlene
    Darlene says:

    I think vocational ideas might be good for some kids, not all however.

    What if your child wants to be a math teacher, lawyer, doctor, aerospace engineer? You actually need a degree for most of those. (I think you can take the bar and practice law without a degree?)

    What if your kids actually LOVE school? Love being there with friends? Adore their teachers? Thrive on the competition involved in ranking? And play on sports teams and excite in school spirit?

    You are able to homeschool because you have had a brilliant education. What happens when your kids go to homeschool their kids, especially with the loose/lack of curriculum and structure – as in – this builds on this?

    Within two generations, society crumbles. Another generation later, nobody knows how to run the generators and the lights go out in New York.

    lol – just being extreme, but there really are reasons for standards and wrote learning.

    • Daisy
      Daisy says:

      With something like 2% of the school age population being homeschooled, how would your extreme scenario come to pass?

      • Darlene
        Darlene says:

        The extreme scenario is based on the extreme ideas that most kids go the homeschool or unschool route, thus extreme.

        • CJ
          CJ says:

          Oh Darlene, imprisoning our children by the millions for 13 years away from their families, is the extreme.

          How can keeping our children with their failies be extreme?

          Please, I beg of you to explore the Hole in the Wall project. Watch Gatto’s YouTube vid on Weapons of Mass Instruction, before you pass further judgement.

          • Darlene
            Darlene says:

            I don’t necessarily disagree. My point is that there needs to be choice, and there are seriously valid reasons to have institutional schools.

            Anyway, interesting debate. And believe it or not, I am a serious advocate for homeschooling – attending the big conference out here in Long Beach at the end of the month.

            What I do have a problem with is the philosophy that EVERYONE should do this for their kids.

            My point is always that there should be choice, and it is very individualized.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      Not so. It is good for ALL children globally, the learning through doing, that is. It is how every human learns actually.

      We can all learn the entrance-to-college level math, science, chemistry to get into university in total of a few months as teenagers. Homeschoolers and unschoolers are by far better prepared to excel law and philosophy and democracy based fields because that is what they have experienced their entire lives.

      Sports, extra curriculers, arts, etc. a open to all children regardless of school. Social environments for teenagers are sought out, often by the child.

      Play is the work of children to at least about the age of 12-13. You want confident, competitive, empathetic, altruistic, non stressed out brainwashed, loving, spirited, brilliant adults- then unschool them as children.

      Also, read the new issue of JUAL and research the Hole in the Wall project.

      Peace, CJ

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Honestly, I think that if kids are going to school they can take 2 years of vocational school for free at their community college. If you are homeschooled you can too, in my experience.

      So if you graduate high school with a 2 yr degree and some experience you can go to college while making money on a good job like a mechanic or whatever rather than bussing tables only a few hrs per week on minimum wage and erratic hours.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      There should be both kind of schools. Vocational and more academic, abstract, and in many countries there are – for good reason many european countries with a well-developed apprenticeship system have very high end craftsmanship and related professions. However, if the voc-ed education is done poorly it does not benefit anybody.

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        Date night @ Irish pub then off to see Best Marigold hotel, my husband and I have been chatting about PTs post and comments…..he says (of course he agrees with me) that he also agrees with you. When we were in the military and I went to Holland on assignment, we both remember my excitement over the way they do things edu wise: every citizen does service to their country, then either vocational, art, university edu, etc. It is a choice and a MAJOR part of the national culture.

        Anyhow, we wanted to say “great comment!”

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This is a great post and I really liked the article in Time magazine. Learning by doing is important and especially critical for those students who you’ll lose either because they will refuse to learn or learn a minimal amount by classroom teaching only. While reading about vocational training, it made me think we are teaching our students in a backward fashion. It makes more sense to me to engage the student in a hands-on learning environment which embraces all subject areas and then explore the subject areas in depth, as necessary, rather than the other way around which is what is done now. Learn the subjects as applicable and the context in which they are employed in the project.

  4. Amy
    Amy says:

    I totally agree with you Penelope. And I’ve gotta say, all your photos of farm life make me want to move out of cookie-cutter suburbia and into the country. I know you guys have to drive quite a bit to get to various activities, but would you say it’s worth it overall?

  5. JKB
    JKB says:

    “The object of education is the generation of power. But to generate and store up power whether mental or physical or both is a waste of effort unless the power is to be exerted. Why generate steam if there is no engine to be operated? Steam may be likened to an idea which finds expression through the engine, a thing? Why store the mind with facts, historical, philosophical, or mathematical, which are useless until applied to things, if they are not to be applied to things? And if they are to be applied to things, why not teach the art of so applying them? As a matter of fact the system of education which does not do this is one-sided, incomplete, unscientific.”

    I am truly starting to believe that there has been no original research in education for the last century. That quote above is from ‘Mind and Hand: manual training, the chief factor in education’ (1900) by Charles Ham. He was promoting the idea of schools that incorporated manual training (vocational training) into their curriculum. MIT was formed in this fashion when it began.

    The purpose was not to steer some into factories but rather to use the creation of useful objects, doing something useful for their fellow man, to give substance to the abstractions of strictly mental subjects. Beyond the using of math or science but also the familiarity with objects and the useful arts bringing alive the narratives of the classics and literature.

    While some alterations might be required for today, teaching kids the useful arts is a great way to bring the book learning alive and avoid the falsity that is possible in purely mental education.

    “It is possible for the mind to indulge in false logic, to make the worse appear the better reason, without instant exposure. But for the hand to work falsely is to produce a misshapen thing—tool or machine —which in its construction gives the lie to its maker. Thus the hand that is false to truth, in the very act publishes the verdict of its own guilt, exposes itself to contempt and derision, convicts itself of unskilfulness or of dishonesty.”

  6. Andi
    Andi says:

    Amy said, “I know you guys have to drive quite a bit to get to various activities, but would you say it’s worth it overall?”

    while we do not live on a farm, we do live “out in the country”, aka the cornfields of America, & we love it, in spite of the fact it takes at least a half-hour to get anywhere (grocery shopping, bookstores, fast food, YMCA, downtown, my family in the suburbs…)

    What we like most is the feeling that we are out where life is really happening, but still close enough to “civilization” that we can go back into the city if we need to. At my sister’s house, you can’t see the stars at night, while all we do is step out on our back patio every evening before bed to gaze into the wide open sky. The neighbors all know my kids, so when they are absent from school, I have to explain why at the bus stop next morning. My EX comes around & everyone wants to know, Who is that stranger, he’s not from around here…?

    Don’t get me wrong, there are negatives, too. Rural life has its curses, like the fact it’s mostly white & insulated from the rest of the world, so my mixed-race family stood out for a long while before the citizens got used to us. And sometimes maybe I don’t feel like explaining myself to overly nosy questions about my life. And an hour-long round-trip just to pick up some spaghetti sauce is frustrating to say the least.

    All told, I’ll take my country life where the police & fire fighters know me, my kids, my husband, & all of his relatives back three generations, so that we haven’t locked our doors once since moving in. Maybe the trade-off isn’t for everyone, but it works for us.


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