What is trades education? How does trades education compare with what we normally view as education within the American culture? According to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the definitions for “education” are very much based on our traditional institutions of teaching.
Educate (v.): to teach someone, especially using the formal system of school, college or university.
Educated (adj.): having learned a lot at school or university and having a good level of knowledge.
Education (n.): the process of teaching or learning in a school or college, or the knowledge that you get from this.
These definitions represent a more narrow view of the education process than what is envisioned by the Preservation Trades Network (PTN) for educating those interested in the construction and preservation trades. PTN is working to promote the concept of the “Trades Education Matrix.” The matrix is a framework that establishes a set of conditions that need to be met to obtain an educational goal. Three main categories of educational processes make up the matrix: academic, vocational, and experiential.
The academic process is made up of studying and thinking about topics related to history, language, math, the sciences, and theory. The academic process typically occurs in the traditional classroom setting, in self-directed correspondent classes, or in study groups that may now include internet classes.
The vocational portion of the matrix includes hands-on labs that introduce physical processes, material sciences, and tool usage to develop a basic inventory of skills and controlled experiences. The vocational process can also be conducted within a job environment if a purposeful and thorough introductory training session is provided.
The experiential section of the matrix involves working on specific types of realworld projects to obtain knowledge or skills that build on and round out the academic and vocational background. Doing, seeing, and feeling in a real-world setting can provide the individual with the experience that can supplement the academic and vocational learning.
The academic and vocational parts of the matrix currently exist in various forms, with established and approved means for measuring levels of accomplishment. The challenge before us is to establish criteria so that the experiential part of the education matrix is measurable, thus combining the three segments into an interactive whole.
Shortcomings of Current Trades Education
One of the major reasons for the predominance of the classroom-based approach to trades education is that the classroom setting is cost effective. There is limited need for space and equipment (room, books, desks, and chalk or marker boards). What students retain from readings and lectures can be measured by written tests.
This emphasis on academic or classroom learning is not in itself a bad thing. But combine this with society’s generally negative attitude toward people in jobs involving physical labor, and the result is a lack of interest and investment for developing innovative educational programs for those pursuing careers in the preservation trades.
Yet in other professions that require the fine-tuning of physical abilities, there has been an investment in programs to teach such skills: Think of professional athletes or surgeons. It would be interesting to see what could result if a reasonable level of effort and investment was made to supplement classroom with experiential learning in high school and college programs for those learning to construct our built environment.
Other factors come into play when dealing with trades education. In a simplistic way, the construction industry has been split into two camps—workers familiar with new construction on one side and those dealing with existing structures on the other side. The general view is that in new construction, workers just need to be able to follow the instructions of the product manufacturers to successfully install the various building components. The assumption is that in the new construction field, the standardization of building elements into modular components makes for a straightforward process of installation.
On the other hand, when dealing with existing structures, workers need experience and knowledge of traditional and even obsolete materials and techniques as well as an understanding of the interrelationships between building components. Part of the education challenge is to provide a general level of background to all those entering the construction field. Individuals in new construction need to be able to understand materials, techniques, and the basic interaction of components. They need to know not only how to assemble well but also how to identify and correct problems during the construction process. If the entry level of education is successful, then individuals will have greater options in developing their career paths with areas of specialization, including the restoration of older buildings.
A more robust system of trades education needs to evolve to attract more people to the preservation trades. This will not happen overnight. In many ways the knowledge base of traditional construction materials and methods has been on the decline for more than a century, starting with the industrial revolution. The greatest part of that decline has occurred since the end of World War II. A significant number of people in the first generation after WWII may have had direct contact with craftspeople considered highly skilled, knowledgeable, and respected in one or more of the construction fields. The next generation may have known of such individuals in a third-party context but not through direct contact. This means that chain of continuity in knowledge and experience between the generations has greatly deteriorated. Even with serious new efforts to reestablish this legacy, it may still take two generations for it to become common within the fabric of society.
A New, Graduated Approach
When trying to develop an educational system, it seems almost impossible to lay out a plan of education that covers the multitude of niches that make up the careers available in the construction trades. But if we take a new look at the stages of the old system of apprentice, journeyman, and master, we can start to imagine a more up-to-date process of education and advancement.
Each stage represents not only a possible progression through a chosen career but also an evolution of knowledge and awareness. The goal of the educational system should be to make pathways available so that the most talented and ambitious can succeed. If this is done, then opportunities should be available for whatever level of interest and achievement is desired. Using the PTN matrix, paths can be developed for all sorts of educational goals.
The educational path to learning a trade involves several steps. The first step might be to train an individual to be productive at a basic level and to be able to be employed. This step is only the beginning of a trades education. Individuals can be taught to perform the skills required to complete many tasks that they do not understand. However, this does not do very much toward developing their understanding and ability to avoid mistakes. They need to grasp the logic and reasoning behind the actions so that a higher level of experience can be gained. This experience further develops the individual’s abilities, creativity, and sense of self worth.
At the apprentice level, the goal would be exposure to and retention of basic levels of information relevant to construction in general and specific to the field that the apprentice intends to enter. The apprentice level is heavy on the teaching and learning dynamics with an emphasis on introducing vocabulary, history, materials, and basic skills. The fundamental objective of the apprentice period would be to develop an individual who has completed a basic level of education (exposure to information and skills) so that he or she can be reasonably productive within an ordinary work environment. Ongoing academic, vocational, and experiential efforts over an appropriate period of time would culminate in a testing and review process that would determine if the individual had successfully completed the apprenticeship process. Various levels or versions of the matrix may need to be completed within the apprentice stage.
Upon completing the apprentice stage, the individual would be considered a journeyman. Historically this was someone who could venture out (journey) and work under different masters, learning about and experiencing a greater number of materials, techniques, and methods. In the current context, it could be a process of developing an individual matrix of academic, vocational, and experiential efforts that would achieve a specific educational goal. This process might be compared to earning Boy Scout merit badges or individual certificates of skill and knowledge. Based on a system like this, it would be easier for a tradesperson to show a resume of experience and ability, rather than just listing and describing specific jobs and contacts.
Through the matrix process, the actual field experience is what makes the academic and vocational efforts valid. The master level could acknowledge individuals who have achieved a series of goals including overall academic, vocational, and experiential efforts as well as leadership ability, teaching skills, and other social goals.
Developing a Database of Educational Opportunities
What is needed to increase educational opportunities for the building trades? A database must be developed that identifies educational programs, whether they are offered by institutions or by qualified individuals. By researching and documenting educational opportunities, several things become possible:
- An individual can use the resource to identify the possible components that can be developed into a personal education matrix.
- Individuals, organizations, and institutions that offer educational opportunities within a particular field can be aware of each other and develop a network of contacts.
- Among this network of contacts, educational standards within a given field or even specialty niche within a given field can be reviewed and, ideally, agreed upon.
- The resulting standards within a field can then be used to identify individuals capable of advising on and reviewing an education matrix.
With all of the challenges facing the efforts to improve trades education, it is impossible for one group or organization to make a significant impact by itself. By combining efforts through the networking process, the resources, the energy, the contributions, and knowledge can be expanded exponentially.
PTN has outlined plans to begin the research for the international education resource database. This is a huge undertaking and PTN will need the help of the international community to identify the institutions and individuals that might be appropriate for the database.
Establishing the Right Mix
The tricky part in all of this will be to set the criteria for the individual education matrix and evaluate the results. What is the correct mix of academic, vocational, and experiential learning needed to achieve the desired ends at each level of the educational process? It will take a lot of input to develop this concept. Please join in the effort to improve trades education.
The overarching views behind the PTN’s education initiative for the construction trades are that:
- Excellence in the built environment is fundamentally dependent on the quality, availability, and viability of skilled trades.
- The trades are represented in the knowledge, skill, and professional judgment applied by people engaged in construction, repair, and conservation.
- The sectors of the construction trades that are involved in the maintenance, repair, and long-term care of the built environment work both within and outside the building industry and the preservation mainstream.
- The work of the trades embraces the continuity of traditional craft practices, and the understanding to incorporate appropriate new technologies, materials, and methods.
- Development of trade skills, whether through apprenticeship, experiential learning, or established programs is a lifelong process.
- Opportunities for education, employment, and compensation of people in the trades are reflected in the quality of the built environment and the effective stewardship of cultural heritage.